I read cookbooks, the way most people read novels. I watch cooking shows, dreaming of their glorious stainless steel kitchens. I love to cook but that wasn’t always so. Growing up, my mother hated cooking, a result of being forced to make meals while my parents were married. After their divorce, my mother vowed never to cook again. So I grew up eating sandwiches, mac and cheese or microwave meals. I hated those pre-packaged frozen dishes so much that I refused to own a microwave for years. Understandably, my mother treated cooking as a laborious chore. Cooking seemed so foreign to me. It also had the cloying stench of the 50s or 60s housewife; I wanted no part of reenacting that Betty Draper stereotype.
I didn’t appreciate cooking until I began watching TV shows like Yan Can Cook! and Ciao Italiano on PBS. Both cooks imbued so much love and passion for food, it was infectious. But I didn’t think that I myself could recreate what they did. When I became vegan years later, that all changed. When you’re vegan in a city that doesn’t exactly embrace that lifestyle, getting delicious meat- and dairy-free meals can be a challenge. So I decided it was time to roll up my sleeves, get in the kitchen and get cooking. I craved French toast, cookies, cupcakes and mac and cheese. Once I started cooking meals myself, I was able to indulge in all my culinary desires.
Like Julie Powell from Julie and Julia, I found liberation in cooking. Cooking is an art form; it allows me a creative outlet to express myself. I relish the smells of veggies and herbs sautéing in a pan or savor the simple act of stirring a creamy risotto. But I’m a feminist too…how can this be??
Food writer, journalist and former chef Rose Prince would have us believe that feminism sounded the death knell of home cooking and caused all our food and health woes. She writes,
“Domestic cooking was chucked aside as an irrelevance, an icon of unfairness to women — which allowed a very eager food industry to leap forward with the convenience-food solution. Yes, it’s feminism we have to thank for the spread of fast-food chains and an epidemic of childhood obesity.”
So is cooking anti-feminist? Of course not. Many independent women (and men!) love to cook and still advocate for equal wages and reproductive rights. There’s more going on here than Prince claims. Anna North on Jezebel disagrees with Prince, asserting,
“If people have stopped cooking the kind of time-intensive fare she describes, it’s not because every woman in the Western world suddenly burned her apron on a pyre of feminist ideology. Ever-longer work weeks and the increasing necessity of a dual income are more likely culprits.”
Hannah Mudge of BitchBuzz writes,
“…When the cheapest food in the supermarket and the quickest food to prepare is the unhealthiest, we end up with what’s known as food poverty. It’s estimated that food poverty affects four million people in the UK. If you can’t afford to travel to somewhere which sells fresh or healthy produce and don’t have the time to cook it because you’re holding down two jobs, convenience foods are going to win out.”
What this crackpot Prince fails to acknowledge is that feminism had nothing to do with the destruction of home-cooking or the rise in obesity. North and Mudge are right, longer work weeks and food poverty are to blame. But factory farming, the industrialization of food and our disposal culture are the culprits too. We want everything at a break-neck pace. In our hectic and stressful lives, we want things quick and easy, which may mean grabbing McDonald’s or popping a Stouffer’s frozen meal in the microwave.
Prince yearns to “revive” the “gentle art of feminine food.” What the hell is “feminine food” you ask?? It’s the kind of home-cooked meals her mom whipped up. Prince scorns competitive cooking shows and wants to see more “nurturing” cooking shows. While cooking may be viewed as a nurturing act, there’s nothing saying that nurturing is a solely “feminine” trait and that men can’t nurture too, as well as whipping up tasty meals themselves. Competitive cooking shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen feature chefs…many of which are men. For in the professional culinary world, while there are female chefs like Cat Cora or Jody Adams, cooking remains a male-dominated profession. Prince astutely points out that women are viewed as cooks (amateurs) and men as chefs (experts). But she seems to think that’s a good thing! She states that we must forego complicated cooking, like that of Gordon Ramsey, subtly implying that “complicated” cooking should be left to the men. She doesn’t discuss men who enjoy cooking or women who’d rather eat take-out. Instead she proudly proclaims that women needn’t let go of their “femininity.” Apparently, you’re only a “real” woman if you prepare lavish meals at home. God, I hate this sexist bullshit.
Prince is right in that cooking doesn’t have to be a laborious chore. But she fails to acknowledge the gender disparity, that even today, cooking in the home is seen as women’s work as a new UK study claims that women spend three years of their lives in the kitchen, double the amount of time men spend. There is a connotation with cooking as being a domestic act or a slave to the stove. Of course there’s a huge difference between choosing to cook and being forced to cook. Even in households where both partners work outside the home, women do the majority of the childcare, cleaning and cooking. In single-parent homes, there may be only one person cooking, who may not have the time or energy to always create a meal from scratch.
Despite her recognition of expensive ingredients in some cookbooks, Prince still approaches the issue of cooking from an elitist stance, failing to see that there’s a food disparity in many industrialized countries like the UK and US. While some people have the luxury of visiting farmers’ markets to purchase fresh produce, the majority of the American population relies on grocery stores. Ever wander the aisles just looking at the shelves? They’re packed with cookies, chips and packaged processed foods laden with chemicals and corn syrup. Not exactly healthy but they’re quick, easy and relatively cheap. In Detroit, one of the largest US cities, no chain grocery stores exist, with many small grocers having to close due to the economy. And in many inner cities like Oakland, St Louis, Memphis and Birmingham, people purchase their food at convenience stores in lieu of grocery stores. Of course what’s interesting to note here is that these are all cities with large African-American populations. There’s also a correlation between a large number of convenience stores (combined with a lack of grocery stores) and a higher incidence of obesity. Hmmm…seems Prince can’t blame everything on feminists after all.
Cooking is all about self-expression; more than mere sustenance, it’s about connecting with loved ones and passing down traditions and stories. I wish Prince had taken the opportunity to dispel gender myths surrounding cooking, rather than wallow in them. If men want to bake cupcakes or women want to order take-out rather than cook pot pie, we shouldn’t be lamenting the decline of cuisine. Feminism and cooking are not at odds; if you want to sauté some mushrooms or simmer a spicy curry, you haven’t abandoned your ideals. And don’t worry, donning an apron won’t turn you into Betty Draper.