Is Cooking a Moral Act?

hospitality, cooking, feeding the family, feeding friends, feeding guests, why cook, why men should cook

Jeremy John on why men should consider taking responsibility for the cooking necessary: for health, hospitality, and justice.

I really enjoyed the article, “Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig? Which includes the subhead, “Femivores” have made DIY domesticity cool. But critics who blame feminism for obesity and fast food have it wrong.”

As a man who identifies as a feminist, I’m going to comment on this article from my own perspective. First, a little quoting is in order,

“The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove. Since scratch cooking today is largely a hobby or a personal choice of the middle class, many of us wish we could spend more time in the kitchen. But it’s important to remember that this was not always the case.

It’s easy to forget, in the face of today’s foodie culture, that cooking is not fun when it’s mandatory.”

When Cooking isn’t a Hobby

Because the burden for cooking has traditionally fallen on women, I think that we men will have to lead the way in cooking for our families in a way that bypasses industrial agriculture.

So true. I am on a medical diet which started out soup-only and gradually introduced other foods. I have to cook every single meal I eat, and I don’t always find it idyllic. Sometimes I’m burning myself while straining huge tubs of chicken broth over a grease-slick floor. I can and dehydrate all of my own food, even while working as a grassroots organizer. Often I wish I could buy food. The sheer need of my body, which demands that I spend time in the kitchen, can feel oppressive. But owning the “means of production” for one’s own health can be liberating as well. I would never get recovery from my illness if I had to eat processed foods. I simply would remain sick. Until some company starts selling cashew-butter-zucchini-egg pancakes.

The article goes on to point out that feminism is not to blame for processed foods,

“The rise of convenience food has to do with market forces, not feminism. After World War II, food companies began unloading packaged food products developed for wartime use on the domestic market: frozen fish fillets, powdered coffee, tinned spinach. These foods were aggressively marketed as wholesome and modern, since housewives were initially suspicious of products like ham that came in a can. But lots of women, it turns out, were simply not so fond of cooking. The twentieth century’s two most popular pro-convenience-foods cookbooks, Peg Bracken’s cheeky 1960 “The I Hate to Cook Book,” with its recipes like Skid Road Stroganoff (“Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink”), and Poppy Cannon’s 1951 “The Can-Opener Cookbook” were hits long before second-wave feminism was so much as a gleam in Betty Friedan’s eye. So why does Betty get blamed?”

Men Who Cook

As a man, I have learned to cook, and I love to cook for people. As a white man living in a northern, liberal city, my friends are delighted to see me working over a hot stove, and particularly happy if my wife is sitting at the table keeping friends company. I get social points for cooking. Because the burden for cooking has traditionally fallen on women, I think that we men will have to lead the way in cooking for our families in a way that bypasses industrial agriculture.

Ultimately, I want to see a world where men or women can choose to cook or stay home with kids. Capitalism would love for all of us to find our worth exclusively in our paid jobs. But, in fact, we are worthwhile because we are children of God. Confidence in homemaking can display a system of meaning alternate to capitalism and money. In fact, patriarchy devalued “women’s work” like cooking precisely so it could devalue women. When we re-value cooking and other “women’s work,” we’re constructing a space where all options are valued.

Alternatives to Desecration

My primary critique of the article is that the author glosses over the substance of the critique of industrial agriculture. Cooking and direct connections to farms are a way of building an economy that reflects good stewardship of the earth and bypasses the broken industrial system that does not reflect biblical, shalom values. In our choices we are to seek harmony with the Spirit of God moving in the world: towards shalom and good stewardship.

Acts of Care

In the context of community, cooking can create community and health. As Margaret Kim Peterson points out, “When we cook, we produce things to eat, of course, but we produce something else too: acts of care.”

When you cook food for someone, you don’t divide the check. You give them a gift of both food and time that won’t be forgotten. There’s nothing wrong with meeting at a restaurant or ordering pizza. But when one has the luxury to do so, it is my belief that cooking can express a greater depth of appreciation for another person than eating together at a restaurant.

Table fellowship is an essential part of Christian hospitality, and cooking a meal expresses love. Cooking a healthy meal also contributes materially to another’s well-being. Yes, sometimes cooking can be difficult or messy. But learning to find meaning in the smallest tasks of life is part of our calling. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “Only miracle is plain; it is in the ordinary that groans with the weight of glory.”

It takes time and focus to learn to love the ordinary. But it’s part of our call.

That is to say, the appreciation of life is a moral act. To care for others is a moral act.

According to your gifting, you may appreciate life and care for others in many ways other than cooking and food, but I would argue that there is scarcely a better place to exult in the beauty of creation than the kitchen and the table. We all have to eat.

Amen.

 

This was previously published at glass dimly.

Read more on Green Politics on The Good Life.

Image credit: JessySutton/Flickr

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About Jeremy John

Jeremy John is the Food and Faith Network Director at the Quixote Center, where he builds alternative economies in faith institutions for food justice, where he landed after Occupy DC remade his hopes and dreams. Jeremy has been an activist ever since he accidentally ate the red pill instead of the more harmless blue one. He converted to Christianity, to his horror, while serving a six-month prison term for civil disobedience to close the School of the Americas. He blogs about faith and activism and tweets about whatever catches his fancy, usually faith.

