Tracey Deutsch, in conversation with Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott
TD: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. Can you tell me about how you came to be interested in home cooking?
SE: I am an Assistant Professorof Sociology at the University of British Columbia and I think of myself as studying…inequality through the lens of food. My interest is in family dynamics and their interactions with social programs and policies. Food is a wonderful lens to understand contemporary dynamics around family and inequality.
JB: I am an Assistant Professorof Sociology at Ithaca College. I’m interested in health and illness, and how inequality operates through the body. That is how I got interested in the project. People think very literally, e.g., “You are what you eat,” and our health isreally dependent upon food. But food has moral and symbolic meanings and those are attached to health as well. I am interested in examining those contradictions and how they relate to inequality.
SB: I am an Associate Professorof Sociology at North Carolina State University. I was an agricultural engineer before I went to graduate school in sociology, and my early work relates to food systems, farming, and inequality. My work, over time, came to focus more on consumption, but I initially came to it from the food production side of it.
TD: That is an interesting transition that not many people do, coming from the ag side of things.
SB: Yes. Food systems, though, involve producers and consumers. Even when I was more interested in production, I was thinking about how food is perceived and marketed, and likewise when we think about consumption, I think about how that it is tied to how food is produced and distributed.
TD: Would you all summarize what you see as key contributions of the book, and what you were most surprised by in the research of it?
SE: The book is in conversation with dominant messages about how we need to reframe our relationship to food and what is wrong with our health and engagement with food. The book does this through a detailed, fine-grained portrait of what it takes to feed a family today. We are telling stories to better contextualize and complicate [understandings of]… food, health, families and inequality.
The thing I found must surprising was that we interviewed families with no cash income to families who were upper-middle class, and everyone felt like they couldn’t eat the way they wanted to and that they were coming up short in meeting some of these feeding ideals.
SB: I think that the book is in this broad conversation, which has become widespread over the last 15 years, that the food we put in our shopping carts or on our plates will solve all of our problems. We are trying to show that [telling people to eat/cook differently] is not going to address these bigger inequalities that inform how people eat and feed their families.
One thing that certainly surprised all of us was how much this work resonated with people. We wrote a short article back in 2014 that was the kernel that became the book. It got a lot of attention, both positive and negative. A lot of people wrote to us to say, “Thank you for talking about this work we have to do every day: work that’s not visible and that people are not talking about or giving attention to,” and then we also had a lot of pushback too from people, who said, “How dare you question the family dinner?!” It made it clear that the discourse of family dinners—as themost important thing we can do—is really so dominant.
JB: I’ll echo what Sarah and Sinikka said. And I’d add that one of the things I loved from the beginning about the project was that we are able to offer an intersectional analysis. I think that is hard to do with qualitative studies. Folks have offered a great analysis of gender and food and the invisible division of labor, and in recent years we have seen a gender and class analysis. We focus on race and ethnicity at the same time we focus on class and gender.
I don’t know if I was surprised, but I was heartened, by just how resilient mothers are. Across the economic spectrum, mothers have a lot of common concerns. They all experience food as pressure. And it was really amazing to see the ways that mothers were being creative and working hard to put a meal on the table. At the same time, seeing that prompted us to say, “Ok, we need to change this model of putting the burden of food work on women’s shoulders alone.”
TD: Can you talk about the push-back: where does it come from and in the forums?
SB: I was just tweeting this today, so I was thinking about it. Someone had published an article in The Federalist in which they called us “nanny-staters.” They critique our book on family meals by saying that what people really need is not government intervention, but to let go of “learned helplessness.”
They agreed with some of our points—for example, that we may need to let go of the idea that we need to cook from scratch every night and with only fresh ingredients. But their final point was, “No, you can do it—if only you would do this way [the right way].” So, people will say, “If you chop your vegetables on the weekend, then it would be easy [to cook from scratch],” or “If you ate more beans. . . ” or even “If you don’t have a working stove, you can cook with your crockpot. . ..” We get so much pushback from people saying, “It canbe done, and here is how.”
I think our central point is that people aretrying so hard, and they feel like they aren’t measuring up. Families need support instead of being told to work harder and do more. We know that parents don’t have as much money or as much free-time as they did in previous generations, so they need support.
SE: That is definitely it. From the first article, someone wrote saying “They are going to have us standing in line at food trucks!” Research shows that when we encourage these individual solutions for complex problems (like chop your veggies and prep your meals [in advance]) then people think that individuals are responsible for their own problems and can solve them themselves. And that engenders this arena of judgment and blame. We are trying to push back against that and then the pushback we get is, “People can try harder.”
JB: I have received pushback in my daily interactions. I was on campus getting some coffee and chatting with the person next me, and we ended up talking about food. I said that I had just come out with a new book and maybe he would be interested in it. He wanted the quick, elevator speech. I was telling him about the book, and he was nodding his head. He had kids and could really relate to the difficulties of feeding a family. And as soon as I talked about the cultural tendency to blame poor people and those using food stamps, this frown came over his face and he said, “I am a retired police officer and I dealt with poor people a lot. And they do put a lot of crap in their grocery carts.”
And in those moments, that pushback is coming from a place of experience. But we have to ask, “What is that experience, how broad is that experience?” In those moments, it is difficult to respond. You don’t want to invalidate someone’s experience. But you want to suggest that there is another way to understand the situation.
TD: And you might also say “Why are you so concerned about the crap that poor people eat as opposed to the crap that middle-class people eat”?
JB: Exactly, and it’s always coming from that place of “we are spending taxpayers’ dollars,” and people feel that imbues them with a certain moral authority to judge what other people put in their cart. We try to challenge that in the book.
