#7CheapThings: Raj Patel on World Ecology and More

Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives: these are the seven things that have made our world and will shape its future. In making these things cheap, modern commerce has transformed, governed, and devastated Earth. In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore present a new approach to analyzing today’s planetary emergencies. Read on below to learn more about world ecology and the importance of #7CheapThings in our current political climate.

What is world ecology?

Like all academic terms of art, it’s not quite what it appears. World-ecology isn’t the ecology of planet Earth – that’d just be ‘ecology’. World-ecology is an intellectual update of world-systems theory, which in its day was a new way to think about what unit of analysis to use to explain and understand social change. Rather than take individual states as molecules in a system interacting with one another, world-systems theory looked to the processes that produced those states, at how Britain wouldn’t be Britain except through its interactions with the rest of the planet. World-ecology goes one better. Rather than looking at humans and nature separately, world-ecology looks at how our understanding of human and nature have been produced together.

What is the capitalocene vs. anthropocene?

Understanding the answer to question 1 makes it easier to answer this question. World-ecology makes it harder to believe that there’s some timeless and unchanging set of things that constitute being human in the world. For the term ‘anthropocene’ to make sense, you have to believe that the current transformations of the planet, recorded in the earth as extinctions and radioactivity and plastic, are the inevitable outcomes of anthropos, of humans. The counterargument is that while humans have indeed been responsible for extinctions in the past 20,000 years, we also still have human civilizations – particularly indigenous ones – that are very good at living within the web of life without leaving a trail of destruction. The real uptick in planetary transformation has much less to do with being human and much more to do with capitalism. So rather than call it the anthropocene, it’s more accurate to call it the capitalocene.

How do we make sense of your book’s message during the current political climate?

We’re writing this book to help connect dots between different movements for change, to show how ideas of patriarchy and supremacy have always been intersectional. We’re already very excited about the international reception we’ve received for these ideas, and what we’re hoping is that they can help inform the theorizing and organizing for change that’s happening around the world, helping movements to connect with one another in ways that can make them stronger.

Read more posts in our #7CheapThings blog series here.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.


A History of Cookbooks: How New Products Entered Cookbooks

excerpted from A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries by Henry Notaker

This October we are celebrating National Cookbook Month by exploring the history of the cookbook genre. Check back each Wednesday for a new excerpt from Henry Notaker’s work.

A History of Cookbooks coverThere was a great difference between the various products in the way they were integrated. When people were confronted with the new foods, they compared them to existing and well-known food categories. The product that was most easily accepted was turkey—at least for those who could afford to buy it. This animal was not too different from the other big birds that had traditionally been served at the tables of the European elite. Turkey could be used as a substitute for peacock or capon and was prepared the same way. Meat from birds was also considered to be healthy, so it did not risk being criticized by doctors, as many of the other new foods were.

It is consequently no surprise that cookbooks with recipes for turkey were published in the first century after Columbus arrived in the New World. In 1570, the Italian Bartolomeo Scappi suggested the same preparation for turkey pullets and ordinary pullets, and he compared the cooking of turkey with that of peacock. A decade later, the German Marx Rumpolt proposed twenty different ways to prepare turkey, all of them well-established methods for other meats. A taste for turkey soon spread from the aristocracy to the wealthy bourgeoisie, and prices went down. In France in 1538, turkey meat cost eight times more than meat from hens; in 1711, it was only twice as much.

The tomato is an example of a new food that was slow to become part of European food culture. For a long time appreciated only as an ornamental plant, the tomato was mentioned as food around 1600 in an Italian botanical treatise. As was the case with turkey, the fruit was compared with well-known ingredients in the kitchen; the author of the text explained that tomatoes could be eaten the same way as eggplants—with salt, pepper, and oil. But the first professional recipe for the food did not come until 1692, when Antonio Latini’s Italian cookbook gave a preparation for salsa di pomodoro, alla spagnuola (tomato salsa, Spanish style). In Spain, tomatoes were not included in any cookbooks published before 1611. After that year, there is unfortunately a period in which no new Spanish cookbooks were published that lasted until 1745, when we find a recipe for tomato sauces with garlic and oil, typical of the Mediterranean food culture we know today.

