Feminists Don’t Have to Eat Fast Food

Peggy Orenstein’s recent New York Times article ‘The Femivore’s Dilemma’ really struck a chord with feminists across the internets. In the last couple days I’ve seen the term ‘femivore’ (which Orenstein says is a combination of feminist and locavore) defined as everything from sapphic to misogynist cannibalism, and I’d have to agree that it’s an unfortunate coining etymologically speaking.

Orenstein’s concept of femivores arises from her friends who are raising their own chooks, and from Shannon Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers, that is, strong, intelligent women (and men, as it turns out) who are choosing to produce food in their own backyards as a way of nurturing themselves, their families and the planet. Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of negative responses to the idea that it is only women who are involved in the locavore movement, or indeed ‘downshifting’, ‘voluntary simplicity’, Slow Food or any other version of ‘slower’, less consumerist lifestyles.

It seems there are three primary threads then that require unravelling: gender, class, and sustainability. On gender, the most compelling argument for home food production and locavorism as intrinsically tied to feminist practice is that women are still by far the majority of the world’s domestic labour force. Before anyone starts yelling ‘my husband does most of the cooking’ (and to wit, my own partner is a regular and good cook, does most of our laundry, and is a passionate home gardener), I am not suggesting that men don’t do these things, but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian women in fact still do two and a half times more food preparation and cleaning up than men,whether they work outside the home or not.

One of ecofeminism’s claims is essentially that the patriarchy got us into this unsustainable capitalist mess, and feminism might just be able to get us out of it. Julia Russell puts it quite plainly in ‘The Evolution of an Ecofeminist’: ‘I call it the politics of life-style and I think it is a distinctly feminine politics in that it is both inner and universal, personal and all-inclusive. It is based on the understanding that lasting societal transformation begins with and rests on transformations of the individual.’

Russell’s valorising of individual responsibility perhaps leads us to the heart of claims that there are insurmountable class issues with so-called ‘femivorism’. Admittedly, Orenstein’s ‘femivores’ appear to all be white middle-class women. But Lindsay Beyerstein’s vituperative response “’Femivores’? Spare me.” is disingenuous sour grapes to the extreme. Beyerstein’s argument is tired and reductive. While I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that backyard gardens are equivalent to running a commercial farm, they are apparently important enough as to be encouraged by governments in times of war to address food shortages. Gardening can indeed be as simple as a hobby, but it can also be a significant means of saving money, ensuring the quality and freshness of one’s food, and reduce one’s carbon footprint substantially, and it is certainly hard work sometimes, as well as deeply pleasurable.

Beyerstein even attempts to elide the importance of nourishing one’s children if you choose to have them, with her hyperbolic question: ‘How about figuring out how to share domestic labor more equitably so that SAHMs have more free time to spend as they see fit, even if their hobbies don’t fit the stereotype of maternal perfection?’ Sure, domestic labour should be shared more equally, that’s a given. And of course mothers should have time to themselves without the constant pressure of the Good Mother mythology. But frankly, one’s tennis lessons (mother’s or father’s) are not in fact more important than feeding one’s children. And feeding your children well is at the core of good parenting, not external to it. Taking kids to swimming, tennis, guitar and dance lessons every weekday does not automatically a good parent make. Feeding them healthy food every day so they grow up without chronic illness or obesity is one essential component of good parenting. There, I said it, and now I’ll wait for those who would shrug off this essential duty to our children to attack me for not being a good feminist, because apparently feminists eat fast food.

Is it only middle class stay-at-home mums who ‘have time’ to cultivate a garden and cook wholesome food? Obviously not – families of many classes and cultures engage in gardening and cooking. And in fact, it is often those with the most spare time with partners in the highest income brackets who are least likely to spend their time on food production. By contrast, there are 18 community gardens in Melbourne’s public housing estates, with over 650 individual plots tended by residents.

It is obviously not just white middle-class privilege to have a thriving home garden, it’s for anyone who cares about their own, their families’ (if they have one) and the planet’s well being. It is also not just drudgery, and a new way to chain women to the kitchen sink. Our culture’s sense of entitlement to a life of convenience and uber-consumerism is neither making us happy nor providing our children with a future. Anecdotally, we talk of the Greek and Italian migrants of the 50s and their backyards full of tomatoes and fruit trees, plus the annual sugo making led by somebody’s nonna. For many, these traditions are being lost, whilst for others they are just being discovered.

