On Gender and Cooking

By Kay Steiger

1950s housewife

I’m a bit new to this whole “foodie” thing. Honestly, I resisted the notion of knowing my way around the kitchen for a long time. If you want to get Freudian, my attitude toward cooking probably had a lot to do with my childhood. I was raised by a single mother who owned her own business, someone who was too exhausted at the end of a 10-to-12-hour workday to make an elaborate dinner. I’m eternally grateful that my mother spent her extra time with us, and not in the kitchen, slaving over a gourmet meal.

When I was in high school, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and my world was opened to feminism. I began to see all things related to the kitchen as a historical burden that women still bear today. For decades, women were expected to be good at cooking, and judged for it if they weren’t. I resented that expectation, so I more or less stayed out of the kitchen. Hell, I was proud of the fact I didn’t know my way around the kitchen.

I’ve read enough studies about women having a disproportionately larger share of household responsibilities to know that this isn’t a problem that’s going anywhere anytime soon. Men and women should be allowed to pursue gourmet cooking if they want to, but those that don’t shouldn’t be forced. Women and men should equally share household responsibilities — including cooking. If men aren’t willing to share the cooking duties, they should be prepared to eat takeout for their entire lives. It shouldn’t be up to women alone to do cooking at home because everyone should understand how to make a basic, healthy, balanced meal.

To make matters worse, professional cooks are almost always men — the glass ceiling exists there too. We all remember that last season Stephanie was the first woman to win on Top Chef (this Q&A in New York Mag asks female chefs why there are so few of them), but there are still very few professional chefs.

But despite all these stereotypes, over the past year, I’ve begun to revise how I feel about cooking. My friends, the people who have been kind enough to allow my novice cooking skills here on the IFA, have showed me that cooking can be an intellectual pursuit, much like discussing politics or art. On this blog alone, there’s roughly the same number of men and women contributing, and I think that’s hope that this is a signal of a new generation of men willing to share in the labor and joys of cooking. There’s joy in the kitchy nature of my hometown comfort foods like tater tot hotdish and my fancier endeavors at asparagus souffle. Ultimately what I’ve discovered is that cooking is an experience best shared with family and friends.


12 responses to “On Gender and Cooking

  1. I was raised by self-consciously feminist parents. My mother does more of the cooking than my dad, and most of the meal planning (not to be underestimated as a piece of household labor — Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family contains a great look at this — but my dad acts as her sous chef, chopping all the vegetables, trimming the meat, etc, and then cleans up afterward.

    So cooking was never a loaded issue for me, and I love to cook for other people (gives me a chance to make things more elaborate than I’d make for just myself). One time a year or so after college, I made dinner for a college friend who was in town, and he said “I never imagined you cooking, and for a man!” Turned out, his mother did all the cooking in his family and resented it, so he thought of it as this oppressive thing in a way it just wasn’t for me.

  2. ok, you can’t throw out “tater tot hotdish” and not follow it up with the recepie!

    i’d also be curious where you grew up since “hotdish” isn’t a term i’ve heard outside my own midwestern roots.

  3. Ultimately what I’ve discovered is that cooking is an experience best shared with family and friends.

    Yeah, I always liked cooking with friends, but could never get into it when it was just me trying to feed myself. I’ve only really learned to cook over the last few years as it has become an integral part of my relationship with my girlfriend… when we started dating I was just learning to cook, and since she was already a good cook, she would teach me as we cooked together. This was important on many levels, since she is a vegan and I’m an omnivore… if we didn’t frequently cook together (vegan dishes obvi) then our differing diets might be more of an issue of contention. We cook fairly frequently together still, but it is always something I think we should do more. It’s really a great way to bond and I highly recommend it.

  4. It’s funny that I come from a similar background (life-long proud feminist, working single mother) but reacted oppositely. My mother and I would cook together, and making excellent food has been for me “women’s work” in a positive way, encouraging self-expression and the joy of expertise in an activity based around care and socializing rather than competition. Home cooking is, for me, the opposite of the Top-Chef experience, which feels like an attempt to shuck the feminine from feeding others and turn it into a status-driven battle.

  5. e.c.: Okay, okay. I promise to follow up with a Tater Tot Hotdish recipe soon. Also, I’m from northwestern Minnesota originally (although my family lives in suburbs of Minneapolis now).

  6. I don’t know if this is localized or not, but the majority of my male friends cook, and the majority of my female friends don’t.

    But I distinctly think something is changing in the current generation towards equality, not least because the idea of man cooking (indoors, anyway) was preposterous before, what, 1995?

  7. My wife grew up much like that; her mom was a feminist and had a very dim view of the kitchen. As such, when my wife went out into the wide world, her cooking skill was non-existent. She had issues reheating leftover pizza (which I still don’t understand… why not just eat it cold?).

    On the other hand, I learned to cook, mostly out of expediency. My mom also was a single working mom, and she tried her best to do the cooking. But she was frequently tired and, to be honest, not that great outside of a couple of items (and cheesecake, sadly, is not something to have regularly). So after expressing frustration one too many times, my mom gave me permission to start cooking on my own when I was 10.

    I can see how some feminists have negative reactions to the kitchen (like my mother-in-law). But for me, it’s merely about self-sufficiency. I even like cooking for just myself – I don’t have to worry about working around anyone’s palette or dietary restrictions other than my own. I don’t have to worry about grossing friends out with a food experiment gone flat. Best of all, though, I can affirm that I’m able to keep going without help.

  8. Tragically flawed though he was, I believe it was Jeff Smith–The Frugal Gourmet–who normalized the idea of a man in a household kitchen. I thought he was pretty cool when I was in high school (late ’80s) and The Frugal Gourmet was the first cookbook I owned. And Smith’s from-scratch, quest-for-authenticity approach set me on course to a Cook’s Illustrated/ Michael Pollan approach to food.

    I enjoy cooking, but can understand the rationale that led Kay away from the kitchen. What I’ve found sad, and have seen more cases of, though, are the more traditional-minded women who are hopeless in the kitchen.

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  10. No one wants to cook if they feel the action is taken for granted — man or woman. Sometimes the non-cooking partner feels like it is an expected free service, which can cause resentment.

    Here on the east coast, a lot of women my age are indifferent to cooking and simply would rather go out to Ruby Tuesday’s or the Olive Garden than eat a made-from-scratch meal at home.

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  12. Pingback: Tater Tot Hot Dish « The Internet Food Association

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