Hi there! And an intro and some thoughts on food.

Greetings, Feministe folks. I’m excited to be guest posting here again.

Some of you may know me as the founding editor and publisher of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Since leaving Bitch I’ve done a bunch of different things, many of which are too boring to talk about. But one of interesting ones (if I do say so myself) is that I wrote a cookbook. It’s called Cook Food: A Manualfesto for Easy, Healthy Local Eating, and its goal is to give people who want to eat more local and unprocessed foods the tools they need to put their food politics into practice.

A lot of people who know me from the earlier part of my professional life have been kinda surprised by this turn of events. So I thought I’d start this week with a little background on it all came about.

About six years ago, when food miles and hydrogenated oils were both starting to make news, I had a new coworker who was superhardcore in her commitment to veganism and whole foods (that would be eating unprocessed things, not the union-busting grocery chain with the anti-health-care-reform CEO). As she and I became friends, we talked endlessly about the politics and ethics of food, the connections between those politics and seemingly unrelated social justice movements, the health benefits of unrefined food, and all sorts of tasty cooking ideas.

As my interest grew in the consequences of our industrialized food system both macro (the carbon footprint of wintertime plums flown in from Chile, oceanic dead zones caused by manure-filled runoff from factory farms) and micro (eating sugar and white flour makes me sleepy, and if I eat one piece of candy I usually end up eating 12 and feeling like I’ve poisoned myself), eating locally was becoming a trend and the news was full of stories about salmonella-tainted spinach and tomatoes, melamine-tainted milk and eggs, meat recalls, and popcorn-factory workers getting lung disease from artificial-butter fumes.

A bunch of high-profile writers have been covering this for quite a while lately, so it’s likely not news to you, but it all bears repeating: The average bite of food travels 1,500 miles from where it’s grown to where it is eaten. Monoculture crops and centralized food distribution vastly increase the likelihood of outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. U.S. farm subsidies benefit massive corporate farmers using huge amounts of chemical inputs on their monoculture crops—much of which will be processed into animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup, and other products of dubious value—at the expense of small farmers growing food that can be eaten, by people, without further ado. These subsidies enable the processed, packaged food that fills the middle of the supermarket and derives its nutrition, if it has any at all, from vitamins added back in after they’ve been stripped out in processing. Farmworkers labor under dangerous conditions for very little pay. With only a few hard-to-find exceptions, animals are raised on factory farms under hideous conditions. In short, the U.S. food system—which, through globalization and other related forces, reverberates worldwide—has been designed and built by agribusiness to maximize profits. People who eat food and live with the consequences of this food system (not to mention the animals that are used for food by those of us who choose to eat meat, eggs, and dairy products) lose big.

But knowing all this doesn’t necessarily mean you can put any of it into practice in your own life unless you have some other skills as well. And the chef-worshipping, refined-palate-fetishizing aspects of foodie culture make cooking out to be this rarefied skill set beyond the reach of average people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cooking a tasty, wholesome meal is easy, and anyone who learns a few simple techniques can do it. I wanted to make a quick tool to teach those techniques.

I’m also really excited by the fact that thinking about food this way intersects with so many feminist/social justice issues, from general and huge ones like labor practices and environmental health to more specific ones like the struggle to relate to our bodies through making them feel strong and good rather than making them look “good” as defined by a dysfuntional culture.

So that’s the short version of how Cook Food came to be.

A few other things I’d like to mention: There’s an interview with me on Salon today, by the ever-awesome Jaclyn Friedman, coeditor of Yes Means Yes and allaround smarty-pants. (Plus, there are already some fat shamers and MRAs commenting there, so feminist support would be much appreciated!)

Also, I’m blogging about food and stuff at www.cook-food.org, where there are also places to talk about your favorite foods, share recipes, and whatnot—I’d love it if you stopped by. And I have also gotten over my social-media aversion and gotten to tweeting, so you can follow me, @cook_food, if you’re so inclined.

Next up: fat.


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27 comments for “Hi there! And an intro and some thoughts on food.

  1. Ida
    August 31, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Lisa, your book sounds like a nice addition to food politics and vegetarian cooking, and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

    In the Salon interview you make some great points when asked about Michael Pollan and how the “back to the kitchen” mindset ignores the division of labor in the home. I also liked what you had to say about obesity. I really appreciate your analysis on the gender- and size-bias promoted by high-profile food writers. But I was hoping for a similar response to the class-bias of these same high-profile writers.