SB: And we aren’t trying to challenge the idea that poor people never eat junk food, because everyone eats junk food. We are trying to challenge the stigma and judgement that people attach to the choices that people make.
TD: I think that is what is so exciting about the project you are doing. Because it goes across class and race and immigration status. It gets at how food is used to shame all people. In ways that reinforce hierarchies.
Could you also talk about the place of gender in the concern that people could do more if they just tried harder and within the book itself? Is it a concern with what women are doing in particular? Or is it not gendered?
SE: I would say that these messages are not always explicitly gendered but they are implicitly gendered. They show an image of a woman serving a family…smiling in the kitchen with children. Lots of articles about our book that have accompanying images [feature] women in the kitchen. They are coding this domain as women’s domain and the work as women’s. Empirically, it isthe work women do. 75% of women say they are the person responsible for provisioning and cooking food. We also know that mothers are judged more than fathers for what they feed their children. This arena of judgment is directed at mothers who are coded as the arbiters of families’ health and well-being and even their togetherness through idealizations of food work
SB: I think poorer mothers are especially subject to this kind of shame. Part of our research involved going on shopping trips with people, and we saw people peering into people’s grocery carts or looking at people when they got out their EBT card and judging them. Experiments have shown that poor people are judged for buying sweets, because that is considered a luxury…but at the experiments have also shown that when poor people are buying organic food, this is seen as a less moral choice, because it is wasting resources (whereas when wealthier people buy organic, this is considered a more moral choice). Poor mothers can’t win.
TD: I am struck by the importance we attach to individual diet and food. This can make it difficult to talk about the work of putting food on the table. It can make it seem almost selfish to raise the question of inequalities in household labor. The pressure is on for people to “do the right thing” about food, but no one questions how hard it is do that.
JB: I think it’s not surprising that it’s women’s labor that we are not questioning. It’s women that do the work, and people tend to take women’s labor for granted. The essentializing messages reinforce the invisibility of the labor and the idea that we shouldn’t complain about these things: All families need to eat and so we should just do it. But who is the “we” doing it? Women know the work they are putting into it, so lots of women have responded, “Finally someone acknowledging this work!” It’s so much work to go the grocery store and shop and cook at the end of the day
Some of the pushback though, is from women, who say, “Well I have found these great time-saving tips and tricks, so if other women would just do this they could too put these meals on the table.”
SB: We understand that people have understandable concerns about food safety and food systems and what we are eating, so it is appealing in this context to say, “We can change something about the way we shop and eat.” We get that, and we all buy into that sometimes. But this approach can’t solve all of the problems [in the food system]. Poor moms told us they were also concerned about contaminants in their food but couldn’t afford to shop organic, so they had to let those messages go in one ear and out the other. This approach is inaccessible to a lot of people. And [we ask], “Is this approach also distracting from some of the bigger inequalities we need to address?”
SE: Tracey, I think this is where your work and the work of historians can help us to see that cooking and provisioning have never been easy. We see throughout history that when women have the option of getting help, whether hiring domestic help or relying upon processed foods, they take that option. We are not just in a new era where we are all going, “It is hard to cook!”
TD: I would agree. What is striking to me as a historian is that how long we have been telling women that they should be cooking the way the women before them cooked. Even though the women before them were alsobeing told that they should cook like the women before them. It’s a long history of being anxious about how women are cooking and their decisions to not cook.
SB: And a really long history of being told that the way they are doing it thistime, is the way to make it (finally) work.
TD: One of my favorite teaching techniques is to pull out one of the turn-of-the century home economics columns from a local newspaper and have students read about the advice women were getting about how to cook more easily and how to afford food, then compare it to something like a Rachel Ray video [and see the similarities].
SE: I love it.
TD: The similarities are just stunning. I am interviewing the three of you on a digital device. [That’s an example of how] we’ve been able to rethink many kinds of technological practices, but not our ways of cooking.
SE: And that does show it taps into this much larger anxiety about women, family, and children.
TD: I did want to ask you, have you noticed an upsurge of interest among academics in affect and care? I’ve seen this among historians and in gender studies. Are you seeing that in Sociology and if so, why do you think that is happening now?
SE: I was just at the Eastern Sociological Society’s Annual Meetingand I was chatting with someone who said she had had an alarming conversation with a graduate student who said, “Care work, does anyone study that anymore?” I was shocked, but I’ve always been interested in this. So I don’t know if I could articulate an uptick in this. Sarah and Joslyn, what have you experienced?
JB: I know that in the sociology of health and illness, care work has been a continued area of study in terms of the work of caregiving for those who are chronically ill. It’s definitely foundational to the health and illness literature.
SE: It might also be because we have had this cognitive turn and now you can’t talk about food without affect or emotions or care.
SB: I feel like it’s hard for me to know. Sociologists have been interested in this a long time. One of the books closest to ours is Marjorie Devault’s Feeding the Family and that was published in 1991 and based on research from the 1980s. She commented on our book [at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting]; it’s a different book in a different time frame, with different contextual factors related to inequality and social support. But she said she was struck by the commonalities related to the gendered division of labor and judgement. [At the same time], in sociology, interest in food was not really a thing even ten years ago, so that hasincreased.
TD: It is interesting to think about how the interest in food may have led back to other questions about domesticity, labor, and the home. I’ve been struck lately by how many talks I attend where people are naming care as an area of interest for them. In a way I didn’t see even a year ago.
SB: It could be different in sociology and history.
TD: Thank you so much for your book. I can’t tell you how long I have hoped that someone would do a project like this one. When I have tried in the past to point out the valorization of the family meal, people get that that is a discourse that circulates across class and race, but they thought I was crazy when I said it circulated in gendered terms, too!
SB, JB and SE: Laughter.