BY NICOLE KING
Talking to my mother, Vanessa King, I discovered that convenience foods do not dissipate differences in families. Rather, convenience items may make differences in race, gender, and class more apparent. Furthermore, this case study eplores how convenience items may make a mother feel less connected to her family because she is less involved in the process of feeding them. My mother has made her own definition of convenience foods that keeps her involved in the cooking process. During times when she has little time to cook, or simply does not feel like it, she relies on her own memory to whip something up. Rather than turn to the can, she relies on quick recipes she already knows by heart. Furthermore, convenience items, while quick and reliable, do not always accommodate those with dietary restrictions. Thus, in my family, my father has been the only one to consume convenience foods on a daily basis. This dinnertime dynamic has emphasized and perpetuated class, age, and race differences in my family.
My 45-year-old white mother of two tends to her husband, a black man of 56 where race, class, and gender play a huge role in this American Dream. My father has always jokingly complained about our family dog, a white Maltese, being yet another female barking at him. Until we adopted my newest dog, Brady, my father had been the only male in the house, and the only visibly “colored” being. These are my earliest remembrances of our family being defined by color and gender. As light-skinned mixed girls, my sister and I look visibly different than my father. These differences were manifested in family meals where we often ate without my father, and, when he did join us, he had different meals entirely that were typically store-bought or made from convenience foods. To make matters more confusing, my mother, a vegetarian, raised my sister and me vegetarian, as well. All of these factors have set my father, a hardcore carnivore, even farther apart from the rest of his family.
My mother grew up in Washington Heights in New York City amongst poverty with a single mother and a sometimes-absent father. While her mother worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat, my mother often picked up the pieces: babysitting her younger brother, paying rent, getting food, etc. She says, “I basically grew up eating stuff from a can.” However, when she got older, her mother “bought more fresh fruits and vegetables, even though there was not a lot of money.” Evidently, this was a culinary turning point for my mother and influenced how she raised her own kids. My father, on the other hand, grew up in an upper middle class family with two full time working parents. He ate many more TV dinners than my mom, despite the fact that he had more money growing up. Food makes this class difference apparent in my dad’s tolerance (and sometimes yearning) for store bought dinner, while my mother seeks out home cooking every night. My mother had to cook every night out of necessity, whereas cooking was optional for my father growing up. Thus, convenience items have consistently appealed more to my father than to my mother, my sister, and me. My father had the luxury of buying a snack or a meal when he was hungry, whereas my mother grew up scraping together whatever items were in the house to make something edible. For this reason, my mother’s cooking can be experimental, but always fresh.
My mother’s habit of eating and cooking fresh food from scratch began early because of her own dietary restrictions. She reflects: “Being a vegetarian made it so much harder to find vegetarian food from a can 30 years ago.” Thus, raising vegetarian kids, she rarely relied on canned or convenience items. Additionally, She says that she has always been skeptical of foods that take no time to prepare and felt more anxious feeding her kids processed foods simply for the sake of saving time. Parkin explains how Campbell’s soup advertised canned convenience to mothers by instilling anxiety in them: “the company made other appeals to maternalism, promising that their soup would make their children smart, strong, and healthy.” However, my mother thought the opposite of canned foods. Convenience foods, while reliable and necessary at times, were not a staple to my household. Ernest Dichter, a consumer psychologist, believes that “a woman who felt like she herself had contributed almost nothing to the dinner she served her family wouldn’t buy those particular items again”. This may also correlate to my mother’s childhood where she had to work harder at home than my father did. Thus, the extra work to cook is less daunting to her than it is to my father, for instance, who had a lot of work done for him growing up. I believe this dynamic to be attributed more to class than gender, even though this is a trope generally associated with women. As a result of my mother’s lower class, she has different family values than my father, thus influencing the ways in which she takes on household duties.
Part of the reason I never developed a taste for meat is because of its absence in my early years. My mom says, “Your father was never home, so I never really HAD to cook meat.” The first thing she made my father was beef stew, which she claims was appalling. She had no concept of how her meal tasted and/or how it should taste. Despite snafus like these, she rather enjoyed cooking when she first started. When asked her about how her relationship to the kitchen was before she got married, my mother said:
“Your father calls me a blind artist when it comes to meat because I never get to experience the product. I didn’t like the idea of not knowing what my kids’ food tasted like. I certainly became more domesticated once I got married. Before your father and I were officially husband and wife, I never really cooked because I worked, too. So your father would order food and have it ready for us when we got home. Once I stopped working and actually got into it, I really enjoyed it.”
