Reviews of Homeward Bound

“3.5 out of 4 stars” - People Magazine                                                               “The brilliance of Emily Matchar’s new book is that it exhaustively describes what disillusioned workers are opting into: a slower, more sustainable, and more self-sufficient lifestyle that’s focused on the home. Matchar synthesizes dozens of trend stories … into a single, compelling narrative about the resurgence of domesticity….Refreshing.” -The New Republic                                                       "[P]rovocatively explores what the movement says about the role of women in society today.” – The New Yorker                                                                       "I unreservedly loved it…It’s empathetic and funny and thoughtful and smart, and I encourage all of you to read it."– The Hairpin                                                         “Cogently argues that choosing a more hands-on, DIY lifestyle – family farming, canning, crafting, can, without sacrificing feminism’s hard-won gains, improve on an earlier time when ‘people lived more lightly on the earth and relied less on corporations, and family and community came first.’” - ELLE                                                               “[I]ntelligent and insightful...essential reading.” - Christianity Today                                                       “A lively and perceptive reporter… a valuable and astute assessment.”—Publishers Weekly                                                         “A well-researched look at the resurgence of home life…. Offers intriguing insight into the renaissance of old-fashioned home traditions.”— Kirkus Reviews

What is New Domesticity?

This blog is a look at the social movement I call ‘New Domesticity’ – the fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising, etc. Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off? Why has the image of the blissfully domestic supermom overtaken the Sex & the City-style single urban careerist as the media’s feminine ideal? Where does this movement come from? What does it mean for women? For families? For society?                                                                                     My book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, which explores New Domesticity in greater depth, will be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013.

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But cooking’s for GIRLS!!!

There’s the pervasive assumption, even in liberal quarters, that cooking is no longer a gendered activity – we’ve achieved equality in the kitchen, battle over, hurrah! Just flick on the Food Network to see any one of a dozen hairy-chested celebrity chefs splashing testosterone around the kitchen like it was EVOO. I cry sexism, you raise me one Bobby Flay.

Yet the vast majority of home cooking in America is still done by women – women prepare 78 percent of home dinners, spending nearly three times as many hours per week planning or preparing meals as men do (5.5 vs 2).

As progressive food activists increasingly call for a return to more intensive home cooking in the name of health and environmentalism (think Slow Food, Michael Pollan, the locavore movement), we really need to take a hard look at gender roles in the kitchen. As long as women are doing almost all the home cooking, telling people to “get back to the kitchen and make an organic lasagna with home-grown spinach” essentially means telling women to do even more domestic labor.

And even though men are clearly doing more cooking than they did in the past, the pace of change is…sluggish. To get an idea of just how dominant the idea of “woman as home cook” still is, I suggest a visit to your local toy store.

You see, my ponderings about cooking and gender recently drove me to a place I haven’t been since circa1991: The Magic Marker-scented environs of the Durham, North Carolina Toys R’ Us. What I discovered here felt shocking (though maybe it shouldn’t have): cooking and food toys are clearly marketed to girls and girls only. Think pink and purple designs, packaging featuring pictures of beaming little girls, the pervasive use of words like “princess” and “mommy.” It’s 2011 outside, but in ToyWorld it’s a glitter-spangled cartoon version of 1955.

In the store’s “fake food toy” aisle (toy coffee pots, plastic fruits and veggies, play McDonald’s drive-thrus) I counted more than 50 different toys, and only ONE showed a picture of a little boy on the package. The rest were pure XX – girls pouring imaginary tea, girls toasting pretend toast in pink toasters, girls ringing up their plastic bananas at play grocery stores.

The standalone toy kitchens were a little better – many showed both a boy and a girl on the packaging (the notable exception was the Fisher-Price “Cook and Care” kitchen, which came with an attached highchair for a baby doll – this one was pink and purple and showed two “little mommies” on the package – hey, maybe it was a shout-out to lesbian families ;) .

Next came the “real food toy” aisle – the Easy-Bake ovens and cookie decorating kits and kiddie ice cream makers. This aisle was dominated by two brands: Easy-Bake and Girl Gourmet. Girl Gourmet was, needless to say, obviously marketed to girls exclusively: pink and purple packaging covered with pictures of giggling tweens with long shiny hair and magenta toques, items like a “candy ring maker” and a “sprinkle art jewelry” machine. Easy-Bake was just as girl-centered, with all-pink cookie kits and packaging featuring girls smiling lovingly at freshly-baked pink cupcakes.