At a salami making day I attended last winter, a third generation northern Italian claimed that even the ‘Skippies’ are getting into ‘the old ways’ now, and someone else quipped, ‘people are calling them ‘foodies’, when all they are is wogs!‘ The excellent group blog Progressive Dinner Party is awash with women one might call ecofeminists (even if they don’t), and the stories you find there make it obvious how much pleasure is gained from growing, cooking and eating their own produce or that sourced from responsible producers. There is unquestionably satisfaction, pride and pleasure in being competent and/or skilled in the garden and/or kitchen.

In my research, I am finding that for those who have the requisite kitchen skills, consciously practising frugality (in terms of purchasing and re-use) is a powerful form of agency, and one that evident across class and culture. One of my interviewees, an Anglo Australian woman in her seventies, is frugal through both habit and necessity, and expresses a great deal of pride at being so. She says it is just ‘common sense’ not to waste or overspend. A Vietnamese-Australian couple who arrived as political refugees in the 70s echo her arguments for common sense, and further claim to feel ‘smart’ about their sustainable and homely practices. And their son, born in Australia, also insists that he feels quite proud about his more frugal habits, such as never wasting leftovers, and in fact ‘ashamed’ when he is wasteful, either in terms of unnecessary consumption or food waste. A key point is that none are expressing resentment at behaving sustainably, rather it gives them enormous satisfaction.

Ultimately, it is not only a feminist issue to engage in homely and sustainable food production, though feminists will have a particular interest in it. The need to provide education and opportunities to develop skills in gardening and cooking is evident in the plethora of issues facing us, from climate change to obesity, and from depression to loss of entire food cultures. And perhaps most importantly, there is an urgent need to understand and promote the intrinsic value and deep pleasures of quotidian ‘chores’ such as growing and chopping your own garlic.

A Loser on Twitter #alot

So one day I noticed that @rod3000, @thewetmale and @nomesmessenger were playing with a new hashtag #alot. It appeared to be an amusing way to emphasise just about anything, for example ‘I’m hungry #alot’ or ‘This government needs an enema #alot’. For the many spelling pedants out there, of which I’m one, it’s somewhat alarming, but many of us took up the challenge nonetheless. Watching some of the twitterati like @s_bridges come slowly on board made the game all the more fun.

Eventually, I learned that #alot means Australian Liberals On Twitter. Oh, right, so we weren’t just playing with good spellers… culture jamming a wingnut feed made the hashtag that much more amusing. If you look at the #alot page, you’ll quickly see it’s full of the sort of people who believe universal health care is a threat to freedom.

And so we continued with our game (many still do). A few weeks ago, a Twitter user who goes by the self-aggrandising (& politically repugnant) handle @MiltonFriedmans (yes, I’m aware the ‘s’ is superfluous, though I gather he isn’t), started retweeting me (& @rod3000 & presumably others) & re-hashing it to #KevinPM (I don’t even want to know what that page is). First though, he asked me whether there was a reason why we were spamming up their feed. I replied ‘yep’. He said he didn’t really mind, but could I please change my ‘disgusting’ avatar (it’s my legs in stripey socks, btw). I said, ‘lol, nope’. I figured that would be the end of our interactions.

How wrong I was. I can perfectly well understand a person objecting to others spamming a feed that is intended to be on topic (though there’s surely a thesis in what that means on the twitters), and to express this objection by doing his own spamming. Unfortunately, however, this belligerent individual chose to spam me directly through @s. There were a few over the last couple weeks which I mostly ignored, but last night he really went on the attack. It appears he has now had the belated wisdom to delete his stream of harassment, but I can see the @s on Tweetie on my iPhone. He @’d me 16 times in under 2 hours last night. What pearls of wisdom and high intellectual debate were these?

There were the personal attacks:

MiltonFriedmans: I’m assuming that between HECS debts, FEE-HELP and AUSTUDY, @Tammois shows leadership in the field of taking taxpayer money. #alot

MiltonFriedmans: @tammois would fit in well with Stalin & Kim Jong-Il! Http://bit.ly/alUkal #alot

MiltonFriedmans: @tammois Only a lefty would assume challanging [sic] one’s logic 2B being “cyber bullied”. Most people explain their logic, not ask for help #alot

And then there was the false attribution RT:

MiltonFriedmans: RT@Tammois How can a 19yr old in their 1st degree, often living at home & having never had a career possibly//vote in a Fed election? #alot

If he’d had any wit, perhaps I would have bitten, though I suspect not. I don’t find that engaging with wingnuts in 140 characters is productive, nor generally remotely interesting. So instead I blocked him, as his badgering was tedious and badly spelt. This morning I glanced at his page to see whether he had laid off, only to discover he was carrying on still, mostly linking to my blog and ranting about VSU, as you can see.