Tomato recipes in Spanish and Italian cookbooks surprise nobody, since the fruit could be grown in these countries. The situation was completely different in northern Europe, where effective cultivation came only in the twentieth century. The first tomato recipes from this region were from the last decades of the nineteenth century, and they suggested using canned tomatoes in soups and sauces. One of the Russian cookbooks written by Elena Molokhovets called for tomato purée in soups in early editions published in the 1860s and only gradually introduced fresh tomato dishes. As late as 1896, Charles-Emil Hagdahl wrote in his gourmet cookbook that he regretted that tomatoes in Sweden were mainly sold in the form of bottles of purée, imported from abroad. In Norway, a cookbook from 1888 included a series of interesting tomato recipes, but the book actually demonstrates why general conclusions about diet never should be drawn on the basis of one cookbook. The author had spent several years in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), where tomatoes were common by that point, and her book was the only one of its kind. A decade later, another Norwegian author did not give any tomato recipes in the first edition of her cookbook, published in 1897, and in a later edition, issued in 1912, she remarked that “tomatoes are seldom appreciated the first time they are tasted,” and wrote that in Norway, “tomatoes are still very expensive.”


Notaker cookbook author photoHenry Notaker is a literary historian who taught courses in food culture and history for over a decade. He was a foreign correspondent for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and a TV host of arts and letters shows and documentaries. He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American contemporary history, food history, and culinary literature.


Available Today: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

We live in precarious times. As we continue to step further into both our uncertain political climate and continuing late stage capitalist system, it is unclear both where we are headed and what things will look like in the near future.

Starting with Christopher Columbus and continuing through to the present day, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore chart the history of our current economic system and suggest that it’s not too late to steer ourselves off of the increasingly capitalist and neoliberal path we are currently wandering down. Using the cheapening of seven key things—nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives—A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things shows how we made the world safe for capitalism and provides a radical new way of understanding—and reclaiming—the planet in our current turbulent times.

Read on to see what others have to say about the book, and use promo code 17W1863 to save 30% when you order the book on our website.


“Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore have transformed ‘cheapness’ into a brilliant and original lens that helps us understand the most pressing crises of our time, from hyper-exploitation of labor to climate change. As we come together to build a better world, this book could well become a defining framework to broaden and deepen our ambitions.”—Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough and This Changes Everything

“It’s remarkably rare that authors manage to find a really useful new lens through which to view the world—but Patel and Moore have done just that, writing an eye-opening account that helps us see the startling reality behind what we usually dismiss as the obvious and everyday.”—Bill McKibben, author of Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance

“What a relief to read a bold, grand narrative of European colonialism/capitalism and its destruction of the environment as well as reducing whole civilizations to enslavement, impoverishment and ruin—just what is needed at this time to contextualize the many granular studies we now have access to. Patel and Moore have provided not only an elegantly written and insightful narrative, but also a path to imagine a noncapitalist future.”—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

“This book is a remarkable achievement: it makes the history of capitalism from Columbus to climate change into a page-turner. If you’ve been wondering how we got into this mess, what care work has to do with ecological crisis, why racism is intertwined with capitalism at the roots, Patel and Moore are the guides you need.”—Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

Follow along with the rest of our #7CheapThings blog series here.


A History of Cookbooks: American Cookbooks and National Identity

excerpted from A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries by Henry Notaker

This October we are celebrating National Cookbook Month by exploring the history of the cookbook genre. Check back each Wednesday for a new excerpt from Henry Notaker’s work.

A History of Cookbooks coverIn 1776, many years before the aforementioned European nations started to fight for independence, a new independent country had been created in North America: the United States. After the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolutionary War, a growing national consciousness was observed among the inhabitants of the nascent state. This new patriotism was strengthened by new national symbols; before the turn of the century, the United States had a flag, the Great Seal, and a national bird, the bald eagle. The first cookbook written by an American is also from this period: American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, was published in 1796. The subtitle claimed that the book was “adapted to this country.” There are recipes for Independence Cake and Federal Pan Cake, but more important is the use of indigenous foodstuffs, such as corn, squash, and Jerusalem artichoke.

The language of the book has many interesting features. For example, it introduced several Americanisms that had not yet been referred to in American dictionaries. One of them was “slapjack” (a corn pancake), a word probably based on a misreading of the English “flapjack”; at the time, the f and the long s (∫) were very similar in print. The book was also the first to use two words borrowed from Dutch: “cookey,” from the Dutch koekje, used for what English cookbooks called “little cakes,” and “slaw” from the Dutch sla, meaning “salad.”