    There are class-based structural reasons for why farmers’ markets tend to spring up in middle-class and upper-middle-class people communities. You say, “I am no fan of market solutions as a rule, but we’re still living under capitalism.” Well, this is the problem, isn’t it? This is why White, upper-middle-class consumers have more privilege and are able to access healthy whole foods while poor consumers aren’t. Telling poor people to spend their food stamps at farmers’ markets wont do any good if the limited number of local farmers avoid poor communities because they’re drawn to affluent communities because that’s where the real money is.

    Of course, this has a significant effect women as much as talk about getting back in the kitchen and obesity. Women are more likely to be poor than men, and more likely to be caring for children. So women are significantly harmed by the structural barriers to affordable and accessible whole foods. Sure, we live under capitalism, but if we aren’t confronting that as a central issue who are we really helping?

  2. August 31, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Ida, I totally agree. I didn’t mean the living under capitalism comment to imply that I agree with or am ok with being complacent about that reality. On the contrary. I was trying to express the enormity of the problem, and the fact that anything beyond a solution that will only be available to a subset of folks requires major structural change.

    Raj Patel’s Starved and Stuffed is an excellent and more holistic addition to the sustainable food genre, as is Mark Winne’s Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty.

  3. Ex-Republican
    August 31, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I think we have to also give props to the benefits of capitalism and technology. A very good liberal, Isaac Asimov, recognized that the current state of technology often makes food “faddism” possible. There is a lot of misinformation regarding the health benefits of organic foods generally. Asimov correctly noted:

    “Food fads and superstitions unhappily still delude too many people–and spawn too many cure-everything best sellers–even in these enlightened times. In fact, it is perhaps because these times are enlightened that food faddism is possible. Through most of man’s history, his food consisted of whatever could be produced in the vicinity, of which there usually was no very much. It was eat what there was to eat or starve; no one could afford to be choosy, and without choosiness there can be no food faddism.

    Modern transportation has made it possible to ship food form any part of the earth to any other, particularly since the use of large-scale refrigeration has arisen. This reduced the threat of famine, which, before modern times, was invariably local, with neighbouring provinces loaded with food that could not be transported to the famine area.

    Home storage of a variety of foods became possible as early man learned to preserve foods by drying, salting, increasing the sugar content, fermenting, and so on. It became possible to preserve food in states closer to the original when methods of storing cooked food in vacuum were developed. (The cooking kills micro-organisms and the vacuum prevents others from growing and reproducing.) Vacuum storage was first made practical by a French chef, Francois Appert, who developed the technique in response to a prize offered by Napoleon I for a way of preserving food for his armies. Appert made use of glass jars, but nowadays tin-lined steel cans (inappropriately call ‘tin cans’ or just ‘tins’) are used for the purpose. Since the Second World War, fresh-frozen food has become popular and the growing number of home freezers has further increased the general availability and variety of fresh foods. Each broadening of food availability has increased the practicality of food faddism.

    All this is not to say that a shrewd choice of food may not be useful. There are certain cases in which specific food will definitely cure a particular disease. In every instance, these are ‘deficiency diseases’, diseases produced by the lack in the diet of some substance essential to the body’s chemical machinery. These arise almost invariably when a person is deprived of a normal, balanced diet–one containing a wide variety of foods.”

  4. Dawn.
    August 31, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Welcome Lisa! I love food politics and I believe food is a feminist issue, so I’m looking forward to your posts.

    I also totally agree with Ida – class bias pervades the sustainable food movement, thanks to our lovely system of crony capitalism.

  5. Lauren
    August 31, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Holy shit! I just looked at the letters in response to the interview, and clicked on the name of the guy doing the trolling… he has 900-something extremely long comments on a bunch of different articles about how much he hates feminists and women because they ignore Male Suffering.
    Worth looking at for a laugh.

  6. Lauren
    August 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Oh, and my favorite of his anti-woman comments in his response to Lisa’s interview: the idea that you can’t expect to make the same amount of money as a Man working a Highly Paid Dangerous Man-Job when you’re a woman working at a card store with a failed BA in “Wimminz Studiez.” (did anyone see Lisa argue about the pay gap, because I didn’t…?)

    Good news, girls: the pay gap is only in relation to men and women working different jobs in different fields!

  7. eastsidekate
    August 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Lisa!
    It’s great to see you here, and most excellent to see your recent interest in sustainable food. I’m with other people’s comments on some of the classist that many people make in the name of sustainability. I’m glad to so your voice among the growing group of people who are willing to critique and work on sustainability, rather than using “sustainability” as a way of distinguishing ones’ self from those people. It is possible to address “food deserts,” school lunches, and to otherwise bring fresh, local food to folks who don’t have the time, money, and transportation to follow the latest style section trends on green dining.

