The Call of the Almost-Wild

 

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

By Michael Pollan

New York: The Penguin Press, 2013, 480 pp., $27.95, hardcover

 

Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity

By Emily Matchar

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013, 272 pp., $26.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Sarah Blustain

 

Go to Williams-Sonoma’s website in search of a chicken coop, and you’ll find eight styles to choose from. A basic white structure was recently on sale for $319.99. For those with more elite tastes there’s the Cedar Chicken Coop and Run with Planter, large enough “to comfortably house four hens—up to six if they are allowed to range freely during the day.” It sells for $1,499.99.

Yes, that decimal point is in the right place. It seems like a lot for a house for chickens, but apparently there is a potent case to be made for raising them—in your backyard, on your roof, or anywhere you have space for a small coop and an area in which the birds can peck around. Along with that case come other arguments: for growing your own vegetables, growing your own wheat, grinding your own wheat, raising your own sheep, spinning your own wool, and knitting your own socks. People who went looking for Williams-Sonoma chicken coops also went looking for a Backyard Beehive and Starter Kit and the book A Chicken in Every Yard: the Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping, by Robert Litt and Hannah Litt (2011). The call of the almost-wild has never been louder.

Two new books make some convincing arguments—and some less-than-convincing ones—for a new form of back-to-the-landism, or at least, for those not prepared to go back to the land itself, a return to certain basics. In Cooked, Michael Pollan returns to familiar culinary territory, delivering the environmental and health arguments for shortening the food chain as much as possible. And in Homeward Bound, Emily Matcher catches up with Pollan’s target audience—the many women (and a sprinkling of men) who have heeded the call to turn the clock back on distaff duties to a pre-industrial—and prefeminist—time.

The two books make overlapping cases, and it’s not hard to see their appeal. Epidemic levels of ill health in the US are due in no small part to industrialized farming and the ubiquitous availability of high-calorie foods, which individuals need not expend even a calorie of effort to obtain or create. Thanks in part to Pollan’s earlier writing, we are increasingly aware of the environmental degradation caused by our current food-production system: the destruction of natural habitats, crop variety, and the global climate by the mass farming of animals and the shipping of food around the world in oil-dependent vehicles. Our consciousnesses now raised, Williams-Sonoma assures its customers that its $1,500 coop is “hand-built from sustainably harvested western red cedar, custom milled by a local, family-owned sawmill and delivered to the workshop via ferry.” (Is a ferry more environmentally sound than a truck or a train? Just asking.)

The New Domesticity—as Matchar calls the appeal of home cooking, sewing, gardening, jam making, and other crafts—has been brewed in a big pot of anticorporate, pro-environmental impulses. “Widespread feelings of disgust and distrust toward government, business, and institutions are changing domestic life,” she writes. “The practice of going to painstaking lengths to know where your food comes from is known as ‘food vetting’ among industry analysts who consider it to be one of the decade’s most important trends.”

This is not just a question of individual preference for the healthy over the unhealthy. As Pollan puts it, “Changing the world will always require action and participation in the public realm, but in our time that will no longer be sufficient.” In his model of resistance, cooking from scratch becomes a

vote … [a]gainst the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.

In other words, Pollan wishes to mobilize a political movement, but one in which participation is manifest not publicly but in a series of individual decisions in the private sphere of hearth and home.

While I spend about three times the national average cooking every day (which Pollan says is 27 minutes), I worry about whether there is hormone-disrupting BPA in the lining of the boxed tomatoes at the local market, and I usually cannot bring myself to eat the red meat I buy for my family, I do not grow my own tomatoes or raise chickens in my suburban backyard. And that is because there is also a potent case against raising chickens and the like. The New Domesticity may be an answer—or, in Pollan’s elegant analysis, the answer—to several world crises, but a hard-core return to the homely arts is decidedly not the answer to the problem that, still, has no name.

Simply put, Pollan’s from-scratch model is bad news for women. He is, at heart, a romantic. His book is a prose poem of love for food done slowly and right. He writes a hundred pages on barbequing a pig and travels the world to learn the old ways of yeast and wheat, bread and beer. He finds a cheese-maker who proves to him that the bacteria in her wooden barrel makes her cheese safer than that made in a “clean” metal one; he finds a mentor who teaches him the Zen-like patience required for a good onion sauté. Perhaps the most poignant example of modern food degradation is his discovery, as he works on getting air into bread, of what happened to flour. At first, bread was heavy and whole grain. As flour was refined, bread got lighter, but people got sick; it took some years to realize that while human beings could subsist on whole-grain bread alone, they could not survive on white. By then, though, wheat-producers had shifted to planting a kind of wheat that was easier to refine, and it was too hard to shift back to the old ways, so they stayed with the new wheat and whiter flour, stripping the nutrients—and then adding nutrients back in again. It’s a stark example of how capitalism and industrialization have combined to take us ever further from our healthier, more natural roots.

The old ways may be best in theory, but what does turning back the clock look like in practice? The answer to that question appears in Homeward Bound. Matchar finds bloggers devoted to cupcakes, a Brooklyn café devoted to knitting, urban homesteaders, homeschoolers, and mothers who relocate their families to farms to live off the chickens and veggies growing in the yard. It’s a diverse bunch of adherents to do-it-yourself, crafty culture—to homemade jams and knitted scarves that can be sold on Etsy.com—but they all have one quality in common: they’re women.

