Kitchen Secrets: the meaning of cooking in everyday life . Oxford : Berg 2006 viii + 168pp . £55.00 ISBN 184 520 2740 (hbk) £19.99 ISBN 13 978 184520 726 7 (pbk)
Food, Morals and Meaning: the pleasure and anxiety of eating . ( Second Edition ) Abingdon : Routledge , 2006 xviii + 188pp . £19.99 ISBN 0 415 37621 1 (pbk)
As a parent I have, so far at least, failed to instil in my children a love of good food, decorous behaviour and fascinating dinner-time table talk. This worries me on different levels. Am I preparing them properly for successful adult social life? Will their long-term health suffer if they don't eat well now? And, of course, what can I do about it? From watching the television, reading the newspapers and talking to friends, it seems to me that my experience is not particularly unusual.
Being short of robust explanation does little to help stifle a sense of guilt. So it seemed like a good time to read John Coveney's Food, Morals and Meaning, and Frances Short's Kitchen Secrets so that I could, at the very least, sociologise about the problem – even if it could not be resolved.
These two books share some common ground empirically as they both report upon original qualitative research on the domestic culinary practices of a small number of contemporary heterosexual couple households – many of whom were parents. Against a backdrop of historical analysis, the authors account for the turbulent relationship people have with food as their desires (for fulfilment, pleasure, an easy life) come into conflict with received ideas about idealised body shape, their own and their children's health, and a degree of guilt or shame for not living up to expectations about how to live successful family lives.
The authors tackle this project in very different ways. Short promises much about the provision of theoretical explanation for home cooking, but the book does not really achieve this. It does, though, have many interesting historical anecdotes and provides good access to the academic literature through its footnotes. So there is much to commend the book as it combines a ‘good read’ infused with a good deal of sociological and social historical explanation – but ultimately leaves the reader to sort out for themselves what to conclude.
Coveney's book also introduces the reader to a wealth of historical anecdote, but his book by contrast, is highly focused theoretically and exudes a sense of academic sturdiness. Coveney's theoretical direction is framed by Foucault's genealogical analysis, which is summarised in these terms. ‘Genealogy is a form of investigation which does not take as its starting point individuals or subjects who are generators of ideas, creators of knowledge, and discovers of things. It examines instead the contexts from which they are constructed’ (p. xv). I found his allegiance to Foucault's ideas a little overbearing and constraining analytically. That said, Coveney's perspective allows him to paint a big picture on a very wide historical canvas – ranging from worldly Ancient Greeks, ascetic Christians, through to early modernity, the industrial revolution and contemporary life. Inevitably, corners are cut which may upset more historically focused academics. But as a sociologist, I like this broad brush approach because it helps both to contextualise and defamiliarise the here and now.
Food, Morals and Meanings garners its evidence primarily from historical and policy analysis, but there is one substantive empirical chapter in the book. Here Coveney reports on a study of twelve Australian heterosexual couples. He is generous in his use of quotation, so allowing the reader to get a reasonable sense of who his respondents are. But his analytical approach falls short by comparison with some of the better qualitative studies on domestic life.
Coveney justifies his decisions to let the passages of dialogue speak for themselves by reference to Foucault's assertion that subjectivities are produced by discourses. I am not sure that I can accept that argument fully because, as is also the case in Short's book, the in-depth qualitative interview really does seem only to scratch the surface of people's food, family and societal values. On the surface, respondents seemed to be fairly honest about their views about families and food – but it is what they were leaving out of the equation which strikes me as being more interesting. Their partial responses are understandable on different levels. Firstly, because it is not surprising that respondents do not wish to say things which might discredit themselves? In both of the books under review, it appeared to me that some respondents were affronted by the implications of lines of questioning – and in response, they fudged their answers or answered a different question altogether. And secondly, they may not tell all, simply because they do not have full access to their feelings about their actions and explanations for what they do. Short was generous to print very long extracts from interviews in an appendix to the main text which, through close reading, led me to form this second view. The danger for any qualitative researcher who lets the reader do the analysis for themselves is that the reader can all too readily go off on an analytical tangent. Without the relatively close control that Coveney provides, Short left herself open to this possibility, and as a consequence the lasting message of the book became clouded.
