An Order for Delivery

How the food and birth movements connect, and what one can learn from the other.

| Spring 2018

On a recent flight I sat behind a dad flying solo with three daughters, a comparative rarity from which it was hard to look away. The eldest in the window seat used earbuds to defend her personal space. The baby squirmed on the father’s lap. The middle child spent most of the flight watching construction of an elaborate cake on the Food Network, whisk attachment sending up billows of whipped cream, offset spatula spreading batter across the whole of the child’s small screen. I wondered: why are dough and frosting sufficiently interesting to hold this girl’s attention the whole flight? Why would I—and apparently her father—consider this appropriate viewing material for a child? Maybe it distracted her from the poor quality of her in-flight food. Maybe anything would suffice as long as it kept her busy and allowed dad to mind that baby.  On an airplane it is easy to see why the presence of somebody else’s baby and the quality of the food matter to everyone. Back on solid ground, those two concerns might not seem so natural to treat together.

But Barbara Katz Rothman links the two issues and shows why we should care about them, beyond our own private intake and offspring, in her book, A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization (New York University Press, 2016). Rothman, distinguished sociologist at the City University of New York, has studied birth practices and advocated midwifery for decades—a movement she entered with her own home birth in 1973—and more recently became interested in the social context of food. Not just what we eat but where it comes from, how it is processed and sold, how it gets tagged with status markers, how small personal decisions about eating get made against the backdrop of manufacture. Her acuity is to put the two issues together, to diagnose problems in both areas as stemming from the same source: industrialization. Eating and birthing, she argues, are important features of life to which violence has been done by standardization, factory processing, profit-seeking—and in which industrialization has gotten pushback from those striving to recover something better. In food, industrialization means crops developed for sameness and shelf stability rather than for flavor or nutrients, grown by methods that denigrate the skills of farmers and cooks, and processing that harms the environment and wastes nutrients. In birth, industrialization means pathologizing the female body, distorting normal variations of human experience, submitting women to hospital rules and machines, and devaluing the skill of midwives.

Rothman notices that “foodies” seem to be having more success than “birthies” and wonders what the latter might learn from the former. Put practically, how could strategies behind some achievements of the food movement—turning us away from Hamburger Helper and Burger King and toward the farmer’s market and the Food Network—be parlayed into paradigm shifts in the way normal births are done? A few food-movement features could be leveraged for “birthie” success, starting with the collaboration of different groups and their efforts to build awareness, what Rothman names “splashing together” and consciousness raising. Additionally significant is the strength of elites to change opinions. The trickle-down effect of raised tastes has made better food available. By popularizing fancier food, foodies also have cultivated esteem for some old production methods that require specialized skills, thereby elevating those who have this mastery.

Before considering how foodies’ strategies might be appropriated, foodies themselves deserve a little puzzling over. Why did upper-middle class Americans suddenly become more interested in food in the flush years of the late twentieth century? Food so easily could have stayed unglamorous, associated with drudgery and domesticity. A couple of factors came together. People who did not have to be interested in cooking began to be interested, with increased visibility of men as celebrity chefs and discerning diners. We all eat—and when possible prefer to like what we eat—so getting people to see a personal stake in food matters was not that hard. Interest in food avoided mere piggishness by acquiring high moral valence.

This consciousness raising was abetted by some widely publicized books, like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007), David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula (2007), and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2012). Films like Super Size Me (2004), Food, Inc. (2008), and Fed Up (2014) helped turn a fad into a movement. Fine-food advocacy managed to hit bunch of right notes while (mostly) skirting pitfalls of self-righteousness. Not mere gluttons or epicures, serious people argued that eating well not only provides enjoyment but boosts health and longevity; it displays refinement, choosing what is choiceworthy; it shows concern for others, for ecology, for labor conditions, for the future of our planet.

All pitfalls have not been avoided. Health and enjoyment in food can work at cross-purposes. The moralizing of your dining pleasure can go awry in many ways. One could say the heightened attention to food simply swapped one kind of gluttony for another, excess exchanged for obsessive concern with delicacy. (Even delicacy has trouble beating back excess, as evidenced by quests for the perfect gourmet fried-chicken sandwich or matcha cream-filled donut.) The difficulty comes in linking one’s private sense that these choices are nicer with a conviction that those choices should sway the behavior of others too. Foodie concern for the earth and the growers is real, and some in the movement care intensely about these and act accordingly. But the reason that most people care about food goes little beyond the belly gods. They like to eat what tastes good. Concern for sustainability is secondary.