Indeed, he opens the essay waxing rhapsodic about watching his own mother learn to cook with Julia Child, whipping up a series of delicious (and no doubt complicated) dishes for the Pollan household to enjoy.
If only life were that simple. Michael Pollan’s mother may have enjoyed the pleasures of voluntary cooking — as do I — but millions upon millions of human beings for centuries on end have not.
Here’s a fact: There is nothing glamorous or pleasant about the task of fixing three meals a day for more than one or two people.
That’s why, historically, most people have chosen NOT to fix their own food. Instead, they hired someone to do it for them. And when they couldn’t afford to do so, well, they sure weren’t standing around waxing rhapsodic about the pleasures of cooking. (Because, ya know, they were too busy cooking to spare the time for philosophical rumination.)
Let’s take a little time trip: Let’s go to, say, Toledo, Ohio, in, say, 1875. (Random choices on my part.) Let’s visit some kitchens. Let’s start with the side of town where the factories, tanneries, and workshops are located. There we’d likely find no one at home.
Everyone — mom, dad, children — would be out working twelve hours a day (because that was the standard workday at the time) for not much money. When they got home, they ate whatever was cheap, quick, and easy. And often that food was — you guessed it — purchased outside the home. (*1) (If the household was lucky, there was a person to spare, perhaps an aging parent, who could stay home to fix the food.
Or, the family took in boarders, and one or more of the household worked at home fixing food for the family and boarders.) That was his or her “job.”)
Now let’s visit the other side of town. The side upwind of the factories, tanneries, and workshops. There we’d find plenty of people at home in the kitchen, but it’s unlikely any of those kitchen dwellers lived in the house.
The “mom” in this house would do little (or, more likely, none) of the cooking because she did what the monied have been doing for thousands of years: She hired someone to do the scut work that is the kitchen routine.
In between those two ends of the spectrum, are the neighborhoods where we find an oddly untypical scenario: Households where “mom” is at home preparing food, and spending much of the day doing so, and working alone because she can’t afford to hire anyone, but her spouse earns enough money so that she herself does not work outside the home. (Or, alternatively, as in the first example, the family may have rented a room to a boarder.)
I say this last scenario is atypical because it would have been rare to find a house where a wife could afford to stay home but did not have hired help.
But the notion that people were at home cooking three meals a day for a household and doing so voluntarily . . . well, Pollan is simply wrong about that. (He’s also wrong about other things — processed foods and industrialized farming date back a century or more.)
Next: A bit more history, and an alternative way to view “cooking.”
*1: For more information on this topic, see, for example, Katherine Leonard Turner, “Buying, Not Cooking,” Food, Culture and Society 9, no. 1 (2006): 13-39. Or, more generally, Donna Gabaccia’s We Are What We Eat, Hasia R. Diner’s Hungering for America, or Harvey Levenstein’s Revolution At the Table.