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May 23, 2012

I make a lot of bread at home.

And I mean a *lot* of bread.

There are several reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about previously regarding the sorry state of commercial bread in Staff of Life, but others of which also hold true even given the availability of good local bakeries such as Watsonville Bakery and Acme Bread Company.

For one, it’s much cheaper to make your own even when you take into consideration energy and material costs; as Jennifer Reese notes in Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, her everyday bread recipe (which I frequently use) costs less than a dollar a loaf, while standard store-bought whole wheat bread runs about $4 and an equivalent Acme loaf costs $5.501.  This is a big consideration in this house, where depending on people’s appetites and the availability of other snack foods we can either sit on a 2-pound loaf for almost a week or go through four 1-pound loaves before we’ve even hit Friday.  For another, consumption rates really are that variable; either I can’t keep these people in bread to save my life or I’m trying to eat it myself before it goes stale for lack of preservatives, and doing it myself means I can shift production up or down depending on how much we need.  Producing only on demand means a lot less waste, too.  I remember when Mark and I lived by ourselves how often the store-bought bread would bloom with fuzzy white and black spots, preservatives be damned.

There’s another large consideration too, which comes up a lot when you read about or talk to women (it’s pretty much always women) that have decided to make as much food as possible at home.  Women are most likely to be what are called nutritional gatekeepers, the person who purchases and prepares the food in the home, and as such they control 72% of all the food the family eats2 Data from 2011 suggests that food preparation and consumption at home as family means is climbing – the share of meals eaten at home as a family went from 52% in 2003 to 73% in 2010, while 55% of grocery shoppers prepared more meals at home in 2010 than they did in 20093.  The impact of the nutritional gatekeeper is therefore growing dramatically in lockstep with economic recession and insecurity, and much of this has to do with the fact that it is far more cost-effective to cook and eat food at home.  The other reason has to do with an increased awareness of additives and health issues in our food supply, and the determination of the nutritional gatekeeper to protect her family from them.  39% of consumers cited chemicals in foods as the most important food safety issue of 2010, versus 44% who cited concerns about bacteria; half of consumers deliberately avoid preservatives, 49% avoid MSG, 47% artificial flavors, 44% colors and dyes, 43% growth hormones, and 29% genetically modified foods3.  Homemade foods are frequently a backlash against the opaqueness that characterizes processed foods (which I have talked about previously), but they have also taken on a political bent.

Women’s Work

As much as people might prefer that their hot dog mean no more than a hot dog, the truth is that what we eat and how we get it is in itself a culturally- and politically-charged act.  What we eat is tied deeply into our cultural identity, a reminder of home for those who left it in search of opportunities, and a link to the past for those born here who never knew another home.  What we eat is also a political statement, either an acceptance of the current status quo method of food production and distribution, or a repudiation of it.  I focus on producing a lot of food by growing or making it because it’s a way that I can keep food healthy and safe while keeping costs within a strict cash budget, my mother’s (very good) method for ensuring that only a certain percentage of household income gets spent on buying food for the house.  For others it becomes a feminist statement:

Most of the urban homesteaders Paska [a Brooklyn urban homesteader] knows are female.  “Women find this lifestyle very empowering,” she says.  “Some people assume  that this is a backlash against the feminist movement, but I see it as a continuation of it.”  In the past couple of years, a slew of hipster home-ec books has arrived to fill us in on lost domestic skills, recasting housework as scrappy, anti-establishment self-fulfillment4.

While I love the general groundswell of support for doing things at home, recapturing domestic life skills and producing one’s own food (I love this stuff, as this blog illustrates), the gender essentialism in many of these back-to-basics books, anecdotes, and stories worries me deeply.  Notice how I said above that the nutritional gatekeeper was most likely to be a woman? Cooking is still a highly gendered activity, as much as we like to pretend that feminism’s push for equality is over.  Women are still in charge of food preparation, whether it be baking bread for the house from scratch or buying a rotisserie chicken from the grocery deli to bring home, just as we are in other gender-coded activities that a family requires in order to function, such as childcare.

