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The Limits of Home Cooking

A richly reported new book offers powerful insights into the cooking habits—and daily struggles—of working-class Americans.
Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.

Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It.

Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It
Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton & Sinikka Elliott
Oxford University Press

In 1870, the American cookbook author Jane Cunningham denounced an alarming new trend in the nation's mealtime habits: eating dinner in the evening. Since the colonial era, Americans had eaten their primary meal around midday, fueling themselves for the rest of the workday. But with more men spending their days outside the home as wage laborers, dinner was becoming a nighttime affair. Critics like Cunningham hated this sign of the changing times. "Six o’clock dinners ... destroy health," she wrote in one of her cookbooks. Late-day meals were harder to digest, she insisted. Perhaps worse, they gave women more daytime for idle "gossiping and visiting to shopping and the promenade."

Of course, Cunningham's call to Make Dinner Early Again failed to stem the tide. Today, the idea that families should, whenever possible, gather around the table for their primary meal at day's end occupies an extraordinarily durable place in American culture. But if Cunningham's prescription feels hopelessly dated, its tone—prescriptive, judgmental, self-certain—is familiar. Today's prominent food writers would never dream of telling families to eat dinner in the afternoon. They do not hesitate, however, to instruct us on the types of food we should buy (healthy, fresh, organic), the way it should be prepared and served (at home, from scratch, family style), and how harmful it would be—for our bodies, our families, and the planet—to deviate from this model.

In Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won't Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, the anthropologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott do not deny the value of healthy, home-cooked dinners. Instead, they argue that the way our food gurus talk about dinner is fundamentally disconnected from the daily lives of millions of Americans, especially but not exclusively low-income Americans. This discrepancy matters, the authors insist. When Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver preach their influential, well-compensated sermons about how you—yes, you!—can (and should) improve your family members' lives by buying healthier food and preparing it at home, they implicitly frame the quality of our dinners as something over which we all wield a considerable degree of control. If you aren't doing dinner right, it's because you aren't trying hard enough for your family: not shopping smartly enough, not doing the right prep work, not using the best recipes. In addition to creating a lot of angst and guilt whenever we fall short, this censorious approach shifts our collective attention away from the bigger forces shaping our lives and meals, blocking the way to more realistic solutions located beyond the kitchen.

Over a period of five years, Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott interviewed over 150 mothers and grandmothers, mostly low-income, who were primary caregivers for young children in North Carolina. (Though men are pitching in more with grocery shopping and meal preparation, the majority of both chores is still done by women—which, if you are a woman, you surely already know. The top tier of food punditry and celebrity chef-dom remains overwhelmingly male.) The authors asked these women detailed questions about what they serve their children, who shops for food, who cooks it, and how it all feels. With 12 families they went deeper, tagging along on shopping trips and food-pantry runs, hanging out in the kitchen and dining room, watching dinner get made and eaten. The authors cannily juxtapose these dense, closely observed scenes with quotes from the likes of Pollan and Bittman, drawing attention to how wildly out of touch much of their advice is with minute-to-minute existence in wide swaths of America.

All of the women profiled here have an intense desire to give their families the best dinners possible. All of them experience some variety of guilt that their dinners aren't as good as they could be and that their families are suffering for it. They want to buy the freshest, healthiest food possible but have to stick to strict budgets. They want their kids and spouses to eat healthy and try new things, but also want to honor cultural culinary traditions, give their families pleasure, and avoid end-of-day conflicts over novel dishes. They can't afford to throw out their mistakes and order a salad or pad thai from Grubhub. They'd like to do efficient meal prep ahead of time, but often have little or no control over their work schedules; the free time they have is scattered throughout the day and can be hard to take advantage of. They can't afford Blue Apron or the pre-prepped veggies from Whole Foods. They take pride in feeding their families but are almost constantly stressed by how hard it is. They make meal plans, only to have them undercut by transportation hassles, SNAP card malfunctions, unexpected bills, and price fluctuations at the grocery store—forces that we can't realistically fix simply by telling individuals to try harder.

Twice, while working on this review, I wandered into my local bookstore to browse the latest home-cooking how-to manuals. These books are full of delicious-sounding, nutrient-rich meals, plus tips and shortcuts for making their preparation as efficient as possible. But they are completely divorced from the texture of real life and its daily challenges that runs through every page of Pressure Cooker. In an ideal world, this book would be required reading for every food pundit and cookbook author.

Often, the way we talk about food makes it sound like fixing our meals will fix everything else: heal our bodies, save the environment, restore our family bonds. The proposed solutions in Pressure Cooker flip this equation on its head: Fix the big stuff—reduce poverty, recognize food as a human right—and families will figure out their own dinners just fine. In the meantime, the authors suggest that local schools, daycares, and churches with commercial kitchens start preparing healthy, affordable dinners that are easily re-heatable. They also nod to the promise of community dinners, where customers of all incomes, paying on a sliding scale, gather to share food and stories.

It gives me no pleasure to admit that I have a hard time imagining such initiatives becoming a significant nationwide trend anytime soon, not least because no one stands to make a bundle of money from implementing them. I hope I'm wrong—and not just because, at 33, as I ponder becoming a parent, my wife and I already find ourselves stressed out by the prospective challenge of feeding our family right. But who knows what is possible? After all, it was not so long ago that we were all serving dinner at midday.