The American Tradition of Fleeing the Kitchen (Or How Pollan Got His History Wrong)

What’s wrong with Michael Pollan’s latest.

Cooked, the latest culinary concerto from good-food advocate Michael Pollan, grandly proposes that American society could take a giant step forward if its members would just step back into the kitchen. Home cooks, he argues, are thinner, healthier, happier (because their meals taste better and their conversational opportunities are more bountiful), and connected to the land in ways that elude eaters who fill up on fast-food cheeseburgers.

As critics have pointed out, Pollan’s thesis reflects a staunchly upper-class perspective: “How blessed to be able to say, ‘I feel like making six-hour slow barbecued shoulder of pork today,’ ” Bee Wilson wrote in her eloquent review for TheNew York Times Book Review, which also takes issue with Pollan’s fuzzy nostalgia. “Not because you’re pressed to cook by your status or household budget. Just because, as Pollan argues, it makes your world ‘literally more wonderful.’ ”

And while Pollan makes clear his siren song is directed at both genders, some women who cherish their hard-won freedom from the stove are understandably skeptical of the life-affirming qualities Pollan attributes to culinary labor. Pickling and preserving don’t strike the “I Hate to Cook” set as the panacea Pollan promises.

But what’s been largely overlooked in critiques of Cooked is that its central storyline is based on flimsy history. Pollan is adamant that the nation’s loss of interest in cooking is a thoroughly contemporary quirk. He refers to the present day as “the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen,” and waxes sentimental about the cooking mores of his parents’ generation. “Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen,” he asserts.

Pollan’s already taken flack for ignoring the many mothers who weren’t blessed with a kitchen or enough food to cook in it, but his argument’s equally nonsensical in a middle-class context. For much of American history, servants did the cooking.

In the 1860s, “one woman who managed without a cook for just one week found herself ‘broken down, sick & in bed,’ ” Daniel Sutherland wrote in his groundbreaking 1981 history of domestic service, Americans and Their Servants.

That image tracks with notions of upper-class living advanced by Downton Abbey, but there’s no indication that the 19th-century letter-writer quoted by Sutherland was wowing anyone with her wealth. As Sutherland writes, “Nearly everybody who could afford a servant employed one during the 19th century.” And in the years before labor was legislated and taxed, a startling number of Americans could afford to hire a young girl, recent immigrant, or African-American woman to handle kitchen chores.

Scholars haven’t been able to determine precisely how many Americans employed servants, but Sutherland estimates there was one servant for every eight American families between 1800 and 1920. Later researchers have suggested an ever smaller ratio, since census-based calculations take the entire U.S. population into account, and it’s highly unlikely maids employed other maids. Domestic service was also more widespread in cities: In San Francisco in 1870, there was one servant for every four families.

Although 1870 represented the pinnacle of the domestic-service industry, as measured by the percentage of working women employed by it, the national reliance on hired help hadn’t faded decades later. In Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945, Phyllis Palmer cites a 1937 Fortune survey showing “70 percent of the rich, 42 percent of the upper middle class, 14 percent of the lower middle class, and 6 percent of the poor reported” hiring help. In other words, one out of every 16 impoverished Americans paid someone to wash their dirty clothes or make dinner.

While servants were assigned various tasks depending on their employers’ needs, preparing food was nearly always on the to-do list. As John T. Edge wrote in his history of Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a Savannah boardinghouse where tourists line up for iconic Southern dishes, “The tasks of frying chicken, punching our biscuit dough, stripping collard leaves, and peeling potatoes have long been assigned to black women.”

Southern whites were so dependent on their servants’ culinary skills that at least one woman showed up at a Union refugee camp to beg Ulysses Grant for the return of her enslaved cook. In Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960, Rebecca Sharpless quotes the cook’s telling of this story, recorded in dialect by a white worker from the North: “My ole missus . . . hel’ out her han’s and say, ‘General, dese han’s never was in dough—I never made a cake o’ dough in my life.’ ”

According to Sharpless, it wasn’t unusual for women to distance themselves so completely from cooking. Before the advent of the electrical stove, kitchens were dirty, smelly, and dangerous, which is why they were commonly located where their beneficiaries didn’t have to see them, whether in rural outbuildings or urban basements. But even after technology made cooking more comfortable, women who could afford servants tended to avoid the realities of meal-making.

“Richmond housewife Martha Branch set the menu each morning with her cook, but she herself never cooked,” Sharpless writes. “Fellow Richmondite Martha Valentine Cronly remembered that her mother ‘ “gave out” the provisions each day from the pantry; then they were put on the “dumb waiter” and pulled by a rope to the kitchen, which was in the basement.’ ”

The American habit of hiring cooks flagged in the early 20th century, a victim of Depression economics, growing privacy concerns, the modernized “servantless kitchen,” and Progressive politics. The Seattle YWCA in 1936 released a study showing that working girls routinely worked 16 hours a day, fueling a fight which culminated with the passage of a state law limiting work weeks to 60 hours, a schedule incompatible with the live-in servant model.

Yet domestic service persisted in the South, where a lack of labor legislation and scant opportunities for black women conspired to prop up the family-cook tradition. In the 1940s, Southern households could hire a cook for about $5 a week, which is why many of Pollan’s white peers who grew up below the Mason-Dixon don’t remember “watching [their] mothers in the kitchen.” They remember watching someone else’s mother in the kitchen.

Pollan may be exactly right when he says cooking is an inherently worthwhile activity. But he’s wrong when he writes, “What is new is the great number of people now relying for the preponderance of their meals on an industry willing to do everything for them save the heating and the eating.” Processed foods may be a relatively recent invention. But there’s nothing new about Americans relying on an industry to shield them from the rigors—and, in Pollan’s view, rewards­—of food preparation.

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

Michael Pollan will appear at Benaroya Hall on Monday, May 13.

 
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