I found this month’s book club book, Dinner Roles by Sherrie Inness, an interesting but rather dry read. To get through it I had to read it in 10 page stints, congratulating myself as I finished each chunk. That said it has made me think of so many things. From my grandmother keeping only one spice, cinnamon, on her shelves; to the ever-present casseroles from my mid-western childhood. Which were also the definitive meal of my dad’s childhood (along with the rest of the Baby Boomer generation the book explains for us), and the tactic that he created as a child to avoid the grossness of casseroles from other mothers’ kitchens – Rule Number 1: don’t eat it if it looks like its already been eaten. And the corollary to fend off the Jello molds: smooth only please, no chunks in my Jello, thanks. To the memory of my shock of finding out how many of my childhood casseroles contained canned cream of mushroom soup, and my continued horror at the extent of the process foods I ate as a kid. Ok that last chapter really hit home for this mid-westerner raised in the suburbs.
Beyond casseroles, it made me think a lot about women in the kitchen what it means for me and for the women in my family.
Dinner Roles is clearly an academic text, and as such it sets out to prove a point with specific parameters: as judged by examining media & cooking literature of the time (1900-1960), Americans thought women were supposed to stay home and cook for their families.
The author, Sherrie Inness, makes this point again and again with plenty of examples. And I don’t think many people would quarrel with it. It seems clear that the media message to women was stay home & cook, it’s your responsibility not your husband’s, and you should like it.
I think there are a couple of problems with her method. First, is the idea that we should look at media – commercials, advertisements, etc. – in isolation from reality. Inness does not look at what women actually did. How they actually cooked, or indeed how real women and men thought about the issue. And she claims it’s not necessary, except in the chapter on the Depression when she reverses her claim and says ‘we must remember that the reality of women’s lives during the Depression was seldom accurately reflected in cookbooks and cooking articles.’ I think that whatever caveats hold true for the Depression surely hold true for other times as well. I mean for how many women today do the articles in cooking magazines represent reality? I don’t think there’s ever a time when they do.
Second, what Inness seems to assume as a subtext is that the message (that women and only women should cook) is de facto a bad thing. That somehow it’s not fair for women to have to do the domestic cooking. Or perhaps her argument would be more subtle: it’s not fair to assume that women should do the domestic cooking. I think she wants there to be the option of men doing the cooking. Or perhaps she wants even less, maybe she just wants to clarify the state of things.
I’ve read a lot of academic texts and this is one of the things that most bothers me about some (not all, by any means) of them. They never seem to do very much. These texts may elucidate the state of a very small corner of a small part of something, or they may mildly suggest a slight unfairness with something but rarely do they say anything more substantial. And even less likely are they to have a call to action.
It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the point she was making. It was interesting to read about the marketing campaigns and magazine articles, but I thought she should have come out and given more of an opinion about their contents. She occasionally does make opinionated asides which seem very out of place with the rest of the formal academic style and which only serve to give the reader hints that Inness does not approve of this ‘mother in the kitchen state of things’ without any reasons or arguments.
I want more. I want Inness to say what she doesn’t like about it and why.
One point which she seems to particularly dislike is the idea that it’s ‘natural’ for women to do the cooking.
Now, I have always considered myself a feminist, but lately I have been reconsidering what that means. To me the main point of feminism is that men & women are equal, and from this I have assumed they can do all things equally well. But I’ve come to realise that this assumption isn’t strictly true. Of course women & men are equals – and should always be treated as such. However just as no two people are the same in all respects – each having their strengths and their weaknesses – so too men & women have different strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, nearly two years ago I gave birth to our first child. (This seems irrelevant, but stay with me, I’m getting back to the point). Although he was essential in getting me pregnant and a crucial birthing partner, my husband could not have born our child. Physically he can’t do it. So whilst we are equally the parents of our child we are not the same in our relations to her.
Furthermore, it is women, not men, who breastfeed their babies. And whilst the father has many roles in relation to the child this immediate one of first nurturing & nourishing the baby is not his. It is the mother’s. From this physical reality (the mother has lactating breasts and the father does not) comes, I believe, the idea that it is the mother who ‘naturally’ is the one to nourish the family.
That this physical reality should still influence our daily lives does not surprise me. Women still are the ones to breastfeed the babies and therefore the link between mother & nourishment remains strong. We mothers do nourish (not just with food) our children and we should not shy away from that amazing responsibility. But I am not arguing that women today should or must cook for their families. I firmly believe men can do this equally well. But I do think that the physical reality of the mother’s nourishing role does mean that it is natural for human beings to think that it is the woman who will continue to nourish the family.
Why Inness seems to dislike this idea of naturalness is unclear to me.