The Fallacy of Eating The Way Your Great-Grandmother Ate

We cannot idolize their nutrition while ignoring the classism, racism, and misogyny on their tables.

Way back, in the mid-2000s, when I was on the environmental food beat, there were two phrases, both coined or at least popularized by Michael Pollan, that came up in nearly every interview I did. The first, of course, is Pollan’s famous line from In Defense of Food: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” This mantra became so ubiquitous by the mid-2000s that I can now find it all across Etsy, emblazoned on tea towels, coasters, tote bags, and a whole variety of posters with faux vintage fonts. (While I disagree with Pollan about a lot, and with this line especially, a reminder that plagiarism on a cute mug is still plagiarism!)

The other line that appears repeatedly in Pollan’s writing and is also very much a rallying cry for a certain kind of hipster/locavore/farm-to-table foodie parent is: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Our great-grandparents, Pollan and others have argued, didn’t raise their kids on guar gum, soy lecithin, and many of the other ingredients common in today’s processed foods. They served milk fresh from the cow, turnips dug fresh from the garden, and cooked almost everything from scratch. If only we had stuck to this small-scale agrarian lifestyle, our kids would never spill Go-GURT in the backseat or bug us to refill their snack cups with ever more Goldfish crackers. The underlying claim is that if we ate this way, nobody would be fat. 

I think a lot about this great-grandmother thing, even though it’s old news now (here’s the San Francisco Chronicle covering it back in 2007), because it turned out to be one of those little nuggets of “wisdom” that has underpinned so much about how we approach food as a culture, and especially how we approach feeding our kids. Last weekend, I shared the kid snack shelf in our pantry on Instagram, and a follower scolded me for “pushing candy” on my kids. I’m sure she was not the only person horrified to see Goldfish crackers, Oreos, and leftover Halloween candy (that nobody is eating) in amongst the granola bars and applesauce pouches. Parents today may not realize they are invoking the words of a thin, white man with a ton of privilege (and only one adult child) when we worry that our kids shouldn’t eat Oreos, but we are. And so it’s worth considering: Is the way our grandmothers and great-grandmothers ate really worth replicating? 

I’ll start by noting that the great-grandmother Pollan, a Boomer, referenced was an entirely different generation than a Millennial or Gen Z’s great-grandmother. But for the purposes of this thought experiment, I’ll talk about my own family tree, which I can only trace back about as far as my own great-grandmothers anyway. On my mother’s side, we have Granny, a British woman who raised chickens and a couple of “eating rabbits,” and grew carrots, potatoes, turnips, swedes, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, peas, onions, and beans in her garden. She also had no indoor plumbing and had to cut the cleats off my grandfather’s football boots so he could wear them as school shoes because they couldn’t afford to buy new ones when my great-grandfather was away at sea in the merchant navy, which was most of the time. 

My other maternal great-grandmother was middle class and married to a civil engineer. They had a five bedroom house and employed a housemaid who cleaned and helped with food preparation. But this great-grandmother was also raising six children during the Great Slump and then World War 2. Once rationing began in 1940, it’s safe to say that neither of these women was eating a hugely varied or plentiful diet. Lots of potatoes and tuna in a can. 

The woman we call Granny on my father’s side of the family was far more privileged than either of my British great-grandmas, because she was a white lady in South Carolina married to a man who owned a chain of pharmacies that prospered even during the Great Depression. She mostly ate food cooked by the Black women who also cleaned her house. She did love to garden and grew some vegetables, but mainly flowers, and was renowned in her local flower-arranging society.

My father’s other grandmother, Mum-Mum, was less wealthy, but still also able to afford hired help, because, see above about white ladies in the South. A Black woman named Celie cleaned her house, prepared meals, and helped raise her three daughters. My dad does remember Mum-Mum cooking and baking with great skill: Cherry pies, collard greens, black-eyed peas, Jell-O salads and apricot nectar cakes. I wonder about how much of our family’s food history was likely appropriated from Celie and the other Black women who worked for white women across the South, for generations.

Yes, this was a time before Uber Eats and Ben & Jerry’s and Big Gulps. Yes, my British granny dug the potatoes fresh for tea and my Southern great-grandparents grew tomatoes, butter beans, and rutabaga. We can zoom in on the nutritional value of their meals, as Pollan and others have instructed us to do, and notice that yes, far fewer processed foods and less red meat was consumed. But when we idolize their nutrition while ignoring the larger influences of classism, racism, and misogyny on their tables we are only telling a fraction of the story. My great-grandmothers ate the way they did because of the unpaid or underpaid labor of women, and on one side, the labor of exploited Black women. There is nothing to romanticize or aspire to there. 

Indeed, many of the women doing this labor did not romanticize it. As soon women got access to the tools and technology to make food preparation less laborious, they took full advantage. My American grandmother married the wealthy pharmacist’s son and raised four boys in 1950’s Illinois. By the time I was a regular visitor in the 1980s, her house had two refrigerators (one with an ice dispenser), a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a microwave, and a trash compactor. Her kitchen cupboards were full of shortcut ingredients, like store-bought croutons, Jell-O, and Bouillon cubes. Her fridge contained every kind of bottled salad dressing. If an appliance had come on the market that would have just materialized dinner for her, Grandma Betty would have bought it. And even with all of that kitchen technology, not to mention her own childhood memories of apricot nectar cakes and other from-scratch cooking, Grandma did not love to make dinner. She did it faithfully and competently, serving a full cooked dinner at 6pm sharp every night of her sons’ childhood and for decades afterwards. Making dinner was in Grandma Betty’s job description as a stay-at-home wife and mother and so she executed the task. But as she got older, we began having our big family meals at restaurants so she didn’t have to host them. When she and my grandfather moved to an assisted living facility with a cafeteria, she stopped making anything besides their morning cereal. On one visit I asked if she ever missed cooking for herself. Grandma Betty didn’t blink, “Like a hole in the head.” 

