Rhiannon Harries: 'I'll toast the family meal – but let's not pretend it's always been perfect'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The revered American food writer Michael Pollan has much to say about what is wrong with the way we eat now. In his latest book, Food Rules, he gets his teeth into the babel of fad diets, official recommendations and pseudo-science that surrounds the food we choose.

It is hard to quibble with most of his resulting judgements: eat more veg; stop before you're full; eat food made by humans, not machines. So simple, they are, in fact, genius. But a comment Pollen made in an article about the US food movement in The New York Review of Books last month has had foodie feminists and feminist foodies foaming at the mouth.

Referring to a new book by Janet A Flammang, The Taste of Civilization, Pollan writes: "In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating 'foodwork' – everything involved in putting meals on the family table – we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal."

Rather a fan of his, I was ready to give Pollan the benefit of the doubt here on the grounds that he is précising someone else's argument (albeit uncritically), and as far as I can make out he wants everybody to get back into the kitchen and don a pinny, not just us women.

What is a little concerning about both writers' apparent line of thought, though, is that the key to our health and happiness seems to lie in some mythical past where every family meal resembled a Bisto ad.

Eating with others, at a table, can be a lovely thing – when all my flatmates are out of an evening, I find a quote from Jean Baudrillard's America, "He who eats alone is dead", on loop in my head as I nibble my toast. But the idea that we will find a "nursery of democracy" by looking back to meals past seems romantic in the extreme.

Has the British family meal historically been such a great social institution? Wealthy Victorians, for example, adored a formal mealtime so much that they invented an extra one – afternoon tea – but kids ate with their nannies until they were old enough to learn to grasp that mouths were for eating, not speaking, at table.

Even the happy, noisy family meals I remember from my own childhood were hardly lessons in citizenship – as the youngest, I never lifted a finger to help with cooking or clearing (probably partly why I find myself eating toast for dinner quite often), and I still know plenty of families where boys are similarly excused.

So yes, indeed Mr Pollan, let's get families cooking and conversing around the table together. Just don't try to tell us it was ever thus.