  8. August 31, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Looking forward to your posts on food!

  9. Sheelzebub
    August 31, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Ugh, Michael Pollen. His books were interesting, but I found his needless jab at the Feminine Mystique and feminism in general to be counterproductive. WTF does that have to do with anything? Women regarded cooking as drudgery (Betty Friedan didn’t “brainwash” them, she articulated what a lot of middle-class, White women were feeling) because, at the time, it was. My mother was hardly chomping at the bit to get dinner on the table, FFS. Not to mention the fact that he’s really freaking classist–you have to have a certain amount of money and leisure time to do this sort of thing. In his world, it sems the grocery gap does not exist.

    It’ll be interesting to read what you have to say on the subject. My issues with the slow-food movement are similar to my issues with the Voluntary Simplicity movement–while I like a lot about both, there is a lot of classism, romantacism of the past, and unrecognized sexism WRT the traditional division of labor.

  10. August 31, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    How the slow food movement was/is interpreted in the U.S. is different from what it is in Europe. It was/is an Italian-led movement that had every bit as much to do with cultural integrity as it did healthy food. Frankly, it was resistance to U.S. cultural and economic imperialism, and the continued survival of small agricultural villages that would die out (with all the economic consequences that implies) if “buy mass-marketed overprocessed crap” was the order of the day. It was more about self-determination, and “we’re taking this back“. Then again, you have to remember that Europeans have more free time than folks in the U.S.

    That background didn’t translate when slow food came over here; mostly because it came over here via wealthy U.S. folks who encountered the idea on vacation, and only took away the message, “mmm, mmm, good!” Taste, but not cultural heritage. Not economic self-sufficiency for agricultural communities and smaller cities. In Europe, it’s more about sustainability for working people, not boutique eating for yuppies. (well, and trying to gain a toehold for some kind of liveability in what amounts to economically abandoned areas)

  11. Lisa Jervis
    August 31, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I am so with you, La Lubu and Sheelzebub, about the slow food movement. That’s why I don’t align myself with U.S. slow foodies or use the term. I have no experience with European slow foodies (I don’t really travel), but what I have seen of the movement (and I use the term loosely) here (I live in the SF Bay Area) it very much in line with a food culture that fetishizes the perfect, rare, often expensive ingredient that takes specialized knowledge to prepare or use. And that is SO the opposite of what I’m about.

    My approach to sustainability is holistic–the way you eat has to work for you in an ongoing way, which means output of time, effort, and money, in addition to being sustainable in the traditional environmental sense of the term.

    I also recognize–and encourage everyone else to recognize–that there’s no such thing as purity when it comes to sustainability or a light footprint. Let’s face it, being a human in the Global North means that you use more than your share of resources, and some level of destruction happens every time you feed or clothe yourself, not to mention (to just throw out a few examples) when you buy a TV, a cell phone, whatever. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to do those things. It just means that it’s helpful to slow down and choose the way you use resources wisely.

    And my aim with Cook Food and how I talk about food is to be part of helping people get the tools and information they need to make more sustainable choices. For example, for someone who doesn’t know how to cook (or thinks ze doesn’t), learning that two cans of beans, an onion, a sweet potato, a bunch of kale, a can of tomatoes, a few garlic cloves, a small handful of chili powder, and a cup of rice can make a tasty, nutritious dinner for four for $10 and 30 minutes (plus another 15 to simmer unattended) is a big deal.

    So. More on this tomorrow (or Wednesday, depending on how much I can get written before I have to go to sleep). The comments have made me realize that there are some key parts of how I approach all this that I didn”t conveyed well at all in the initial post. Thanks, y’all.

  12. MeToo
    August 31, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I wanted to thank you for your comments re: food and body size in the Salon interview. I get so tired of seeing every ‘sympathetic’ article on food movements assert that poor people are fatter because they don’t have access to fruits and veggies and so have to eat crap all the time. We know from multiple studies that fat and thin people don’t, on average, eat differently, and that fat people face extreme economic discrimination, both directly (hiring and promotions) and indirectly (financial benefits of romantic partnerships and marriage), and thus a much higher chance of poverty.

  13. Angiportus, Afficionado of Liquid Garnets
    September 1, 2009 at 2:58 am

    That book is going on my list!

