Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Pull Yourself Up By Your Oven Mitts

Heh, Megan McArdle has convinced herself that she is a trained chef.
Unless one of us has a work engagement, my husband and I try to eat dinner together every night. And while we occasionally resort to takeout or that old standby the grocery store rotisserie chicken, at least nine times out of 10, that means I plan and prepare things with my own two hands. Not because Cooking Is a Woman’s Job, but because in my household, Cooking Is a Megan Job, by training and preference.
Yes, just as her academic training makes her a skilled and popular economics blogger, her culinary training has made her an almost-chef. And if she has not, in "reality," actually been trained as a chef, surely absorbing knowledge by osmosis, the Food Network and The New York Times food section is just as good, right? She was born with everything she needs; delicate, refined senses, the intelligence to master any task she attempts, and the force of will, moral strength, and dedication to hard work that illuminates all of our elite. She's a Thomas Kinkade painting, whose light shine out for all to admire. Oh, and so is her chosen mate, of course.
My admirably feminist husband does the dishes, which to be honest, he probably does not enjoy as much as I enjoy cooking. If there is a net psychic wealth imbalance in our distribution of household chores, I am the one running the chronic surplus.
Which no doubt makes up for the actual wealth imbalance. McArdle is lucky to have a partner who is so like her in every way and thus is able to do what he is told without resentment.
I love thinking up things to make, and making them. I like finding new recipes, and trying them. I like planning our meals, figuring out what things complement one another. I like the smug satisfaction of knowing there’s something delicious in the Crock-Pot, and I put it there. Maybe I hate myself a little when I bake my own bread and spread it with homemade ricotta and fresh tomatoes from the farmers' market or a friend’s garden. But I also really, really, really love those sandwiches.
You know how James Joyner keeps saying he doesn't understand what the left has against Megan McArdle? It's the gloating. Most people don't care if someone else manages to pull a con on a con. That's why we enjoy Leverage.  But this "don't hate me because I'm beautiful" smugness is both personally repellent and laughable. The smelly hippies that McArdle loves to vilify were baking bread and making cheese long, long before McArdle popped out of the womb. And the smugness is undeserved. We have seen her "best of" recipes and they are fatty, over- or under-seasoned, and avoid anything fresh. What she calls "the smug satisfaction of knowing there’s something delicious in the Crock-Pot," most women call Tuesday night dinner.