In my teen years, I always remember my mother complaining about cooking, so hearing that she actually enjoyed it and took pride in it came as a bit of a shock. When asked why she stopped finding solace in it, she said:
“Criticism made it less enjoyable. Your sister now expects a gourmet meal every night and everyone gets sick of leftovers. The expectations placed upon me have really made the process laborious. I also regret catering to everybody’s pickiness and dietary wishes.”
For these reasons, as I grew older, my mother was more inclined to not cook at all on most nights. This has led the rest of us to rely on convenience items since we do not know how to cook.
She has always complained that she does not enjoy her own cooking, which makes cooking something she does only for us. The only things she enjoys cooking, she explains, are things she knows from the heart (like her homemade rice and beans…my personal favorite). This in itself is a form of convenience. Having things down in memory also demonstrates some type of attachment to a recipe that convenience foods may interrupt. On having recipes memorized, my mother says she is “always trying to find things with interesting flavors that are good enough that people will go back for it” but is also “sick of the same old shit.” She says she would rather be safe and cook the same few meals that she knows how to cook than experiment with a meal and have it be a failure. A failed experiment would be a much larger waste of time, energy, money, and food. In an instance where she is experimenting with a recipe for the first time, she might be more apt to use convenience items. After that initial attempt, however, she will transition to using fresh ingredients once she is more comfortable.
Convenience foods serve different purposes to different people. Parkin explains, “Throughout the early twentieth century, ads repeatedly stressed that their food contained no adulterants or chemicals.” When my mother uses a convenience item, she understands it to be unhealthy no matter what and not as tasty. Thus, that item merely serves conservation of energy and time. And frequently, my mother does not cook at all unless she has the time to cook it fresh. When she does not plan on cooking, she gives each of us the option to cook for ourselves whatever we desire, which to some of us might be canned goods. This is an interesting dynamic because she places the responsibility upon her family to choose artificial convenience products, but does not assume that responsibility herself. Shapiro discusses Bracken’s writings about hands-on cooks, like my mother: “Stick with what you can handle, she tells readers over and over. Yet she also assumes that…they like garlic and will hunt around for ‘honest, true, genuine, tough-crusted, sour-dough French bread’…Just as important, they hint at the presence- somewhere behind all those cans and boxes-of an honest cook who can’t stand pretension.” Similarly, my mother cooks from scratch, but does not care about presentation and mostly cooks things she is familiar with and that do not take a lot of time to cook from scratch. She enjoys farmer’s markets and fresh food, but will not sacrifice how much she is comfortable with to satisfy others.
When I asked her if she resents that she and my father have fallen into stereotypical “mother/father” roles, my mother explains that she does not resent her role being expected of her because she is a woman. Rather, she resents that because she stays at home, he does not do menial things around the house that he might have done if she worked. She believes that my father might have played a bigger role around the house if she was not a full time mother and wife. However, she does not want my father to cook, because then cleaning becomes her problem. Indeed, my mother says:
“The thing I resent most about being a mother is the expectation that I will clean up everybody’s mess. I am not a maid around here. Cleaning is more demeaning than cooking. I know how to cook and you guys don’t, so since I don’t work I feel kind of like I have a skill you don’t. But…everybody knows how to clean.”
Evidently, in this case study, convenience foods are recoiled from and not depended upon. My mother, an uneducated woman, feels proud to have a skill that her family does not. She feels it validates her role in the family. Furthermore, my mother does not find the act of cooking an oppressive act. In fact, she quite enjoys it. Convenience foods interrupt this relationship to her family because she is left less room to prove herself. Additionally, My mother is not a terribly anxious mother and does not feel obligated to please others. She either goes all out or does not cook at all, thus eliminating that in-between place where convenience foods lie. However, it is the unappreciativeness and criticism that makes it not worth it. Yet, because she herself enjoys it, she still cooks whatever she wants and, quote, “doesn’t give a damn.” My family’s complex relationship to food has prioritized health over convenience, and has even fostered a sense of repulsion towards artificial foods. This, in turn, has placed unrealistic expectations upon my mother who must cook the freshest meal possible. Furthermore, if/when convenience foods are used, they do not eliminate the evident fracture in our family between black/white, wealthier background/poorer background, and man/woman. In fact, they accentuate these differences in my family.
Photo credit: Nicole King
Parkin, Katherine, “Campbell’s Soup and Traditional Gender Roles,” Kitchen Culture.
Shapiro, Laura, Something From the Oven (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).