  14. September 1, 2009 at 7:22 am

    And…..I hate, hate, hate the term “foodie.” FFS, I’m sick and tired of the remaking of peasant food into ultraexpensive rich-people food. I’m not a “foodie”. I’m not “slow food”. I eat the way my ancestors did (whenever they had the chance). This isn’t rocket science, it’s not “new” or “cool”, and you don’t need an armload of fancy ingredients or boatloads of time (agricultural workers didn’t/don’t have boatloads of time to cook food, either).

    My cultural heritage isn’t a goddamn fad for yuppie pricks, dammit. It’s mine, not theirs.

  15. September 1, 2009 at 7:47 am

    I’m not so sanguine about the “cooking is easy,” or the “it’s not rocket science” phenomena these days. The “rocket science” metaphor bothers me particularly because it devalues what is traditionally women’s labor as less skilled than traditional men’s labor. (*not saying women can’t or shouldn’t be scientists. just saying that cooking is not ipso facto easier than hard science*).

    Now, I’m not saying learning how to cook isn’t accessible or teachable. But insisting how downright easy it is if we would just take these five minutes and learn to cook tasty, wholesome food seems disingenuous.

    Cooking for the home is a real skill, one which (for the most part) women have taught each other for hundreds of years. Cookbook writing and reading was one of the first ways American women became readers (and writers!). The “easy-peasy” attitude of the Rachel Ray crowd seems to demean that skill and heritage.

    Part of the problem with food currently, at least to my way of thinking, is that we’ve lost a lot of that skill. Honestly, given the amount of free time it takes, I’m not sure how much of it we can get back. Further, to many people’s way of thinking, the lack of time we need to spend on food prep these days is a good thing, freeing (generally women) up to, you know, DO things.

    If it sounds like I’m ambivalent, I am ;-) I’m a third generation Sicilian Jewish girl who remembers the HOURS her grandfather spent peeling garlic and making artichokes, but whose mother “forgot” how to cook because men always expected her to do it. I taught myself to cook as an adult, for the most part, and it was reasonably challenging.

  16. September 1, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Also–

    Thank you so much for mentioning the marine impact of factory farming. Sustainable fishing and aquaculture is something neither the food nor AR movements pay enough attention to. It kills me every time a “foodie” book or article highlights, for example, the wonders of bluefin tuna.

  17. September 1, 2009 at 11:04 am

    @chava:
    Really interesting comment. Your point about devaluing what has traditionally been work that women do is important. Seems to me that cooking a simple, healthy diet can be very easy to learn how to do–that doesn’t mean that, say, cooking meals every day for a family is easy to do. Clearly, it’s not easy to do that. It’s probably also not easy to cook not-simple sorts of food. Still, I think it’s empowering to recognize that I can learn to cook healthy meals for myself, and recognizing “it’s not rocket science” is part of that. For me, so-called hard science would be more difficult for me to learn (maybe the fact that math can make me fall asleep has something to do with that) than cooking, for sure.

    It’s not that (some) cooking is as difficult as (some) hard science, but that neither should be thought of as “women’s work” or “men’s work”, and levels of difficulty hold true for both.

  18. September 1, 2009 at 11:06 am

    Yay! Lisa Jervis and Feministe! Two of my favorites, together (for a time)!

  19. September 1, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Well, there’s no doubt that they are very different skills. I’ve done both (neither professionally) and it’s a very different *kind* of intelligence and skill.

    I think you make a good point that learning to cook for yourself is a very different animal from putting lunch and dinner on the table for a family every day.

    “neither should be thought of as “women’s work” or “men’s work”, and levels of difficulty hold true for both.”

    Well, yes, ideally. Hopefully we’ll move towards this in the future. On the other hand, I’d like to be able to do that while still claiming/embracing the heritage of traditional women’s work as valued and valuable.

  20. Lisa Jervis
    September 1, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I also think it’s useful to make the distinction between the kind of cooking that chava’s grandmother did, and the kind of cooking that’s possible to do in a less time-consuming way and still be healthy and sustainable, whether it’s just for you or for your family too, whether it’s every day or once a week.

    Making everything from scratch, simmering all day, etc (call it grandma cooking for shorthand) is also a different skill set from learning how to do a quick saute of veggies and tofu after work. They are both incredibly important, and some folks will embark on one and some folks on another, or sometimes both at different times in their lives, with a huge # of variables, most to do with class and culture (which determine access to fresh food and also availability of things like time, money, etc and how those precious resources will be used) and inclination (if you don’t like spending all day in the kitchen, grandma cooking is not for you and you don’t have to do it).

