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Glorification of Home Cooked Food: Justified, Or Just Another Way To Chain Women To The Kitchen?

Home cooked food, or 'maa ke haath ka khana' from films, is just men's way of keeping women in the kitchen, and pitted against one another.

Home cooked food, or ‘maa ke haath ka khana’ from films, is just men’s way of keeping women in the kitchen, and pitted against one another.

There are definite benefits to home cooked food – it is healthier and cheaper than eating out. However, it is not morally superior to eating out, and the way we cook at home, and eat out, both must evolve to make nutritious food accessible to all.

When I first came to the US, I started volunteering at a local library twice a week, to keep myself occupied. One day, speaking to one of the librarians there (a white woman,) I made a comment about what a chore cooking every day was. She responded, “But that’s what pizza delivery is for!”

For someone who thought of pizza as a treat, and not as something that could causally be dinner, it was one of those initial moments of culture shock – the realization that in American culture, home food was not the norm.

As Indian, I’ve always been taught to value home cooking. It’s healthier, more hygienic, and more cost efficient, is what we have been told. But is it really all that superior, when it is based on the unpaid labour of women, and when it is based, on a large extent, on casteist ideas of purity and pollution?

These are questions I have debated with myself for years now. I read up. I spoke to other people. And finally, I asked the members of Bean There, Crumb That — a Facebook food group, that acknowledges that food is political, to understand if there genuinely is value to home cooking, or if the glorification of ‘ghar ka khaana/mummy ke haath ka khaana’ is just one other way of keeping women in the kitchen, and in the margins.

There are benefits to home cooking

Let us begin by acknowledging that yes, home cooking does have significant advantages. It is not all empty glorification. Home cooking is healthy and economical.

To quote Amishi Bhata, “Home cooked meals are nutritious and even if we make fast food kind of food at home, the ingredients going in are known and hence a safer option to the same thing coming from outside.”

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For Rosun Rajkumar, who is a fitness enthusiast, it is a question of eating healthy. He notes that “you cannot build your body eating outside food… If you go to a regular restaurant and ask for rice and boiled chicken, they will most probably refuse that kind of customization.”

Ajay N points to the fact that even in Western countries, there is a gradual move towards home cooking. “There is homesteading revolution on in USA that advocates not only eating home cooked stuff, but growing one’s own food. This is essentially being able to control what goes into your food and avoiding chemicals etc used for mass production of food.” He is also critical of the aggressive marketing of the ‘culture’ of eating out.

The familiarity of home cooked meals can also be an emotional boost. “…there is a certain comfort factor with home cooked meals, even if it’s just a dal, rice and a nice vegetable/fish fry. Just like after long trips to exotic places, we yearn for our own beds in the same way I yearn for a home cooked meal after a long stint of eating out maybe on vacation or a function,” says Chandra Roy.

Burden for home cooked food falls disproportionately on women

As Purnima Arun says, so eloquently, much of the hype around home cooking comes from “the supermom syndrome. The glorification of home made food is romanticized similar to motherhood- it doesn’t matter how flawed it is, it is great because of its mere existence. Any mom who doesn’t cook at least two meals a day for her kid is shamed. I don’t think it’s because of the nutritional value of take outs, but rather, it’s “I have to cook so you should too” attitude, where we loathe that which we don’t dare to be, and we shame those who try to step out of the line.”

I spent Diwali 2019, at a potluck with friends, and I was surprised to hear woman after woman speak about the extra lengths they went to make sure that their families would have goodies for the festival. For many of them, this stemmed from the fact that their mothers had done the same for them when they were kids. For them, their mother’s love was in some way inseparable from the food they made.

One woman, who also has a successful career, and who engages in multiple other social activities, boasted about how she made two entirely separate meals – both elaborate – each day because, “my husband and kids cannot have the same thing for lunch and dinner.” She was losing out on her sleep, and her health, to make that happen. I was speechless.

And despite being a feminist who knows that that it is very much possible to love your family without stuffing them with food that you have sacrificed your leisure for, I must say that I did feel a twinge of guilt for not doing the same.

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Gowri Thampi agrees with Purnima. “I really dislike how everyone makes it into an issue of the morality of sorts. It should be about individual tastes, health conditions, availability, time etc. What’s so morally superior about making the choice to cook at home?” she asks. “I feel the morality aspect is all about misogyny and making women stay in the kitchen for the ‘health of the family’.” She adds.

