he aesthetics of today’s food culture (jam jars, wire egg baskets, communal wood tables) will soon appear as dated as macramé, but I fear the damage to a generation of women who are tending (and butchering) rabbits and chickens, and raising vegetable gardens (often along with children) has already been done. These activities are obviously more creative ways to spend time than watching soap operas, but urban homesteading and “the home arts” should not be confused with real art-making, which involves challenging the status quo, not feeding it.
The rise of civilization was made possible in part by the division of labor, which in turn made art and literary production possible. If some people grew and procured food, others could spend time doing other things, among them writing and sculpting. Of course very few artists were women, who throughout millennia have disproportionately taken care of childrearing and the majority of food procurement.
When it comes to food, I often find myself caught between the ideal and the real. Though I believe locally produced organic food is probably healthiest and most sustainable for the people who eat and grow it—and for the planet—I don’t maintain a vegetable garden, nor do I make a concerted effort to purchase only foods that fit into the “local, organic” category. I know I could mitigate the prohibitive cost of such a diet by either a) making more money or b) by becoming vegetarian or vegan, and incorporating vaster quantities of legumes and tofu into my family’s diet. (The here-and-now negative vibes I’d accrue for failing to provide an occasional steak for my teenage sons would be offset by the good karma they’d accrue by not eating dead animals.) The primary reason I refuse to place “eating correctly” at the center of my consciousness is because in doing so I would lose ground on my essential life project: living a dogma-free existence while maintaining psychic (and actual) time and space to write fiction.
Though I find much to admire in Catholicism (the dogma within which I was raised), particularly the Liberation Theology variety, I find more of it distasteful (lack of equality for women and people who are gay topping a long list.) Ergo, when I became an adult, I left the church. Alas, a residual reflexive guilt remains. I often feel responsible for everything and everyone. This feeling is perhaps compounded by birth order—I am the oldest girl in a family of seven children—as well as societal roles—I am a wife and mother. At my core, I resent being told what to think or do, dislike the reductive dualities right/wrong, good/bad, and perhaps most especially, dislike my own impulse to appear better than I really am, i.e. buying provisions from Whole Foods or New Seasons Market when I am having wealthier or more “food conscious” friends over for dinner, and otherwise shopping at the local supermarket.
On average I make dinner five nights a week from scratch, including two or three meatless meals (for health, environmental, and financial reasons.) But because I live in Portland, Oregon, I know my efforts to be pale, inept, and meager. Several friends have patiently explained how I could buy a giant freezer, obtain a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share, purchase half a grass-fed cow from eastern Oregon, and blanch, freeze and can summer’s CSA bounty to get my family though the winter. In fact, I was a member of a farm share for several years, and though I miss the excellent chard and lettuce, I do not miss the dirt clinging to every last vegetable, or the process of sawing each Brussels sprout from the stalk in order to make refrigeration possible.
It is of the utmost importance to me to resist the earthy lure of urban homesteading. Why shouldn’t I, a writer, mother, and arts administrator living in 2012 who also does most of the shopping and cooking in my family, take advantage of the relative ease of obtaining healthy food at the supermarket? I refuse to accept the moral imperative of growing my own vegetables, butchering the animals I eat, and making my own jam.
There are blueberries, raspberries, currants, strawberries, and a few squash plants among the flowers in my yard. Who doesn’t love picking and eating a strawberry? But I refuse the burden of a harvest. When I see women with their kids (they usually also have a dog or two) weeding their vegetable gardens and tending their flocks of chickens, I fear they have bought the idea that these many labors are the markers of what it means to be a good mother-wife-woman.
Women are especially good at judging one another and ourselves. Food has always been the woman’s purview; the woman of the house has traditionally decided when and what to eat. And eat we must. Is your food delicious? Does it satisfy? To that we now add, is your food at all times optimally healthy for your family and for the planet? No pressure!
Becoming a mother seemed to increase the number of interactions I had with people attempting to make me feel insecure. People began asking many questions designed to determine if I was nursing too much or too little, whether I was too attached or not attached enough, and how I planned to educate my progeny, i.e. was I planning to home school? (Add providing a comprehensive K-12 education to that to-do list!) When my children began eating solid food, people were curious to know what I was feeding them, i.e. did I use a food mill and grind the sweet potato myself or did it come from a jar?
Perhaps we focus so closely on food because feeding our families creates an illusion of control. On Facebook, a friend posts about her son refusing to eat a conventionally-grown banana. He can taste the difference—he will only eat organic. What is the subtext of such a post? My child has been taught correctly? My child has learned what I’ve taught? We are good, we are safe, no harm will come to us? Perhaps also this: If your child cannot taste this difference between organic and conventional bananas, clearly our family is better than yours.
As a child, my elder son never set foot in a McDonald’s. He believed us when we told him the burgers were unhealthy. As a pre-teen, he watched Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me, and his anti-McDonald’s stance appeared permanently fixed. He refused even one bite of my large fries. We were at a Connecticut rest stop on I-95—I was desperate! Thus, I never could have imagined the current scenario: my teenage son regularly hanging out in McDonald’s after school. When I asked him if he eats any of the food, he replied, “I eat all of it.”
A subtle subtext of money exists in almost all conversations about food, but the foodie who insists upon the right to eat foie gras is hardly the same as the urban farmer attempting to address economic and health justice. To their credit, locavores upend the classic Dionysian/Apollonian cultural divide that Edith Wharton brilliantly articulates in her novel The Age of Innocence:
Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable on earth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer’s food should be a little better. But then New York, as far back as the mind of man could travel, had been divided into the two great fundamental groups of the Mingotts and Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eating and clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down on the grosser forms of pleasure.
If perfection were attainable on earth, I would want to live in a world where a delicious meal sets the stage for something else to happen, something like…a scintillating conversation about something other than how good the food tastes and how it got to the table. There are so many things we could talk about, such as art, literature, film, politics, history, religion, economics, philosophy, or the environment! In the wonderful Danish film Babette’s Feast, Babette (secretly a chef) makes a delectable French meal for a sect of Danish Protestants who normally eat a punishingly bland diet. Though they do not allow themselves to talk about the pleasures of the meal, they are nonetheless transformed. May we all eat wonderful meals, and attend transporting dinner parties! Remember, though, that Babette’s Feast is an artistic gesture that achieves success because it concerns people and their stories as well as what they put into their mouths. A jar of pickles, however beautiful it appears on the windowsill with the sun shining through it, however thoughtfully and sustainably it was made, however good the pickles taste, is still a jar of pickles. It isn’t Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Though I believe in both healing the planet and in restoring value to the sacred ritual of eating (so that our chubby nation can slim down, and so the rest of the world doesn’t have to starve), I will not fetishize food, because an obsession with bacon (or oat bran, or fresh eggs, or salmon roe, or ramps) is both decadent and boring.
The Modern Library’s “Hundred Best Novels of the Twentieth Century” include just nine written by women. (Their “Reader’s List” is a bit more heartening in terms of gender balance, if not aesthetics: fifteen women are represented; Ayn Rand snags the top two spots.) My point is this: if women are spending all of their time planting gardens, tending chickens, and canning (i.e. living our lives in the most laborious ways possible), how are we ever to catch up as writers, visual artists, composers, and directors? Though this very evening I will grill a wild salmon and am very much looking forward to eating it, the writer in me rebels against every savory or sweet, literally palatable gesture.
Mary Rechner is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women. She directs the Writers in the Schools program in Portland, Oregon.