    I also want to say that I don’t think that it’s incompatible with respect for the skill set of home cooking to say that learning a few simple tools and techniques is easy and can go a long way.

    As chava notes, home cooking is a skill that is honed over lifetimes and passed among groups/generations. That’s real! I don’t pretend that someone who reads my book and starts cooking bean stews is the same as someone who knows food like a grandma cook. But we all start somewhere. And I think one can lead to the other. (Right now I especially feel like I’m at the beginning, and when some things about my life change, I will be moving forward with different kinds of cooking.)

    And demystifying cooking is, unfortunately, something that’s totally necessary in our current cultural moment. As other commenters are pointing out, the odious and snobbish “foodie” elements of current U.S. food culture posit cooking as something you need a lot of time and money to do and a refined palate to appreciate. And that’s crazy talk. I just don’t want people to buy into that.

  21. September 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    chava: regarding the “rocket science”—you’re right, and I should have phrased that differently. I was coming from the position of “anti-foodie”—the idea that a person has to have all kinds of specialized (read: expensive)equipment beofre they should even think about cooking, or they’re ‘doin’ it rong’ type of thing. Cooking is mostly about knowledge, not fancy equipment or extra-long cooking times.

    I just know a lot of folks around my age (42) that are overly-intimidated by cooking, because they’re under the impression that food takes longer to cook than it really does. That’s where I think the cookbooks that focus on easy, cheap and fast are a real help for people who didn’t have the privilege (as I did) of learning from generations. They show methods of cooking that don’t take much time, and how selective use of pre-prepared products (restaurants do it all the time!) can cut down on cooking time while still keeping within a budget.

  22. September 1, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    @ Lisa

    First, I do agree that getting people to realize they can make dinner, period is a big step. No arguments there!

    In response to your comment, I tend to think that it isn’t just the foodie elements that posit cooking as something mystifying. There’s an equal amount of pressure from the big agri/food business that would have you believe that anything that doesn’t come out of a box requires hours of hard labor.

    So between Williams Sonoma (I hate those people) and Kraft, you have something of a perfect storm preventing people from cooking, period.

    “some folks will embark on one and some folks on another, or sometimes both at different times in their lives, with a huge # of variables, most to do with class and culture (which determine access to fresh food and also availability of things like time, money, etc and how those precious resources will be used”

    Agreed, although ironically much “grandma cooking” is cheaper and lower class than most anything else (rice and beans, or pasta and beans in my case, isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be). What is does require is a moderate amount of time, and the aforementioned skillset. If you have someone in the home with those skills/inclination, though, it does save money–especially if, like me, you have a kosher kitchen. (For a lot of our extended family the ‘grandma cook’ *was* usually a grandparent, because they had the time.)

    Unfortunantly, between the “foodie” mystification and the big business mystification of food, combined with an increasingly small number of extended families under the same roof, people with those skills are becoming rarer and older.

    Also, it was my grandfather, not my grandmother. Grandpa tried to get my mother and later my stepmother to cook (by his standards) up to snuff Italian and never managed, so he did it himself.

  23. September 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    whookay, I just looked at the length of my last comment and realized I am now in danger of becoming one of those people who comments WAY too often/long-windedly on a thread! Apologies, shall attempt brevity ;-)

  24. Lisa Jervis
    September 1, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    @La Lubu Yes, totally! I have found that too re folks being intimidated or thinking it’s harder/takes longer than it is/does.

  25. Keldrena
    September 1, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I really hope you will address the class bias in the food politics. My bus system doesn’t go anywhere near the farmers markets.

  26. Lyndsay
    September 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    I see learning the techniques of cooking as pretty easy and learning how to make a supper using those techniques. Then I realize I see the things my parents taught me as easy and some of the things they didn’t teach me as harder. My parents taught me how to boil vegetables and pasta etc, cook eggs, pancakes, potatoes etc. But they didn’t teach me how to put all those skills together to make a meal that is more than vegetables, potatoes and meat on a plate so that’s harder. They didn’t do it unless they had a specific recipe like lasagna so they couldn’t teach me. So I’m trying to teach myself. And I either have to be more creative than usual, follow a recipe, or have a more boring dinner.

  27. Lyndsay
    September 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Ugh, that first sentence is supposed to say, “I see learning the techniques of cooking as pretty easy and learning how to make a supper using those techniques as harder. “

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