“The voice of life and salvation says: Why will a person chew on a grape and still wish to remain ignorant of the nature of that grape?” So pondered Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century mystic, suggesting that eating carries with it the responsibility to care about the stuff that sustains life. We find ourselves at a propitious moment for thinking about the nature of what we eat. A handful of provocative books on food and eating have appeared while Americans are, happily, between diet fads. We have passed through low-fat and low-carb regimes, the latter condemning the stuff on which most people in the world survive, like rice, potatoes, beans, pasta, even the staff of life itself. While there legitimately may be holy indifference to food—contentment to subsist on locusts and honey—it also can seem a species of ingratitude to take our food for granted, caring about it only on the level of taste or nourishment. Michael Pollan, a self-proclaimed “food detective,” takes up Hildegard’s challenge in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The dilemma is this: the abundance and variety of American food, plus violent swings in dietary fashion and the absence of long culinary traditions, leave us unsure of what to eat. If, in Alexander Schmemann’s terms, “the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man,” Pollan is troubled to discover that we literally do not know any longer what will nourish and what will kill us. For him, food choices are moral choices, not just aesthetic preferences, because of their ramifications in economics, ecology, and society.
Pollan reveals how far-flung is our food chain, how unlikely and unappetizing the path to our plate. He takes eating-as-an-agricultural-act to extreme if logical lengths, following his own steer from feedlot to slaughter, watching corn become syrup, chilling with produce in an organic lettuce warehouse. His aim is to help readers see that the journey from chicken to Chicken McNugget is costly. Industrial food systems encourage us to forget or ignore where food originates: “[I]f we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”
Pollan is keen to distinguish heroes from villains. Corn tops the list of the latter. In the rogues’ gallery are agribusiness giants that produce it, farm lobbies that ensure its subsidies, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that feed animals not naturally disposed to eat it. On the side of the angels are local produce, grass-fed animals, small-batch cheeses, foods eaten simply as they are. Organic products and their distributors fall into a grey area in Pollan’s accounting, virtuous in intentions and pesticide avoidance, but almost inevitably compromised by large-scale industry and mass marketing.
Although some readers might recoil from the faintest whiff of moralizing about food, Pollan is not really sanctimonious. After all, he takes his son to McDonald’s now and then, and he is not a vegetarian. For his “Perfect Meal,” he shoots a wild boar and pulls abalone off Pacific coastal rocks, completing the feast with wood-gathered morels and a tart filled with cherries from a neighbor’s tree. At the end of it all, he is grateful for the chance “so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.”
Preparation for that single meal sprawls over weeks. While the author knows we usually do not cook that way, his admission points to a weakness of the book. The few meals we see him eat are so thought- and labor-intensive that they virtually disable every day cooking. The cook’s participation in the omnivore’s dilemma comes with difficulty. It is especially vexing for those responsible for feeding other people—a mother feeding a family, for instance. Pollan’s earnestness is front-loaded into the gathering of food, so that the crucial link between the grocery bag (or farm-market basket) and the dinner plate goes largely unremarked. But that is a crucial link, especially with the kinds of whole foods—low on processing, preservatives, additives—that Pollan thinks we should be eating. Even if your groceries are organic, your produce local, your meat range-fed in a stress- and antibiotic-free environment, somebody still has to cook it.
Pollan’s farmed and hunted meals reflect the aesthetic of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the late 1980s to counter the homogenization wrought by fast food and preserve regional specialties. Slow Food chapters celebrate biodiversity and sustainability, grow heirloom vegetables, and host heritage barbecues. One of the delicious ironies of American culinary culture has been its idealization of peasant food. Italian cuisine seems particularly liable to this romantic approach, with many cookbooks assuming a lavishly illustrated, don’t-you-wish-you-were-in-Tuscany model: behold the elegant simplicity of bread, oil, tomatoes, a handful of herbs. Cucina povera, the food of the poor. Except this food of the poor is celebrated by people affluent and elegant enough to have been to Tuscany, or at least to develop Tuscan sensibilities. The key to success in such simple foods is that you must use the highest quality ingredients, a mantra repeated by the glossy cookbooks filling bookstore shelves: only the finest, the freshest, the ripest, the best.
