Why a man in the kitchen is such a big deal
Time magazine’s recent online headline “Men Spend More Time in the Kitchen” seemed like some time-travelling Onion parody for the amusement of our dead great-grandparents: “What’s next? ‘Ladies Drive Cars! Girls In Ice Skates!’ Hand basket, meet hell!”
The content of the report in question is slightly less silly than the headline: A longitudinal study at the University of Michigan followed 3,000 American Gen Xers – those born between 1961 and 1981 – and discovered that men are contributing more in the kitchen than their fathers. On average, men prepare eight meals a week and shop for groceries once. Married women still make the most meals – 12 per week – and shop the most too, but this is no “Extra! Extra!” revelation.
Still, men and women sharing domestic duties is happy news, so I was surprised when a married female friend commented via e-mail, “It’s easy to waltz into the kitchen and cook with flair when you only have to do it when the spirit moves you, when no one’s telling you (or inferring with silence or lack of help) that somehow the everyday responsibility of it falls on your shoulders.”
Traditionally, cooking has been women’s work. Before the Second World War, North American women did most of the cooking to little fanfare: Insert affordable ingredients in stomach, repeat thrice daily. The first cooking classes were utilitarian, a means for women to find employment as domestics.
But after the war, men came home as trained cooks and took their skills to market. Masculine power lent credibility to the job and the role of “chef” took on an elevated status, paving the way for restaurant culture. In public, men were lauded for the craft of cooking, while private food preparation in the family kitchen remained mostly unheralded women’s work.
Today, the mystique of the male chef endures; even the rat in Ratatouille, I am 90 per cent sure, was a dude. With a few key exceptions – Julia Child, Nigella Lawson – the majority of famous chefs are male. Only one woman has ever won Top Chef in the U.S. and, last year, the Canadian version crowned male Vancouver chef Dale MacKay (this season is still in play). Clearly, the words of the influential, butter-loving French master chef Fernand Point still resonate: “Only men have the technique, discipline and passion that makes cooking consistently an art,” Point bloviated in 1950. These days, only 10 per cent of executive chefs in the U.S. are women.
One reason for this statistic is the fact that restaurant hours are notoriously unfriendly to family life. In a 2007 New York magazine article, that city’s top female chefs discussed – reluctantly, which is telling – the rampant sexism in the industry, from difficulty in getting hired to being pushed toward pastry to an inability to land investors. Now that cable has turned cooking into entertainment, the big ego has a big stage. “I think women cook different food, and I think women cook better food. It’s more from the heart and more from the soul,” says Sara Jenkins, who runs the trattoria Porsena in Manhattan’s East Village. “I look at this whole molecular gastronomy thing and I’m like, ‘Boys with toys.’ They’re just fascinated with technology and chemistry sets.”
Personally, I know women who do the vast majority of the cooking during the week, but then hand over duties when it comes to Saturday-night entertaining, an occasion for the men to go whole hog (and, in some instances, actually make use of a whole hog, not to mention expensive knives, elaborate recipes, perhaps even a very special apron). Of course, many women, in thrall to this artisanal-cheeses moment, adopt similar showmanship tactics, but somehow, when women cook, it’s expected. (By contrast, when a man places a dish in the centre of the table, he’s quite the catch!)
If the UM study is correct and men are cooking more, however, it seems that there really has been a collapse in this high-low male-female cooking hierarchy. The ramifications are significant: Food activists are working hard to revive the family dinner and to promote the “revolutionary” idea that eating healthy, home-cooked meals is a strike against the industrialized foods that are making us so unwell.
In a 2010 piece in the Daily Mail, Rose Prince wrote, “It’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity.” After pronouncing that women who desire a life outside the home are literally killing people, Prince waxes nostalgic about her mother’s ham and Cumberland sauce. But the problem with this specious argument is that, when women went to work, men weren’t, as far I know, simultaneously barred from kitchens. The correct response to the challenges of a two-headed household isn’t weeping for the domestic servitude of women; it’s getting whole families involved in the art and love of food, including men. If men are cooking, then maybe feminism can save us all – or at least our waistlines.