Part of why, I suspect, Grandma Betty hated to cook was that the rules for how she should cook were constantly changing. I watched her move through many iterations of diet culture in her years of making family meals, cutting out calories, salt, fat, and sugar in a perpetual quest to improve my grandfather’s health, but also to try to get back to the tiny waist everyone commented on in her wedding photos. In Friday’s subscriber thread we talked about the ways our grandparents instructed us in diet culture and the examples were heart-wrenching: Grandfathers who would pinch an inch of fat on your stomach, yet also get mad if you didn’t clean your plate. Comparisons of cousins’ bodies at shockingly young ages. Grandmothers still dieting into their 80s and 90s. I’m grateful my own Grandma never turned her body anxieties onto me, but I wish she had known more food freedom.

Across the pond, my British grandmother took a different approach to family dinner: She opted out completely. Because British food culture at the time centered on a larger midday meal, she could count on her kids and husband getting hot lunch at school and work. The end of the day meal was (and still is) called “tea,” and it is, quite possibly, genius. 

 And just so we’re clear, the sponge cake was store-bought.

When I tweeted this a few months ago, some folks were understandably skeptical that my mother and her brother grew to be fully functional adults on such a menu. It’s especially remarkable because my mother was a picky kid who hated her school’s hot lunches. She often claims to have only eaten toast for most of her childhood and yet still lives. So I did some rigorous fact-checking (texting), and she did admit that sometimes Grandma spiced things up by adding a single can of salmon or a can of tuna to be shared among them all. (There was no actual spice because this was England in the 1950s.) My grandmother also occasionally served a store-bought meat paste, which my mother dreaded. On better days, they added Marmite or cheese to the toast. Sometimes in winter Grandma would make “stewed mince,” which sounds fancy but is actually just hamburger meat boiled with an Oxo stock cube. 

To be clear, I, too, have questions about all of this. My main concern is that it doesn’t sound like nearly enough food to keep any adult full. And since I’m sure my grandmother wasn’t cooking her own hot lunch as a stay-at-home mom, I wonder now about her own relationship with food. Money was too tight for her to have been a Lady Who Lunched. But did she make herself a sandwich at least? Did the big Sunday dinner she cooked once a week make enough leftovers? Or did growing up as one of six kids and 14 years of wartime food rationing teach her to live with a baseline of deprivation? 

There was also a phenomenal amount of pressure on my mother to eat foods she didn’t like because my grandparents had zero tolerance for food waste. This mostly came up around the dreaded school dinners, the weekly Sunday dinners, or other family meals. My mother became skilled at hiding food in her pockets or sitting next to an older cousin who would clean her plate for her so she didn’t get punished or lectured. The idea of personal preferences around food was considered frivolous.

I also wonder if my grandmother, knowing those battles would be a feature of their family weekend, leaned into the simplicity of tea to make her and my mother’s lives easier. No pressure to serve an endless parade of variety. No concern about scratch cooking. No negotiating, bribing, or coercing for bites. And no tracking how many times you’ve exposed them to tilapia or kale and wondering if this will be the meal where they finally embrace it. The contrast between my mother’s childhood teas and the expectations we now place on family dinner is stunning. 

Pollan once called family dinner “the nursery of democracy.” That’s something else I’m thinking about a lot right now, as we’re watching the Democrats flounder their first serious attempt to pass federal paid leave, while Republicans gear up to cut universal preschool and childcare support from the comprehensive infrastructure bill we’ve long needed. Our current democracy does so little to support parents, mothers especially, because our government’s understanding of women still limits us to the roles our grandmothers and great-grandmothers played, while ignoring the tremendous value of that work. But sure, let’s add “incubate a better democracy” to the list of things we’re trying to accomplish with family dinner

The truth is, I do not want to eat like my great-grandmothers or grandmothers ate. I don’t think many of us crave a return to wartime rationing or mid-century diet culture. A return to home-grown bounty and scratch cooking requires an investment of time and labor from someone. And because we live in a society that cannot reckon with how much this has cost, and continues to cost us, it takes a phenomenal level of privilege to either be that someone or hire that someone. Of course, today’s processed foods, and cheap food in general, depend on the under-paid labor of migrant farm workers and the prison industrial complex. So to the extent I can use my own privilege to shop more sustainably for better solutions, I do. But we have to stop labeling these issues as “food supply problems” because that implies we can fix them by changing how we eat, instead of by demanding the kind of wholesale government and industry reform that would make a real difference. And on the nights I serve my children Eggo waffles or Uncrustables for dinner, I do think that their great-grandmothers would have approved. 

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More thoughts on Michael Pollan, and the other thin, white men who invented diet culture, in this piece I wrote for Bitch a few years ago.

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