This status inversion touts the food of the poor as the choicest of fare, provided that rules are obeyed and exact materials are employed to good effect. In another wrinkle, the same kind of cooks who tout local ingredients make us covet the produce of someplace else across the globe. Globalization breeds food envy. To make a dish the right way, you have to be using keffir lime leaves or powdered sumac or curly Treviso radicchio from a postage-stamp plot in northern Italy. But surely that is at odds with the spirit of peasant cuisine. Peasants may have had very fresh lettuce, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, because they did not have much else. It is irregular, to say the least, to try recreating peasant dishes with only the finest ingredients. So while slow-food proponents have an easy target when they revile fast-food consumption as gluttony, insisting on only the finest is itself a kind of gluttony, with the immoderate appetite focused on daintiness rather than quantity.
Americans cook and eat fewer meals at home, spending more of the food budget on meals eaten out, but show ever more regard for their kitchens. A state-of-the-art kitchen is a status symbol in upmarket homes, even though those shining enormous appliances may be used rarely by their owners or anyone else. They are the trappings of cooking as hobby. Not a daily duty, but something done for fun, for therapy, to impress, on occasion, with an audience. We do it with virtuosity and all the right tools, or not at all. A magazine page advertising a gleaming “complete Viking Kitchen” names the space, simply, “Rec Room.” The dream kitchen designed by Electrolux offers even more: “It’s an art studio. It’s a quiet table for two. It’s a clubhouse.” A high-end British oven manufacturer presents its product in aspirational, inspirational terms, noting “Aga is not just an appliance, it’s a way of life,” for “serious cooks, celebrities, even royalty in Europe.”
With such high standards for food and kitchens, we might feel that unless we cook something authentic, organic, beautiful every day, there is no sense in going through the trouble. That is why households maintain a stack of takeout menus. Why not say, as Caitlin Flanagan does in the title of her book, to hell with all that? Why do the work, peeling this, chopping that, with a pile of pots and pans and plates at the end—day after day? Why waste time cooking a dinner that just will be eaten, or worse, just messed with, when your kids would rather go to McDonald’s anyway?
Flanagan riles feminists and traditionalists alike, though probably the former more acutely. To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife draws on previously published essays to praise the vanished ideal of competent housewifery. Recalling her own mother, she shares what a good thing it was to have someone to clip coupons, put fresh cookies in the jar, be waiting when children came home from school, and be waiting again with dinner on the table when husband came home from work. In Flanagan’s accounting, these are things to be desired now but not necessarily to do. We might wish we lived like this, but insofar as it requires somebody to be the housewife, we are not willing to sacrifice talents, education, or salary for it. So we wistfully honor those things but must make do without them. Or else we monetize them, paying someone to do childcare, someone else to clean the house, someone else to do laundry, and perhaps someone else (or some place else) to cook dinner. Flanagan remembers her mother making pot roast but does not do it much herself.
She thinks she should cook dinner. A whole range of problems in the United States has been chalked up to the waning of the family dinner: obesity and other health problems, failed relationships, youthful delinquency, bad manners all around, all because we eat out instead of in, separately rather than together, in the car rather than at the table. For his part, Pollan blames capitalism, as civilized dining habits were swept away by “the food industry’s need to sell a well-fed population more food.” Flanagan notes the absence of family dinner, but is not overconcerned. She would just as soon have her quality time in some other form (she enjoys her children more once they learn to talk, so she “no longer [feels] lonely” in their company) and finds the hand-wringing misplaced over “getting some macaroni and cheese into the kids.” Further, she points out, quite appropriately, that one reason family dinners slide in affluent households is that children are too busy with activities to get to the table on time, and so reviving dinnertime would signify a step down, not a step up.
Flanagan lauds housewifely thrift. Thrift is an admirable quality, but it is not the most we can say in esteeming the making and planning of meals. Cooking for a feast is easy, whether a real feast or a once-a-month dinner party, when time, ingredients, and care are bountiful. Regular cooking requires more prudence and discipline. What is available? How long does it keep? With what can it be combined?
Rather than setting out Manichean categories that divide fast food and slow food as evil from good, we might employ a different distinction: between fast and feast, or better yet, between fasting, feasting, and ferial cuisine. The distinction is nicely upheld by Robert Farrar Capon, whose quirky classic The Supper of the Lamb (Smithmark, 1996) taught readers how to eke four meals for eight persons out of a single cut of lamb. Roasts are for feasts, but “to the ferial cuisine belong all the rest—the dishes which take a little, cut it up small, and make it go a long way.”
Fast food and slow food are both wrong for every day. Vegetarians may reasonably disagree, but animals and plants are given to us as food, and it is a suitable way to respect their place in the order of things to eat them. Cooking should give those creatures their due. Waste, carelessness, excess, and ingratitude denigrates what it costs, in matter, life, and labor, to feed us. In contrast, good cooking is quickening to creation, receiving the given with gratitude and ingenuity to make something flavorful and nourishing, out of it. Some days we eat low and might do so with contentment.
