Yesterday, I finished an relatively new book called Unprocessed, in which journalist Megan Kimble narrates her attempt to go a year without eating processed food. But, as I wrote in this post, “processed” is a relative term. In Kimble’s case, her rule for that year was that she wouldn’t eat anything that she could not (theoretically) make in her own kitchen, which is pretty much what I try to do most of the time. Most of the food she ate that year was organic, and a lot of it was locally grown in her home state of Arizona as well. Throughout the book, she lets you in on what she’s researched and discovered about where our food really comes from. It’s entertaining and enlightening, and I highly recommend it.
Interestingly enough, one of the most concerning issues the book brought up for me was largely a feminist one. Kimble outlines the developments in food processing from the early 1900s to today that gradually led to a huge reduction in the amount of time all people, but overwhelmingly women, spent cooking. The conventional patriarchal family dynamic where women were known as housewives is familiar to most, I would think, even though it’s been turned on its head to a great extent at this point. Many decades ago in our culture, a woman’s role was to keep house: to cook and clean and raise the children. Yesterday’s “housewives” spent as much as four or five times the amount of time cooking as today’s women.
One big reason for this shift in amount of time spent preparing food is the advent of industrial food processing. Packaged foods and TV dinners meant women did not have to cook everything from scratch. They could whip up tasty, satisfying meals practically instantly. Top that off with washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and our friend the housewife was not necessarily tied to the house anymore.
Today, a much larger proportion of women are employed. Today, thankfully, it is a lot more acceptable for a woman to pursue a challenging and rewarding career.
Today, highly processed food is slowly but surely killing us.
As women have become more empowered in the workforce, junk food and fast food have become ubiquitous while fewer and fewer people prepare their own food from whole ingredients. I am not arguing that one is the sole cause of the other; women’s employment and food processing have undoubtedly affected each other, and there are of course many other factors that come into play.
However, I am much more certain that the amount one cooks their own food is tightly related to one’s long-term health.
As an aspiring health professional, I want to encourage people to cook from scratch as often as possible. But I do not want to go back to a world where men were the sole earners and women were obliged to do all of the cooking. These are not our only options, of course. There is a happy medium, perhaps where you are doing a lot of food shopping and prep on Sunday so you can take less time at the end of the work day. It might mean having less time to relax, which would of course be a bummer. It might mean a little less variety and complexity than if you had all afternoon to cook.
Tonight, for instance, for Meatless Monday I served my family a lentil stew over rice, roasted portobello mushrooms, and garlicky broccoli. I spent roughly three hours cooking, and that’s not counting the time my mom and I spent cleaning up. I’m on winter break. I have nothing better to do, I take my time, and I’m really starting to love cooking. I cannot imagine taking that much time to cook on a weeknight if I had the career I envision for myself plus a family to take care of.
How do we make whole-food cooking accessible to working adults and parents, especially those who have had little access to food education and have spent their lives relying on fast food and packaged food? How do we empower women to take charge of their independence, their careers, and the food their families eat? I’ve never said that I have all the answers, and I definitely don’t about this: your thoughts would be much appreciated.