The author—of whom we know nothing more than we can read in the book—presented herself on the title page as “An American Orphan.” Why did she give this peculiar biographical information? Some scholars have interpreted it as a national metaphor. The author had to support herself without any help from a parent, just as the United States needed to survive without England. If this interpretation is correct, the book is an even stronger proof of national attitudes.

It should be mentioned that not all the recipes in Simmons’s book are American. She included traditional English recipes, many of them taken verbatim from English books. But the American recipes in Simmons’s book were noticed by both readers and publishers; in the following years, new editions of old English books were printed with the addition of American recipes, many of them taken directly from American Cookery. The title of her book also heralded a period when the American angle was emphasized. In the years leading up to the Civil War, more than twenty cookbooks used the word “American” in their titles: for example, The American Housewife, American Domestic Cookery, American Receipt Book, and Modern American Cookery.

The United States was a society dominated by immigrants from many European countries, and one of the characteristics of cookbook publishing, like other fields of publishing, was the high number of books in languages other than English. The first French cookbook in the United States was published in 1840, the first Spanish in 1845, and the first German (Pennsylvania Dutch) in 1848, and they were followed by cookbooks in Italian, Yiddish, and Scandinavian languages, mirroring the country’s different immigrant groups. Some of the books were printed in two languages—for example, Yiddish and English, or French and English.

Most cookbooks in foreign languages catered to large immigrant groups who wanted to preserve their culinary heritage, but there were also foreign-language cookbooks with a very different intention. A particular genre consisted of works with recipes written in two parallel columns, one in American English and the other in Danish, Swedish, or Finnish. They were meant to help American housewives communicate with their Scandinavian servants—of which there were a large number in the United States around 1900. The housewife would point out the dish she wanted prepared (the dishes in these books were American, not Scandinavian), and the servant would then use the cookbook as a manual for cooking in addition to as a textbook for the English language.


Notaker cookbook author photoHenry Notaker is a literary historian who taught courses in food culture and history for over a decade. He was a foreign correspondent for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and a TV host of arts and letters shows and documentaries. He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American contemporary history, food history, and culinary literature.


#7CheapThings: Cheap Care

excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

Welcome to the fourth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

“As we come together to build a better world, this book could well become a defining framework to broaden and deepen our ambitions.”—Naomi Klein

#7CheapThings care book cover

There’s no set way for humans to take care of one another. The extraordinary diversity of community forms and population dynamics in human history underscores the point. At every turn, systems of tending to, caring for, and reproducing human life are connected with extrahuman natures. This existential connection not only encompasses the material and biological but extends to our belief systems and modes of thought. Every rite of passage, every springtime fertility ritual, from maypoles to bloodletting, signals the range of ways that human and extrahuman life form through each other. But when we talk of reproductive labor under capitalism, we’re referring to a very specific set of arrangements, ones that were rearranged through world-ecology and persist today. Under these arrangements, some humans were confined to new political, social, and ecological units—households—the better to engage in care work in capitalism’s ecology. Call this the Great Domestication.

Consider what appear to be entirely independent sets of observations. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 International Attitudes Project received a range of responses to the statement “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” In Iceland, 3.6 percent of people agreed, but in Egypt 99.6 percent did. Why the difference? The easy explanations are culture, religion, tradition, income level. Yet a study in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics points the finger at none of these things. Examining data over the past two hundred years, controlling for everything from religion to war to the presence of oil, the authors found that somehow, across a range of countries, a key factor associated with gender inequality is the introduction of a specific agricultural technology: the plough. Individuals who grow up in a society with a tradition of using ploughs aren’t just more likely to perpetuate gender inequality at home—it even sticks with them when they migrate. Like good economists, the study’s authors haven’t a clue why. It’s clear that problems of gender, inequality, and discrimination wouldn’t disappear if we were now to replace ploughs with some other agricultural technology. The deeper challenge is understanding not just how a particular way of tilling the soil comes to naturalize divisions between men and women but what might be done to move toward equality.

