Reading Helen Zoe Veit’s op/ed in Tuesday’s New York Times about reviving home economics’ founding principles was a special thrill to me, particularly after spending six weeks this summer as the Dean’s Fellow in the History of Home Economics at Cornell. Veit offers a good general overview of home ec’s motivations and contributions, and argues that attention to the kinds of things that early-20th-century home economists cared about—particularly in our public schools—would go a long way toward reviving a culture of healthy eating in the United States.
I think I agree with this position, and I certainly agree that the early home economists were very serious women indeed. Veit is absolutely correct that the phrase “home economics” has a very different valence today, conjuring up, as she puts it, “a 1950s teacher in cat’s-eye glasses showing her female students how to make a white sauce.” Having spent a great deal of time this summer reading oral history transcripts with women who were foundational to Cornell’s College of Home Economics, one of the leaders in the field, I can avow that these were incredibly intelligent and thoughtful women, with advanced degrees in psychology, nutrition, chemistry, education, and the biological sciences, who studied with some of the leading lights of the era (Lewis Terman, John Dewey, to name just a couple), and who had carved out a place for themselves in academia where they could really make a critical difference in people’s lives. They were most definitely reformers, who sought to improve Americans’ lives at the level of the individual, family, school, and community. They cared deeply about their work, and felt that it was desperately needed by the average family.
As Veit notes, “[t]oday we remember only the stereotypes about home economics, while forgetting the movement’s crucial lessons on healthy eating and cooking.” I would go further: we also forget that the home ec approach was by nature comprehensive, meeting people where they were and helping them address their problems and needs as a whole. As with any science, it relied on specialists, but home economics was a truly interdisciplinary study and practice. Colleges of home economics—which were the counterparts to the colleges of agriculture at the land-grant schools, and which existed at private institutions as well—were places that brought together people from fields across the natural and social sciences and set them to work on common and related problems. This was powerful stuff indeed.
And so I would go further than Veit. Yes, thinking about citizens’ everyday challenges on a human and personal scale, as home ec did, is very important; but thinking about how to address their underlying causes on a societal scale—another important mission of home ec—is just as important. Veit does not mention the structural problems that would prevent public-school instruction in nutrition and cookery from really having much of an effect: the fact that the cheapest foods are the unhealthiest foods, that powerful interests in the food, agriculture, and petrochemical industries would prefer it to stay that way, among others. To continue to frame diet as a completely individual matter, addressable only through individual market choices, is a huge mistake, one for which I suspect Martha Van Rensselaer would have chastened her students. People make choices, but they do so within economic, social, geographic, political, and other constraints. To overlook these is to fail.
Another thing that Veit doesn’t dwell on explicitly but which I think she would agree with, is the importance of this idea of “teaching cooking” as opposed to teaching “foods” or “dietetics” or “nutrition.” Cooking is a social and cultural as well as a chemical and biological process, reducible not to molecular reactions and metabolic processes alone. Our tendency in this country to view the act of feeding ourselves this way has been very profitable for a select few, but disastrous for the public’s health. Home ec in its later years tended to embrace this more reductionist view, in its ongoing attempt to justify itself as a real science in a world that continued to belittle it as “women’s work,” and replaced messy, real-life terms like “cooking” and “family life” with “foods and nutrition” and “child development.” I think this was an important shift, and one that deserves our attention. Home ec, like agriculture, was always walking a very fine line of scientific justification and real-world relevance, trying to balance the inevitable specialization that came from scientific study with the interdisciplinarity and holism that was required to actually aid local people in their everyday circumstances, to meet them where they were. By taking seriously the messiness of a term like “cooking,” and all its multiplicity of meanings and associations; indeed, by embracing that complexity rather than shunning it, we might find ourselves in less of a quandary about food in this country. It works for other subjects, too: that’s what home ec could be and was a times about, and that’s what we should revive.
Image source: Extension Scrapbooks, A88-25. Mississippi State University Archives, Starkville, MS.