The Agency of the Vegetable

BY KELSEY FENN

Although cookbooks cannot be interpreted as exact historical representations of what people ate or who in the family did the cooking, they are still able to portray the ideals and desires of the people who wrote and published them. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures embodies the crux between women’s place in the job force and responsibilities in the home, simultaneously introducing a new meaning to vegetarianism[i]. Author Jeanne Lemlin proves that a meatless diet can satiate the whole family and make cooking an effortless and enjoyable act for the housewife. However, there is a certain ambivalence associated with the narrow aim of this cookbook’s readership, which is presumed to be the average American middle-class woman. The notion that woman are facing the dual-challenge of shrinking free-time and expectations of serving nutritious and satisfying meals is reflective of only a specific demographic of women in this country. This book is a progressive portrayal of the working female redefining the cooking experience, but it holds onto deeply set binaries of women being the ‘gatekeeper’ of the home and the responsibilities they are expected to uphold. Lemlin performs this balancing act of being both the modern, independent woman and dutiful housewife through her hassle-free, vegetarian cookbook, which promotes “new vegetarianism” as a healthy, trendy life hack for the average American family with traces of privilege throughout the text.

By endorsing meal preparation as an effortless act, Lemlin is representing women empowerment but within the confinement of a heteronormative framework. Lemlin’s ‘quick’ twist on vegetarian recipes was inspired by the birth of her son, which tacked on a large addition to her daily household duties. She supports the notion that cooking should never be considered a burden by providing quick and easy recipes for women who feel pressured to prepare decent meals with little time. Speediness became her new crucial ingredient to maintaining a good household atmosphere and a vegetarian lifestyle. She praises her husband for “unending help with typing, grocery shopping, dishwashing, and the care of (her) son,”[ii] as if all of these things are the responsibility of the woman only with occasional assistance from the man, revealing the gender roles that are still predominant in the kitchen today. As much as Lemlin attempts to defy the woman’s position in the kitchen, she is still bound by female stereotypes of being the cook as well as the main caretaker of the children. For some people, cooking has always been simply a job or a means to an end, especially black women who for generations have been in the kitchens of white families cooking for children who are not their own. Lemlin’s tactic is not to forgo kitchen responsibilities, but rather to find enjoyment in them. Even for women who have busy schedules to adhere to, cooking can still be a pleasurable and artful act. The quickly assembled entrees, salads, and soups debunk the stigma of vegetarian meals being complicated to prepare and tedious to find meat substitutes. The vegetarian lifestyle that has recently been adopted by many in this country, for reasons related to health, the environment, or ethics, is changing the way Americans view meatless meals. Lemlin’s compilation of quick and easy meals kills two birds with one stone; tackling both the death of women’s free time and the reputation of vegetarian recipes being complex and lengthy.

Jeanne Lemlin celebrates her recipes for being adaptable and open to creativity, inspiring the readers to be adventurous in the kitchen. Her relaxed, experimental style is a stark contrast to the long held assumptions that men were the expressive and resourceful ones in the kitchen. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures provides culinary tricks, recipe guidelines, and flavor pairings, but largely requires improvisation of the reader. For example, the section on sandwiches supplies a list of meatless ingredients that can substitute the classic cold cuts but does not provide precise portions or specific combinations[iii]. It may be Lemlin’s free spirited mentality in the kitchen that has helped break the sphere of isolating women to the house. Similar to the gendered food boundaries explained by Jessamyn Neuhaus’ chapter “King of the Kitchen,” Lemlin contests that cooking is a mundane, orderly chore for the women and a joyful, creative hobby for men[iv]. Alternatively, this cookbook defies such a stereotype by encouraging her readers to interpret the recipes loosely and add their own flare to each dish. Being innovative and acting in the spur of the moment is no longer associated to the man’s role in the kitchen. On the other hand, it is important to note that for some people, food is simply a means of satiation and they do not have the resources or time or consider it a fun experiment. In fact, the title of this book contains the word “pleasure,” implying that despite the persisting social norm of women feeding the family, Lemlin pushes that cooking can be a source of empowerment rather than motherly anxiety. In this sense, we see how Jeanne Lemlin uses a vegetarian diet as a means of agency to propel women empowerment through food.

