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Is Feminism Compatible with the Kitchen?

The idea that liberated women don't prepare food -- because they are too busy having sex and building their careers -- is just plain wrong.
 
 
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"I don't cook. So I made my eat-in kitchen a fabulous walk-in closet," announces a young, attractive woman in the newest Citibank ad.

It's part of a $93 million campaign called "Tell your story," that's appearing in print, magazine, TV and online.

"My name is Grace and I live in a small apartment in a big city," the ad continues. "And since I enjoy a day of shopping far more than, say, cooking, I decided to do a bit of home remodeling. So with my Citi card in hand, I set out to get some closet organizers. I bought a shoe rack for the oven, sweater boxes for the lower cupboards and some 12-inch baskets for handbags up above. I saved room for plates, glasses and silverware. And one large drawer stuffed with take-out menus."

Citibank is so confident that women will identify with "Grace's" sentiment, they're even running the ad in February's issue of Gourmet Magazine .

Their assumption, I guess, is that even a good number of Gourmet's readers (who are mostly women) don't actually cook; they're just sampling the food porn.

This idea -- that liberated women don't prepare food -- isn't one that Citibank just cooked up. In fact, as one female friend of mine quickly pointed out, it's still part of the Sex and the City cultural hangover. Carrie Bradshaw, of course, famously used her oven as a shoe cupboard far before Grace, as a kind of feminist triumph: she likes sex and (therefore) doesn't like to cook. Shopping, friends and men sustained her instead, along with the occasional restaurant meal.

Last of a breed?

But since Sex, the phenomenon has heated up. Recently, I talked to a middle-aged male film director about a dinner he had just cooked for friends. When I subsequently told him about a meal I'd made, he raised his eyebrows. "I don't know a single other woman who cooks -- or at least admits to it in public!" he exclaimed. "You're like a relic!" His male friends all cook, he said. But no women of his generation or younger that he knows prepares food.

Why? In short, men come across as evolved, sexy and creative when they mix things up in the kitchen. But women seem stuck in Leave-it-to-Beaver-land when they step in front of the stove: domestic suckers who aren't paying enough attention to their ambition or their libidos. They're not third wave feminists, embracing women's traditional skills or sexy, busy people who make time for health and family, but women who need a good empowerment talk.

I spoke to a few of my other female friends about it. "I never had anything in the cupboards before I had kids," one friend, a professional singer, told me proudly. "I was out having fun."

"I can't even boil water," another told me, smiling. "If my husband is away, I just eat cereal or get take out." She's never been taught to cook and has no desire to learn. Plus, her husband's dad was a chef, and he loves to cook elaborate meals.

"I put food on the table for the kids every day or whatever, but my partner does the fancier cooking for guests," said another. "It's easier than getting him to help with anything else around the house -- he knows he'll get lots of kudos for being the chef, but none for cleaning the toilet."

Cooking as spectator sport

So actually, two things are happening. One is that some women aren't cooking at all because they see it as low status or unnecessary. And sure, women have been unfairly stuck with the brunt of domestic labor for a long time in a culture that has deemed it lower status than, say, working in an office. Stepping away from the hearth is a form of rebellion and liberation and a way to gain more cultural status, which are both motivations I can sympathize with (even though I think they're both ultimately the opposite of liberated and healthy -- more on that later).

And the other is that many women do the daily food prep but don't count that as "real" cooking. For this, I blame the rise of foodie culture. There are plenty of shows on the Food Network that feature quick and easy meals. Like from one of my favorite celeb cooks -- Nigella Lawson -- in which, in the promo, she claims doing her hair and putting on lipstick takes more time than making the entrée.

But it's clear this type of cooking is very different from real cooking -- i.e. highly fetishized, specialized, time consuming, expensive chef-ing, mostly done by men, both in restaurants and at home, and often involving blow torches. It's really a spectator sport, but it's somehow become "cooking."

Michael Pollan's latest social recipe

A friend of mine, who is a chef, spent two weeks making a meal for his wife for her birthday. It was the best meal she's tasted.

But the meals they put on the table every day for themselves and their four-year old daughter are also real meals and actually more important socially, culturally and health-wise, says Michael Pollan in his new book, In Defense of Food.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma , Pollan unearthed the rot in the food industry, and left many people scared to eat. Then, in an article for the New York Times Magazine a year ago, "Unhappy Meals," he caused an even greater cultural revolution with the following seven words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

In his recent book, which followed from that magazine piece, he advocated a different way of approaching food. "You would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy," he writes in the book. "Nor would you eat substances like Go-Gurt, eat them on the run or eat them at mealtimes that are so out of sync with friends and relatives that the real family dinner is an endangered ritual."

He advocates eating local, organic food, even at the risk of elitism. He says to buy fresh, local organic food (which is more expensive) but eat less of it, and you'll still be ahead financially. He says eating at home is better than eating out. And that eating simple food together is the highest form of health and happiness.

Hand me that spatula

"We have more choices now than we've ever had," Pollan says in a recent interview, "An Omnivore Defends Real Food." "There is organic food at Wal-Mart. The big challenge is that you do have to cook. A lot of us are intimidated by cooking today. We watch cooking shows on TV but we cook very little. We're turning cooking into a spectator sport. This process of outsourcing our food preparation to large corporations, which is what we've been doing the last 50 years, is a big part of our problem. We're seduced by convenience. You're going to have to put a little more time and effort into preparing your food. I'm trying to get across how pleasurable that can be. It needn't be a chore. It can be incredibly rewarding to move food closer to the center of your life."

Who knew liberation would be found in a kitchen cupboard full of produce, not purses?

In fact, anyone who's ever cooked will tell you the act of preparing food makes you more powerful and sexy. The old saying, that a way to a man's heart is through his stomach, always seems to hold up for both genders in my experience. Who can resist a warm hearth as shelter from storms of all kinds? And as for a spatula making a woman into a relic, it's all about the glint in the eye.

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor of The Tyee.

 
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