Outsourcing justice

I can usually count on my blog-crush, Chris Clarke, to get me thinkin.’ And he does that today with a great post up at Pandagon: Quality of whose life, again? Citing naturist, philosopher, novelist and poet Wendell Berry’s fondness for having all of his work typed by his wife, Chris points out that too frequently, the burden of living “slow”, of living “off the grid”, of living a life of “environmental purity” often places a disproportionate burden on to women:

What decisions are environmentalist citizens asked to make? Choosing the green laundry detergent and toilet paper and buying organic groceries. Carrying cloth bags to the supermarket. Using non-toxic cleansers. Adding corporate citizenship to one’s list of brand loyalty factors and schlepping the Seafood Buying Guide around. Sorting trash into the proper containers for recyclables, compost, and landfilling.

Of course, we men carry all those containers to the curb, which perfectly balances the division of labor. But then you add Environmentalism 2.0 to the mix, and you have the Slow Food (read: hours spent in the kitchen) and Local Food (read: hours spent shopping) movements, and with that kind of scheduling pressure a woman likely wouldn’t even have enough time left in the day to type up her husband’s poetry.


Since my wife joined me in strict veganism (and she jumped in “cold tofu”, skipping from eating red meat one week to full-on vegan the next without any of the traditional stages in between) we eat out a lot less. The number of restaurants to which we can go has been cut, even in greater Los Angeles, by 90%. With one or two exceptions, the local fast food options are all off the table now. We spend much more money at the supermarket than we used to; we are using the pots and pans more; we are eating out less. All of this is great for the health of the household. But it does do exactly what Chris worries it will — put extra pressure on both my wife and me to avoid falling into traditional gender roles.

The nice thing about eating out all the time was that, well, my wife and I contributed exactly the same amount of labor to the process. Pulling out the Amex and signing the bill is not a labor-intensive activity. The people who made our food and cleaned up our dishes were invariably invisible to us, and we assuaged any small sense of guilt about being waited on by giving good tips. But we eat out less these days, and that means more work for both of us.

My wife made a wonderful stew on Tuesday night, loaded with sauerkraut and potatoes (among other goodies). I packed it into tupperware after we had eaten, and I had one portion for lunch yesterday, another today, and another tomorrow. Yes, I washed dishes and packed leftovers away. But my wife still ended up doing a bit more work than I did that particular evening.

I know well enough that “real feminism begins at home”. If my commitment to egalitarianism isn’t matched in what I do around the house, then all of my public pronouncements are built on a foundation of fraud and hypocrisy. And as Chris cheekily points out, men who think they’re “doing their share” by dealing only with the outside things (like washing the car, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash) often have no sense of just how much less time these traditionally male activities require than the “inside” chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry) that we think of as largely female.

I’m going through a particularly ascetic period these days. I’m drinking a lot of vegan shakes (which come prepacked), I’m eating a lot of raw spinach, lots of trail mix, lots of soy yogurt (with some nice live cultures), lots of vegan organic food bars. Only once in a while am I eating anything that takes much time to prepare. This limited diet has the benefit of being quick and easy, but I’m aware that it’s hardly to everyone’s taste. More importantly, as my wife and I consider having children, we have no intention of raising our kids on little baggies of almonds, pumpkin seeds, and spinach leaves. At some point, our environmentalist and animal-rights commitments will demand that we take even more time than many other parents do to meet our children’s needs for variety and pleasure as well as ethical nutrition. And I’m going to have to work doubly hard not to fall prey to the Wendell Berry phenomenon, where my commitment to the most humane lifestyle possible ends up creating much more work for other people!

So this summer, it’s vegan cooking classes for me. Maybe with my wife, maybe not. But I’ll be danged if I’m going to outsource my justice.

0 thoughts on “Outsourcing justice

  1. If I might offer some advice: you don’t really need classes. Get a good vegan cookbook or two (there are tons out there), but just experiment in the kitchen. Invite friends over or something and cook together. You’ll propably have more fun learning to cook that way.