So why might a farming implement ancient enough to be depicted in 2600 bce Egyptian hieroglyphics be responsible for twenty-first-century chauvinism? At the sixteenth-century frontier in what is now Peru, the chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega reported something that might solve the plough-sexism conundrum. Indigenous People widely viewed the domestication and then harnessing of oxen as bizarre behavior, both for its interruption of the order of nature and for what it said about the domesticators. The Indigenous explanation was that the Spanish were too lazy to till the land themselves and had to train animals to do it for them while they sat around picking food from their teeth. The Spanish were also considered odd because of the land they chose to farm and the way they occupied it. Colonialists preferred the relatively flat plains for their haciendas, while Indigenous People embraced the terracing technologies that can still be seen in and around Cuzco. You can’t plough a steep hillside that everyone owns—physics and social convention both exert strong forces against it. It’s much easier to plough on large, contiguous, privately owned haciendas. In other words, it wasn’t just the plough that was odd—it was the constellation of transformations in work, relations to extrahuman life, and property into which the plough fit. And central to those ideas were newly forming ones around animal and human domestication.

The modern household and its membership have their origins in ecological changes in European capitalism. In The Working Lives of Women in the Seventeenth Century, Alice Clark argues that the nuclear household of husband, wife, and children emerged through shifts in the economic geography of care and production on the commons. Recall that women’s work on the commons included fuel gathering and gleaning, which made subsistence possible and sometimes provided a marketable surplus. If anything went wrong, social insurance came from networks of support—religious, personal, social—across the community. These arrangements were incompatible with the kinds of agricultural innovation that brought about the widespread use of the plough: larger and larger enclosed landholdings, monocultures, exclusive private property arrangements, and the creation of a workforce motivated by the threats of starvation and imprisonment.

Enclosure made it impossible for peasants to survive on their meager landholdings. Peasants became wageworkers forced to sell their labor to survive. This also set women and men into competition in the labor market. With the commons, dairying had been a way for women to engage in agriculture, sustaining the household through milk and dairy sales. Without a commons, no cattle could be grazed. The market for dairying skills became tight—sheep’s wool was far more lucrative than cows’ milk, and shearing was gendered as men’s work. Women were required only for the paid work of milking and calving cows in the spring. Spring ploughing and autumnal harvesting involved heavier labor and were also often coded as men’s work. This division of labor led to different prices for men’s and women’s employment. It is in the fields that we find the origins of today’s global wage gap, a phenomenon in which relations with nature were involved from the beginning.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore author photo careJason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


A History of Cookbooks: Recipes in Verse

excerpted from A History of Cookbooks: From Kitchen to Page over Seven Centuries by Henry Notaker

This October we are celebrating National Cookbook Month by exploring the history of the cookbook genre. Check back each Wednesday for a new excerpt from Henry Notaker’s work.

A History of Cookbooks coverDidactic works in verse go back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, written around 700 BCE, and are found in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Several versions of Regimen sanitatis were circulated in verse starting in the thirteenth century, many of them written in a Latin close to the vernacular Italian. In England, there were John Russel’s treatise on household duties, The Boke of Nurture (ca. 1460), and Thomas Tusser’s A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry (1557). According to the German scholar Bernhard Dietrich Haage, the bound form is used in practical literature as a mnemonic aid, but it might also have been used to give material an aesthetic value.

Several early cookbooks open with a verse, either written by the author to serve as a preface or written by someone else as a recommendation for the book, but there are also examples of rhymed recipes from the fifteenth century in German and English manuscripts. According to the historian Hans Wiswe, however, one of the German recipes is “a humorous Intermezzo in a book that is otherwise so matter-of-fact.” This can be explained by what Haage said about versification of practical literature for the upper levels of society: “It is mainly for fun” (Aus reinen Spieltrieb).

There is a long tradition in European literature of verses about food, often with a comic or playful element, and the humor is quite obvious in the collections of rhymed recipes (“poetic cookbooks”) from the eighteenth century onward. The first of these books was the French Festin joyeux, printed in 1738. One of the recipes is for perdreaux aux écrévisses (partridges with crawfish) and it starts like this:

First you cook everything well,

And mix with a light ragoût,

Add sweetbreads and truffles too,

And let cockscombs and champignons swell.

Typical for the recipes in this book is that they can be sung, as they were written to well-known tunes from light and popular music genres. Referring to himself as a cook, the alleged author made excuses for the bad rhymes in his verses, which he said were certainly not as Scarron would have written them. By referring to the seventeenth-century burlesque poet Paul Scarron, the suspicion is strengthened that the verses belong to the century before the book was printed, and it has been suggested that the real author was the aristocrat Louis de Béchameil, although this has not been confirmed.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French, German, Spanish, American, Danish, and Norwegian books of recipes in verse were published. A Norwegian book from 1833 versified the recipes of the first printed cookbook in Norway, published only two years earlier, and the verses were written to melodies used for national anthems, drinking songs, and hymns. By using tunes for hymns in these merry songs, the author, a church warden and rebellious publicist, did the opposite of men such as Martin Luther and William Booth, who wrote religious hymns to popular, secular melodies.