Comments

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I believe we should put more of a priority on teaching young people to cook for themselves. Being able to take care of yourself provides a basis of security, whether you may find yourself with limited resources for eating out, or greater need, as you have, Jeremy, to cook for yourself in order to stay well. When you can cook for others, you can make a welcome home.

  2. It should be noticed that cooking is not a ‘woman-only profession’.

    Most cooks and also pastry cooks worldwide working in hotels and restaurants are men.

    Same is true with the profession of tailors and fashion designers.
    Most of those professionals are men and not women.

    • Yes, it’s very different when you start talking about professional cooks. Paid cooking is traditionally men’s work, and restaurant kitchens remain male dominated workplaces. But who does the home cooking that keeps most people fed, every day? That has traditionally been women’s work.

  3. To say patriarchy devalued women’s work like cooking is wrong as professional cooking is in hotels and restaurants is dominated by males.

    Further, it depends what you consider as cooking.
    To buy something in a supermarket and to put it in the microwave is not cooking.

    I am not so sure that home cooking keeps most people fed every day either.
    There is plenty of fast food, take out etc. and most people who are working full-time are not fed by home cooking during working days.

  4. True, we’ve outsourced much of our cooking to industry, and they cook like corporations cook: in order to sell more product.

  5. Justin Cascio: we should put more of a priority on teaching young people to cook for themselves…

    —–

    For sure it is a good idea to teach young students, maybe in high school, how to keep their things in order in their own home in future without the help of their parents, this includes cooking, but also small repairings, laundry and so on – any form of practical housework. Such instructions are not only useful for men as many women too have no idea anymore about for example how to use a sewing machine.

    I also think, many young people really want to try but have no possibility and time to do so.
    How can you cook your own meals while sharing rooms to keep the rent low as a student? Healthy food is not cheap either, and it is easier to buy something ready for the microwave in a store. Same is true for many who are working full-time. What is left for cooking experients is only the weekend.

    • Young people need to learn to take care of themselves, even—especially—when they’re still poor. Poor and young people also need to eat well, and fast food doesn’t do that job for you. It’s possible for young people to plan to cook together with friends and roommates, and to plan and cook simple, inexpensive meals. The staple foods from any culture are pretty cheap and nourishing. It’s not that there’s no opportunity for you to cook, but that you need to learn to do it and make it a priority. No one has time to do things they don’t prioritize: date, exercise, find a better job. Cooking is just one of those things. You can live without it, but you’d be happier if you did.

    • It’s odd that people feel that pre-cooked meals are cheaper. Some healthy foods are expensive… but what about diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and hypertension? Ultimately, when you cheat your body, you pay the price later.

      As far as cheap, mostly-healthy cooked foods go, in college, when I was broke, I’d make big pots of rice and beans and eat for meals. You can pay less than 50 cents for a bowl of that, and they can be heated in under 5 minutes on the microwave.

      Nowadays I can stews. They can be reheated simply even when I’m on a tight schedule, and they’re portable. And they’re not filled with BPA like all the canned foods in the store, because I use BPA-free lids.

      Not knowing how to cook can be more expensive, because you’re relying on restaurants or industrial kitchens.

    • The best way fo learn to cook is for kids to cook with their parents. Nothing fancy, just preparing family dinner. And to be given responsibility for cooking meals themselves, making their own choices, starting at 12 or so. And after a bit also for planning the meal, shopping for it, etc.

      Cooking with kids is fun. And you can bring a three-year old into the kitchen, let them chop vegetables and stir pans. They love to feel they are contributing, and most kids love to master skills.

      I don’t get this idea that you have no time to cook if your work full time. Lots of people do that every day. Cooking does not have to be elaborate and advanced every time. In fact, it does not have to be advanced at all, unless you want it to. Planning helps, as does preparation (want marinated chicken? Make the marinade and prepare the chicken before you go to bed. That way, cooking wil be quick and easy when you get home from work the next day)- Sure, it wil take time initially, but it will get better as you build up skills.

  6. You know, sometimes cooking is just something that has to be done, and there’s no choice. In fact, I believe that most of the time cooking is not a moral choice or a way to change the world. It’s just another chore, like laundry.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think cooking is a lot of fun, and rewarding. I do just about all cooking for my family. But changing the world? No.

    I think it’s a little amusing how, when men decide to pick up a task, it suddenly changes from being mundane to being all about ethics and revolution. I’m in favour of just getting the job done.

  7. Lars Fischer – I don’t get this idea that you have no time to cook if your work full time…

    It depends what you consider as working full-time. Most people here in Asia are working up to 60 hours a week, often including some more hours on Saturday, Sunday and banking holidays and add some more hours from/to workplace. – Cooking takes time. I prefer not to start cooking around 9 or 10 PM and go with my wife for dinner to a restaurant.

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