The "femivore" mystique
Instead of ring around the collar, today's stay-at-home mom battles the industrial-food complex. She started with a kitchen garden, then moved up to chickens.
That's the gist of a New York Times magazine article titled, "The Femivore's Dilemma." The subhed: "Can chickens save the desperate housewife?"
The modern, affluent homemaker may be as obsessed with providing her family with good food as June Cleaver was. But having a casserole on the table by the time Ward gets home from the office doesn't cut it anymore. It has to be nutritionally, environmentally unassailable food, preferably raised by Farmer Mom.
"Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird," Peggy Orenstein writes in the piece.
This gentlewoman farmer has something in common with her feminists forebears, who made staying home with the kids a choice, not a foregone conclusion, the writer suggests. "Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the workforce in the first place," she writes.
But she also suggests chicken-keeping could become drudgery that quite literally coops women up -- especially if Dad isn't any help around the hen house.
"If you don't go into this as a genuinely egalitarian relationship, you're creating a dangerous situation," Shannon Hayes, author of "Radical Homemakers," a manifesto for "tomato-canning feminists," is quoted saying in the piece. "There can be a loss of self-esteem, loss of soul ... You can start to wonder, What's this all for?"
I enjoyed the article but think it gets one thing wrong: chicken lust isn't limited to stay-at-home moms. Swept up in the whole locavore thing, I seriously considered getting chickens last summer. The city allows four hens per back yard. I found a place to buy the birds. Found a farmer out in Buckeystown who would sell me organic feed. Found a guy with an illicit flock in Catonsville -- the county is stricter about these things -- to let me have a peek at his coop.
Then the summer wound down, my math-teacher husband headed back to the classroom, and the coop he was going to build never materialized. I was a little annoyed our project got put off -- until winter came along. During those twin blizzards, it occurred to me: local eggs are nice, but so's not having to wade into thigh-high snow to tend to birds.
Though my flock fancy has passed, I don't think it ever sprang from "the problem that has no name." For one thing, my husband and I both wanted the birds. We both work full time and have two young children, so the birds were never about filling our empty, meaningless days. For another thing, the chickens were meant to solve a problem that does have a name. Or two names: factory farming and high-priced organics.
I'd like to be able to have organic, free-range chicken eggs -- high in all the good things that come when the birds eat bugs and grass -- and still have money left over for that other nest egg.
That said, I'd agree there is something amusing about what I'll call extreme homemaking -- maybe especially when practiced by busy working moms and dads. And I say that because I'm sometimes guilty of it. I can identify with these chicken-keepers-by-choice, not only as a near-hen keeper, but as an occasionally overly ambitious home cook.
I have tried (and failed) to make my own fresh mozzarella cheese. I have baked my own pita bread (successfully) when I couldn't find a 100 percent whole wheat variety at the store. I undertake projects like those because I think I can make something more wholesome and affordable than what's at the store, and because I enjoy cooking. But when these endeavors go awry and gobble up too much precious weekend time, I wonder: Am I being a good mother or selfish domestic striver?
As journalism has hit on hard times, I've often said I'd like to go into subsistence farming -- except that I'm pretty sure we couldn't subsist. There is something romantic about the idea, and absurd. I aim to be both good-foods idealist and realist today as I plant a vegetable garden in my blissfully chicken-free backyard.