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Review: Pressure Cooker

In "Pressure Cooker," sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott set out to challenge dominant narratives about fixing the food system. By analyzing their ethnographic study of nine women, they reveal the complex factors that form a family's eating habits.

Published onJun 16, 2019
Review: Pressure Cooker

Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, Sinikka Elliott. Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It. Oxford University Press, 2019. ix, 337 pp.

In Pressure Cooker sociologists Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott set out to challenge dominant narratives about fixing the food system. Concerned by the disconnect between writers evoking nostalgic visions of agrarian livelihoods and the lived experiences of those most vulnerable under the current system, Bowen et al. share the findings of their ethnographic study of nine women, revealing the complex factors that form a family’s eating habits.

The book is organized around seven prominent “foodie” messages promoted by predominantly white, male farmers and chefs: You are What You Eat; Make Time for Food; The Family that Eats Together, Stays Together; Know What’s on Your Plate; Shop Smarter, Eat Better; Bring Good Food to Others; and Food Brings People Together. These messages, the authors say, reflect a common assumption that a return to the dinner table will bring the United States back to a time when kids were healthier and families were stronger. Underlying this message, they say, is another pernicious assumption: good moms are moms that prepare healthy and delicious food from scratch. For these contemporary food reformers, shopping, cooking, and eating habits become issues of morality, sparking shame in those who cannot live up to their definitions of good food.

Through a series of vignettes, the authors offer a peek into the experience of shopping and cooking for their nine interlocutors; all of whom believe—in some capacity—the seven messages above. Readers meet Patricia, who regularly skips meals in order to feed her grandchildren. She cares for the toddlers from their hotel room home while her daughter searches for a stable job. Readers feel the weight in her chest as she treks through dirty alleyways to buy meals she can prepare with nothing more than a mini-fridge and microwave, asthma plaguing her every step of the way. They hear Rae’s frustration that all models of healthy eating require her to abandon the flavors and foods of her heritage, wondering with her whether any health writers take into account the rich history of soul food. Using vivid portrayals of women’s lives to present the findings of their ethnographic research, Bowen et al. allow the everyday anxieties of women to critique the recommendations of writers and activists like Michael Pollan, Anna Lappé, and Jamie Oliver, who suggest that cooking and eating together, and voting with one’s fork, are keys to transforming a broken food system.

Interspersed with each vignette, the book incorporates historical insight into food policy and the impact its changes have had on food access for those in lower socioeconomic classes. At the same time, it dismantles the nostalgic imaginary of a time when families cooked everything from scratch and shared meals together at home. Through historical anecdotes, they show that, in the United States, wealthy families have long relied on the labor of others to fill their tables—be it slave labor or domestic help. Though domestic jobs have given way to restaurant jobs, the impact on the system remains the same: America has always relied on poorly paid workers to cook for those with expendable incomes. As the subjects of Pressure Cooker exemplify, those who work to feed others hardly make a wage that enables them to feed their own families.

The bulk of Pressure Cooker focuses on these stories, using academic research to reach both academic and popular audiences. Their emphasis on ethnographic research as well as quantitative data is aimed at anthropologists and sociologists, while their focus on women enables a feminist critique of food systems conversations. At the same time, their writing is accessible to the very audience compelled by books like Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. By breaking down the daily struggle to acquire food, and the impact of certain definitions of good food, Pressure Cooker effectively shows how dominant conversations around good food put undue pressure on women and the poor. Popular readers may be frustrated that the authors do not offer much by way of solutions or actionable steps for individuals. While the subtitle promises suggestions for what we can do about the limits of home cooking, the central thesis of this book is that individual actions will never adequately address systemic inequalities. The message that women must try harder and work more heaps undue pressure on those already struggling to get by.

For Bowen et al., change must also be enacted beyond the home: through community and through policy. The authors encourage schools, daycares, and churches to utilize industrial kitchens to share the cost and labor of cooking. In turn, these practices not only provide food but space for conversation and relationships, too. The book also presses the importance of listening to and valuing the insight of immigrants, people of color, poor and working-class people, and women, in defining good food. And finally it identifies that changes must be made on a policy level in order to make any improvement in the livelihoods of those caught in cycles of poverty.

Thus Pressure Cooker serves as a helpful counter-argument to the popular books that presently exist on the shortcomings of the contemporary food system. By offering dialogue and policy-based solutions to the problem of food access, this book can be a first step in sparking more nuanced conversations around food that accounts for the complexity of defining what is good. While these solutions support the primary goal of the book—addressing dominant narratives around home cooking—they do not address the environmental impact of food production today, which is of high importance in the dominant definitions of good food that the book seeks to refute. In its attempt to shift the conversation away from the buzzwords of dominant food narratives, Pressure Cooker fails to account for a key concern of food reformers. In turn, its central argument might prove unsatisfying to those concerned by the interconnection of food’s economic and environmental impact.


Kendall Vanderslice holds a Master of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, and a BA in Anthropology from Wheaton College. She is the author of We Will Feast: Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God (Eerdman’s Press, 2019) and runs a community-supported bread share in Durham, North Carolina.

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