Lemlin faces the dilemma of satisfying all members of the family by bridging the gap between manly meals and dainty female diets. According to Neuhaus, the divide between gendered appetites has been developing since the 1920s when women were instructed to cater to the man’s preference and ignore their own[v]. Jeanne does not acquiesce to man’s demand for meat, but instead uses substitutes of protein-rich grains and legumes to provide hearty, filling meals. She uses titles like, “Substantial Salads” to dislodge the idea that vegetables should be solely side dishes[vi]. Rather than criticizing society’s attachment to the barbeque as a symbol of hegemonic masculinity, she appreciates the joys of cookouts and instead makes a place for vegetables on the grill in a section of this book dedicated completely to BBQ recipes. On the other hand, Jeanne denounces gender roles of women regarding strict dieting and calorie counting, which she considers to be the antithesis of what cooking is about. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures calls for robust flavors and hearty meals while cutting back on rich foods like butter, oil, and cream, striving to prove that light meals do not sacrifice flavor. Lemlin shies away from eating at extremes, and encourages readers to find a balance in the mealtime by contrasting different ingredients throughout different dishes. The chapter titled “Saccharin Rebels” by Carolyn de la Peña mirrors the same thought process of living within a heteronormative framework while maintaining the ability to enjoy and indulge in tasty eating[vii]. This idea of the female sweet-tooth became something that defined female liberation rather than restrained it. Deserts and carbs are not demonized in this cookbook, but on the contrary are thought of as an occasional guilt-free pleasure. By honing in on the universality of vegetarian meals, she draws the whole family into this simple eating experience where men and women can happily dine off of the same dish.

While this cookbook emphasizes the liberation of women through Lemlin’s meals, it is important to acknowledge the other forms of structural inequalities remain unrecognized as the white, middle-class family hogs center stage, transparently alluding to a sense of financial stability and cultural ignorance. Lemlin presumptuously suggests in one of her “tips for a busy cook” to keep the fridge fully stocked at all times, implying the readers have no restrictions on their food budget each month[viii]. Likewise, another one of her tips is to simply go out to dinner when there is too little time to cook, a fairly affluent outing for the middle or upper class. The fact that so many families in this country are food insecure would also imply that most people, men or women, do not have the luxury of experimenting with meals for fun or simply buying premade meals elsewhere when in a time crunch. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures emphasizes that eating these types of meatless meals is the right way to cook in order to live a healthy, meaningful lifestyle, ignoring those who cannot afford to purchase wholesome, fresh produce. The fact that this argument is based off of a predominantly exclusive diet reflect the systematic inequalities that make this “new vegetarianism” problematic. The lack of intersectionality is evident across both class and ethnicity. The recipes assume the reader has little experience using foreign foods seeing as short excerpts are provided to contextualize ethnic ingredients, like the origin and use of curry powder. When reading for the silences in this cookbook, marginalized groups are not among the directed audience, making it evident that her vegetarian life hack is exclusive to white, affluent families. Jeanne Lemlin does a noteworthy job of defending female independence, but she is ambivalent to other forms of oppression.

Heteronormative trends run strong throughout this piece, but author Jeanne Lemlin attempts to defy stereotypes associated with cooking by providing recipes that are fast, convenient, and enjoyable for the whole family – a difficult trio for women to satisfy. This duality of jobs in the workforce and at home creates a new burden for women, stripping them of free time and adding to the list of obligations. Although, working class families with two working parents have long endured this challenge. There is still much groundwork to be done to truly free the woman from imprisonment in the kitchen, especially if Jeanne Lemlin’s tactics are seen not so much as a source of agency but viewed as just rewording “daily chores” into something that sounds more appealing for the housewife. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures approaches this paradigm by refocusing meal preparation as a pleasurable activity rather than a daily chore, empowering women in the kitchen by giving them the tools to create healthy, satisfying meals with little stress but still working within the boundaries of a hegemonic masculine society.

Notes

[i] Jeanne Lemlin. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992).

[ii] Ibid., 2.

[iii] Ibid., 95.

[iv] Jessamyn Neuhaus, Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 195-218.

[v] Ibid., 73-98.

[vi] Lemlin, Quick Vegetarian Pleasures, 69.

[vii] Carolyn de la Peña. “Saccharin Rebels: The Right to Risky Pleasures in 1977.” In Empty Pleasures, the Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin. (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2010).

[viii] Lemlin, Quick Vegetarian Pleasures, xv.

Photo Credit:
HarperCollins Publishers

Bibliography

de la Peña, Carolyn. “Saccharin Rebels: The Right to Risky Pleasures in 1977.” In Empty Pleasures, the Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2010.

Lemlin, Jeanne. Quick Vegetarian Pleasures. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

Neuhaus, Jessamyn. Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

  • “King of the Kitchen.” In Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America, 195-218.Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.