A study of home-cooked meals and the elusive (mythical) family dinner
In their book Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It, Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott challenge seven “foodie maxims” that have that have become mainstream in food discourse over the last few decades. These mantras, often purported by white, upper/middle-class men, encourage us to “make time to cook with our kids” and “vote with our forks.” They claim that sitting down at the table together as a family and cooking meals from scratch should be a priority for all parents who wish to promote healthy lifestyles among their children. But, as the authors point out, these ideas rely on a number of assumptions that do not hold up outside of white, middle-class contexts. They work to place impossible expectations on individuals, usually mothers, and tie the health of children into the morality of parents. These mantras, therefore, do nothing to address the root issues of race and class inequities that lead to food insecurity and food-related health problems faced by millions of low-income Americans.
Taking each mantra in turn to ground their chapters, the authors offer a flowing narrative featuring snapshots of mothers as the struggle to put food on the table, complicating the timeless imaginary family dinner in America. In the sections “Taking the Time” and “Takis,” the authors illustrate how even when there’s a parent (in this case, the mother) at home, spending hours a day preparing a variety of food options based on each child’s distinct preferences, dinner time can still be fraught, in this case due to generational and cultural differences that are out of parents’ control (101). In the section titled “Shift Work,” the authors highlight one low-income mother’s struggle to feed herself and her kids and get to work on time despite unpredictable shifts and unreliable transportation. In contrast, in “Scarce Food” and “A Small Fridge,” the authors follow another low-income family facing serious financial struggles (the family of four had been evicted and was living in a hotel room). This family has no issue sitting down together to eat. Mother, grandmother, and children come together at the end of each day to eat microwaved meals out of recycled plastic containers in the hotel beds, the only place where there’s room for all of them.
As this Pressure Cooker demonstrates, the current mainstream ideology around food and feeding families has constructed an infinite number of ways for mothers to fail, and their failures are punished both formally and informally. We see this in the way mothers are criticized for either being too restrictive or too lax in the way they feed their children (sometimes simultaneously). For example, one mother named Melanie tries to feed her daughter healthy food but feels as though her efforts are undermined by other family members, like her father and grandmother, who do not provide the majority of the care for her daughter but wish to give her snacks and treats and rewards in the form of food. She is often chastised by these family members for being too strict. Yet, in “Stop Crying,” Melanie attends an appointment to renew her WIC benefits and is explicitly blamed for her child’s weight gain. “The message that is dispensed at WIC along with the vouchers is clear: Melanie is responsible for Jade’s health, which they can easily and objectively evaluate by measuring her height and weight each visit. When Jade gains weight, the WIC counselor tries to figure out what Melanie is doing wrong at home” (186).
As the consensus around food and food policy places the blame for deteriorating health among children on the shortcomings of parents (specifically mothers), Pressure Cooker makes the case for a powerful alternative narrative. The book argues that in order for food movements and policies to be truly impactful, they must recognize the complicated nature of food procurement, at all levels of income and among different racial and ethnic groups, rather than formulating policies and approaches based on idealized notions of what feeding families can and should look like. Importantly, the authors insist, we must shift our focus away from the individual and towards the collective in our efforts to end food insecurity (225). Thus, the authors call not only for a reconfiguration of the dominant narrative, but for collective action and organizing around issues of race, class, and gender as they pertain to food and food systems in the US.