I actually find this quite annoying still, though I’m choosing to ignore him and his 93 followers (none of whom have joined his attacks, happily, and one who asked him not to RT him in order to support his attacks on us).

I will respond briefly to what I think were actually some marginally interesting taunts about undergrads representing postgrads. First, it’s important to ignore the elision of voting with representing – not everybody is always eligible to run for office in pretty much any form of democracy of which I’m aware (eg age requirements, citizenship…). The rules applying to voters are typically different and more open, as they should be.

On the question of representation though, I’ve already spelled out my thoughts on the importance of separate and independent representation for undergrads, postgrads and internationals. Su made a great point in the comments about mature age undergrads, even though they are the minority, but I would still argue that it isn’t only about age (though that is a significant part of the issue of undergrads representing postgrads), it’s also about experience with the academic structures of postgraduate degrees, as well as the associated welfare issues specific to doing these degrees (income support, facilities and resources, etc).

So I happily stand by my claim that undergrads should not be representing postgrads. I also stand by my assertion that @MiltonFriedmans was bullying me with his incessant @ing and personal attacks. Culture jamming, in my opinion, which may include tactics such as spamming a hashtag, is not about individual, personal attacks. I guess us lefties can leave that nastiness to the ‘Classical Liberals’ over on the #alot page, which I’ve decided not to spam anymore, btw, in order to avoid provoking more bullying.

The importance of independent representation

I had my first ever article published on the ABC The Drum site, which they titled A Foreign Despair. It’s predominantly a look at the welfare issues facing international students, and points to policy gaps and lack of action, as well as inadequacies in our national infrastructure. I finish by highlighting the importance of an independent, national voice for international students in Australia, something that’s been missing since Master Sheng and his crew took over the old NLC in a truly unscrupulous way (and some might argue there’s a legal case in it). CAPA has been very active in supporting international students, and has had international student officers for decades on our Council, but we believe this student population needs its own independent national body once again, with whom we will work closely to cover postgrad issues for internationals.

This brings me to the importance more broadly of democratic representation, especially where there is taxation (yes, that old phrase). Of course I’m referring to the devastating effects of so-called Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), whereby universities have had to fund student associations, leading to the closure of many of them across the country where uni administrations have failed to be supportive. Too many that are surviving are doing so by amalgamating the postgrad and undergrad bodies, and sometimes also the overseas student associations (OSAs), leading to the bizarre situation where undergrads are the presidents and typically hold the majority of the elected positions with postgrads usually only having one dedicated spot on these councils.

So I made a claim at the Universities Australia conference last week that if there must be amalgamations, there should be a constitutional requirement that the presidents be postgrads. One can imagine the response from undergrads, but even a postgrad campus president asserted that this would be undemocratic and elitist. I argue that it is simply ensuring that representation is done by those best placed to represent their constituents – that is, postgrads by definition all have undergraduate qualifications and so are well able to represent that cohort, but undergrads are clearly not in a position to represent their postgraduate colleagues. How can a 19 or 20 year old in the middle of their first degree, often still living at home and having never had a career possibly represent the average 34-year-old postgrad? How could they represent someone like me – a 39 year old mother of three doing my fourth degree (1 undergrad, 2 postgrad coursework, & now the PhD), having had a couple of careers, including management experience?

Now imagine a postgrad officer on the amalgamated bodies, which in all the examples we’ve seen in Australia consist almost exclusively of undergraduate members. These undergrads make their factional deals about electing office bearers, as they are party political. The postgrads by and large are issues-focused people who got involved in representation because they’ve seen, heard and experienced firsthand the many things that can go wrong in the academy. They’re put off by the intense party political environment of the council, and can’t get much support or resources specific to postgrads, as the undergrads don’t see the need for such things (eg dedicated postgrad facilities and advocates, postgrad-specific publications, or indeed, in the case of a number of these amalgamated bodies, paying CAPA’s annual fees to ensure national representation for postgrads, though they continue to pay their NUS fees).

Why do postgrads allow ourselves to play subaltern to undergraduate hegemony? I know some out there will attest to the hegemons’ relations with the government… and Imma let you finish. I don’t know of any student association that would allow men to serve as women’s officers, nor local students as international officers. It’s time we insisted that undergrads stop serving as peak representatives on bodies responsible for postgrads. And although postgrads could represent the undergrads, quite honestly, most of us don’t want to. We believe that those currently undertaking undergrad degrees are best placed to represent themselves, and we ask for the same recognition in return.