Dining together can be a great occasion of community, enjoyment of abundance, delight in flavor, but it cannot be “only the finest” every day. Some days we eat richly, and our food echoes our joy, or worship, or love. On feast days we should have oil and fatness, sweets and abundance, and it should be food that takes special time to prepare. Even so, we can recognize an occasional fast-food meal as a special indulgence, especially for diners whose budgets do not stretch to Tuscany. Pollan’s son Isaac relishes fast food, and even the food detective himself has warm childhood memories of McDonalds: “I loved everything about fast food: the individual portions all wrapped up like presents…the pleasingly sequenced bite into a burger—the soft, sweet roll, the crunchy pickle, the savory moistness of the meat.” Fast food is hard not to like. Eating too much of it, though, can distort assumptions about how food should taste. French fries, potato chips, and Oreos please easily, but other foods might need practice to appreciate. Spinach and artichokes, olives and apricots are worth trying, worth developing a taste for. Cooking for children over the course of years is the way they learn what is good to eat, where it comes from, and how it nourishes.
Reading practically anything about food these days can make eating seem like a morally freighted pursuit, on grounds of health, aesthetics, or environmental impact. Nevertheless, food perennially has carried moral, even religious, significance. Jewish and Christian traditions have set apart symbolic meals, elevated some foods, and excluded others. Yet the fact that what we eat matters does not have to be felt only in guilt or self-righteousness, but in joy. Much attention has been paid to fasting and asceticism in the lives of the saints, to pious women reputed to subsist on the Bread of Angels alone. While giving this tradition its due, Cristina Mazzoni instead is struck by how readily the preparation and eating of food appeared in the writings of holy women mystics.
The Women in God’s Kitchen gathers an eclectic group—some desert mothers from antiquity, some medieval nuns and mystics, some modern converts and saints— around the focus on food ,nourishment, and grace in their writings. Mazzoni’s characters exemplify an old reason for getting back into the kitchen, one even better than current economic or environmental justifications. When done in a spirit of gratitude and charity, kitchen work might be a vital way to serve and live out our callings. It is a work of obedience, in Mazzoni’s words, of “conforming one’s behavior to God (for those who practice religion) or to the need of those who depend on us.”
St. Teresa of Avila knew there was a time for penance and a time for partridge. Her nuns worried that kitchen duties distracted them from more important pursuits like prayer and contemplation. This complaint rings familiar, though currently expressed less in terms of godliness than in the language of business and busy-ness. Women have more important, more productive, more intelligent callings than the preparation of food. Teresa counseled,“[L]et there be no disappointment when obedience keeps you busy in outward tasks. If it sends you to the kitchen, remember that the Lord walks among the pots and pans and that He will help you in inward tasks and in outward ones too.”
A task essential to the care of others, cooking can be humble but honorable work. So pronounced Angela of Foligno, a thirteenth-century magistra theologorum who joined the Franciscans after the death of her family. One day while washing lettuce, Angela was visited by the devil. A wily voice asked why she considered herself worthy of her simple task. Angela answered that she was worthy only for hell—a dramatic reply that, Mazzoni notes, “shut the devil up.” Surely this gifted, holy woman had better things to do with her time than rinsing grit from leaves? In Angela’s writings, Mazzoni reads purity and security in the right attitude toward preparing food for ourselves and other to eat.
When I was just married, I puzzled over a question familiar to many newlyweds. What am I going to make every night for this man to eat? I was a decent cook already but wondered how, practically, to do this all the time. Still, I saw daily cooking as an effort to demonstrate competence: I can do this; we can live well on our budget. The moment of disenchantment came one steamy Virginia evening after we’d spent an afternoon gathering blackberries from the banks around abandoned railroad tracks. I came home to bake what my husband declared was his favorite dessert, blackberry cobbler. I mixed the berries with sugar and lemon, stirred together a biscuit crust, layered it all and sent it to bake. My hands and much of the kitchen counter were stained purple. After dinner I presented the cobbler: fragrant, gorgeously purple, sugared on top, served with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream, as proud as a new bride could be.
My husband took a bite. “It has seeds,” he said.
“It has what?” I asked. This was not quite the rapturous response I’d expected. “Of course it has seeds. Blackberries have seeds.”
“Nanaw’s didn’t. Nanaw took the seeds out when she made blackberry cobbler.”
