Making Dinner Is Also About Making Choices

Who fixes your dinner? On Trubek’s Making American Meals.

Making American Meals: How America Cooks Today
Amy B. Trubek
University of California Press
Oct 2017

Making the familiar strange, as C. Wright Mills advised in The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1959) remains an effective means of discovery about one’s own culture. Amy B. Trubek’s Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today creates a conversation between contemporary practices and various heritages around home cooking in the United States. Her book makes the familiar compellingly strange as meals become complex processes of self, other, and culture.

Readers in the United States will have little trouble inserting themselves into Trubek’s stories, enabling them to consider their own habits of cooking and consuming food. Readers worldwide will find commonality between Trubek’s findings and their own experiences, yet the habits of cooks and consumers will vary depending on local food production and distribution.

Limiting the scope of her study to the United States in prudent and necessary. The narratives focus often on the channels available to cooks and eaters, and even within the US there’s significant variety with regard to those channels. Stores like Whole Foods, that specialize in organic or minimally processed products, are not only unavailable to people living outside of certain urban cores, but even within cities, access to what may be deemed “healthy” food can be limited by the inconvenience of depending on public transportation or having to travel some distance to reach those outlets — and the higher prices that are typical of such stores.

On the other hand, a person who lives near an ethnic enclave will have easy access to ingredients needed for particular dishes that may be family recipes or otherwise culturally inflected. Those same dishes may be out of reach for others who cannot purchase the ingredients needed for a home-cooked ethnic meal.

Trubek often points to the variety of participants in her study to indicate her desire to include narratives across gender, family type, socioeconomic status, and national origin. Beyond these demographic distinctions is the transformation of American meals due to the increasing availability of food outside of the home. The array of readymade meals, take out meals, and meal delivery services indicates that “making dinner” is also about making choices. Those choices are impacted by time, cost, convenience, and the desire to have or serve a healthy meal. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Americans spend almost half of their total food budget on food eaten outside of the home, yet home cooking remains a culturally significant aspect of American life.

In Making Modern Meals, the complex overlapping of meal options is organized by examining cooking as a chore, an occupation, an art, and a craft. The final chapter is devoted to cooking for health and the multitude of meanings for “healthy” in the contemporary United States. Even within those categories are myriad perspectives and experiences that are demonstrated by Trubek’s study participants. Trubek and her research associates visited 30 home cooks and recorded them as they prepared dinner and discussed their choices, processes, and personal histories related to cooking. The interviews yielded more than 50 hours of video footage that became the book’s core ethnographic data.

Cooking is a chore for many people who prepare food at home, and responsibility for that chore still largely falls to women. In the expectations of a traditional family, cooking is not only about nutrition but also about providing lovingly rendered meals for one’s children and spouse. It’s a social responsibility. Trubek argues that home cooking is part of the domestic “moral economy” that obligates women as wives and mothers to care for the family: a good meal makes a good family. The book traces the moral responsibility of cooking back to home economics classes in the early 20th century. Even as the culture of meal preparation changed, the moral value of cooking did not: as convenience foods appeared in the prosperous postwar era, manufacturers of canned and frozen dinners played on the value they offered by making women’s work easier, enabling women to fulfill their moral and social responsibilities but as a less grueling chore.

Trubek also stitches in a good deal of cultural and literary critique through examination of cookbooks and their influences. The Joy of Cooking in particular, relates broadly to the history of making meals in the United States. Trubek describes it as the first truly “national” cookbook and one that acknowledged that cooking is a chore. Like Betty Crocker and Swanson, The Joy of Cooking was directed at easing the burden on women expected to prepare meals for their families. Yet when Irma Rombauer published the first edition of the cookbook in 1931, many American women had help from domestic cooks who were hired to prepare meals. Considering how recipes and methods are handed down from one generation to the next, the role of domestic cooks in creating “family recipes” for the children of the families that employed them adds an interesting twist to ideas of food and heritage.

Today, as nearly half of food dollars are spent on meals prepared outside the home, cooking as an occupation plays a far more significant role in everyday meals than one might consider at first glance. Who, after all, fixes your dinner? Trubek spins out several historical threads in this regard that also resonate with the other means by which meals are made. The overlaps among the roles of cooks are at the heart of the complexity and the pleasure of contemporary American meals.

A tacit expectation — and explanation — is that when men prepare food, cooking is either an art or a craft, but no longer a chore. Trubek offers up an explicit definition for cooking as art: “a dish or meal reveals virtuosity when the cook identifies the act of cooking as a creative process or when the cook possesses an internalized aesthetic standard (or both).” The chore becomes art when cooking is “perceived as going beyond performing functional tasks, becoming an act with creative or aesthetic aims” (113). This definition implies that when cooking is art, it is also a social act, just as cooking as a chore is a social act. The cook creates a meal for others, but perhaps with different aims. How do cooks decide that meal preparation can be an art?

Trubek attributes this notion largely to television chefs, from Julia Child to Mario Batali and others who have taken on an ever-increasing role in cooking instruction. These television chefs also teach viewers how to make cooking a pleasure and how to create an artfully rendered presentation of a meal to family and friends.

Cooking as art also includes meals that are part of ethnic or cultural tradition, although cultural tradition is also present in cooking as a chore, as occupation, and as craft. Trubek begins her discussion of cooking as craft with the story of Anina, who emigrated from Bosnia to New England in the early ’90s. The author narrates Anina’s meticulous preparation of a savory pastry called burek, which fulfills both of Trubek’s definitions of cooking as craft: “as the reproduction of a shared culinary repertoire or as the assertion of a set of culinary practices distinct from industrial processes” (156).

The overlaps are again evident, as cooking as a chore, an occupation, or an art can all include the preparation of a meal or dish that has personal and specific cultural originals. The examples throughout the chapter bear out this assumption, especially with home cooks who take classes that allow them to cook with minimal industrial intervention, such as bakers who favor homemade breads and pastries.

Finally, Trubek articulates the most significant overlap of all: no matter what, anyone who makes a meal wants it to be a healthy meal. There is not, however, a clear and succinct definition for a “healthy meal”. What may seem an obvious and oft-repeated assumption is also one that is naturalized: all cooks do what they can to make meals that taste good and are good for you. Because there are so many ways to prepare or purchase a good meal, the intricacies of the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural implications of cooking are seldom taken into account. Trubek’s presentation of her research is generally apolitical, yet the implications truly are not.

RATING 7 / 10