Nostalgic Foodies & Slut-Shamers: Stop Talking About My (Grand)Momma

[Content Notice for Paragraph 5: Victim-Blaming for Sexual Assault]

I can vaguely recall having ranted about the Eurocentrism of my high school history classes, but the moment that the discomfort of othering really hit me was a few years ago, when I was in the middle of reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

Others have enumerated the unease many women feel when we read the words of men waxing nostalgic for the non-existent (and pre-feminist) good ol’ days. My discomfort had less to do with my feminism and more to do with my reality. As I delved into the book, my sense of disconnect with the content clicked sharply into place.

a floral arrangement with a card reading "Yo Mama"

He spoke of a grandmother of mine who lived on a farm somewhere in the Midwestern region of the United States — or so I guessed, based on the description. This mythical ancestress of mine ate foods that my actual grandmothers had either only heard of in well into adulthood, when they moved to North America, or of which they remain unaware to this day. He described a lifestyle that would be unfamiliar to anyone in my family, past or present. He concluded by admonishing me to eat in the fashion of this grandmother, a person who is less than a ghost to me, since ghosts are supposed to be at least tangentially related to the actual lives of the dead.

Pollan was going on and on about a person who had never existed: my imaginary white grandmother. This best-selling foodie was waxing nostalgic for something that had absolutely nothing to do with me yet that he called mine.

Feminist critics and nostalgia for a non-existent past are not the only things that Michael Pollan has in common with slut-shamers. Whenever I am able, I go to bat against those who would blame rape on clothing choices rather than on rapists. One of my favorite rhetorical strategies is to simply ask them to define their terms. When they advise that women dress more “modestly”, I inquire specifically into what might constitute, in their view, an appropriately rape-proof outfit. Rarely have I received anything by way of an answer that is specific enough to be meaningful, but I have, more than once, been told to dress in a way that would merit my grandmother’s approval.

an old-timey man looking at a woman whose skirt is ever-so-slightly liften, captioned "Dat Ankle"

Besides the obvious lack of consideration for the children of immigrants in that statement, I have to ask which grandmother they mean. My paternal grandmother, more invested in culture than religion, was not a fan of my headscarf. When I wore earrings, necklaces, and make-up to attend all-women’s parties, she would heap praise upon me. Almost no one was happier when I unveiled than she. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, was the kind of person would scold at me on school mornings as I ran to class from the sliding door of the family van. Running made my larger body jiggle indecently and exposed my ankles to boot. How indecent. How shameful.

Hearing things about my parents’ respective mothers that my dearest grandmothers would not recognize is a reminder that others do not consider my filial history worthy of consideration. In one of the many intersections between my chosen college major (philosophy) and my geeky interest (sci-fi) lies the Grandfather Paradox. That particular notion grapples with the notion of what is possible. The Grandmother Paradox, on the other hand, feels like an indication of the impossibility of my being considered a full human being in a society that can be rather unthinkingly Euro- and American-centric.

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Nostalgic Foodies & Slut-Shamers: Stop Talking About My (Grand)Momma
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24 thoughts on “Nostalgic Foodies & Slut-Shamers: Stop Talking About My (Grand)Momma

  1. 1

    I haven’t read Pollan’s book, so your thoughts here come as a surprise. All I know of it is what is advertised to be the main idea; “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Sounds like sensible enough advice, but it doesn’t get to the details you’re writing about.

    We have quite a few people born in other places besides the U.S. in my workplace, and we love talking about the foods we grew up with. There are similarities and differences, of course, different meats and vegetables, and no meats for the vegetarians. We had a discussion about churning butter one day, although I’ve never used a butter churn I’m familiar with the type that was used here, which turns out to be different than the ones used in India.

    All of this comes in the context of being interested in the differences. My contribution to the conversation is to speak of my own experiences and to ask questions.

    It would make perfect sense for Pollan to have researched food traditions of other cultures to show how the “old ways” before fast food and frozen dinners was better everywhere, and perhaps your argument with him is in this. I’d love for you to share a few specific examples of where he went wrong, and how he could have done better.

    Looking forward to reading your future posts.

