Written by Heidi Stevens
Never in my life have I felt so understood, so accepted, so heard, as I do reading "The Joy of Cooking?"
Note the question mark.
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Three North Carolina State University sociologists spent 250 hours interviewing and observing 150 mothers to present a realistic picture of the Herculean effort and so-tiny-as-to-be-indiscernible payoff of creating and serving home-cooked meals for a family.
"The Joy of Cooking?" is their report, published on the American Sociological Association's website.
"(T)ime pressures, trade-offs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others make it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials," they write.
Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama (whom I adore) to author Michael Pollan (whose books I haven't read, but I do own because my mom gives them to me) advocate a return to the kitchen, the researchers note. "New York Times' food columnist Mark Bittman agrees," they write, "saying the goal should be 'to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden.' "
It's a lovely goal. It really is. So is world peace. That doesn't mean we're ever going to achieve it.
One of the observed mothers, Leanne, works a minimum-wage job while taking classes to earn her associate's degree. "Leanne ... often spent her valuable time preparing meals, only to be rewarded with family members' complaints or disinterest," they write. "Our extensive observations and interviews with mothers like Leanne reveal something that often gets overlooked: Cooking is fraught."
"I don't need it. I don't want it. I never had it," one 4-year-old told his mom when she presented him with an unfamiliar dish.
"We rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn't complain about the food they were served," write the researchers. "Some mothers coaxed their children to eat by playing elaborate games or by hand-feeding them. ... Feeding others involves taking multiple preferences into consideration, and balancing time and money constraints."
And yet ...
"Home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen," they write.
The low-income mothers they observed, however, were faced with tiny food budgets, insufficient cooking tools and cramped and sometimes bug-infested kitchens. The middle- and upper-income mothers were stretched incredibly thin, and many preferred to spend their limited time outside of a kitchen.
As the authors note: "Most got home from work around six o'clock, and then attempted to cook meals from scratch, as the experts advise, while their children clamored for their attention."
Which speaks to the baseline frustration each of the observed mothers experienced.
"Balancing paid work and unpaid work at home, women today have less free time than they did a generation ago; and, in line with heightened expectations of motherhood, they now report spending more time engaged in child care than did mothers in the 1960s," the authors report. "It's not surprising that they struggle to find time to cook."
In their conclusion, the authors bypass suggestions ("Scale back on your work hours!" "Get Dad to cook more!") that are unrealistic - financially and otherwise - for many families.Instead, they encourage a big picture approach to the food we put in our bodies.
"Let's move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families," they write. "How about a revival of monthly town suppers or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear."
Which hardly makes cooking a joy.
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