In his interesting cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Michael Pollan asks, "But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."
Pollan notes that it's not just women working outside the home that have turned to food prepared outside the home, or processed foods, but stay-at-home moms, too. (There's an accepted presumption that it's women who should be doing the cooking; although he does write that when it comes to the popular act of grilling, men do more of it.)
Pollan has struck upon an interesting phenomenon. But my sense is that he isn't in touch with the pressures on modern mothers, with the feeling mothers have of never having enough time in the day to tend to their children and to themselves.
Pollan does offer several reasons for the decline in home-cooking:
"That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it."
But Pollan doesn't focus on what I think is at the heart of the reason for why women aren't cooking. He writes: "Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia. . .tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.)"
So there has been a sea change since Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique." What's changed is that that generation of women who came of age in the years right after her book came out, the mothers and mothers-in-law of young marrieds today, did not become big cooks. Cooking and housework was not valued. So in large part their daughters did not learn to cook, and their sons not only did not learn to cook, but did not value home-cooked food. They prefer to eat out. So if their wives cook, their husbands don't appreciate the effort that went into it. And what woman wants to feel under-appreciated?
Pollan asks why we then turn to watching Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart and other TV chefs. Because we value work, and Ray and those like her are earning money by cooking--and that's valued by our society.
Another thing that he mentions but doesn't focus on is the great amount of mess produced by home-cooking. Cooking can be fun and pleasurable and give one a great feeling of accomplishment even if one's children and one's husband doesn't appreciate it as much as one would like. But cleaning up afterwards doesn't provide the same pleasures. If the woman is left with the task, she'll just feel even more under-appreciated.
I've seen plenty of gourmet-looking kitchens that are always spotlessly clean because the woman of the house doesn't cook. And who blames them? If their husbands prefers to order-in, it doesn't make sense for them to cook.
There's also the fact that stay-at-home moms spend a lot of time schlepping their kids to activities after school, so it's much less time-consuming to turn to prepared food.