Return of the Bonne Femme

Stock Pots
Bonne Femme literally means good woman, but in culinary terms it's come to mean something home cooked, usually a stew or casserole, and it implies frugality on the part of the cook.
Given the global economic news, it looks like the Bonne Femme era is making a comeback. The Frugal Girls blog is all about feeding a family and aiming for zero waste, Mark Bittman has become the new kitchen guru with his simple, Minimalist approach. Even Laura Miller’s Salon review of Bittman’s new book, Food Matters,  is as much about her desire to transform her own kitchen as it is about the book.  The popularity of Bittman’s article teaching us how to stock our pantry puzzled me until I started to think about how we got into the position where we need someone to remind us that parsley will keep for a week in the fridge.

The problem with the back to the kitchen movement is that we’ve lost nearly three generations of hand me down kitchen wisdom. Following the deprivations of the Great Depression there was a desire for life to be a little easier. Girls who saw their mothers literally tied to the stove, wanted a better life for themselves, and they went outside the home to work and  gratefully embraced convenience foods.  It’s not that our moms were lazy or inept, but that they were buying into the dream of fast and easy food. The packaged food industry was created because modern women had other things to do besides stir the soup pot.

Although tin cans had been around for over a century, it wasn’t until 1932 that Campbell’s introduced American housewives to Cream of Tomato soup, two happy years later we were eating Cream of Mushroom Soup and by 1936 Spam was on the grocery store shelves. These tin cans represented freedom from the kitchen; they were emancipation in a can. I remember my mother saying when she was little she loved going to her girlfriends house to have that canned tomato soup; it was so exotic, so chic to eat soup from a can.  Swanson came out with the frozen TV dinner in 1954 and I remember what a treat it was when my parents went out and we got to stay home in front of the TV and eat a roast turkey with stuffing and gravy dinner. Tomato Soup

Convenience foods offered us a modern utopia: with very little work, we could have an inexpensive and glamorous meal in front of us. To differing degrees, we  all bought into that dream. The industrial food industry did their work so well, cheap and easy food became so mainstream it led to the inevitable backlash where now it's chic to be back into the kitchen.  Or to at least look like you spend time in the kitchen. People with money, who either didn’t have the time or the skills to boil water began putting professional ranges in their kitchens, massive SubZero side by side refrigerator/freezers that are bigger than my first studio apartment became the new status symbol.  No one was actually cooking, except for some fanatics who found each other through online internet forums.  Very swank city apartments were being developed with built in shelving for organizing takeout menus and not much else. The Food Network enticed us all with the idea that if we just pay attention, we can cook yummy meals with little fuss or muss. I met who a woman two years ago who assured me that she just liked to watch, it made her feel good to see food prepared but she had no intention of actually getting her own kitchen dirty.

  Fast forward to today and the realities of our economic straits: now what? People have to return to the kitchen because of economics; suddenly bottled salad dressing looks expensive when you can buy the ingredients and do it yourself, buying the Swiss chard that you don’t know what to do with, but it’s on sale seems like a rational choice.  We’re talking about totally retooling our eating habits, a seismic cultural shift that looks to change lives as much as that Cream of Tomato soup changed my mother’s life.  When I go to Mom’s, we have a running, good-natured argument about what’s in her refrigerator.  She likes to buy things that are pre-mixed, pre-flavored, pre-made and her chops-busting daughter comes in with her rolling pin and superior way of living. Who am I to ask my mother to turn her back on what shaped her generation? Now so many people are being forced back into the kitchen, being forced to cook and make do, I wonder where all of this will lead. We are still looking for the modern utopia, only now it’s the ideal of a warm kitchen filled with the scent of a home cooked dinner.

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  1. John Sconzo on January 10, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    More and more people were actually starting to cook before the recession. One of the reasons, I think, has been the proliferation of better fresh ingredients in much of the U.S. through Farmers Markets, CSA’s and the like. Unfortunately, I fear that as people’s wallets become lighter that there will e a perception that they can no longer afford that good product and go back to the cans and the freezer aisle or worse yet, the Fast Food black holes. I hope that fear is unfounded and that if people are forced by economics to eat out less, that they at least continue to eat good product at home and not just settle for the lowest common denominator. Years of growth and development of a good food supply in the US are at risk, otherwise.

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