In these times of severe resource scarcity due to the disastrous VSU legislation and the Opposition’s continued stonewalling on the Student Services and Amenities Bill, we’re going to have to speak up for our right to independent representation, advocacy and support. Postgraduate students, both coursework and research, are already important, active members of Australian society, and they’ve returned to study to increase their value in the knowledge economy. They make the difficult choice to live with financial stress and insecurity through additional study in hopes of a return on that investment later, and for some, simply because engagement with learning and critical thinking is a lifelong passion. As a society, we need to collectively value the contributions made by students during and after their period of study, and one of the many ways we can do this is by insisting on independent representation.

Who’s going to help me get this #RIOT going?

All bread is not created equal…

If you’ve been here awhile, you’ll know I decided to learn to make good sourdough this year. Well, here we are on the 1st of March, and by golly, I made a bloody good sourdough ciabatta last night. So tasty, with such a lovely crumb and crust that 10 year old Oscar declared, “Mum! This is amazing! And you said you needed all year to learn how, and it’s only been what, two months?” Major brownie points for eldest child. 🙂

But let me caveat last night’s loaves – they were indeed sour, with an excellent crusty yet chewy crust and a good crumb, but not as chewy as I think a ciabatta should be. It was really good bread, but still doesn’t fit my imaginary endpoint for this year.

Some detail then. For these ciabatta, I did a series of short kneads of a fairly wet dough, though not so sticky I couldn’t handle it, with ever-increasing proving times. So maybe 10 second kneads three times with about 10 minutes in between each, then about a 2-hour rise before splitting the dough, stretching it carefully and allowing another half-hour rise. Into a very hot oven (250C) with a water bath on the top shelf & a quick spray of the loaves at the beginning & one midway through baking. My starter, Fran, is currently mostly organic wholemeal flour, and the flour I added for these was organic unbleached. I didn’t add any commercial yeast as I was looking for a flat bread anyway. This was lazy baking at its finest, and the results were lovely.

A few nights earlier, I whipped Fran up into some rye dinner rolls to have with our soup.They achieved exactly the soft, pliable texture you want from rolls, with crusty crusts. This dough was wetter than the ciabatta, and I added some commercial yeast for a better rise to great effect.

I’ve also embraced the joys of sourdough pizza crust, which goes perfectly with the salty, spicy combination of Stuart’s home-cured olives, anchovies, bacon and chilies, plus garden-fresh tomatoes and basil and a thin lashing of homemade passata.

So it seems my ‘specialty’ breads are the winners thus far, as my loaves have often been unwilling to give me a good rise. They do say that sourdough starters are unreliable leaveners, and I’m finding this to be distinctly true. Check out my most hilariously unintentionally flat loaf, which still tasted quite nice, though a bit dry (and hell on the toaster, let me tell you!)

When I’m looking for a higher loaf, especially for toasting, I’m learning to add commercial yeast. It doesn’t affect the flavour, which is invariably sour, but gives the bread the lift that Fran seems unable to offer.
I should add that the sourness is wildly variable as well, though predictably so. If Fran hasn’t made some bread for more than a few days, she gets rather sour. If I’m making bread every day or two, she’s less sour. The metaphors write themselves, so I won’t bother here.

This last loaf below was my sourest to date (and by the way, given my California origins, I’m looking for the sourest of the sourdoughs!), and it also had the best crumb, even though it didn’t rise much. If you check out the dough below, you’ll see I really took Annette’s advice to heart on this one and worked a really sticky, wet dough. In fact, it finally inspired me to get a proper dough scraper to assist with this rather messy method.

I feel almost guilty that for those of you out there looking for a scientific account of breadmaking, I’m just tossing around vague generalities. But these days, I cook by touch, smell, taste and imagination, rather than ratios. There are obviously ratios involved, but given my propensity to constantly adjust them by a smidgen, I’m afraid I can’t really offer much insight into quantities of what’s in my bread.

I think one of the best things about my relaxed approach has been the way it makes breadmaking seem like a simple and lovely thing to do, much like making the children a milkshake rather than mastering a croquembouche. It means I wander into the kitchen, see Fran on the bench and think, ‘Hey, I might get some bread started,’ and then wander in and out of the kitchen to tend to the dough over the afternoon or evening. The other positive outcome is the exciting array of outcomes – this is no McDonald’s where you can expect the same burger every time, no matter where you are – open your palate and be prepared to be surprised at every new loaf of bread. 🙂