  2. Hugo – As someone who eats mostly vegetarian, I’m sympathetic to the challenges you’re facing (when cooking for myself, I rarely prepare food with a face). Try living in Salt Lake City, Utah and finding vegan restaurants (there are four restaurants in the metrao that have reliably good vegan dishes). That is not my point.

    The tendency to try and divide all household labor equally, to carefully weigh the work and make sure everyone is doing their fair share feels ultimatley destructive rather than productive. In same sex couples, partners negotiate what they like doing rather than what they “should” be doing; if one of you likes cooking you cook and the other person cleans up; if one of you likes yard work you do yard work and if nobody likes cleaning house, you hire it done.

    If neither you nor your wife really like cooking, find ways around it rather than trying to fairly divide the work of cooking. Maybe you really like cooking and your wife prefers not to – then you cook and let your wife clean up. It’s not equal amounts of labor you’re after – it is dividing household labor in such a way that neither of you feels taken advantage of or taken for granted.

  3. Given that you said you’re hoping to have children and that you’re both vegans, do you have any comment on this story: Vegans Sentenced for Starving Their Baby? The couple concerned seem pretty naive about sensible ways to feed a baby (baby soy milk powder is OK, breast milk is waaay better, standard soy milk is definitely not OK), but to be frank your diet as described doesn’t sound like long-term good nutrition.

    Kids require a very different nutritional balance to adults which can be hard to obtain on a vegan diet – it requires an almost obsessional attitude menu planning to get it right for the long term. Obsessional you certainly are, but you seem to be very reliant on quick-fix pre-prepared foods. Maybe some vegan cooking classes might be an idea – good ones will spend some time discussing achieving a healthy, complete diet without compromising your ethics.

    Disclosure: I’m an omnivore who’s lived with a vegetarian for 10+ years whilst raising two sons – we eat veggie if my partner is there and I usually cook some dead thing if he’s not (this happens about once a month on average). He eats eggs and diary but ‘nothing with a face’, I’ll eat anything so long as it’s stopped moving, the kids eat what’s put in front of them ;-). We cook from scratch pretty much every night (split pretty evenly between the two of us with the kids taking their turns occasionally). I also know lots of full-time vegetarians and some on-again-off-again vegans. Oh and the cooking from scratch has nothing to do with eating veggie (although most pre-prepared veggie food is pretty yucky), I’ve just always cooked and so has my partner. It’s cheaper, tastes better and once you’re moderately skilled can be as quick ordering-in, eating out or eating packaged food.

  4. I’m appalled by the vegan parenting story. Please know I’m getting lots of iron, lots of vitamins, lots of good stuff from my various sources — nuts and raw spinach are low prep, high reward foods. And spelt bread. Love me spelt bread.

    As for when we have children, we will follow the advice of those familar with raising healthy kids on a vegetarian (if not vegan) diet.

  5. Phbbbpfbht!

    I’m a single man. I do all my own chores. And I run a business.

    I daresay, with the exception of my leatherworking bench, I could pass a military inspection of my quarters.

    It’s not that tough, and I have plenty of free time left over to indulge myself in.

  6. In same sex couples, partners negotiate what they like doing rather than what they “should” be doing

    Glen, same-sex couples are also free of the ‘script’ that tells them how to divide up tasks.

    Balancing 50/50 is “destructive” when the somebody in the relationship doesn’t trust that things are fair. You don’t need to carefully weigh what everybody is doing when everybody feels things are OK. I believe it was Betty Ford who said that a good marriage is a 75/25 split, it’s just that sometimes you’re the 75 and sometimes the 25.

  7. here are my burning questions re: veganism and vegetarianism…what do you do when you’re a guest in someone’s home? or in a cross-cultural context or abroad in a place where the options are limited either by access or local diet?

  8. Sneha, I’ve really been inspired by my friends who keep strictly kosher and yet nonetheless live outside of Jewish areas and do extensive traveling. They are marvolous, many of them, at politely declining what’s offered. They have the confidence to know that fidelity to faith trumps an obligation to receive whatever is offered to them. The key is firmness, politeness, and lots of small stashes of snacks to eat if nothing appropriate is available.