Observation might have been a useful methodology in both texts to supplement, balance and inform the analysis, not just in the home, but at the supermarket too – to evince deeper clues about the un-said. Short considered but discarded this option. Others have taken the time, with some effect, to observe household practices, notably Carrington (No Place Like Home,1999), Silva (Gender, Class, Emotional Capital and Consumption in Everyday Life, 2007) and Pink (Home Truths: Gender, Domestic Objects and Everyday Life,2004). And as a consequence, it was possible for them to break into an analysis of the unsaid, understated, deflected or perhaps just ‘made up’.
In spite of these methodological criticisms, both books have considerable strengths when explaining the extent to which ideas about food and nutrition are employed in the governance of other people's bodies – especially children's. Looking back to the 1950s and 1960s, the time of his respondents’ own childhoods, Coveney shows that parents construct an image of a simpler world within which children were obliged to eat what was put in front of them, whether they liked it or not, and if they did not – trouble could be expected.
Loss of parental authority and responsibility, is the principal moral panic of our age. And yet, critical assessment of what, precisely, has been lost is rarely discussed. Coveney does well to fill this gap by recognising, sometimes through the voices of his respondents, that effecting control over children was easier in a society which was characterised by its lack of alternatives. Food at the Australian (or British as discussed in Short's book) dinner table was meat (or offal), potatoes and seasonal vegetables – and it could be assured that all the children down the street were being persuaded to eat much the same stuff.
Many of us will recall the miseries of sitting daily at the dinner table and being told to eat politely (mastering cutlery, chewing with mouths shut, having elbows off the table, and being quiet – or worse, being expected to talk). Respondents in both books commented, explicitly or implicitly, on the process of managing children's eating habits in the mirror of their own parents’ laudable but nevertheless hostile attempts to tame and better their children nutritionally, spiritually and socially. As Coveney puts it: ‘. . . as well as surveying and monitoring children in this way, parents are also inspecting themselves. They are effectively undertaking the role of the “good” parent: one who is expected to show interest and concern about their children's activities’ (p. 126, emphasis in original).
Coveney demonstrates how some respondent's struggled against the odds to impose anachronistic values on their children, while others yielded to the insurmountable pressures of the world outside their front doors. Either way, all parents seemed to feel guilt for failing their children – even the self confessed ‘lazy’ ones who claimed to have thrown in the towel and let their children eat junk food in front of the TV.
Nagging children to eat the right things, eat politely and expect them to talk at the table may be unrealistic in a changed world. And it begs the question, why bother? Kids will grow up and learn these skills for themselves in the company of significant others whom they may wish to impress. Short suggests ‘It is also difficult to prove that the family meal – in its “traditional” democratic, communicative and sociable form – has ever really existed, let alone whether it is in decline. As is often pointed out, in many communities around the world and until very recently in the West, few except the wealthiest have had any sort of dining tables, crockery or eating implements’ (p. 3).
Short delves into the justifications (or rather, ‘excuses’) people give for preparing food in certain ways. Uneasy feelings abound amongst her respondents as they try to explain why they failed to live up to the standards that they expect of themselves. The excuses came thick and fast as respondents complained of too much abundance, too much choice, too little time to cook, too much temptation, too much knowledge about what they could achieve but too little motivation, confidence or skill to do it. The health risks associated with the wrong decisions produced similar quandaries. This is hardly surprising given the academic industry devoted to over-turning the latest claim on what's good for you and what's not. That said, Short did not believe that her most of her sixteen respondents were overly anxious about food choice, cooking skills and styles nor, for that matter, nutrition and health.
Meanwhile on the home front: after spending four hours preparing a high calorie, cholesterol soaked Sunday roast inspired by a Jamie Oliver TV show I had watched earlier in the week, my wailing and moaning youngest child kicked off the proceedings. I heard myself demanding (shouting?) ‘If you don't calm down and eat nicely, you’ll be leaving the table!’ The battle goes on.