Sex and the Kitchen
A new book says women cooking for men in primitive societies led to modern-day sexism. But as attitudes about food evolve, it's increasingly the one in the chef's hat who wears the pants.
Women have been slaving away in the kitchen for eons, maybe a little bit longer. But it wasn’t until the women’s liberation movements of the 20th century that many women began to question whether cooking for their husband every night was a form of subservience. Backing up this feminist argument is a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which asserts that our pre-human ancestors were the first to start cooking some 2 million years ago and, right away, it was women’s work.
Author and behavioral anthropologist Richard Wrangham points to our small teeth, relatively short digestive tracts, and big brains (and, yes, the nutritional deficits of raw foodists) as evidence that humans evolved to eat cooked food. But because cooked food is time-intensive, and vulnerable to being nabbed by thieves and beggars while it’s being prepared, Wrangham also believes primitive men forced women to cook for them by promising to fend off food thieves in exchange for a nightly meal. “Women became responsible for all of the daily drudgery that led to feeding their husbands,” says Wrangham. Men, on the other hand, became freed by the invention of cooking to “do manly things like hunting or war raids or politicking.”
More women are thinking of cooking the daily meals as an act of empowerment—and spinning their skills into blogs, book deals, and high-powered careers.
But this implication—that women cooking for men is an act of subservience—is increasingly at odds with the way women think of themselves in the kitchen. The rise of foodie culture has made home-cooking more important, more creative, and more intellectually engaging. In turn, the role of home cook has become a more-prestigious one, allowing more women to think of prepping daily meals as an act of empowerment. And to spin their skills into blogs, book deals, and high-powered careers.
In her 10 years in the editorial food world, Epicurious.com food editor Sarah Kagan says, “The food culture has changed. Being a chef is glamorous now, and the power of the home cook has increased as result.” The Internet has helped spread foodie culture, connecting home cooks, giving them a community, and raising their profile. And food magazines, whose editorial staffs are largely female, have increased their cachet, transforming their reputations as featherweight journalism into respected, high-quality publications. “Becoming a food editor was merging this female heritage of cooking in my family with wanting to have a career,” says Kagan.
Indeed, today’s women are entering the upper culinary echelons in droves—a key difference from the oppressive Ladies’ Home Journal-style instruction women received in the 1950s, which encouraged women to run their home kitchen, but go no further than that. At New York’s Culinary Institute of America, enrollment of women is over 40%, and Forbes.com recently reported that 15% of executive chefs are female, as are 39% of pastry chefs. Forty percent of national TV chefs are now female. If you want to make a living off cooking as a woman, it’s easier than ever.
But it’s not necessary for women to rise to the top of the food industry to feel like their cooking is important. Women still prepare 78 percent of all household meals, and the rise in cooking’s prestige has benefited home cooks as well. Now, for every star chef, Food Network program, and Top Chef contestant, there’s a hit female food blogger who, with nary a culinary-school credit, prepares gourmet meals in her home kitchen, then writes about it to a cultishly devoted online audience. Julie & Julia, a film coming out in August starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, is the outgrowth of a food blog started by home cook Julie Powell, who documented her experience executing a Julia Child recipe every day for a year. The Times of London recently named their 50 favorite food blogs, and a majority of them are run by women who are home cooks. The No. 1 spot went to Orangette, a home cook whose own book, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table, was released this year.
Meanwhile, foodie bibles like Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and Paul Roberts' The End of Food have imbued home cooking with a sense of political purpose. “There is more nasty food out there these days,” says Amy Vondrak, an English professor, mother of two, and a home cook. She says books like Pollan’s helped prompt her to switch from processed and pre-prepared meals to cooking from scratch, and “have made it so much easier to value the home-cooked meal that’s made with actual food.” Initially frustrated with the fact that her husband doesn’t cook, Vondrak says she has since realized, “Wow, this is a really valuable skill. It’s about creating a whole schedule and a whole diet that can be efficiently and effectively carried out.”
The next generation of men may actually be fighting their wives for more kitchen time. Men are cooking the daily household meals at levels never before seen, according to a 2008 consumer-research study. And a full two-thirds are guys under 25, young men who came of age in an era of trendy organics and nutrition-focused food sciences.
Certainly, pop culture has had something to do with this gender shift. TV fixture Gordon Ramsey has made cooking a competitive and testosterone-fueled affair on his reality shows, Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. Emeril, Molto Mario, and Top Chef also feature tough guys, and have achieved credibility with viewers of both genders. “The rise of celebrity male chefs of unquestioned virility helped provide role models for guys to be into food,” says Josh Ozersky, a culinary historian and restaurant editor of Citysearch.com.
But for more and more couples, rather than men simply wrestling the cooking away from women and dominating the kitchen, foodie-ism has become a hallmark of egalitarian relationships. These couples share the cooking and bond over their culinary interests. Helen Anne Travis, 26, says that she and her boyfriend Greg Gall are both “total food nerds. When we travel, which we like to do together, we always explore the city's markets and try to find unique restaurants.” Chris Gannon and his wife Lia, both vegan, live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Chris says, “Our choices to find a vegan meal at a restaurant are few and far between. Add that to the fact that neither of us really make a lot of money, and there you have it—we cook a lot.”
This sense of equality in the kitchen has a way of spreading to other parts of the relationship, as well. Michelle Maisto, 33, and her husband Rich, live in Brooklyn and are both big foodies, but when Rich had to take on more work to pay for their wedding, Michelle agreed to start doing more of the meal prep. Likewise, Chris has become the primary cook in his marriage since Lia has taken on grad school on top of her full-time job as a director of programming at a nonprofit arts center. “Most of the time it’s pretty fun” Chris says of being the couples’ head chef, and lately he’s been using the opportunity to hone “endless variations of beans and rice.”
After 2 million years of compulsory cooking, it’s not surprising that some women feel conflicted about embracing cooking as a form of self-expression. Maisto, who has a memoir about the struggles over food in her relationship out in the fall called The Gastronomy of Marriage, says that at first she felt trapped by having to cook more. “I have this idea that maybe to have more power in the relationship, [cooking] has to be split and that that’s the modern thing to do.” But after the wedding was paid off, and she began to trust that Rich was contributing to the marriage equally in other ways, Michelle says she settled into her role as the primary cook. “I’ve since separated my sense of my power as a woman and my power in my relationship with things that take place in the kitchen. Now I can sort of chill out about it and really enjoy cooking.”
But attitudes don’t change overnight. Arlene Avakian, women’s studies director at the University of Massachusetts and the co-editor of the anthology From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies, is doubtful that gender roles in the kitchen have changed very much. “Men help and men enjoy the cooking,” she says, “but the daily drudge, I bet you most of the women are still doing it.” In other words, when these foodie couples have kids, it’s the woman who will be cooking the mac-n-cheese, and not the twice-baked kind with truffle oil.
Elizabeth Cline is an associate editor at SeedMagazine.com.