The unvarnished truth is that the unpaid labour of women is the flavor of the day (and the month, and the year…) when it comes to home cooking. Even when the task is outsourced to a ‘cook,’ it is usually to women from underprivileged backgrounds, and who are usually not paid enough. The burden just shifts from one woman to another.

The casteist connections of home cooked food

In India, the fact that ‘outside’ food is regarded ‘impure’ because one does not know ‘who has cooked it,’ or because ‘it is cooked in the same kitchen as non-vegetarian food,’ is also a reason why home cooking is held up as morally superior.

If there is no other option but to eat out, the preference, among many people, is for ‘pure veg’ restaurants. In fact, even for masalas etc that are used for home cooking, there is a demand for products where the ‘purity’ is guaranteed. Food Historian and Researcher, Pushpesh Pant, is quoted in this article, in the context of the rightful criticism aimed at ‘Brahmins Sambar Powder,’ “Food snobbery is a part of India and the food that belongs to upper castes has always been more celebrated. In a caste-sensitive India, labelling your product as Brahmin (one) is a way to communicate that it boasts of the highest form of purity.”

The details of these casteist associations are not within the scope of this article, but it is important to keep in mind, that when home cooked food is praised for being ‘hygienic’ or ‘healthy,’ there are layers of hidden meaning.

A focus on home cooking is ableist too

For people who live with disabilities, chronic illnesses or with mental health issues, cooking complicated meals (or even simple meals!) daily can be an impossible task.

As Shreyasi Bose says, “I live alone. I order in 99% of my meals. I have ADHD and anxiety and borderline personality disorder. The depression and anxiety make it hard to cook at home. To me a home cooked meal is a delicacy. I appreciate it because I don’t have it on the regular. But there are healthy options for takeout also. I don’t cook because I don’t have the spoons, but if someone chooses not to cook, that should also be fine. Shaming people for eating out is juvenile. We are all very busy people and we can’t really sustain cooking every day on top of it.”

So, is eating out the solution?

Like Shreyasi, Riddhi Singh too believes that there are healthier options for eating out. It is also convenient. “Once I was bitching about how much my family spent on Indian restaurant takeouts when I can make a week’s worth of saag chicken for the same amount. My son replied ” But do you? We are paying for that convenience not for saag chicken.” I shut up. I like cooking when I feel like which is not most of the time so outside food it is for my family.”

While Dinky Chhabria on the whole prefers food that is “homemade, seasonal and local,” she also acknowledges that things are not always so simple or straightforward. “I will never care about drowning myself in the kitchen to bake something or make time-consuming gourmet food, just to impress family for friends. For that, it is better to eat outside, so you can buy in small quantities & consume it. I know it’s kinda contrary to what I said about waste earlier. But if you look at the metadata, it may make sense.”

However, holding up eating out is not an ideal solution either. Even if one can find healthy options, they are usually not cheap, and not everyone can afford it.

Even when they can pay for it, classism and casteism ensure that the poor in India, can’t even set foot in the premises of many eateries, let alone eat there.

So, what is the solution then?

The one thing that everyone is in agreement with, is that cooking shouldn’t be the task of women alone.

“What would ease the burden of home cooking would be a comfortable distribution of work in the kitchen (if your culinary skills are not too great, you could contribute by chopping or the clean up after. I am purposefully not using the word ‘help’ as it implies that the onus of work is the other person’s). Another way to reduce the burden would be to not have to make the full thali meals that we grew up on. One can juggle the nutritional balance of proteins carbs etc by splitting the thali in two meals, say roti subji in the morning, daal rice in the evening etc. (Frankly the whole roti subji daal rice being a complete meal is a legacy from our previous generation, with the sedentary and low activity life that we mostly lead, it’s actually a burden on our digestive system),” says Amishi Bhata.

As Anushree K S, points out, much of how we eat, is connected to how we run our economy – from how food is produced, to how it is sold, to whose responsibility it is to cook. “There is a need to a) dismantle social structures where just one person is responsible for the food and advocacy of all having to cook is essential, b) lesser working hours are required so that we get time to think of not just production of food but also about sustainable alternatives for environment,” she says.

A system where everyone, irrespective of class or caste, can access good quality, nutritious food, would be ideal – a socialist food industry, which can come from, “dismantling aggressive capitalism,” as Anushree puts it.

Home cooking is great – but it is not necessarily ‘superior’ to eating out. For now, it does perpetuate existing inequalities and making it an activity that engages the whole family, instead of a burdento be borne by one person, will go a long way in making it truly worthwhile.

Image source: stills from the films English Vinglish, and The Great Indian Kitchen

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