The fast-food cost myth.

I enjoyed Mark Bittman’s piece this weekend comparing the prices of fast food and simple, home-cooked food. His analysis makes me think that perhaps I placed too much emphasis on structural issues around food costs and incentives in my commentary on Helen Zoe Veit’s recent op/ed on home ec. Bittman’s central point: despite all that’s been said in recent years about the cheapness of unhealthy food, cost alone does not explain why people eat fast food, or eat out so much. As deep down we all know, it’s pretty much always cheaper to buy groceries and eat at home.

The most important thing that Bittman brings up is something Veit honed in on, and that I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the course of my research: how cooking became work, and, in particular, work we were no longer willing to perform. In fact, I often find myself asking a similar but distinct question: how did cooking become something we needed expert instruction in? This is most definitely a history of home economics story. A quick version: a group of well educated upper-middle-class women around the turn of the century wanted to scientize and thereby elevate women’s domestic labors; home ec education flowered; then, as Veit points out, it became marginalized again as foofy women’s work around midcentury, at the time that second-wave feminism was flowering. What Bittman doesn’t get into — and, indeed, what few of the mainstream foodie-writers ever really touch on — are the gender politics of this, which surely have had a lot to do with the glossing of cooking as undignified or unworthwhile work, particularly during the second wave. Womens’ rejection of these household duties was a political statement, and the food industry — from frozen foods to baking mixes to TV dinners to breakfast cereals and so on — was more than happy to market their products in a way that appealed to this impulse. Why cook when you don’t have to?

Don’t misread me here: I am absolutely not saying that second-wave feminism is to blame for our present-day issues surrounding food, cooking, and obesity. What I am trying to suggest is that we cannot tackle these issues without considering the mostly unspoken gender politics that pervade them. If we are to cook more, who will do the cooking? The grocery shopping? The dishes? These are actually really important questions, and they largely go unanswered, at least by the Mark Bittmans and Michael Pollans.

So how do we, as men and women of the 21st century, relearn the culture of cooking in new ways that do not place undue burdens on one sex or the other, that do not make essentialist assumptions about who is supposed to do or best suited to doing what? There must be a feminist food writer out there who is dealing with these issues — anybody got any tips for me?

On a related note, it is worth checking out Anna’s recent post on “healthy restaurants” and its comments section, which together bring up some allied points surrounding restaurants, nutrition, and health.

Finally, a point about changing culture, from my own research. This is in fact an area that home economics — indeed, extension work more broadly — was very aware of, and doing active research on. Food preferences, for example, were one area of research: how do you get children to change what they like to eat? Ethel B. Waring and Walter Lewin did a whole study on this at Cornell in the 1930s, and Lewin went on do do larger food-preference studies for the U.S. government in later decades. The point being that we’ve been thinking about these issues for a very long time now, and producing knowledge about them. But, as any good historian of science and technology will tell you, it’s not just about producing the knowledge or the tools, it’s about making the ethical decisions that guide our research questions, our system-building. What kind of a world do we want to live in? One where we eat out a lot and pay for it in health and dollars? Or something else we might imagine?

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2 thoughts on “The fast-food cost myth.

  1. I hope I’ve told you about her before, but Sharon Astyk is my favorite feminist food blogger, who very much discusses the gender politics of cooking and agriculture. She writes over at http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/ . A few posts roughly on this topic that come to mind are:

    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2009/12/she_blinded_me_with_pudding_1.php
    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/01/peak_oil_is_still_a_womens_iss.php
    http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/07/myths_of_incompetence.php

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