Were these recipes intended to be used to help in the kitchen? Some of them did in fact emphasize that that was the basic idea. The Danish Kogebog for musikalske husmødre (Cookbook for musical housewives) professed in verse in the preface:

The housewife now can cook her meat

While singing from a music sheet.

But in spite of the declared intentions, these books were probably made more to amuse readers than to instruct them. Most of the verses were rather amateurish, with clumsy rhymes and hobbling rhythms, and could not hope for a glorious afterlife in the history of literature. There are, however, recipe poems that were written by authors with acknowledged literary qualities. They followed the same chronological progression as the ordinary recipes, giving step-by-step instructions, but they added aspects and elements that were generally absent in cookbooks. Here follow five examples in five languages and from different literary contexts.

The first was by a representative of Polish romanticism, Adam Mickiewicz, who in his epic poem Pan Tadeusz actually used a 1682 cookbook to describe an old Polish dinner. But he also gave, as part of his description of old national traditions, the “recipe” for bigos, a dish still popular in Poland. He admitted that words and rhymes—he used thirteen syllable lines with caesura and rhymed couplets—were not sufficient to transmit a real appreciation of “the most wonderful flavor, the smell and the color.” He listed the ingredients of the dish—good vegetables, chopped sauerkraut, morsels of meat—and explained that they should all be simmered in a pot. But he did not follow the traditional recipe form; his recipe is a narrative told in the third person and without the particular verbal forms indicating a request.

Other writers, however, chose the imperative. The French dramatist Edmond Rostand included in his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac, a scene where the protagonist’s friend, the rôtisseur and pâtissier Ragueneau, proudly declares that he has versified a recipe: “J’ai mis une recette en vers.” The recipe is for tartelettes amandines and is written in a light, elegant poetic form that plays with the rhymes and rhythm, making it very difficult to translate.

While Rostand kept the imperatives in the second-person plural, which was typical of most French culinary recipes at that time, the Argentine-born Spaniard Ventura de la Vega—who wrote many occasional poems—chose the first-person singular when he described his method of making garlic soup, sopa de ajo. The Voltaire-admirer-turned-Catholic paid tribute to the soup as a dish for Lent, but he also declared it the basis of the Castilian diet. The personal tone in the poem creates an atmosphere similar to the one in Pablo Neruda’s Odas elementales (which is about tomatoes, potatoes, and other foodstuffs), combining the solemn and the ordinary: In a casserole, boil salt, pepper, and small bits of bread in olive oil, and in this swelling mixture, “I will hide two well-peeled cloves of Spanish garlic.” Instead of Neruda’s free verse, Vega chose the bound form, and the Spanish composer José María Cásares later composed music for it. The text and the notes were printed in Angel Muro’s original cookbook, El practicón (1894).

Another original and much praised cookbook, Modern Cookery, by Eliza Acton, included a recipe in rhymed verse in the 1855 edition. In a note, Acton wrote that this was the first time the poem was printed, after it had been circulated among the friends of the author, the poetic reverend Sidney Smith. But in contrast to the serious, almost religious tone in Vega’s verse, Smith’s poem is filled with the light-hearted humor he was famous for. The ingredients for his salad dressing are enumerated with the common imperatives, but they are not always used in the traditional manner: “Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,” he instructed readers in one line, and in another, he told them to add “a magic soupçon of anchovy sauce.” He even resorted to alliteration: “Of mordant mustard add a simple spoon.” And then he expressed his enthusiasm for the result: “Oh, green and glorious! Oh, herbacious treat!”

A final example, which also raises theoretical questions, is a poem the German romantic poet Eduard Mörike wrote about Frankfurter Brenten, a type of small cookies. The first surprise is perhaps his use of the imperative second-person singular, a dated and very uncommon form in the mid-nineteenth century:

Start with almonds, I suggest,

Take three pounds, or four at best.