    1. 1.1

      I thought I was pretty specific with my example: He spends a great deal of his book In Defense of Food talking about “your grandmother” when he really meant “a white American woman from the 40’s”.

      1. “I thought I was pretty specific with my example: He spends a great deal of his book In Defense of Food talking about “your grandmother” when he really meant “a white American woman from the 40′s”.”

        That’s pretty general. How is it different? Would his examples be closer to your great-grandmothers, regardless of the region of the world they were from? If different, how so?

        My grandmothers and my childrens’ grandmothers were exceptionally different! One of my grandmothers had an enormous garden, whereas my own mother dislikes most vegetables, so if my children were to read this book, they could either say “he doesn’t understand where I come from” or they could project back a generation.

        But, as others have pointed out, he’s being more location-specific than just the U.S. There have been city-dwellers on this continent for centuries, and he’s referring to rural or small-town folk.

        That is the reason I asked you to be more specific. My white American grandparents were sharecroppers, as were most people of their generation in half of Texas. Many people seem to think that only African Americans were sharecroppers. I’m not certain that his grandmother and a black American grandmother were that different with regard to their food. What about your grandmother (or great-grandmother) is different?

        And I’m not arguing with you, nor saying you’re wrong. I’m trying to understand exactly what you mean when you say these women are not alike.

  2. 2

    He spends a great deal of his book In Defense of Food talking about “your grandmother” when he really meant “a white American woman from the 40′s”.

    True, but that is probably because he is addressing those who are currently eating a white American 2000’s diet.

    1. 2.1

      Not all of us who are eating that diet had that sort of grandmother. The least he could do would be to put a disclaimer at the front of that chapter: “This only applies if you’re a very specific sort of person”. I doubt that ever occurred to him, though. Such is the privilege of being positioned in the default of society.

  3. 3

    Even if you have a grandmother who sort of matches the woman he’s imagining, it’s still all fantasy. I had that grandmother. She grew up on a farm plucking chickens. She was a great cook, but she had no love of the old days on the farm and was quick to try anything new. She also bought me Lucky Charms over my mother’s objection. Although she was a distinctive personality, her approach to food was pretty typical of what I remember of women of that generation–the generation that embraced Wonder Bread.

  4. 4

    I did have grandmothers who met that description. When I read (or heard about) Pollen’s general definition of “food” (for the purposes of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”) was basically “thing’s your grandmother would have recognized”, I was also struck by how parochial that was — not in the sense that my grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized the diet Pollan was describing, but rather how many things would be *excluded* by that definition. Neither of my grandmothers would have “recognized” dhal, tofu, hummus, mochi, tom yum, or any other traditional working-class cuisine of Africa, Asia, the middle east, etc. all of which, given the most broad interpretation of Pollan’s edict as I can (if not *my* grandmother, someone’s grandmother).
    Even so, my grandmother cooked with Crisco, a non-food to Pollan. I suspect his grandmother did, too.

  5. 6

    Neither of my (American) grandmothers would have recognized his mythical grandmother either. The 1930s-50s America was no more a single shared experience than it is today. I admit I haven’t read that book, but he didn’t make that mistake in Ominvore’s Dilemma that I recall. Come to think of it…if that mythical grandmother was supposed to be the farmer’s wife sort in the American midwest she did not have a good diet of “mostly plants” either.

    Sounds like a really poor metaphorical device on his part.

  6. 7

    I feel ya. My own grandparents were from USSR, that marinated herring and mayonnaise-loving place, and probably never saw passion fruit, lychee, kale and hell, even fresh ginger. I doubt that’s what the guy meant, though.

  7. 8

    Well, none of my grandmothers is American, but I guess they would qualify for being white central European.
    My paternal grandmother grew up on a farm in Russia. She once told me that while they usually had milk, they never got to eat butter (except on holidays), even though they made it, because “butter was money”.
    My maternal grandmother was the 10th child of a miner’s family. They (my great-grandparents) had a goat (an animal locally dubbed “a miner’s cow”), my grandparents raised their own rabbits well into the 60’s so they could have meat occasionally and supplement the family income by selling some to friends and extended family.
    My grandma also has a hand-written cooking book, with recipes she learned in “home-making school” and some that were passed down from her own mother. They are written in Sütterlin, but my grandma never bothered to transfer them into something any of us could read. Why? Because they suck. Lots of flour in the cakes, lots of potatoes. Most of my grandma’s actual recipes are from the 1970’s, when they finally had enough money to buy things like butter and sugar and meat.