I do not recall my reply, and it likely was not a very good one. Internally I was aghast, thinking of the sheer effort required to remove the seeds from all that berry pulp, the sheer waste of it, and relative unimportance of that detail in light of the glory of the finished dessert. But his point was made. His grandmother’s cobbler was the standard against which others were judged, and a standard weighted by affection and memory.
In Margery Kempe’s spiritual reflections, we hear God favoring her with a comparison to dried cod: “Daughter, you are obedient to my will, and cleave as fast to me as the skin of the stockfish sticks to man’s hand when it is boiled.” Margery’s piety gives Mazzoni occasion to note that:
preparation of food involves a gift of self. As our fingers, hands, skin touch the various ingredients, getting them ready for the pot and for the table, an impalpable part of us—love?—cleaves to them, making cooking an intimate act of love…. Cooking, and more commonly eating together binds people to their loved ones, and, in celebrating life, the breaking of bread joins us in our shared need for both food and one another—as the skin of a stockfish is bound, tied fast, connected to the hand that prepares (to eat) it.”
Love clings when we cook. My grandmothers made pirohi (the Slovak version of the better known Polish pierogi), potatoes stuffed inside of noodle dough, a potato dumpling, starch on starch, the food of the poor made into something special by the small measure of eggs, and the great measure of labor, that could be added into it. Love clings, in our thankfulness for what God gives, for the way food of the earth smells, looks, tastes, and nourishes, and for those we serve. We sometimes eat with delight because food is made by someone who loves us with it. Even though chafing against mother’s food is a staple of children’s experience and literature—trading away the contents of one’s lunchbox, wishing for junk food banned from home cupboards—the very rebellion validates the assumption that, as Mazzoni puts it, “Mother’s food is best,” and that mother would not feed it to us if it were harmful.
Handling ingredients, preparing them for the pot, gives greater opportunity than just eating to ponder, observe, participate, and delight in a portion of the created order that has been given to us as our daily bread. Foodstuffs are possessed of certain scents, textures, flavors, properties, and we are equipped with senses to apprehend these, to learn what things look, smell, and feel like, what they can do. Take the egg. Egg whites in a bowl start out as an insipid, pitiful puddle, but by beating turn first into seafoam, then marshmallowy mush, and then virtual whipped cream, except unlike cream’s density and velvet, this is resilient, firm, and glossy. Or the sugar routine: fling a few spoonfuls of sugar into a dry pan, turn on heat, and solid becomes liquid, colorless becomes golden, then amber, then burnt. Witness the smell of a peach at the stem end, the coarse nap on the skin of a yellow wax bean, the way an avalanche of spinach in a pan wilts to nearly nothing. It is all a wonder. It is good that things are so made and that we have the sense(s) to apprehend it. The kitchen is a place to learn, a varied education, worth having for oneself and teaching one’s children, not just in order to do but to understand. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun, wrote to her superiors:
Well, and what then shall I tell you, my Lady of the secrets of nature that I have learned while cooking? I observe that an egg becomes solid and cooks in butter or oil, and on the contrary that it dissolves in sugar syrup…. It was well put by Lupercio Leonardo that one can philosophize quite well while preparing supper. I often say, when I make these little observations, “Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a great deal more.”
Mazzoni’s women find nobility within the humility of the kitchen. But there is lowly, and then there is lowly. Flanagan contests the vein of feminism that characterizes cooking as “dogwork” or worse, quoting Joan Didion’s quip, “To make an omelet, you need not only those broken eggs but someone ‘oppressed’ to break them.” This characterization looks frankly boorish when set against the kitchen arts that women across the world master: handmade pasta rolled silken, curries made with spices fresh-ground and yogurt home-cultured, dark loaves baked from yeast conjured out of the air, fruit pies with lattice tops and scalloped edges. Flanagan’s audience, even those among them who personally would never peel a carrot, has been taught by food magazines and celebrity chefs to appreciate these. Still, it is hard to square contempt for kitchen work with appreciation of good food; desire for healthful, unprocessed meat and produce with inability to cook it; thrift with over-rarified tastes. Cooking is quite appropriately seen as an art. Though to see it only as art is to forget the human need that drives it—to imagine Babette’s Feast as just a display of virtuosity.
Pollan’s book taken together with Flanagan’s lays a heavy burden on the mother trying to feed her family. The whole weight of environmental pollution, cruelty to animals, energy politics, the side effects of fossil fuels, if not the whole global economy, plus the health of her family, bear down on her whenever she reaches for a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Her family might reasonably assume that if the cook picked and prepared something, it must be worth eating. Mother is gatekeeper, point of contact between the marketing and the eating of food. But she has ads and slogans ringing in her ears begging her to grant imprimatur to things that may not be worth eating, or promising too much that what is convenient for her is also good for them. There is a voluminous social science literature on American women as consumers, from nineteenth-century advice manuals to college majors in home economics, to advertising campaigns teaching moms to combine housewifery with convenience.