This poem, which is included in Mörike’s collected works, was originally published in a German journal for ladies, Frauen-Zeitung für Hauswesen, weibliche Arbeiten und Moden, in 1852, and Horst Steinmetz used it as an example of how context may decide the reception of a text. The readers of Mörike’s complete works may have considered the recipe as a poem on a par with the other poems in the book, which describe feelings and phenomena of the human universe. The ladies who read “Frankfurter Brenten” in the journal may have looked at the text as a practical instruction—a recipe—even if they observed and appreciated the form as an amusing variation and perhaps made no practical use of the recipe in the kitchen. Yet a closer reading of Mörike’s text reveals that it has elements not expected in recipes. Consider, for example, these lines:

Now put all this while it is hot

Onto a plate (but poets need

A rhyme here now, and therefore feed

The finished stuff into a pot).

With this ironic remark, which breaks up the sequence of instructive steps, the poet seems to make fun of his own role; it is a kind of Verfremdung, or alienation, that creates a distance between Mörike as a poet and as a cooking teacher.

These rhymed recipes seem to have been written with very different intentions: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to create art. This is of course also true for recipe poems in unbound form by Günter Grass and others. But there is a noticeable difference in intention when recipes appear in prose works other than culinary works.


Notaker cookbook author photoHenry Notaker is a literary historian who taught courses in food culture and history for over a decade. He was a foreign correspondent for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and a TV host of arts and letters shows and documentaries. He is the author of numerous books and articles on European and Latin American contemporary history, food history, and culinary literature.


Cooking as a Chore in Modern America

excerpted from Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today by Amy Trubek

Making Modern Meals cooking book cover

Carol, who is in her late twenties, is a single professional living in urban Boston. Her kitchen does not resemble Laura’s cavernous room; it is a small galley space where every item is neatly stored in cabinets and all surfaces are kept clean. She admits that she is a planner in all aspects of her life and certainly in her approach to preparing a meal. She likes to host dinner parties on the weekends and clearly enjoys the entire process, from creating the menu to shopping and cooking to hosting the event: “If I’m having a dinner party on Saturday, I plan my Saturday so that I can clean the house, clean the kitchen, get all my stuff ready, go food shopping, make sure that I have everything. . . . I kind of have a timeline.” Carol is documented preparing for a dinner party; she wants to share her love of hospitality. Carol proudly displays the printed menu for the evening’s dinner, and then goes on to display what she calls her tricks of the trade. One is a baked brie appetizer: “The secret to this is you don’t buy the baked brie they sell to warm up, you just buy a wedge, slice some apples and put that in halfway through: heat it for twenty minutes, put in the apples, and pour on maple syrup.” She serves this to her guests and then continues to prepare the main dish. Another of her secrets is spending money on ingredients: “This is a $40 bottle of olive oil, which makes a huge difference.” She prides herself on her engagement with cooking, which she characterizes as being important to her social life: “When I cook for others I take it very seriously. I put a lot more time and love into it.” She enjoys all aspects of preparing a meal when it is a special event: “I love doing it, and I love the display. . . . I spend a lot of time prepping.” She likes being known for being a good cook, but she aims even higher: “I think my next step is to be more creative in what I’m doing. It’s one thing to be a good cook, but I want to be really creative.” She actively engages in the process, figuring out a good recipe, testing it before she uses it at a dinner party, shopping at multiple stores (e.g., Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Russo’s) to get the best ingredients, and setting up her house. In fact, the excitement of the process of making a meal for more than sustenance—the adventure of cooking, in a sense—is her passion: “The part about cooking that I love is seeing something I’ve never done before come out. I guess I like the final product.”

Carol acknowledges, however, that not all domestic cooking is about adventure. When she is by herself, the type of cooking she does is generally different: “I will throw a salad together, and I will do very simple things for myself.” When she’s just cooking for herself, she shops once a week and doesn’t plan ahead. She also sees that her love of cooking for others relies on the fact that these meals are special events: “I think I wouldn’t love it as much if I had to cook for my family every single night, but [I enjoy it] because it’s more of a novelty.” Her sense that cooking can, in some circumstances, be more of a chore than a pleasure comes from seeing her mother’s relationship to cooking change over the years: “I just never saw my mom loving cooking. I never saw her just love to cook. There were always five of us running around. . . . The food was always awesome, but I don’t think we truly appreciated what she gave us.” At another point, Carol both identifies with her mother’s burden and distances herself from it: “She cooked every night, and she was an awesome cook, but for her it was a chore. . . . I think it’s a generational thing.”

