Andrea Crawford


In the Blog: On Reading Food Labels

Everytime I visit Indiana and enter my mother’s kitchen I cannot stop myself. I do what I do everywhere: I read food labels. My goodness, what an act of transgression this is. Whenever she catches me peering into her pantry or refrigerator, the atmosphere sours, tensions heighten; sometimes she even walks away in a huff. And really, why shouldn’t she? To her, I am being judgmental, a snob, a nag. I am criticizing her way of shopping, eating, in fact, her entire way of living.

I intend my actions to be value neutral. I have stopped trying to share my thoughts, even learned to stop sighing in frustration. But these attempts at redemption have come too late, for the narrative, as too often is the case in familial relationships, has already been set.

And let’s be honest. My actions are perhaps not actually as neutral as I think they are, not when I can feel apoplexy arise every time I open that refrigerator door only to discover she refuses, still, to give up her “nonfat cream.” At first, years ago now, I had explained it to her with the enthusiasm and joy of a missionary spreading the gospel. Guess what? I told her. Fat’s not so bad for you—but corn syrup is! So it’s okay to put full-fat cream in our coffee. Isn’t that wonderful?

I had naively believed that everyone shares my fascination with the latest research on health and nutrition and feels that indelible joy when science justifies a pleasure.

She did not share my enthusiasm, and she hasn’t changed her ways.

What a downer I must be when my sisters and I gather around mom’s table for our traditional Christmas breakfast—now shared on whatever occasion brings us together—and, try as I might, I simply cannot hide my disgust at eating pancakes made from Bisquick. What self-respecting cook would use a pancake mix at all, let alone on a special holiday meal? It’s not like it’s difficult to blend together a few dry ingredients and some oil. (I have, at least, now stopped saying these things aloud.)

Yes, it’s true, my delivery methods are all wrong, but my intentions pure. I say these things out of love and concern; processed food is the enemy of health and flavor. Instead we should cook. Living according to that tenet has become nothing short of a mission for many of us: the Food Movement, Slow Food Movement, Locavore Movement, call it what you like. We should eat food freshly procured directly from farmers, at best, or from grocery stores that source local and regional produce. No hormones, no antibiotics, no weird flavor additives invented by industrial scientists. These methods are necessary for the health of our bodies and of our planet. And they just taste so much better.

The trouble is, some people don’t want to cook. For my mother, and many women of her generation, the invention of processed food offered nothing short of a revolution. It freed her from the kitchen. It gave her time to pursue activities other than spending several hours a day cooking for my father, grandfather, and the men who worked with them on our farm, starting to prepare the midday dinner before the breakfast dishes were even cleared.

And what did she do with this freedom? She entered college in her 40s and started a career as a teacher.

I was thinking of this recently while reading 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think. In the chapter in which journalist Laura Vanderkam tells readers that if we can afford to outsource housekeeping, we should, she also wisely discusses the emergence of luxury cleaning products and our society’s proclivity for all things Martha Stewart: “Once you no longer have to spend massive amounts of time doing something—for example, cooking or cleaning—you can afford to be nostalgic about it,” Vanderkam explains. It’s actually, she continues, “a sign of how far women have come.”

That is precisely why my mother won’t give up her Bisquick. That’s why I’ll never find her waxing rhapsodic about the pleasures of making yeast bread or growing green beans. That’s why she turned up her nose at my sister’s choice of Mason jars as vases at her wedding. Those trendy little jars are to her a visible reminder of domestic enslavement, of a time in her life when gardening, canning, farming, and cooking consumed every waking hour. My mother is not far enough removed from that life to feel nostalgia for it.

And this is also why she and others like her may be the hardest demographic for the Food Movement to reach: women lost to today’s arguments about health and home economics because they found in processed food freedom from the domestic drudgery of their lives.

I still want her to eat better and learn that cooking healthier food does not have to be time-consuming. But the next time I peer into her cupboards and see all those boxes and jars with their lists of unpronounceable ingredients, I am going to stop, take a deep breath, and remember how processed food revolutionized her life.

And then I’ll offer to make her some homemade pancakes.