At the end of last year there was a resurgence of articles questioning the feminist or anti-feminist nature of home cooking. The debate is not new, but it flared up in response to the publication of "The Joy of Cooking?" (the article is not longer available for free, so buy it here or read about it here), an article by three sociologists from North Carolina State University that was based on their interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers and on over 250 hours of observation of 12 working-class mothers dealing with cooking and family life.
The article was quite discouraging for those who believe America should embrace home cooking in the name of public health and a lesser environmental impact. What emerged from it is that mothers, even when they hold full-time jobs, are still the ones saddled with cooking and all its implications, from meal planning to grocery shopping, from making the time for cooking to cleaning afterwards. To make matters worse, the onerous home-cooked meal stands a good chance of being rejected by the kids AND the husband, so the whole ordeal might end up in a maddening waste of time, energy, and money. The mothers' uphill battle is not only confined within their homes: Junk food is advertised everywhere and easily available, and school cafeterias most often serve just that (it reminded me of a comment in the movie Fed Up, defining some schools today as "7-11's with books"), so convincing their children to start eating healthy, home-cooked meals becomes a near impossible task.
To be fair, the article never uses the terms "feminist" or "anti-feminist" to define the problem, but much of the debate that sparked from it posed that very question. Is home-cooking feminist? The debate intrigued me. I've often heard Italian mothers complain that they have to do all the cooking, but I had never seen the blame being put on home cooking. In fact, home cooking is still upheld as one of the best things Italians have accomplished, and I've always agreed. But should I? I started thinking about my Italian experience with home cooking, about its rituals, meaning, and consequences on Italian family life. As you may already know, food in Italy is pretty much sacred, and most Italians are very educated (and opinionated) about nutrition. We have a great, incredibly varied cuisine that spans from the very simple to the refined, from the perfectly healthy to the obscenely sweet and/or fat. Is cooking for Italian women a source joy, a necessary chore, or just a tool of oppression? I decided to talk a little bit about food culture and home cooking in Italy to see if it could help shed some light on the American cooking conundrum.
The following considerations come from my personal experience (I do not work full time at the moment, but I was raised by a mother who did) and that of a few Italian female friends I spoke to who were raised by full-time working parents or are working mothers themselves.
HOME COOKING IN ITALY
How Do Italians View Food?Of course you know this, but I have to say it: Italy is a food-centric nation. Italian cuisine is exceptionally varied and relies on a fantastic quantity of amazing produce for each season. It is also worth remembering that Italians' rural past is just a couple of generations away. Almost all Italians have strong connections to people growing produce or raising livestock, be it in their family or in or around the place they live in. In my personal experience, even though I grew up in the city with two full-time working parents, my family would often stay at my grandfather's home in Tuscany, which had a small farm right behind it where my sister and I would pick fresh fruit and eggs, help with the animals, and occasionally be given the chance to milk a cow.
How Does Home Cooking Work in Italy?I would say the vast majority of families eat mostly home-cooked meals during the week, although, compared to previous generations, they tend to prepare easier and quicker meals (home-made pasta is a treat to make once in a while) and eat out more than in the past. Cooking skills are passed on from generation to generation, and even if you were not interested in cooking or your parents were less insistent on your learning (that would be me), Italy as a whole is permeated by a constant conversation about food and its preparation. You cannot be immune to that information: You are going to pick up at least the basic techniques, recommended ingredients and combinations, meal planning ideas, nutritional information, etc.
Who Cooks?Mostly women. Men in my family did grocery shopping and some of the cooking, but I know that was not the norm among my acquaintances. I have to be honest about this: Italian culture is still deeply sexist, and men are not expected to provide any help in the kitchen. In fact, some of my male friends grew up never once helping around the house whereas their sisters were absolutely expected to. Italian men may cook for their own pleasure or on special occasions, but it's not common to see them actively participating in every aspect of meal planning, preparation, and cleanup. I know the situation has evolved, but we can't talk about equality yet.
Is it easy to eat healthy food in Italy?Yes, and the reason is simple: Produce is still the cheapest option in Italy. Even in the expensive Northeast where I come from, you can subscribe to a CSA to provide you with organic produce for a family of four for 7 euros a week. Non-organic produce is even cheaper and readily available in markets.
How Do People Shop for Groceries in Italy?Today many Italians might visit a supermarket once a week like Americans, but up to the 1990s (when big distribution really took off in Italy) the situation was different. Italian cities and towns were still densely packed with small specialized grocery stores where people could by quality local food easily and cheaply. Small stores disseminated all over the cities made for frequent but quick visits that allowed for a pantry populated with fresh food. Even though today many of the small grocery stores have closed, especially in the North, people still tend to have quick and easy access to a wide variety of foods in their neighborhoods and towns.
Do Italian Children Eat Everything?
No, they don't. Some of them do, but just as in the United States, many children have very definite preferences and aversions that need to be defended at all costs. Yet, junk food in Italy is much less available compared to the United States, and society expectations on children's diets are higher (Italian restaurants do not serve kids meals, except for smaller individual pizzas), so I think Italian children tend to grow up appreciating a wider variety of foods.
What Food is Served in Italian Schools?There might be some debate about accessibility and quality of Italian school cafeterias, which are only present in preschool and elementary school (from middle school onwards, Italian kids are mostly home for lunch), but food options in school cafeterias are much healthier than in the United States. It's unthinkable for a school to offer fast-food items to children, and desserts are generally absent (fruit tends to end a meal). Mealtime in Italian school is seen more and more as an opportunity to teach children about healthy behaviors. It doesn't work all the time, but at least the school cafeteria is not sabotaging the parents' efforts.
What's the general opinion about junk food?Italians have always had a strong stance against processed food, so fast-food never really took off in Italy like it did in the United States. I actually remember the uproar when the first McDonald's opened in my town in the early 1990s: Even as a teen willing to try the greasiest of foods, I knew very well that was unhealthy and could never become a staple in my diet. Also, a McDonald's meal was still much more expensive than better-quality food made at home, so the appeal was simply not there. I would say that, for Italians, junk food is a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation, but hardly a meal-replacement option to be consumed several times per month (this survey suggests that about 39% of Italians practically never eat at fast-food restaurants).
My conclusionSo this is it. I offer no solutions, no great idea for steering America back towards home-cooking, and especially on how to help working American and Italian women lessen their burden. And yet... Even though Italy is a sorry mess of a country, economically and morally, I do think that the Italian experience might have something to teach us at least in terms of availability (both economic and physical) and a proud culture of healthy eating.
Personally, I think cooking is a wonderful skill. I know, I have a food blog, so of course I'd say that. But I also really believe there's something magical about the way cooking can make us healthier, happier and bring us together. Good ingredients, a touch creativity, and a table with family and friends to celebrate a great day or to gather in silence after a horrible one. It is a gift of health, human connection, and time. And also, there are so many practical skills we can learn and share with our kids, and home cooking is one of the easiest to tackle.
If I think about the gender implications of home cooking, I wouldn't say that home cooking is in itself anti-feminist but that serious issues of gender inequity surround and complicate the matter. In fact, as I reread the original article, I have a nagging feeling that one real problem was left unexplored. I never see fathers questioned about their role in all of this. Once again, this looks to me like it's being presented as a women's issue rather than a family issue. Sure we should indict an economic system and a food culture that pushes junk food before healthy food, but why are fathers never mentioned, never asked to participate? Home cooking can greatly contribute to improve the health of the Italian families, but we can't expect mothers to do all the work.