In the general “girl toy” aisles, there were numerous food-related items: Disney princess tea sets, Tinkerbell tea sets, Olivia the pig tea sets, pink dollhouses outfitted with miniature kitchens, baby feeding sets, Strawberry Shortcake’s “Berry Cafe.” Notably absent from the “boy toy” aisle were any male-directed cooking toys – no Transformers cake set (imagine!), no GI Joe Army Kitchen Playset (GI Joe did, in fact, have a chef – his name was Roadblock and he was a badass from Biloxi, but his action figure is sold holding a machine gun, not a whisk, of course).

The picture shown above, of the little boy making a Play-Doh cake, was so unusual I actually whipped out my camera and took a photo. That’s just sad.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that producing more gender-neutral toys will magically shift domestic roles in this country (little boys will turn a toy spatula into a gun, blah blah blah), but if we continue to sell cooking as a “girl” activity, it’s no wonder that kids grow up seeing home-cooking as mostly “mommy’s job.”

And to those who think that the struggle for domestic gender equality is anywhere near over, stuff like this should be a wake-up call.

You give me Bobby Flay, I raise you one six-year-old boy frowning at an Easy-Bake oven and saying “but mommy, cooking’s for girls!”

6 comments to But cooking’s for GIRLS!!!

  • Gosh, I could say so much about this! For one, I think that food toys, whether the gross plastic kind or the pretentious, wooden, hand-painted kind, are the most ridiculous junk ever. I personally don’t know why you’d need dang toys while you can have your kids helping out right there in your kitchen if they be so inclined (of course, if there is no time-space for cooking in a family’s life, handing them cooking toys might not at all help in turning them into cooks, boys or girls, because children learn by imitating the culture in their homes, first and foremost). that is, in fact, where it begins. Both my husband and I are in the kitchen daily, making breakfast and lunch and supper all from scratch, including bread and some condiments, we grow our food out here, and that’s the environment in which our kids are shaped (of course, not everybody has the luxury, but we’ve organized our life in such a way that this could be possible – with the help of some family resources). In this environment, I am pleased to say that both of my children are comfortable using age-appropriate but real knifes chopping stuff (not elegantly, but that’s not the point – the point is to keep them involved), my daugther knows how to roll the dough, both of them help with putting up food, my daugther just learned how to help with pulling out a chicken’s guts when butchering, and my son in particular always rushes in to help no matter what I do in the kitchen (although he is too young for butchering). The point is not to raise a Bobby Flay but a boy who is raised in the culture of food where he can be included into putting it on the table. Or a girl for that matter.

  • Which, by the way, starts with developing a palate for real food in the first place, which no plastic cake decorating set will do for them.

  • I have mixed feelings on subjects like this. While I applaud women’s ability nowdays to get out into the workplace and do formerly “manly” jobs, and men’s willingness to help in the kitchen and with childcare (I must say, my husband is a fabulous chef, and has a better “nose” for seasoning and combining flavors than I do)… I was raised mostly by my old-fashioned grandparents, where my grandfather worked manual labor his entire life, built his family and home on his self-earned (usually self-employed) income alone, while my grandmother spent her years tending the (4 boys!) children, working the garden, and cooking the most wonderful meals and baked goods. I am blessed to have a similar husband, who actually WORKS (union sheet-metal.. you literally put your sweat, blood and tears into your job), and is more than happy to have me stay home to care for the children and cook rather than paying for childcare and grabbing fast-food so we can have a little more money in our pockets.

    I have two boys, ages 11 and 7, and a 13-month-old girl now. I was never allowed in the kitchen by my mother while she was cooking…which set me back quite a bit… but thankfully due to Granmaw, I always held a love for cooking and learned quickly. I love having my boys help me in the kitchen. My oldest can cook a few complete meals on his own, and will cook his own bacon and eggs, or grilled cheese sandwiches for himself and siblings (or even us adults!) He’s very proud of his eggs. He is allowed to cut and prepare everything except raw meat and onions, and still has a little trouble cutting carrots, but he’s getting better. I usually supervise when things need to be uniform size. My younger son is still limited to helping, and likes to dump ingredients into the pots, or stir for me, or gather and replace items.

