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Monday, October 27th, 2014 09:11 am
I'm stuck at home with a migraine (presently hemming a tea towel into a rice bag to drape over my aching face, actually - don't ask if I should be on the computer, the answer is no, but I'm stubborn) and for some reason I'm reading cooking backlash articles linked by the often-excellent Jennifer Reese, whose book "Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter" has one of the most honest tales of home-chicken tragedy I've ever read.

I think a lot about the romanticization of home cooking. Laura Shapiro - the food writer, not the vidder, they're both great - wrote this awesome book called "Perfection Salad" about the rise of the home economics movement in the Victorian era, and how it created what she calls the incomplete industrialization of the home. She talks a lot about how the Victorians were concerned that young married couples would take entirely to living in boarding houses, where all their meals would be prepared by a cook and housekeeper - of course wealthier families already had a cook and housekeeper, but I guess it's different when the middle class does it? I should reread - and how distinct and definite people and schools of cooking pushed to create this idea that individual women need to cook for individual families as part of their duties as Ladies in the Home. What I think is interesting is that Shapiro writes about how this was a specific cultural choice - she notes that we could theoretically have become a nation where everyone does their own carpentry and metalwork but eats in a cafeteria - but she herself writes a lot of food journalism in the Alice Waters/Michael Pollan line, about the joys of getting home after work and spending ninety minutes making something that will be gone half an hour later.

This is at the forefront of my mind because, well, first, I'm rounding the corner on thirty. I've been on my own food-wise for twelve years now, and only two of those years were spent in a relationship where we shared a kitchen - and even within that relationship, we ran into some major mismatches between my romanticization of commensality and sharing a dinner table and my partner's equally-gendered ideas about kind of keeping a pizza in the fridge all the time and moving on with your week. I feel like as more and more of us spend more and more of our adulthoods as households of one, our ideas about food and cooking will get even more strained. Shapiro argues that it was already reducing the scale of household cooking enormously in the Victorian era to move from big farm families with one or two cooks to one woman cooking for one other adult and some kids, but what happens when more and more of us are households of one for large swathes of our lives? Is the virtuous course a nation with a one to one adult to Kitchenaid mixer ratio?

And second, I care a lot about sustainability and nutrition/food security stuff. That's been the trajectory of most of my major interests in life for decades - who grows the food, who can afford the food, where it comes from, who processes it, what the downstream effects are. When I was very young, this was because I was a tiny tweenage doomsday prepper and wanted to know how to adapt to my future as a peasant farmer, but since then, of course, my views have gotten more realistic but my interest in nutrition/sustainability has remained strong. And, of course, in the last ten years the major popular solution presented to problems in food and sustainability has been to cook, expensively and rigorously, in a style that starts with driving thirty miles to buy a side of beef and ends with nightly production cooking, every night, fancy meals with chopping, no throwing in the towel and eating nuggets and peas n' carrots from a bag. I've given that a try, or at least felt like I should, and bought the ingredients and then let them dissolve in my fridge. I was a vegan for a while. I ate paleo for a while. I chopped a lot of sweet potatoes. I learned to cook collards in a way that was actually palatable. I own a food processor. Work has been invested in this, is what I am saying.

Recently I've been painfully strapped for cash. One place that I can control my spending is my food budget. And I want to say right now: first, a tight food budget for me is still about twice what people on food stamps have to work with. Second, I have some real structural advantages. And one of those advantages is that I have an employer-subsidized cafeteria that serves perfectly acceptable, warming-tray-flavored meat, vegetables, tofu, and pasta every day for seven bucks.

I sat down and I looked at it and it makes more sense to just pay the seven bucks five days a week than to keep trying to haul food to and from work. I'm two weeks in, and since I made this choice a huge weight has lifted. My kitchen is cleaner. Tensions with my roommate about my kitchen have decreased enormously. If I want to have toast for breakfast and toast for dinner, I know that tomorrow I've got a selection of four vegetables and three proteins waiting for me, prepared by someone else, cleaned up by someone else. Because of my employer, I know that there are some local foods bought under a sustainability initiative - and I know that my employer is a bigger and more steady purchaser than I could ever be. My cafeteria composts its food scraps and leftovers. My cafeteria is the biggest first-step employer for people in our local homeless shelter's employment support program. And also, I don't have to spend an hour a night home alone in an empty house to eat well, and frankly, that was what was leaving me with a fridge full of expensive wasted brown lettuce - not wanting to hang out by myself for hours every night. I know that the whole assigning-virtue-to-foods thing is dangerous and leads to a lot of trouble - I read Ellyn Satter - but I get a free choice about whether I want to eat Wendys or bok choi for my money, and that's pretty awesome.

I guess I'm saying that my ability to decide that my food strategy will be "no, fuck it, I hate this" and still eat in the vague outlines of "what my parents taught me is probably good for me" is based on a lot of broader logistical elements already being in place. If I had to choose one thing to work on in my career, it would be identifying and filling in gaps in those logistical elements for more people. I wonder if I'll be able to do that. It would be terribly interesting. But as always, I think my worldview continues to be that any solution to a perceived problem that depends on extraordinary individual effort and individual virtue in the face of enormous hurdles will be successful among people who really like that kind of thing and write blogs and books about it, and a general failure among most of humanity. I think I believe way less in willpower than most people - probably because my executive function is crappier than most - but, idk, I believe enormously in just moving the damn trash can.

We can get into paternalism and free will about it after I actually get into grad school and get annoyed, hopefully.

Anyway, this is rambling, but I haven't sat down and had a good typing think-it-out in a while, and it's nice to do sometimes. Especially since this is stuff that I think about all day, every day.

I haven't stopped home-cooking, by the way - I bake some sausage or chicken or tempeh and cook some greens and freeze them once a month or so so that I have something to put on my pasta. I don't know if I say this to absolve myself, or to illustrate that it's possible to do more when the pressure's off. Hm.

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