  9. I know if I’m having guests over at my house and am cooking for them, I always ask if they have any eating restrictions. I think it’s just polite.

  10. Get a good vegan cookbook or two (there are tons out there), but just experiment in the kitchen.

    Or check out the post-punk kitchen. Lots of yumminess there.

    (I’m not a vegan, but I like to peruse vegan sites and cookbooks, because I’m lactose intolerant and trying to cut down on meat.)

    I think that the idea that cooking is rocket science is one of the things that allows men to get out of doing it. Most people learn to cook by trial and error. If you think classes would be fun, then go for it, but I really doubt you need them.

  11. labyrus, I’m the same. Though it’s possibly also to do with the fact that I’ve had a high concentration of friends with celiac’s disease/general wheat allergy and lactose intolerance/general dairy allergy, among other things, which includes my partner, and I have a couple of allergies of my own. He’s the same, too, unsurprisingly (we often cook together, actually, which can be good if you’ve got similar cooking skills and compatible styles, though not all the time, obviously).

    Hugo, I’ve been quite fascinated by this series of posts, from the perspective of my partner’s food allergies. His are quite restrictive, to the point where he does need to compulsively check labels because even trace elements are a bad idea, and when he was younger and there were considerably less options available to him, he (so I’m told, I didn’t know him then) was calorie-counting, but doing so to try and make sure he was getting enough calories, rather than restrict them, particularly when he was a teen. Of course, he has perhaps a more immediate and pressing motivation to keep to his diet, but that doesn’t actually do a whole lot to stop the “but it’s just one, etc…” (and he does have trouble with travel, particularly in countries where English is not pervasive, because he can’t read food labels. He’s lost drastic amounts of weight most times he’s gone overseas). And you’re right, the key is being firm and polite, and having a stash.

  12. I think that the idea that cooking is rocket science is one of the things that allows men to get out of doing it.

    Excuse me? I happen to be an incredible cook, make many things most people buy pre-made, and enjoy the hell out of it.

  13. You’re just in a fightin’ mood today, aren’t you, Gonz?

    To put it in less inflammatory terms, pretending that certain chores are arcane, require ‘natural talent’, or are so complex that one could never learn it (“you’re so much better at it than me, honey”) is a good way to get out of doing those chores – as is doing them badly enough that one’s partner decides it’s easier to just do them him/herself.

  14. Hi Hugo,

    I’ve been a reader of your blog for over 2 years, and never commented before. I’ve been a vegan/vegetarian for about 7 years and wanted to forward you to one of my favorite vegan websites/blogs – http://www.fatfreevegan.com – the recipes are very accessible, easy and I usually think they are pretty good to eat too.

    An interesting side note is that the blogger is raising her daughter as a vegan, she’s 10 years old and has never had animal products in her life, and has never been sick – with even a cold – either.

    For more medical information regarding the positive health impacts for all ages of the vegan diet, and raising children as vegans you can go to Dr. John McDougall’s site – http://www.drmcdougall.com – or refer to Dr. Joel Furhman’s book
    Disease Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right.

    I hope you don’t mind the unasked for advice/info. Please only take what may be responsive to you. I just thought I’d pass along what has been very helpful to me on my vegan journey.

  15. More importantly, as my wife and I consider having children, we have no intention of raising our kids on little baggies of almonds, pumpkin seeds, and spinach leaves.

    You’ll have to make certain they’re getting enough fat, especially the first two years, but whyever not? They’ll cotton onto the crap as soon as they start going to school and trading their lunches. One of my fondest memories with the local vegetarian/vegan restaurant, back when my best friend was doing that, was ordering a big bowl of steamed broccoli for my pre-school aged children. The waiter was sure they wouldn’t eat it. I said I thought it was the only thing they’d finish.