And they are quick to frame the decision to trade in the briefcase for a retro-frilly apron as a sort of neofeminism. Thus re-imagined, work—as in “work for money”—becomes a dirty word, a capitulation to the capitalistic world of men. The cupcake is “a playful symbol of reclaiming women’s work,” suggests Matchar; attachment parenting is the natural role for mothers; and even the apron is having a celebrity moment. “In this new cultural climate,” she writes, “the sex-kittenish British celebrity food writer Nigella Lawson can describe her baking cookbook How to Be a Domestic Goddess as a ‘feminist tract,’ and nobody blinks an eye.”

Matchar’s subjects talk about their domestic work as a form of self-empowerment. They frequently disdain second-wave feminism, which they believe undermined women’s strengths, and they embrace many strains of gender essentialism. She quotes the “revolutionary housewife” blogger Calamity Jane, who typifies this attitude when she asserts, “What could possibly be more feminist than to embrace the natural female quality of nurture. It seems to me that to truly honor ‘woman,’ we must also honor her biological role as mother.”

Homeward Bound contains a few facts that, taken together, offer a dissonant counterpoint to such hymns to “empowerment.” Most of the women Matchar talks to are not feeding the chickens after work or farming on the weekends. They are giving up work in order to spend their time bound to their homes. And it turns out that doing from scratch what industrialized business can do in no time flat is—no surprise—not a lucrative undertaking.

In her best chapter, on the online craft marketplace Etsy, Matchar tells us that as many as 97 percent of Etsy sellers are women—women who seem to think, all evidence to the contrary, that they can get themselves out of the lousy job market and get ahead by crocheting doilies. For the most part they can’t. “There’s mounting criticism level at Etsy and co. for selling the idea of microenterprise as the solution to women’s woes. In fact, some have suggested that Etsy is selling women a ‘false feminist fantasy.’” Matchar tells a similar story about bloggers, one out of every three of whom is a mom. While a few homesteading bloggers have gotten fat book deals off their work, “only 18 percent of bloggers make any nonsalary money off their blogs. And of those, the average yearly earnings are less than $10,000,” reports Matchar. Perhaps the most damning fact is Matchar’s acknowledgment that most women who take DIY to its extreme and live off the grid have alternative sources of income: “a partner’s income, or a piece of land, or some family money.” It hardly sounds like a recipe for women’s liberation.

Of course earning money is not the ultimate feminist goal: our definitions are by now far more nuanced than that. But I have to admit that it sort of sickens me to think that the next stage in women’s empowerment is a return to unpaid, backbreaking domestic labor.

Matchar explicitly calls Pollan out (she wonders if he is a “sexist pig”) for encouraging this line of thinking. “The food movement, with its insistence on how fun and fulfilling and morally correct cooking is, seems to have trouble imagining why women might not have wanted to spend all their time in front of the stove.” Pollan can’t sidestep this critique, so he engages it head on: “To certain ears,” he is forced to acknowledge in his introduction, “whenever a man talks about the importance of cooking, it sounds like he wants to turn back the clock, and return women to the kitchen.” But, he insists, “that’s not at all what I have in mind. I’ve come to think cooking is too important to be left to any one gender or member of the family.”

And so, like the neofeminists in Matchar’s book, he attempts to elevate cooking and housekeeping tasks, to give them meaning by choosing to do them slowly and consciously—as acts of “leisure”—unlike women of the past (and present) who were forced into them by tradition and necessity. Most dramatically, he learns to tolerate what he first considered the “drudgery” of chopping onions, an activity he finds to be the epitome of female culinary duty. Eventually he comes around to love the onions, professing himself a changed man.

Still, he can’t hide his real attitude toward women’s work:

On the plus side, chopping leaves you plenty of time for reflection, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about while doing it is, appropriately enough, the “drudgery” of everyday cooking. Curiously you never hear that word around the grill. When men cook outdoors over a fire, it’s usually a special occasion, so by definition cannot be drudgery.

I have to pause here to remember the weeks of Passover preparation in my grandmother’s house—the scrubbed kitchen, the new dishes, the delicately stuffed vegetables, the meatballs, the chicken, the tablecloths, the silver to be polished, the multiple wine glasses, the seder plates—and to marvel at his suggestion that a special occasion cannot by definition be drudgery. But back to Pollan:

“Fire! Smoke! Animals!—This is drama, drudgery’s antithesis, and about as far from dicing and mincing, from the fine work of fingers, as a cook can get. … There’s nothing ceremonial about chopping vegetables on a kitchen counter, slowly sautéing them in a pan, adding a liquid, and then tending the covered pot for hours. … [T]his sort of cooking takes place indoors, in the prosy confines of a kitchen. No, this is real work.

At least we can give him credit for calling a spade a spade. Housework is hard work; and while it may be personally empowering to grow your own food, it is not collectively empowering in any meaningful way. Even if we all agree that it is well past time to roll back the toxic impact of our overprocessed lives, the idea that the burden of saving Mother Nature should fall exclusively on Natural Mothers—even those who are blogging, liberated natural mothers—well, that sounds like a rhetorical trick, one that some women are playing on themselves.

Sarah Blustain is senior editor at the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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