People say the glass ceiling doesn’t really exist, that women could earn as much as men do and advance like men do if they weren’t so likely to require breaks or even leave the workforce to care for very young children – but in an economic environment where costs have been steadily rising while real wages have stagnated5, the costs of outside childcare may simply outweigh the income loss of one parent.  Even before the economic downturn, there had been a steady decline in the percentage of mothers working full time, part time, or seeking employment; where only 31% of mothers fell into this category in 1976, the numbers had climbed to a high point of 58.7% in 1998, and then steadily dropped to 52.9% in 20046.   When Rothman asked a college class she was teaching how they anticipated to combine work with child-rearing, at least half of her female students would reply that they were already handling it through part-time or home-based work, while male students would expect their partners to care for the children.  When pushed on how they can reconcile that expectation with our cultural low regard for childcare, they have no answers except to point at the students who were already following expectations and staying “but she chose it.6

I bring this up not so much because I consider food production to be a manifestly sexist pursuit, but because it is very, very easy to have it become so, and I worry that this is where it is currently heading.  The concept of “women’s work” and its inherently low status (either the activity ends up being women’s work because it’s not high-status, or the fact that women mostly do it makes it women’s work – it’s a bit of a circular process) is well known in anthropology and sociology but perhaps not as well known as it should be outside of such circles.  We’re probably more familiar with the concept of domestic pursuits, although most of us probably don’t know where the idea originated.  A quick history lesson is in order, then.

The History of Domesticity

The concept of women = domesticity dates back to the early 1800s, when the industrial revolution and the urbanization of populations shifted most production of goods from individual household to centralized factories, with the associated shift to wage work outside the home.  Labor was divided among the middle class by age and sex in ways that it wasn’t previously, with women being assigned to “domesticity” rather than production, men assigned to wage-earning, and the removal of children from work (assuming they were middle- or upper-class, of course; the childhood development of lower-class children didn’t matter).  This shift in household labor division was largely supported in upper and middle class families by shunting the more difficult portions of household labor onto hired domestic help, typically the same sorts of poor families and slaves that also worked the factories and fields and freed middle- and upper-class women from time-consuming farm labor or cloth-making2.

This is ultimately the base family model on which our more recent idealized past, the 1950s, drew its inspiration from.  Here the protected middle-class family did not depend on stolen childhoods and immigrant labor to support itself.  Instead, advances in technology that drastically reduced the time required for household chores such as cleaning or cooking to a point where one person could handle it by themselves, and very heavy government subsidization and rising national wages allowed a household to function with one parent at home – and it was going to be the wife, because they sure as hell weren’t going to be allowed to stay in the jobs they had held down while the men were off to war6.

The last part is the really, really important part that keeps getting lost in all these back-to-the-land narratives, as much as I dream of them myself: the idealized world of the 1950’s that many of them seem to be creeping back towards, where mother happily stayed home and took care of home things, father brought home all of the money, and the family managed without any outside help didn’t even exist in the 1950’s.  Media erasure of diversity and strife helped to make it appear so, and they continue to aid our cultural amnesia about how things really were back then.  Even less visible was the dependence of the 1950s family on government handouts, despite it being far higher than even the pernicious 1980s myth of “welfare queens”.  Most of the upward mobility experienced by families at this time was subsidized by government spending, whether it be Federal GI benefits, subsidies in American industry and science education, government regulation of insuring and regulating loans for home construction, or the turnover of government wartime inventions and production processes handed over to private industries (which then boomed, and hired many new workers) after the war6.

Reprogramming the Self

I say all this not because I want to discourage anyone from the idea of doing it themselves or growing/raising their own food at home or baking their own bread because damn, it’s expensive at the store and that stuff goes fuzzy in a week.  I say this because the cultural programming that tells us that doing so is our job – nay, our moral imperative – as women is both pervasive and insidious, so deeply rooted we may not have even realized it was whispering in our ear all these years.  Am I immune?  Hardly, since I pretty much hit all the qualifications for nutritional gatekeeper and hey look, I’m a woman.  Mark can cook quite well when he wants to; I’m a bit less certain about my Dad, since he only cooked when Mom was sick, but I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of skill or inclination.  But when it was just Mark and me living together, I did most of the food preparation and I couldn’t have told you why.  If you had asked me to my face then if I thought cooking was specifically a women’s job, I would’ve told you it wasn’t even as I thoroughly embodied the idea at the same time.