Ultimately, Carol’s articulation of her own identity as a cook is intertwined with her social relationships. These are between her and other cooks but also between her and a group of eaters. She understands she is not obliged to these eaters, although as she attests, her mother was not so lucky. As the contrast between Carol’s passion for cooking and her mother’s sense of drudgery reveals, cooking skills and knowledge, especially when categorized as a chore, cannot easily be extricated from the Gordian knot of social expectations. Cooking can all too easily develop a negative connotation, or at least a sense of ambivalence. Women often talk about their mothers’ cooking with a twinge of regret; although cooking can be an expression of nurturance, it certainly isn’t always. Carol intuitively makes a distinction between her planned dinner party—an event enhanced by the labor of thoughtfully making a meal—and her mother’s daily social responsibility to make a meal for her family. She sees the complexities of the ties that bind when making sense of her relationship to cooking.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the following definitions for the word “chore”: “1. the regular or daily light work of a household or farm; 2. a routine task or job; 3. a difficult or disagreeable task.”4 Defining cooking as a chore seems to make a lot of sense at first glance. It is certainly part of the regular work of a household; the fact that we must eat to live makes cooking a necessary daily activity and thus could easily be considered routine; and this regularity and necessity can certainly make it disagreeable, if not difficult. What a dictionary definition does not make explicit, however, is that the symbolic meaning of all chores are not equal. Cooking is not the same as sweeping or taking out the trash because the end result is not household cleanliness or order. Making a meal merges certain types of household tasks, webs of social relationships, and needs for nourishment and nurturance. Categorizing cooking as a chore is tempting, and it is common in contemporary American discussions of the task, but perhaps Carol’s point that cooking can be a chore but can also be much more needs to be examined in more detail, especially in terms of what cooking means to nurturing social relations.


Amy Trubek author cooking Making Modern MealsAmy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.


#7CheapThings: October West Coast Book Tour with Raj Patel

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Raj Patel, co-author of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet is stopping in the Bay Area and Seattle to discuss his new book. Read on to learn more about the event line up and RSVP to an event near you.

Seattle

A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet Wednesday, Oct. 11, 7:30PM

Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S. Alaska Street

Bay Area

Raj Patel: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet Thursday, Oct. 12, 7:00PM

Cubberley Community Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Raj Patel: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things Friday, Oct. 13, 7:30PM

The Bindery, 1727 Haight Street, San Francisco

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things Saturday, Oct. 14, 10:30AM

South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis Street, Berkeley


Raj Patel Author PhotoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.


#7CheapThings: A Cheap Work Reading List

Welcome to the third post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

The concept of cheap work can be traced back to Christopher Columbus and Spanish and Portuguese usage of slaves on sugar plantations, and is far from gone in today’s society:

The appropriation—really, a kind of ongoing theft—of the unpaid work of “women, nature and colonies” is the fundamental condition of the exploitation of labor power in the commodity system. You can’t have one without the other. When we talk of cheap work, then, we’re getting at the ways that capitalism sets in motion not just human work and not just agriculture and resources—but how they fit together, and the relations that bind human and extrahuman work at every turn.

[…]

As Edward Thompson observes, the governance of time follows a particular logic: “in mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time.’ ” The connection of specific activities to larger productive goals didn’t allow for time theft, and the discipline of the clock was enforced by violence across the planet.

As such, the cheapening of work continues today, albeit under a different guise than several centuries prior. With wages stagnating and hours increasing, current labor conditions benefit capitalism with a cheap and disposable work force. To help understand our current labor climate, we’ve selected a few books from our list that shed light on this issue and offer some solutions.

Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson

This pathbreaking anthology peeks behind the hype and supposed glamor of screen media industries to reveal the intensifying pressures and challenges confronting actors, editors, electricians, and others. It examines working conditions and organizing efforts on all six continents, offering broad-ranging and comprehensive analysis of contemporary screen media labor in such places as Lagos, Prague, Hollywood, and Hyderabad. The collection also examines labor conditions across a range of job categories that includes, for example, visual effects, production services, and adult entertainment.

 

The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West by Ryan Dearinger

For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality.

 

The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli

Long-haul trucks have been described as sweatshops on wheels. The typical long-haul trucker works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, often for little more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t always this way. Trucking used to be one of the best working-class jobs in the United States.  The Big Rig explains how this massive degradation in the quality of work has occurred, and how companies achieve a compliant and dedicated workforce despite it. The author outlines how deregulation and collective action by employers transformed trucking’s labor markets–once dominated by the largest and most powerful union in US history–into an important example of the costs of contemporary labor markets for workers and the general public.