In the interests of Both Sides Do It, McArdle admits that cooking can be tedious, especially with children involved. And because the articles that McArdle cites address the issue, McArdle admits that P. Suderman, boy busboy, sometimes doesn't like what she makes. Having greased the way, McArdle finally gets to the point: liberal feminists are dumb.
Does this mean that the ideal of joyful cooking is an excessively idealized illusion? That’s what Amanda Marcotte suggests, riffing off a recent sociology study of how people incorporate Mark Bittmanesque ideals into their everyday lives. It turns out that the women who cook find kids and husbands more difficult to deal with than do the folks in loving magazine articles about growing your own lima beans and making fresh succotash. Fresh produce tends to rot if you shop only once a month. Hectic schedules make it difficult to get everyone sitting at the table. Preparing new things on a tight food budget is risky when they might end up rotting in the refrigerator, uneaten.
Of course McArdle is wrong because she is not addressing reality, she is addressing the scenario in her head. In this scenario, Marcotte discusses women who are not poor and want to eat local and eat less meat, perhaps. Marcotte is terribly silly for worrying about the difficulties of the poor, since there are none, or there are none who can't find a way to cook. After mocking the poor, McArdle mocks the sociology study's solutions.
And to be sure, those articles can be extremely annoying, not to mention unrealistic. Michael Pollan’s riff about his family trying McDonald's for the first time and finding it gross struck me as a fine bit of elitist mythmaking: I mean, maybe it’s true of the Pollans, but I find it hard to believe that neither he nor his children had ever encountered a Quarter Pounder before. And even harder to believe that no one liked it; the chain is wildly successful in all sorts of places that have stellar reputations for lovingly home-prepared food. My mother, who made her own croissants, also loves Sausage McMuffins. It’s OK to extoll the joys of taking the time to prepare some complicated dish and to reassure people that cooking high-quality food is not necessarily as difficult as they think. It’s also OK to grab the occasional bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That said, the sociology study reads like it was written by aliens who unfortunately never got to spend much time on their visit to our planet. Some of the obstacles they cite to cooking are obviously huge, such as living in a motel room that only has a microwave and a tiny sink (though you can, I must note, acquire a used hot plate at most thrift stores for under $10, as long as you can sneak it past management). Some of them are frankly bizarre. Pests! Small kitchens! Not enough money for high-quality organic produce! Welcome to life in New York City, home of a very high percentage of the nation’s foodies.
I'm sure a woman who barely makes enough to cover the night's rent for a hotel room near her crappy job is willing to risk getting thrown out and watch her kids sleep on the street. But you can't downplay poverty without a little callousness, so McArdle smears a little Aleppo pepper on the poor, greases them up with truffle oil, and throws the them to the wolves.
Seriously, here’s Mark Bittman’s kitchen. Here’s mine; it is larger than the New York City kitchen in which my mother prepared thousands of meals for friends and family, although not so well laid out. But it’s 110 years old, laid out for a workman’s family, not a fancy mansion with servants. By the standards of any new home, it’s tiny. Though it’s enormous by historical standards, which call, for most of the human beings who have ever lived, for a single room in which the family cooks, eats and often sleeps. Yet somehow, women have been preparing scratch meals under these intolerable conditions for millennia.
She actually has the unmitigated gall to compare her and Bittman's circumstances to those of the poor.
The picture of my kitchen does not, alas, show the annual ant infestation that streams in through our 100-year-old walls or the mice that regularly immigrate from nearby construction sites or the traditional end-of-summer fruit-fly infestation. I don’t know a single middle-class family that doesn't have a pest problem of one kind or another. Nor do I know anyone who finds, say, the omnipresent New York City cockroach a reason not to cook.
There, that proves that bugs aren't a problem for the poor. McArdle has bugs during mating season but is still able to cook.
These things, it is true, make cooking less fun than it sounds on the pages of a magazine or to imagine in moments of gauzy fantasy. But that’s true of everything; women’s liberation itself turned out to be more complicated and fraught than its founders imagined, which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.
Forming a family is hard, not because of poverty or class or sexism (though those things can make it harder). Forming a family is hard because, hey!, there’s another person here, and he has his own ideas about how the household should be run, and also, he's in the way. Did we really need sociology researchers to point that out?
If smart, successful people like Megan McArdle can only convince slothful poor people and liberal researchers that cooking isn't always fun, poor women would start pulling themselves up by their own oven mitts and stop looking for help and money from poor hard-working elites like Megan McArdle.
This air of shock at ordinary facts of human existence spills over into the solutions the sociologists propose, which are … well, I’ll let them speak for themselves:
So let’s move this conversation out of the kitchen, and brainstorm more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families. How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.