My point, ultimately, is that if you’re the adult woman in the house, food preparation should not be your job by default.  It shouldn’t be something you do out of a sense of obligation or because nobody else is doing it and because damn it, we’re not living off of take-out anymore.  Doing so makes the modern feminist idea of “choice” ring hollow – how much do you really choose when you find yourself simply following the path of least resistance, unmindful of the very deep cultural programming that tells you it’s ultimately your responsibility?  On the other hand, of course, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be in charge of food preparation and procurement simply because you are a woman because doing so means that you’re giving into the patriarchy.  It means that you should be doing something that I emphasize over and over in these posts: be mindful of what you are doing and why you are doing it.  Food preparation should be something you do because you enjoy it, or (as in my case) because you’re the picky one in the family about where your food comes from and how it’s produced, and you feel that since you’re the one that knows the most about it and makes the most stringent demands, that you should be the one responsible for it.  It should be a responsibility that is shared among the entire family so it doesn’t always come down on one person and everything goes to hell when they get sick.  That’s a recipe for resentment, to say nothing of a diet of burgers and take-out during flu season.

Food is a cultural and political act, both in the way it is produced and the way it is prepared.  There’s an interesting passage in The Way We Never Were that, while referring to women in the workplace and its impacts on family, parallels quite nicely with the gender-essentialist concept of food preparation that I’ve illustrated here:

The crisis of commitment [to family responsibility] in America is usually seen as a problem with women’s changing roles because women’s family functions have  historically mediated the worst effects of competition and individualism in the larger society.  Most people who talk about balancing private advancement and individual rights with “nurturance, mutual support, and long-term commitment” do not envision any serious rethinking of the individualistic, antisocial tendencies in our society. . . Instead, they seek ways – sometimes through repression, sometimes through reform – of rebuilding a family in which women can continue to compensate for, rather than challenge, the individualism in our larger economy and polity6.

In many ways, this is what we’re doing as nutritional gatekeepers, radical urban homesteaders, and DIYers: we end up trying to make up for society’s failings ourselves rather than challenging the basic assumptions behind how everything is made and the gendered division of home labor.  It’s less difficult and the results certainly are faster (and tastier), but this approach has its casualties.  We end up sacrificing part or all of our non-home lives, whether intentionally or not (with the latter being particularly common after the economy imploded – that’s how I got here, after all).  We leave behind those who don’t have the spare cash and time to follow our example and do everything ourselves while still maintaining a roof over our heads, and so end up abandoning the same people we did when we first developed the concept of domesticity: the poor and disenfranchised, who don’t have the option of working less or having one partner stay home.  To treat urban homesteading as the beginning and the end of addressing the problems of the food system is to withdraw once more into the protective cocoon of the upper- to middle-class household and leave everyone else to the lions.

To those who are putting their energies into being more self-sufficient and doing what they can to produce at home: this isn’t supposed to be an indictment, but a reminder.  Keep your backyard chickens (I’m serious, they’re adorable) and bake your bread, but resist the urge to isolate yourself or to accept society’s definition of such chores as your job and obligation.  But at the same time don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t changing the world right now or even matching up to such lofty ideals.  I don’t live up to all of these ideas myself, as much as I would like to try harder to do so in the future.  I still plan on baking the bread, and it’s a lot easier when one person handles the groceries instead of two or three working at cross-purposes.

But I think next week I’m going to bug Mark to bake a chocolate cake.


  1. Reese, J.  2011.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch – Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods .  New York: Free Press.
  2. Potter, J.  2010.  Cooking for Geeks.  Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.
  3. Sloan, A. E.  2011.  “Top 10 Food Trends.”  Food Technology 65(4).  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at
  4. Rothman, J.  2011.  “The new domesticity: Fun, empowering or a step back for American women?”  Washington Post, November 18, 2011.  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at
  5. Draut, T.  2006.  Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead.  New York: Anchor Books.
  6. Hirshman, L.  2005.  “America’s Stay-at-Home Feminists.”  The American Prospect.  Online.  Accessed May 23, 2012 at
  7. Coontz, S., 2000.  The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.  New York: Basic Books.
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