Presidential Cookie Contest: Food Fight of the Mommy Wars

5 years ago

It’s Presidential Cookie Bake-Off time. When Family Circle magazine announced the 2012 round of this infamous contest, I really didn’t want to write about it. The educated, progressive woman in me wanted to decry it as a sexist throwback. But the avid baker and food blogger in me told me that I’d be a hypocrite to do so. It’s complicated -- just like everything else about being a woman in the 21st century.

Credit Image: yurilong, Flickr

I had hoped this political bakeoff would have quietly gone away by now. After all, it’s been 20 years since Hillary Clinton’s remark about not staying home and baking cookies prompted the original Hillary-Barbara showdown. But not only has this battle of the bakers continued every four years since; out increasingly connected culture has upped the ante -- with recipes posted and voting taking place on Family Circle’s Facebook page.

Ann Romney and Michelle Obama have also taken their public image campaigns to Pinterest. Michelle has pinned her recipe for white and dark chocolate chip cookies and Ann has pinned her recipe for M&M’s cookies, along with a photo of herself (smiling and every hair in place) whipping up a batch in her spotless kitchen. It’s a little ... Stepford, in my opinion.

To be fair, you could say the same thing about Michelle O’s perfect bob and prim cardigans, as well as her priority of family dinners. Even her gardening and cookbook advocating fresh healthy foods give off a bit of a retro vibe.

Washington Post blogger Suzi Parker likens Cookie Watch 2012 to just another round in the Mommy Wars. Parker calls it a throwback to the bad old days –- along with canning and gardening and everything else so many modern women seem to love doing.

I, too am a college-educated, working professional -- as well as a “mommy blogger” who loves to cook and bake with family recipes. And yes, sometimes I even pin them to Pinterest. So why do these cookies leave such a bad taste in my mouth?

After all, so much of presidential campaigning -- from the baby-kissing to the down-home pancake flipping -- is carefully orchestrated to appeal to middle America's traditions. But is this really what your Average Jane wants? Is there such a thing as an “average” citizen anymore?

As I tried to think of an answer to this cookie conundrum, I couldn't help but think of my mother-in-law. She has never self-identified as a feminist, but she takes great pride in not wasting her time baking cookies. With no irony at all, she proclaims that she “buys the best cookies."

For myself, I’ve decided there are few store-bought cookies that pass muster. After all, I was the little girl who taught herself to bake Toll House cookies from the directions on the bag of chocolate chips. In college, I put off working on term papers to work on lemon bars.

And that’s when it hit me.

Gen X women like myself were never forced, or even expected, to bake cookies -- much less judged on our abilities in the kitchen. Unless we aspire to be the next Top Chef, our cooking skills are just gravy. For myself, baking cookies has always been a choice -- perhaps even a subversive one, when I consider that all my parents ever expected of me was to do well in school and get a good job.

But I can also remember a time recently when baking cookies wasn’t so fun. A few months ago, I found myself banging around the kitchen at midnight, cursing myself for agreeing to provide homemade treats for a school event. Cookie baking is no fun when it's not a choice.

Likewise, the wives' (it's never the actual presidential candidates submitting the recipes) cookie contest is no campy sendup of the 1950s. Ann and Michelle are shilling their baked goods as if their livelihoods depend on it. Which they sort of do. Pundits have analyzed that the winner of the bake-off has almost always gone on to win the White House.

The whole thing smacks of a time when a woman’s marriageability –- maybe even her self-worth –- hinged upon her homemaking skills. A time when a man might have impressed the boss by extending an invitation for a home-cooked meal. When a husband might have berated his wife (or worse) for burning dinner. The wives of presidential candidates get judged on enough things already -- their clothes, their pasts, their platforms. Baked goods are just one more thing I don't want to see First Ladies get judged on.

If I want a winning cookie recipe, I’ll vote for Martha Stewart.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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