Easing women's burdens instead of telling them to work harder? Why? How would that benefit Megan McArdle?
Small towns and rural areas already have lots of potlucks, which they could have found out by stopping at any firehouse or church. And as for the idea that we can fix America’s dinner hour by having the school cafeteria cater it -- one hardly knows where to start!
Doesn't your town have a VFW annual potluck? They do? Problem solved!
Having made fun of their solutions, I suppose it behooves me to offer some of my own. Luckily, I happen to have a little list right here:
Lucky, lucky duckies! McArdle's rules:
1. Don’t cook from scratch if you hate to cook. Cooking is a joy. So is rock climbing, or ice skating, or reading science fiction novels. That doesn’t mean it’s a joy everyone shares. There’s no reason that you should cook from scratch if you don’t like doing it. America’s supermarkets offer an ever-more-stunning variety of quick, tasty, relatively healthy frozen entrees. Virtually every grocery store has a giant freezer case devoted to making dinner time a snap, another big refrigerator case filled with things that take barely more time, and a huge prepared-foods section that is still cheaper than takeout. So is a box of pasta and a bottle of decent sauce like Rao’s. For that matter, I still remember very fondly my grandmother’s signature kid dish: hamburger meat, pasta shells and Ragu.
And if you don't have a refrigerator just sneak one into your hotel room.
2. Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the adequate. The primary object is to keep everyone’s stomach filled without giving them Type II diabetes or busting the budget. Do that first, then stretch to more ambitious goals such as mastering coq au vin.
You wanted to come home from a long day of cleaning offices and master coq au vin but you should stick to a casserole instead.
3.Frozen produce is just as good for you as fresh. I don’t like them as well, to be sure. And there’s a certain amount of variability: Frozen fruit is better than fresh for most cooking; frozen peas, artichokes and pearl onions are very good; frozen broccoli’s not my favorite. But these are vegetables that were picked at the height of freshness, flash-frozen nearby, then transported to your store without bruising or wilting. They keep a long time. And they’re already pre-prepped, so all you have to do is thaw and season them. You can do a lot with sauces and seasoning to make frozen vegetables a worthy side.
You could add... fat!
4. For risk-averse kids and spouses, try everything new as a side dish to the main course. For example, I love chickpeas. The Official Blog Spouse was deeply skeptical. So when I got a new recipe for slow-cooker chickpea tagine, I served it alongside a full meal of things he already liked. Three bites into the chickpeas, he said, “You know, this winter, we should have this as a main course.” I’m not saying you’ll get those results every time; many’s the evening he’s taken a few bites of something new and put his fork down forever. I’m just saying you’ll get less fighting and spoilage if you introduce new things in a lower-risk manner than throwing it on the table and saying “That’s all there is, so you’d better eat.”
So if your kids have been eating cereal for three straight days and want something else, just tell them that there are husbands in DC who have to eat chickpea tagine made by Megan McArdle to give them a sense of perspective.
5. Pre-prep and freeze. Yes, you can be one of those people who pre-preps nine slow-cooker meals, carefully freezes them and dutifully puts them in the slow cooker on the appointed morning. I am not one of those people. I am, however, one of those people who freezes big batches of soup or chili, throws some marinade on a roast before popping it in the freezer, or flattens and flours chicken cutlets, freezes them on a baking sheet and pops them in a freezer bag to be prepared later as needed. There’s no need to defrost before cooking as long as they’re relatively thin. Steaks can also be cooked straight out of the freezer, as can pot roast or stew meat. Loaves of bread can also be prepped (cut into servings, or turned into garlic bread), then frozen in foil for later use. So do those things when you have time, then at a hectic dinner time, you can have a full meal on the table in 10 to 20 minutes.
Make sure you buy in bulk and cook ahead, even if you have twenty dollars in your purse and it has to buy gas, food for today, and a pair of size 4 girl's shoes from the resale shop.
6. The odds of a picky husband or child dying of malnutrition or whining are really very low. I’m not saying that it never happens. In most cases, however, they will eat when they get hungry enough. You are, as my mother frequently noted, not running a restaurant. Your job is to put healthy food on the table, not to make sure they leave said table in paroxysms of delight. It’s disappointing if they don’t like everything you are cooking, but too many women let that disappointment drive them to unreasonable lengths.
The condescension acorn did not fall far from the tree. McArdle goes on to give her readers more advice on how to be just like Megan McArdle, advice that sadly would be useless for the poor women in the sociology study. After happily burbling on about her specialness for a while she finally wraps it up.
We shouldn’t over-idealize home cooking as some glittering apex of human experience that no decent person can do without. But let’s not remedy the cultural overshoot by demonizing the preparation of a decent, healthy meal as a grueling chore that stonkers all but the most privileged and dedicated cooks. Cooking at home is often fun, and it’s almost always cheaper and healthier than the alternative -- and tastier, if the alternative is picking up a tray at the high school cafeteria. It can, of course, be stressful -- but it can be a lot less stressful if you will repeat after me: “I’m not running a restaurant. I’m running a home.”
Unless you don't have one, and then you are running out of time. But that's okay, because you are not Megan McArdle and therefore you don't actually exist. The moral of our story: poor women could feed their families very well if they just tried harder. And nobody else needs to help.


willf said...