    Sho nuf, they gobbled it up. Waiter was duly impressed. Then they went through the tedious no-vegetable stage, and now are starting to eat green things again. It’s rather fun to watch, actually. My point, if it weren’t obvious, is that raw vegetables and nuts, so long as you’re balancing proteins and adding in enough vitamins and fats, is going to be a much better diet than most. Home cooked meals are all very well, but they’re time-consuming. Our vegetable, growing up, was celery and carrot sticks more often than not, and I think that better than, say, canned spinach, another of my mother’s favorites, and something I liked back then, though I don’t think I could stomach it today.

  16. My all-time favourite cookbook is Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian cooking for everyone. It’s voluminous and just absolutely fantastic for any level of cooking skill. Numbers two and three are Moosewood Restaurant cooks at home and Moosewood Restaurant simple suppers. All the recipes in these two are intended to be everyday, get-something-on-the-table-quick meals. Note that none of these books are strictly vegan, but you’ll still get hundreds of vegan recipes out of them.

    I have to agree with labyrus: between these three books and spending a couple evenings cooking with your wife, you should be able to get all the basic technique you’ll need. And it’s just practice makes perfect from there.

  17. My wife and I really like Donna Klein’s The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen – they’re mostly traditional recipes and thus don’t use meat substitutes like soy.

  18. I really like that idea of ‘not outsourcing my justice’
    and I would agree that its just simply unfair and wrong for there to be a disparity in the amount or type of work done between a couple. but to play the devil’s advocate, i think there are some instances where a couple could play ‘traditional’ roles and yet do their best to refrain from putting too much work, power, or responsibility on one or the other.

    hypothetical example
    she cooks all the meals. he washes all the dishes.
    she picks out the china for the evening and sets it out on the table.
    he built the house they live in from ‘scratch’, as well as the chairs and tables they sit at for supper.
    she plants basil and tomatoes in the yard. he drives to the hardware store, buys fertilizer and builds proper rodent-proof partitions in the garden for her herbs and vegetables to grow.
    she picked her own career, and he picked his.
    they do their taxes together in april.

    but of course, this is a couple where the guy is a handyman who works for the teamsters and she is a homemaker who works for city hall. my example might be more applicable if it was 1950(?)

    I suppose with higher education, higher paying jobs, and the outsourcing of many of the necessities of life to supermarkets, real estate agents, and furniture shops, it could be more likely and easier for a man to relax on his paycheck and relegate a heavier load of household responsibilities to the woman, a situation where dividing household responsibilities by gender based skills or strengths ‘equally’ is nearly impossible because there are hardly any more ‘male tasks’ to accomplish but plenty of ‘female’ ones to take care of (aside: the amazing technological and economical advances of our time which merit so many conveniences to our society are more ‘feminizing’ to men than is feminism. Dr. Laura might do better to tell men to learn how to build a deck and flush their radiator than telling women to act like girls)

    with that said, it seems that, to argue for a man and woman to share the burden of all tasks equally-not based on gender, maybe it can only be argued for certain couples where the risk of that morally wrong disparity is prominent.

    You have recognized that risk in your own life and are addressing that, but I pose this: If a man is many a time away from his wife with the army (or any other sort of out of state/overseas occupation) should he follow your suit? If he doesn’t, can he not be a feminist?

  19. I have read through this thread and found it tedious.

    Hugo, the *only way for a human beings to live “equitably” is for them to live alone, and on the edge of survival.

    i.e. you find and cook your own food (whether through hunting or exchange) . You wash up afterward. You clean our own clothes (and make them, or at least choose them yourself through exchange), you clean and decorate your living space…

    Oh screw this – I was going to make some variant of the argument that, if one were to aspire to live as an equal, then one ought to depend upon nobody, but then nobody is truly independent, are they?

    Exchange (capital letter incidental, but intended) is a broad concept, and broader in its application than anyone but maybe Charles Williams has ever imagined.

    Thoreau was famously willing to have his momma do his laundry whilst preaching the virtues of an independent life.

    I’ll leave it to the MRA’s to articulate the common counterexamples. I’ve blathered on enough.

  20. I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding urcing justice at Hugo Schwyzer, but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong :)