Q&A: ‘Pressure Cooker’

By Dan Verderosa, March 12, 2019
Assistant professor Joslyn Brenton’s new book challenges the ideal of the home-cooked meal.

Food pundits and celebrity chefs often put forth a narrative that growing your own vegetables and cooking meals from scratch can help cure many of society’s ills — everything from childhood obesity to environmental degradation. Joslyn Brenton, an assistant professor in Ithaca College’s Department of Sociology, disagrees.

In the new book “Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It,” Brenton and her co-authors, North Carolina State University associate professor Sarah Bowen and University of British Columbia assistant professor Sinikka Elliott, argue that positioning family meals as the answer to social problems is inadequate and places a disproportionate burden on families and mothers.

The book is based on over 150 interviews the authors and their research team conducted with an economically and racially diverse group of mothers, as well as over 250 hours of fieldwork — time spent observing families cook and eat, and tagging along with them to the grocery store.

IC News spoke with Brenton about her book and the problem with positioning home-cooked meals as a solution to pressing social problems.

IC NEWS: The idea that home cooking can solve issues like childhood obesity is prevalent among food pundits like Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan. What’s wrong with that message?

BRENTON: We have quotes from Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan in our book. And we’re doing something that’s a little dangerous because Michael Pollan’s message resonates with a lot of people. And I get it. I’ve read his books. He’s a compelling writer and he cares about the food system. Jamie Oliver is quite the character, and he’s very charismatic. But both of those guys, and others like them — what we call food pundits and food experts — they’re giving us the same message: if we slow down, if we prioritize food in our lives, if we just take the time to care and get back in the kitchen, everything’s going to be better. We don’t find that at all.

As we discuss in the book, that is a lovely idea, but that is not how people’s lives work in reality. So that can’t be the solution to our food dilemmas. And we do have food dilemmas. Many people in the country experience food insecurity. We have a food system that’s not sustainable and that is downright unsafe at times, and we have high rates of food-related illnesses. These are important issues, but “slow down and try harder” is actually not going to get us out of this problem. What we’re looking at in the book are structural inequalities and how they shape people’s lives and what they eat. We wanted to know how diverse mothers of young children think about food and how they see their own relationship to food. What we find is a complex picture, and that’s sometimes hard to work with.

A woman leaning on a stack of books

Assistant professor Joslyn Brenton. (Photo provided)

IC NEWS: What is wrong with our relationship with food?

BRENTON: There are a couple of things, and they all really have to do with structural inequality. One of the things that’s really hard about our current relationship with food is that it’s gendered. We have a very strong gender division of labor when it comes to food production. The research shows that it’s women who are being asked to keep the nation healthy. Many women with young children are employed full-time outside the home, and yet all of the feeding work is still falling on their shoulders. This is an incredible challenge and burden. When people think about feeding children, they think about putting food on the table, but there is a significant amount of invisible labor involved in feeding families, including finding recipes, putting together a grocery list, and then going to the grocery store, or multiple grocery stores. Women have a fraught relationship with food and cooking because there are just so many demands on their time, and the work they are doing is not often fully acknowledged.

Another thing that’s really hard about our relationship with food is that many people just don’t have enough money to eat the way they want. This really affects our relationship with food, and it’s not just low-income and working-class families who can’t eat what they want. Middle-class families aren’t always eating what they want either. They don’t experience food shortages and food insecurity, but I can’t tell you how many middle-class mothers I interviewed said, “I wish I had more money to shop with.”

The other thing that affects our relationship to food is racism and xenophobia. Historically, the cultural and food traditions of African Americans in particular, but also immigrants, have really been stigmatized and devalued. There’s this idea of an ideal home-cooked meal, and for many of the poor women and women of color we interviewed, that ideal doesn’t resonate. They want to eat healthy but also eat the foods that belong to their culture and their traditions. Racism is also linked to poverty. People of color have higher rates of poverty than white people. So again, they tend to be disproportionately affected by food shortages. I don’t know that people are always thinking about racism when they think about food, but it’s there.

IC NEWS: Given all of that, why do so many food reformers see home cooking as the solution to these food-related social ills?

BRENTON: I think that narrative really resonates in an individualistic culture that believes strongly in an achievement ideology — this idea that success is dependent upon our personal effort, and things like sexism, racism or xenophobia are secondary. It’s a fiction — the idea that we all are born starting at the same point in the proverbial race of life and it’s just your personal drive and effort that dictate your success. Michael Pollan is very critical of the food system, but he also really wants to convince readers that they can transform their personal relationship with food; that they can find joy and they can find self-discovery and growth in the kitchen. I think that’s what appeals to people. It feels empowering as an individual to say, “I do face challenges, but I can do this.” In reality, people don’t always have a huge degree of control over their lives, and some groups have very little control over their lives. Focusing on the efforts individuals should be making conveniently diverts attention away from the responsibility that government, policymakers, and even corporations should be taking to create a safe and affordable food system.