 

Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep Southby Angela Steusse

This book takes readers deep into Mississippi’s chicken processing plants and communities, where large numbers of Latin American migrants were recruited in the mid-1990s to labor alongside an established African American workforce in some of the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in the country. As America’s voracious appetite for chicken has grown, so has the industry’s reliance on immigrant workers, whose structural position makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

 

 

Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World edited by Marion Crain, Winifred Poster, and Miriam Cherry

Across the world, workers labor without pay for the benefit of profitable businesses—and it’s legal. Labor trends like outsourcing and technology hide some workers, and branding and employer mandates erase others. Invisible workers who remain under-protected by wage laws include retail workers who function as walking billboards and take payment in clothing discounts or prestige; waitstaff at “breastaurants” who conform their bodies to a business model; and inventory stockers at grocery stores who go hungry to complete their shifts. Invisible Labor gathers essays by prominent sociologists and legal scholars to illuminate how and why such labor has been hidden from view.

 

Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops by Sarah Adler-Milstein and John Kline

Sewing Hope offers the first account of a bold challenge to apparel-industry sweatshops. The Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic is the anti-sweatshop. It boasts a living wage three times the legal minimum, high health and safety standards, and a legitimate union—all verified by an independent monitor. It is the only apparel factory in the global south to meet these criteria. The Alta Gracia business model represents an alternative to the industry’s usual race-to-the-bottom model with its inherent poverty wages and unsafe factory conditions. Workers’ stories reveal how adding US$0.90 to a sweatshirt’s production price can change lives: from getting a life-saving operation to a reunited family; from purchasing children’s school uniforms to taking night classes; from obtaining first-ever bank loans to installing running water.


Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


Celebrating Today’s Cooks on National Cooking Day

by Amy Trubek, author of Making Modern Meals: How Americans Cook Today

Let’s celebrate American cooks. Each day, the hands of many clean, chop, stir, knead, season, and work in other ways too, solely on our behalf. As has always been true, we rely on them to be nourished. But in 2017, just who cooks may come as a surprise. This is not your grandmother’s day of celebration. We now spend over 50% of our annual food purchases on food made outside the home. Americans cook at home, sometimes, but to find today’s everyday cooks, we might also need to look elsewhere. In restaurants, commissary kitchens, bakeries, school cafeterias, and other locations across the continent, hundreds of thousands of people wake up each morning, go to work, and make our meals (and snacks and side dishes and bread and cakes) every day, rain or shine.

This graph depicts the share of household food expenditures in the United States, food at home versus food away from home. Over the past fifty years, there has been a steady decline in money spent for food prepared and consumed at home.

The gradual meeting of these lines does not need to fill us with dismay. It might be tempting to take our new normal and to extrapolate that culinary skills and knowledge are in decline, that we have moved to a situation of culinary impoverishment. But should we? My friend Mark is an accomplished baker. He knows how to use wild yeasts, create a sourdough starter, and shape and bake crusty, flavorful loaves of bread. He learned from a master baker trained in France, and now he is teaching his teenage children too. I had one grandmother who loved to cook, took pleasure in making meals, and I inherited her handwritten recipe cards. I had another grandmother who was an indifferent cook, maybe even a hostile one, an ambitious woman whose world was circumscribed. She probably would have agreed with Peg Bracken, a feminist and writer who published the popular I Hate to Cook Book in 1960. As Bracken said, “Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them. This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned through hard experience that some activities become no less powerful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” My grandmother Ruth would have said, ‘hear, hear.’ My grandmother Katherine would have chuckled, and gone on to make her famous rum cake. Perhaps there have always been engaged and indifferent cooks, but now the former can make meals for the latter. Peg, Ruth and Katherine might be amazed at women’s autonomy when it comes to everyday cooking. Perhaps we should celebrate that.

So, on the occasion of National Cooking Day, thank all the cooks in your life, at home and beyond. Try to peek into the kitchen of your local, favorite restaurant, or go talk to the lunch ladies in your child’s school cafeteria: share recipes, swap stories about a failed batch of cookies, teach your neighbor a favorite family dish. Celebrate cooking, wherever it happens!


Amy B. Trubek is Associate Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession and The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir.