Putting food on the table as a feminist act

My pre-quarantine self hardly ever watched television. We didn’t exactly move to Florida to hang out inside. But I have enjoyed catching up on some of the old cooking shows that I would occasionally follow. My favorite so far has been Jamie Oliver’s series on Italy.

Most of what cable television cranks out is mindless and commercial. But Jamie Oliver always struck me as being above the fray on many levels. He’s pretty much the anti-Giada De Laurentiis, with her Hollywood teeth and boobs and fake Italian accent. “I want to learn about an ancient culture from an Instagram account that accidentally became self-aware.” Sure.

The premise of his show on Italy is that he’s going to travel to the country’s various regions and get Italian grandmothers to teach him how to cook. You have one of the most famous chefs in the world genuflecting before all the Nonnas, as they tease him about how he shapes his pasta and occasionally break into song. It’s delightful.

This is not 21st-century pussy-hat-and-hashtags feminism, which would sneer at anyone describing cooking and bringing up babies as “women’s work.” But it is a world where women wield a significant amount of power.

These are women who have been in the kitchen for over sixty years. They go out on fishing boats. They forage for ingredients. They manage agricultural operations, even harvesting capers while in their nineties. They don’t bitch and moan about “having it all” – not because they don’t care, but because they know they already have it. Their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren come to Sunday lunch (presumably after going to Mass) and these women radiate authentic gratitude from the head of the table. Everyone recognizes them as a matriarch – the most important woman in their environment – because of it.

Rather than being nihilists, these women are holy keepers of their culture. They work with food with the wisdom of millennia. They teach. Cooking is their oral tradition. It’s where skills are imparted, where generations learn family history and ethics. Where kids learn how to be excellent parents, girls learn how to be excellent wives, and boys learn how to be excellent husbands. They nurture and comfort. In a world of takers, they are respected for being givers.

These aren’t families where people struggle with their identity or the meaning of life. They are raised around examples of how to live a good life.

I have said this many times, but the one thing the much-demonized Phyllis Schlafly understood about modern feminism was that you could tear it down with a simple question: “Are you happy?” This isn’t because she’s some gifted devil’s advocate in a debate. She just thought like a Nonna. It’s very difficult to go around destroying sources of meaning and value and be satisfied with your life.

This isn’t only an observation about feminism, either. People who tear down their country find themselves longing for a home. People who tear down education find themselves longing for civilization. People who tear down civil discourse find themselves longing for charity. People who tear down their environment find themselves longing for physical beauty. People who tear down religion find themselves longing for eternity. There’s a reason nationalism, culture, rhetoric, conservation, and worship are permanent features of societies.

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