    I like the idea of “play” food, since it allows them to pretend when we are not actually cooking, and it keeps the baby occupied, since she is not yet big enough to stand at the counter with us, and I can’t let her play with real food on the floor. I often pick her up to see the process though, and she enjoys eating fresh-cooked and raw foods.

    It does disappoint me to see so many girly-girlie items in this area, though. I’m appalled at the general complete pinky-princess mentality they place on young girls now. My little girl already enjoys brushing her hair and wearing necklaces, but she also has “boyish” toys like bugs, frogs, lizards, dinosaurs, and cars… she loves being outdoors and watching (or being in the middle of) her brothers playing, and already shows a great affinity for our farm animals. She will call for the dog so he can come give her kisses, and we have a flock of about 30 chickens, which she refers to as “Chick-chick”, and says “Bock bock bock”. She’s been very gentle and will stroke them, even when they were new chicks, unlike most babies her age who grab and squeeze. We take her out with us when we go milk the goats, as well.

    I’ll be glad when she’s old enough to go out and climb the trees.

    But there should be more boy-oriented cooking toys. My boys like making “food” with play-doh. They watch male-hosted cooking shows on PBS (Simply Ming, BBQ U., Julia and Jaques, that guy from Spain…that long-haired french guy…lol) When I do buy cooking toys, it is very generic items like Plastic Food, or Plushie Food (planning to make my own, actually), or Small Pots and Pans and Utensils from Goodwill. My daughter is starting to share and pretend now, she will bring me a plastic apple or eggplant to “bite”, she’ll pretend to bite them herself, or “feed” them to one of her dolls or stuffed animals. Her favorite is giving the banana to a stuffed monkey.

    We would all LOVE the idea of an army boy-oriented food toy… my boys play dress-up as pirates, army guys, Indiana Jones, or whatever, and already play with authentic surplus canteens and mess kits. One of my uncles is a Vietnam vet, so I got the experience of having mess kits to play with as well (I made many a dirt-acorn cake, and assorted plant-berry-seedpod pies), but most kids out there dont have that opportunity, all they know is what plastic pretend items they find in stores. Maybe instead of Easy-Bake oven for girls… they should produce Easy-MRE’s for army boys, or dehydrated chili and cornbread mix for cowboys… do kids even still play cowboys? But that might require an open flame or exposed heated surface, which most kids today are too “sheltered” to be able to play with safely.

    To hell with it… just get them some MREs or dehydrated foods, some surplus canteens and mess kits, and build them a campfire! Much better than fake stuff anyway.

  • Rebecca Weiss

    This is something about which I feel quite strongly! I loathe plastic crap, loathe the concept of gendered toy marketing, and even more loathe the fact that people will say certain gender differences are “natural” after these distinctions have been enforced over and over again from the time you get a baby his or her first gender-specific blanket. I encourage both my children to play with both cooking toys and fighting toys, but even more, to learn how real tools are used….whether in the kitchen or outdoors. My son seems to have a knack for cooking, and an interest in food in general. My daughter is only two, so it is hard to say, but she seems to be very adept with weaponry: her swordplay is pretty impressive!

  • My first question is about the statistic that 78% of women prepare their home dinners. What percentage of women currently work away from home? (I have no idea). As a stay-at-home mom it seems ridiculous to expect my husband to spend 8-10 hours at work and then come home and cook dinner when I’m home all day. So a more interesting statistic to me would be what percentage of dual-income households still have women cooking dinner every night?

    As to toys, we don’t own a toy kitchen, which I’m just now realizing is because I think of it as a girl’s toy and I have 3 little boys. However, if we go to a friend’s house with a toy kitchen, my two youngest sons will immediately gravitate toward it.

    I also remember my mom marveling that my little toy kitchen was the hot toy when she had preschool with me and 5 little boys. Boys do like to play with cooking toys, but I would agree that they are marketed to girls.

  • But Maren, you’re working, too! Just because you’re working in the home and it’s not paid doesn’t mean that you’re not also working. Why wouldn’t you share the cooking and other household duties?