    Rarely have I received anything by way of an answer that is specific enough to be meaningful, but I have, more than once, been told to dress in a way that would merit my grandmother’s approval.

    My great-grandmother got sentenced to prison for protesting the ban on abortion during the times of the last German emperor (that paragraph is, in modified form, still in the books). I think I’m fine with her. My grandmothers, who are still alive, go for clean, without too many holes, and it’s so nice that you find the time to visit, who cares what you wear.

  8. 9

    I suspect that Pollan gives absolutely no thought to the amount of work “our” grandmother* was required to do without the benefits of modern technology (& birth control methods & vaccinations) or how limited a diet might be without the worldwide transportation of foodstuff at all times of the year. Not only is he entirely erasing the grandmothers of Heina, he seems to be erasing the grandmothers who more closely resemble the description of “our” grandmother.

    *I don’t know much about my paternal grandmother, but I do about my maternal grandmother. She didn’t raise her family on an American farm in the mid-west, but (at first) in a two-bedroom flat in an industrial neighbourhood in Montreal. She had four girls in quick succession (followed by two more children a few years later–in fact my uncle and my own eldest sister are the same age). They had an icebox, not a refrigerator. She spent an entire day each week just doing laundry with a wringer washing machine and hanging to dry, winter and summer both; the next day was for ironing. She made most of their clothes. And still she cooked and baked everything from scratch daily–there weren’t any other choices. Luckily, she had electricity, including an electric oven, unlike some of her neighbours who were still using coal. My grandfather had lots of hobbies to while away the time when he wasn’t at work: skiing, golfing, bowling, curling. My grandmother had no hobbies. She didn’t have any free time to while away.

  9. 10

    Ibis

    …followed by two more children a few years later–in fact my uncle and my own eldest sister are the same age

    My grandma went to school with her oldest nephew.

    I suspect that Pollan gives absolutely no thought to the amount of work “our” grandmother* was required to do without the benefits of modern technology

    Indeed. My maternal grandma (I know a lot about her because we lived in the same house) didn’t only have a cookingbook she didn’t use for cooking, she also had a ton of household applicances.
    Having lived through WWII and the poor times afterwards she firmly believed in progress, in having it better and easier. I guess she wal luckier than your grandma, because my grandpa didn’t “help” in the house and the garden: They worked together.

  10. 11

    When my Anglo-Canadian grandmother first found out what sushi and sashimi are, she couldn’t have been more appalled than if I’d casually mentioned eating poison ivy and roadkill. She certainly wouldn’t have recognized raw fish and seaweed as “food”, even though it’s mostly plants with lean protein, just as Pollan recommends.

  11. Pen
    12

    My grandmothers ate what the ration book said they could have for quite a few years. It was a big improvement on what went before, anyway.

  12. 13

    Instead of bitching about the Eurocentrism of the European-descended nation that welcomed you, why not repatriate to your middle-eastern cesspool? Seriously curious.

    1. 13.1

      I’m not Middle-Eastern in the slightest. As a born US citizen whose father was a refugee and whose mother is a Canadian citizen, I have no “repatriation” options. The United States is hardly comprised of people all descended from Europeans.

  13. 14

    […] pant-style slips so that I could cover my ankles without the added burden of socks or hosiery. In my quest to cover up my ankles, I tried wearing multiple layers of skirts for a while but stopped after my mother teased me about […]

  14. 15

    As others above have mentioned, even those of us with “American” grandmothers didn’t necessarily have ones that were mid-western farm wives. Both my grandmothers lived in urban Los Angeles. My maternal grandmother grew up in urban Chicago before moving to LA as an adult with my grandfather, and my paternal grandmother was the daughter of a doctor from Bohemia (part of what is now the Czech Republic) when her family immigrated to the USA and settled in Los Angeles where she met my grandfather. No farmer’s wives here.

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