The Modern Joy of Cooking

A Response to Jennifer Bernstein's Essay in Breakthrough Journal

Technology, increased leisure time, shifting social structures, and widening of economic opportunity are together changing the way we think about work. Part of this progress of modernity is that the drudgery of household chores can transform into uplifting activities. Take cooking: once the burden of housewives systemically kept out of the workforce, cooking today has become a more egalitarian, enjoyable, and creative endeavor.

Jennifer Bernstein is skeptical. In her essay “On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers,” Bernstein asks what environmentalism would look like if it took feminism seriously. She wants to believe that it does, but its regressive rhetoric around cooking stretches the limits of her credulity. Innovations like the microwave and frozen pizzas were, in recent memory, revered as emblems of feminist progress for their ability to lighten women's domestic workloads. These same products are anathema to greens, who turn up their noses at anything “your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (Michael Pollan’s famous admonition). Good environmentalists shop at the farmers’ market, always have a pot simmering on the stove, and if they’re really good, ferment their own kimchi.

These nostalgic fantasies make Bernstein wonder if the vision of environmentalism is compatible with feminism. Environmentalism has a tendency to idealize the past as a time when humans lived in greater harmony with nature. Advancing women’s rights, on the other hand, means challenging the traditional gender roles of agrarian societies and embracing the liberating potential of new technologies.

The environmentalist call to the kitchen is meant as both a joyous return to sensory pleasure and a rebellion against the destructive forces of capitalism. In Cooked, Michael Pollan repeatedly describes cooking as a protest “on behalf of the senses” and against “the homogenization of flavors.” This “slow food revolution” involves a lot more domestic labor, and women, Bernstein argues, are the ones who end up doing it. Women are still responsible for the bulk of unpaid work in the home, she finds—even among affluent couples, even in dual-income households. So when environmentalists ask us to cook more, in effect they’re asking women to cook more. It’s negligent, Bernstein suggests, for environmentalists not to grapple with this reality any further than naively hoping that both genders pitch in equally.

Bernstein casts a broad net, contending that these environmental views ignore the realities of women all over the world: from subsistence farmers in Africa to families below the poverty line in America to affluent suburban mothers filled with guilt for not puréeing their own baby food. I have no major beef with the argument that we cannot expect poor women to bear the burden of protecting the environment, and that instead we must find solutions that improve welfare and save the planet at the same time (though socioeconomics seems a more relevant lens here than gender). I’m less convinced, however, of the harm done to women who have the means and time to make environmental choices.

Middle-class and affluent women already experience gender-specific guilt in deciding how to divide their time between home and work. Bernstein resents the way figures like Pollan romanticize the domestic option, making the choice even more difficult. A world in which no mother feels guilty about serving frozen pizza for dinner might be better for women—but only if they are by default the ones responsible for putting dinner on the table.

“Lightening women’s workloads” is not the point of feminism, but rather a corollary to gender equality. While women have yet to achieve that aim, their domestic workload has doubtless been lightened; progress owes in part to time-saving technological advancements, but also to men pitching in more than they used to. While 70 percent of women cook compared to only 43 percent of men, the proportion of women who cook and the amount of time they spend doing so is less than it was four decades ago (women now spend 71 minutes a day cooking, compared to 101 minutes 40 years ago). The opposite is true for men, who now spend 49 minutes cooking compared to 38 minutes 40 years ago. This kind of shift is a central part of the feminist vision: not just that women can play traditionally male roles, but that men can also play traditionally female ones.

Compared to other chores, cooking provides a shining example of men moving into a traditionally female sphere. Though Bernstein condemns environmentalist nostalgia, her own argument is rooted in outdated notions of cooking, which she considers a chore no different from laundry or vacuuming. Food preparation is no longer drudgery in the same way that other chores are. You’d never ask someone over on a date to mop the floor, but roasting a chicken together is a standard feature of millennial courtship. Cooking can be a way to unwind at the end of the day, something to do with friends, a creative outlet. It isn’t always like this, but laundry never is. And the less we see cooking as a chore, the more acceptable it becomes for men to do it.

Changing floor plans provide physical testimony to the way our attitudes around cooking have shifted. My house was built in 1936, and its dark little kitchen is tucked away like a laundry room. It is closed off from the rest of the house by not one but three doors, god forbid the shameful scent of sizzling onions might waft into the living room through an open threshold. Modern kitchens today, in contrast, blend seamlessly with living and dining rooms.

Overall, kitchen work has gained higher status, regarded less and less as pure drudgery by the middle and upper classes. Changing class structures are responsible for this change—a growing middle class, who can afford to make meals into events but not to hire help—more than environmentalist notions about how households should work. The growing awareness that cooking is, at least on occasion, an uplifting activity has contributed to men cooking more than they ever have—not to mention the removal of the literal walls in our homes that separate female-chore spaces from male-socializing ones.

Environmentalists aren’t responsible for these changing attitudes around cooking (as much as they might like to be), nor are they guilty of any crimes against feminism. Men and women cook for reasons entirely unrelated to environmentalism. The impact of this cooking on the most pressing environmental problems, as Bernstein acknowledges, is trivial at best. Environmentalism doesn’t seem to have a gender problem, but it does have an agenda problem: it can’t come up with relevant and effective recommendations that people actually listen to.