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    • Judith Newton

    • October 26, 2013 in Columnists

    The “new domesticity”

    While writing my food memoir, Tasting Home, I avoided reading anything analytical about women and food. (I had been a professor for most of my life and didn’t want to write an academic memoir.) Only after I finished the memoir, did I begin to read critical work on women’s culinary reflections.  It was then I learned about “the new domesticity.”

    At other times the new domesticity takes the form of women(and men) returning to the land, cooking from scratch, using organic and local produce, raising chickens, or canning and, in so doing, resisting and responding to dominant food practices, which emphasize profit over sustainability and promote unjust labor relations.

    At other times, the new domesticity takes the form of thinking and writing about domestic labor. One development in women’s studies, for example, has been an effort to reclaim the kitchen, and in, the process, to question and modify the tendency of some feminisms to regard home cooking and other forms of domesticity as inherently oppressive to women and as always enforcing a conservative status quo.

    Many women of color, of course, such as Gloria Wade-Gayles,have long seen cooking as a form of creativity and power and as a means of creating community solidarity in the face of ongoing struggles against racism.  Now, white feminists are also writing about home cooking as a retreat from, but also an implicit criticism of, the uncaring values of the world of work.

    Indeed, a “mindful cooking,” one that takes into accounts the values of sustainability, economic justice, community, and caring labor is being theorized as a crucial feminist activity.

    Even labor intensive and  time consuming projects like fancy baking are being newly valued as a means of  expressing or redefining the self, of bringing intensity and joy to living, and as a form of resistance to the rushed pace of  life in the workplace and now, too often, in the home as well.

    Janet L. Flammang’s A Taste for Civilization gives home cooking an even broader social and political influence. Although Flammang recognizes that more men cook at home than ever before–a trend she would like to encourage– she rightly points out that home cooking is still largely the province of women in this country and around the world.  While restaurant cooking, a field dominated by men, is lauded as art, as heroic performance, and as worthy of historical attention,  domestic cooking, traditionally associated with women, has largely been invisible, regarded as insignificant, or dismissed as what “real” history is not about.

    Yet, cooking the family meal, Flammang argues, has enormous historical importance in that it lays groundwork for civil society itself.  Home cooking, for example, has characteristically brought people together, involved them in daily expressions of generosity and care, and maintained a continuing expectation that dinner conversations will be civil, that individuals will not just put their own needs above those of the group.

    Cooking for, and eating with others, produce a sense of common cause and create reservoirs of good will which groups can draw on later in times of stress. Cooking and dining with others train us in modes of feeling and behavior that are the foundation for democracy itself.

    Flammang cites Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from the  Delicious Revolution, as an example of  women’s food writing which recognizes this relation between food and civil society and which proposes to improve both. Waters, for example, writes that the pleasure of delicious food can bind you to values that make for a better world—because delicious food means food that is fresh, unpolluted, and easy on the environment, means food that sustains local producers:  “If you eat two or three meals a day, in a very specific way with those values associated, it begins to change your life.”

    The food movement, which Waters helped to initiate, provides an example of this theory in practice. The  movement’s communal gardens, farmer’s markets,  school lunch programs, prison outreach, and deliberate acts of cooking and dining together are  bringing people together across the divisions of race, class, and gender and also prompting them to consider far reaching forms of social change.

    When women and men writing about food call attention to its political potential in this way, they define themselves as more than individuals, as more than members of a particular community. They define themselves as part of a larger human society and as part of a struggle for thorough-going social change.

    Such writing invites readers to the table and to a civil conversation. How do we help create a better world through just and thoughtful practices in growing, preparing and consuming what we eat?

      • Mary M. Davis

      • October 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm
      • Reply

      I LOVE this. I’ve always hated the “I’m just a housewife”, attitude that so often is placed on women whether they are able to stay at home, or are housewives after filling the roll in life in their career or other “duties” out of the home.

      At the same time, the economy has turned much of our focus on how to be more self-sustainable, and be as efficient in reducing costs, yet increase the pride and joy in creating our own “masterpieces”, whether that is the growing, processing, or the healthy presentation of our meals.

    • Dear Mary, Thanks for writing. What gets me is that this household labor is essential to having a society. Yet it’s not recognized as work or as essential!

      • Jesse

      • October 28, 2013 at 11:32 pm
      • Reply

      Judith, this is really thoughtful. One thing I tried a few years ago was Second Sunday. I invited an assortment of friends to bring a dish to share and we hung out together. I got sick and it ended, but it was really powerful. We talked about food, about local food, making food, family traditions and politics.

      It would be a goal to have neighbors over for dinner. It seems like the closest people to my house are people I hardly know. If they shared a meal, maybe that would be great.

      Lastly, Over a period of 2 years, I have transformed my front yard to a garden space without grass. I was inspired by Spring Warren and her book, The Quarter Acre Farm. I have chickens, bees, fruit trees, and can make a salad right out of the yard. The truth is, I have more abundance than I can eat.

      My husband cooks. We both run out to the salad bed to cut leaves for dinner. We have family over often, and generally have sit down meals about 5 days a week.

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