Here thrift alone fails us. At the end of the day, literally, thrift is insufficient rationale for taking the high road. When dinner needs to be on the table, drive-through, take-out, and pre-made are nearly irresistible. Grocery shopping might be simple if you have unlimited cash or no concern about how and where food is gotten or its consequences for health, but buying within the limits suggested by all three categories is hard. It is harder still with toddlers hanging off the side of the cart, for whom none of those categories apply. In fact, buying without those limits would be the way a toddler, left to himself, would go through the aisles, hardly something to aspire to. Caitlin Flanagan contrasts starkly with her mother’s housewifery, confessing, “child of my time, I could not tell you the price of a single item in my refrigerator. All I know—from long, unpleasant precedent—is that much of it is going bad and headed for the trash can.”
But if we view Pollan’s book through the lens of Mazzoni’s subjects, we find fresh incentive to the daily task of feeding a family. From Mazzoni comes warm appreciation of the love and loveliness of food well prepared; from Pollan, stiff medicine on the broad consequences of one’s eating. So the family cook does something of environmental and economic import when she buys food, and something of beauty and fidelity when she prepares and serves it. It is better to know something about what one eats, because we should wonder, even be frankly amazed, at the grapes we have to chew on. The work is not too menial for the very busy or very educated, nor is it predominantly for show or showing-off.
In this encouraging vein come cookbooks with titles like Weeknight Meals, Everyday Mexican or Everyday Italian. Even Martha Stewart, with her peerless ability to beautify and complexify housekeeping, now maintains both a magazine and a PBS series titled, Everyday Food. These sources span a range of approaches to the problem of weeknight meals, from make-aheads reliant on crockpot and freezer to store-bought with add-ons, a style the magazine Real Simple (!) calls “Fake It Don’t Make It.” My favorite options would be plainer—soup and bread, beans and rice, lightly dressed pasta—choices perfectly acceptable if we allow that every day is not a feast day. To cook successfully does not require preparing “Crunchy Wasabi-Crusted Fish with Red-Cabbage Slaw” or “Jerk Pork Chops with Hearts of Palm Salad and Sweet Plantains,” two entries from the Ten-Minute Mains feature of a Gourmet magazine, which favor luxury as a substitute for time.
Perhaps all this seems like inordinate care for bodily necessity, time misdirected to things that so quickly pass away. Here we might try to locate the limits of appropriate care for what we eat. It is a mistake to care too much, either for reasons of taste or for environmental sensitivity, to swell with righteousness at one’s refined taste or clean conscience. We should care for the earth but not make a fetish of it. Nor should we make an idol of the body: masking finitude with fitness, prostrating all to health and longevity, hoping through high fiber and flavonoids to cheat death. We should not be obsessed with food because either our appetites or our consumption or both are immoderate. And I think Pollan is wrong on this count: we never pay the full price for what we eat, karmic or otherwise. There are so many imponderables and unmeasurables linked even to the simplest bites that we never really have a right to the pride of thinking ourselves alone responsible for what we eat. Better to think measuredly of daily bread, and receive it with thanks.
Curiously, frequent cooking can insulate one from errors about food rather than making one more susceptible to them. Contact with foodstuffs exhibits the beauty and bounty of creation but also its fallenness and one’s own fallibility. Things go wrong, collapse, burn, curdle, and crumble. My sister executes recipes better than I do, but she compliments me on the ability to fix things that fall flat. It is, after all, only food. Admittedly, cooking can still sometimes feel like a mandala sand painting, the Buddhist art form painstakingly rendered grain by grain and destroyed upon completion to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists. Costly ingredients will be consumed, used up, fill the belly, just like common ones. Things spoil. And it is not the object of our eternal devotion: one sees hauntingly the speed of decay, noting how quick the time between freshness and rot. We are mortal creatures who do not have life in ourselves but must take in nourishment. Those of us who have the task of feeding ourselves and others might do so in a way that invites companionship and thanksgiving around daily necessity.
Agnes R. Howard teaches English and History at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.
Caitlin Flanagan. To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. New York and Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2006.
Cristina Mazzoni. The Women in God’ s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating, and Spiritual Writing. New York and London: Continuum, 2005.
Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’ s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006.