From Feast To Famine To Historical Speculation: The Kettle Calls The Pot, “Powerful.”

Posted on October 8, 2010


I grazed this morning.

I have a super abundance of fresh organic veggies in my fridge, thanks to my share in VegetablePatch.

For a variety of reasons, this morning, I let myself get too hungry. I don’t like to cook when I’m very hungry. I want satisfaction and I want it now.

Time after time, this summer, I’ve been astounded at how tasty top-notch, fresh vegetables really are. Whenever I pick up my share, invariably, I start stuffing my face right away. Although there are notable exceptions, more often than not, I’ve discovered that I prefer the taste of raw veggies rather than cooked.

So, this morning, I started nibbling, then, I started foraging, eventually, I feasted.

Along with some toast, cheese, pate, and hot sauce, I devoured whatever vegetable most seemed like it wanted to be consumed at that particular moment. And I only devoured vegetables I normally would not even consider buying: carrots, radishes, and turnips. They were raw and delicious.

Because cooking often diminishes the taste of really fresh healthy food and because it also reduces its nutritional value, it got me thinking about the human habit of cooking food.

The first question that came to mind: would we really tolerate the tasteless vegetables and disease ridden meat we’ve become accustomed to, if we didn’t cook? The second: why did we start to cook in the first place? Once stated, the connection between the two questions becomes apparent.

My best guess is that cooking emerged in conditions of scarcity. Thanks to the power of heat, otherwise unsafe foods can be consumed and inedibles made more palatable. The cooking process can also transform small amounts of food into much larger servings.

Cooking is also a great way to centralize and redistribute scarce resources. Everyone adds to the pot, everyone takes from the pot. Sometimes equitably, sometimes not.

And from this perspective, in conditions of scarcity, the person who controls the pot and serves the food has a lot of power.

Because of the era in which we grew up, most of us, I’m willing to guess, think of cooking and serving food as thankless menial work, shunted to the person with the least status in the household.

And, in our lifetime, this is often the case.

In our part of the world, there is a superabundance of food and its safe supply is secured and controlled by people outside the household. In a household where everyone has the money and/or the ability to feed themselves, the power of the person at the pot diminishes considerably.

Control of a scarce resource, whether the scarcity is real or perceived, is very often the best source of power. And power is a valuable resource. Some people will take on unwanted work to get that power. As soon as that power is diminished, those same people will quickly rid themselves of the work.

There is, however, more to cooking than survival and power.

The provision of food is very often an expression of affection, comradeship, and community.

And this line of thought ends with a historical speculation:

There may have been a time in human history when the centre of social power resided squarely with whomever cooked. Some women took control of this essential function because it could not be trusted to men and some because it was a source of power. Some other women did it simply because it’s what all the other women were doing.

Over time, and in large part due to industrialization, power shifted from the cooking function to the control of some other scarce resource essential to the survival of the species (health services, possibly). Women concerned with power became resentful of the cooking responsibility and, then, speaking on behalf of all women, managed to shed themselves of this responsibility.

Today, some women continue to do most of the cooking out of habit. Some women do it because the provision of food remains an important expression of affection and kinship. Some women do it because, in many circumstances, it remains a source of power. Some women do it for all the reasons so far mentioned.

And the women who tend do most things because other women do it, are confused or are fierce supporters of whatever group of women with which they happen to identify.

My hypothesis: cooking was designated “woman’s work” because, at one point in human history, it was essential to the survival of the species and the centre of social power. It ceased to be considered “woman’s work” once it was neither essential to the survival of the species nor the centre of social power.

What do you think?