If smart, successful people like Megan McArdle can only convince slothful poor people and liberal researchers that cooking isn't always fun, poor women would start pulling themselves up by their own oven mitts and stop looking for help and money from poor hard-working elites like Megan McArdle.


I don't think "lol" covers it here. I laughed so hard the cat is mad at me.

Damn Susan, why isn't someone paying you to write? You should be at Jezebel, or Wonkette, or Harpers.

Susan of Texas said...

McArdle said that if you are really good at your job and go to cocktail parties someone will offer you a job. Maybe I should start going to cocktail parties.

Clever Pseudonym said...

I've always thought Susan would have been a great contributor to The Atlantic, before they hired a bunch of writers that starts-and-ends-in-tea-and-rhymes-with-"pots."

I'm too I'll-behaved here when she writes about food. I'll shut up and wish my fellow snarkers good tidings. I do wonder, though. Do the Koch Brothers (call your lawyer) own a pre-packaged food company?

Kathy said...

Its when arglebargle writes about cooking that her true stupid shines in all its glory.

Here exists a very stupid woman who thinks she brilliant, and an inferior cook who thinks she's the next Julia Child. God help the world if she ever becomes a mother; hopefully she'll hire a nanny (and writes reams of explanations and rationalizations for doing so, even tho NO ONE CARES).

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, CP. Your post are just fine.

Heh, she probably thinks her height means she's just as good a cook as Child.

Clever Pseudonym said...

Megan: the reason why the rest of the world thinks Americans don't get irony. The Bittman piece she links to is all about how you don't need gadgets and gimmicks, Megan's two favorite cooking tools.

Susan of Texas said...

Heh, McArdle probably thinks telling the poor they don't need a kitchen is the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Is there any way we can get her a Food Network show? I bet she'd take it (especially if it involved not just food but "lifestyle"), and she would do less damage there then as a "journalist".

Anonymous said...

gadgets and gimmicks are her *only* two cooking tools.

Anonymous said...


Susan of Texas said...

Everyone loves to scold.

You do what you can; that is what the study tried to point out. The family dinner isn't a magic formula; if the family isn't healthy the reason is not mealtime. It's how people treat each other and the problems of their lives.

I make family dinners almost every day and have for two decades. They make almost no difference in our health and happiness except in the most obvious way--better food and time together. How we treat each other the rest of the day determines if dinner time is pleasant or miserable.

How many people hated dinner hour because their parents were miserable people?

Nobody wants to make it easier for the poor, they just want to tell them to work harder.

Anonymous said...

*lives a life unlike most Americans*
*tells other people how they should live*

bill murray said...

I can't believe Megan missed the most obvious solutions

1. Take your family to bar happy hours. Sneak 'em in if ya have to and let's work to break on through those family destroying regulations that keep the whole family out of the bar in the first. I'm sure some creatively imagining liberal might whine about some made up downside, but really the faster the poor figure out where to drown their sorrows and get a good meal the better.

2. Free range insects, rodents and other people's pets. Heck if you can get a magnifying glass you can even cook some of the smaller ones. Also, pets, insects and rodents are eaten by the poor all over the world, so why should you get to be so picky just because you live in the US of Megan's A. As for the Swiftian solution, you didn't hear it from Megan because she only saw Jack Black's Gulliver's Travels movie/

Clever Pseudonym said...

I hear the Thermomix* makes adequate road kill gravy.

*I'll bet there's an inventor somewhere laughing about how he/she tricked stupid white people to pay 1.5 grand for a blender. Ditto for the Truffle Oil With No Truffles Included guy. If only I were greedy enough to contrive the scam...

fish said...

I know when I am looking for advice on how to reach a balanced family life in a high pressure world, I go speak to people who don't have a family or a high pressure life, because obviously they have all the answers. She would have fit well in Victorian England lecturing the degenerate help on how to live a more upstanding life.


Susan of Texas said...

Megan and servants would be hysterical. Where are reality shows when you need them?