“At the national level, we believe in making food a basic human right. We need to make sure everybody has access to food, and we could work within some of the existing structures, like the food stamps program, to accomplish this.”

Assistant professor Joslyn Brenton

IC NEWS: You interviewed a diverse subset of American families for this book. How aware of the home-cooked meal ideal are families from different classes and backgrounds, and how do they each struggle to reach the ideal?

BRENTON: There is this image of an “ideal meal” that is strongly promoted in our society. These meals are cooked from scratch, preferably with locally sourced and organic foods, and they only have ingredients that everyone can pronounce. All of the mothers in our study were aware of the ideal, but they engaged with it in different ways. I would say that, while the low-income and working-class mothers certainly know about it, food is usually only one of many issues they are facing. One low-income mother told me that she just doesn’t have the money to buy organic food. She has to believe that regular old food will be good enough for her kids. These moms were concerned about making sure their children got enough food, and that it was mostly healthy.

Middle-class mothers, on the other hand, spent a lot of time reading blogs, recipes and the latest studies, or talking to their friends about additives or high fructose corn syrup. And so in some ways, it often felt like working-class mothers were keeping food in perspective in a way that middle-class mothers were not, maybe because middle-class mothers are the target of much of the foodie-ideal advertising.

All of the mothers we interviewed, regardless of class or race, love their children deeply. They want the best for them and they feel responsible for their health outcomes. They also all felt this guilt or shame around the work of mothering. Low-income mothers are feeling it because they’re scrutinized for not having money. Middle-class mothers are feeling it because when you have the means, you’re supposed to dedicate a lot of time, energy, money and resources into cultivating these very wonderful children. And those mothers didn’t necessarily have that time.

The big difference we saw was that low-income and working-class mothers routinely experienced food shortages, or they had to make tradeoffs like buying cheaper foods when they would have preferred to buy other things. It was heartbreaking. We just did not see that in middle-class households. We knew families who had no cash income in their lives at all. The only way they could get food was with food stamps and WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). One of the families we feature in the book was living in a hotel at the time. It was a grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter’s two young children living in a hotel room. I remember going with this family to the WIC office. The clinician was talking to them about making sure the children ate four servings of vegetables a day, this and that, and they’re living in a hotel room with only a hot plate and a microwave to cook with.

IC NEWS: Based on your research, how can we improve our relationship with food?

BRENTON: In the book we talk about changes we can make on the national, community and individual levels. At the national level, we believe in making food a basic human right. We need to make sure everybody has access to food, and we could work within some of the existing structures, like the food stamps program, to accomplish this. The food stamps program (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) is not really designed to feed all people in the United States who experience food shortages. There’s not enough in its pot of money to do that. But could there be? We also think that we have some very real problems with the food system in terms of a lack of regulation and the lack of protection we are offering people. It shouldn’t be up to individual families to navigate those risks. And if we want people to feed their families healthy food, we need to pay them a living wage.

On the community level, we say to think creatively. What can we do with the industrial kitchens that exist in the workplace, or our children’s schools? When I was going to graduate school in North Carolina, I had young children. Their daycare used their industrial kitchen to create meals for families, and it was fairly affordable. When you picked your kid up from daycare, you took an evening meal home with you. It cost about $15. It was amazing. So how, on the community level, can we actually support families who are feeding children? How can workplaces, schools and hospitals do this? We could we could be thinking more creatively about this.

On the individual level, especially for middle-class mothers, we say to keep food in perspective. Food is important, but it is not the only thing that makes people healthy. Environmental safety, neighborhood safety, levels of stress, social connections, personal relationships, meaningful work — these are things that we know impact health. It’s not all about food. We say pop a frozen pizza in the oven if you have to. You don’t have to get caught up in thinking that everything you feed your child is going to determine the way they eat when they’re an adult. And I will say that, as much as that strategy might work well for middle-class mothers, low-income mothers still have a dilemma because they’re not getting their basic needs met. Many of the mothers in our study did not know where the next meal was coming from. That’s where the national-level stuff has to be happening to protect some of the most hard-working citizens in our society.

We are going to need a food revolution, and maybe not the kind that popular food celebrities are thinking of.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.