Who’s (Not) Making the Dough

How stay-at-home orders helped us appreciate the value of food workers

Last night I made pizza dough for the first time. It wasn’t hard and tasted pretty good. Flour, yeast, salt, oil, water. Mix. Add more flour. Mix again. Knead in more flour for 4 minutes. Grease a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough. Top and bake. Put away the ingredients; clean up flour and dough stuck to the counter; wash a bowl, spoon, measuring cups. Easy peasy. 10/10 would do again.

Normally we use pre-made pizza shells from the grocery. Cost five bucks; take no time; taste OK. Home-made dough was probably cheaper but took thirty minutes and a lot more labor, dishes, ingredients, and know-how. Not everyone has instant yeast lying around or the time and knowledge to make dough from scratch.

But stay-at-home orders have forced many of us to produce goods and services ourselves that we used to purchase from others — like pizza dough and pizza. Potentially, that’s making us aware of the difficulty (and value) of their effort and its products.

I’ve been complaining for weeks about how exhausting stay-at-home is, even though I’ve been mostly working at home for years now. We started isolating in early March, right after returning from a South Florida vacation, terrified we’d been exposed on the beach or the plane.

Things didn’t look too bad when we left home, but I spent vacation reading first-person horror stories posted to social media by Italian ICU doctors — so relaxing! We self-quarantined for 14-days when we got back. Except for essential trips to the grocery, drug store, or doctor, we’ve been living mostly indoors since March 10th. I’m not complaining exactly. We’re both lucky to have jobs that let us do that.

And, at first, it was sort of fun. Yay! I get to prefect my artisanal baking skills and explore some new crock-pot recipes. But before long the toll of planning, shopping, cooking, and clean-up for three meals a day (plus dessert!) got me feeling like I should have paid more attention in that junior high home economics class.

I love to cook but I quickly exhausted my repertoire of standards. It turns out there’s only so many entrees you can make in a slow cooker or a 13" x 9" casserole. Baked ziti, chicken enchiladas, chicken chile verde, lasagna, beef barley soup, tuna ‘surprise’, etc. And that’s assuming you can find all the necessary ingredients at the grocery (good luck!)

Thawing meat in advance, ensuring thematically-appropriate carbs and veg were in the house, that everything was prepped, cooked, and finished at the same time became, not a form of creative expression, but endless drudgery.

And, though artisanal bread is fortifying, there are only so many carbs one can eat in the course of a global pandemic, even if they are whole grain.

I quickly came to realize how many meals we used to eat out. Probably dinner two or three times a week. Brunch on the weekends, if not dinner, too. The occasional lunch, alone or with friends.

I also spent a lot of time working (and ‘working’ )in neighborhood coffee shops where I’d also often eat a meal. (Scones, muffins, cookies — they’re a proper food group, yes?) If I took the trouble to count, I bet we ate a third of our meals outside our home each week.

I also began to realize how much we used restaurants and coffee shops as relief from the monotony of cooking and eating at home. More than just a source of nourishment, eating out was also a kind of aesthetic diversion, even entertainment.

Eating in restaurants was a chance to try something different; to be surprised or delighted at a preparation or presentation I’d never have ventured at home. We’re not exactly ‘high-falutin’ diners. We go in for more comfort food uplifted, if you know what I mean. But even comfort food — professionally-prepared and creatively-presented — offered a break from the work of home cooking, but also a change of scenery from eating at home.

In short, the loss of opportunities to eat out helped us understand the varied roles restaurants had played in our lives. But the hard work of cooking every meal at home also helped us see that eating out was the product of many people’s hard work — planning, buying, prepping, cooking, serving, cleaning up after.

All work that was rarely fairly compensated and often performed by women and people of color. Too often, the pleasure and convenience we derived from eating out had been bought at the expense of other’s (and the Other’s) hard, underpaid labor.

Lasseter Family Winery, Glen Ellen CA. Photo by Lasseter Winery on Unsplash

To be fair, I knew this. I spent many years working in food service when I was younger and read a lot of food journalism as a distraction during grad school. I’ve flipped burgers, delivered pizzas, washed dishes, and baked pies for numerous restaurants.

I was generally aware of the edifice of poverty, abuse, and inequality on which the contemporary American foodscape is built, from inhumane treatment of farm animals to the exploitation of undocumented farm workers and meat-processing plant workers to the practice of forcing servers to rely on the vagaries of tipping customers for their pay. I understand food workers too often comprise an under-class, even though celebrity food culture rarely acknowledges it.

Knowing this, we’ve attempted to intervene in the ways available to us, by supporting local and organic agriculture, buying from small independent grocers and local food producers, eating at locally-owned restaurants, and tipping servers far above whatever etiquette guides recommend. We feel powerless to counter the influence of American agribusiness giants but we can support those who are trying to change American food culture one small business at a time. It’s not enough but it’s what we can do.

But now that we’re attempting, and often failing, to reproduce food workers’ labor at home, we’re getting reacquainted with the inequities of the food supply chain — from farm to table — in a more concrete, material way. It’s one thing to read about exploited or abused food workers. It’s another to try to imitate their efforts at home, with less skill, experience, and culinary tools.

As a result, we’ve developed an increased appreciation for the work of those who contributed so much to the quality and texture of our pre-pandemic lives. And an awareness of how much we’d want to be paid if we were doing that work! I suspect we’re not alone.

I hope we take this with us when we exit the current crisis.

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Professional homosexual. Professor. Writer. Scholar. Activist. Husband.

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