Cooking and Patriarchy: Expectation and Practice

(For my inaugural post on Committing Sociology, I offer the proverbial oldie but goodie, a post from some months ago.)

I’m a guy. I like to cook. So people often say, hey, you must be a good cook! or something to that effect. (No, not really. I’m OK, but nothing like my old friend Richard Hepner, who’s a professional chef, working for lousy pay in very unglamourous venues most of his life while turning out, for instance, exquisite tapas or other Mediterranean cuisine, who has a feel for ingredients akin to a jazz musician’s ear for improv) It makes me vaguely uncomfortable that it’s even the slightest bit notable that I cook, that it’s even mildly something worth remarking upon.

After all, when women cook, it’s simply assumed as the norm for them; it’s not remarkable at all. The gender essentialism that our society imposes, that impinges upon their individuality, means that when they cook, it’s supposedly just part of being a mom, a wife, or whatever, and often it’s imagined that somehow there’s some inherent feminine aptitude for cooking. (Whereas in my own experience and that of many women I’ve known, that’s far from the case. Many women completely suck at cooking, as you’d expect in the normal variance among human beings in skills that are socially transmitted rather than instinctively evolved.)

I started cooking for myself while still a teenager, at first for the enjoyment, and then of necessity during college when I was no longer in a dorm/cafeteria setting, and too poor to eat out much or buy prepackaged meals. If I wanted something tasty and interesting to eat, no-one else was going to do it for me. (Thus, I have total contempt for the boy-men who go from having their moms make everything for them straight to having girlfriends or wives do it, and are completely helpless if thrown onto their own resources. Dudes, it’s not rocket science. If you can rebuild a carburetor, beans & rice is easy in comparison. Lose the “it’s girly shit” attitude. Everyone needs to eat, and should take real responsibility for it, and, besides, it’s fun once you start getting into it.)

As a musician, and an improvising one, I see cooking as a parallel skill, although one at which I’m far less advanced. There are much the same ideas of general principles one can apply, of how this works with this, but not with that; and a confidence one builds up as one learns those principles from experience and even begins to take creative leaps, such as my old SF housemate Brian Peterson did during his UC Berkeley days when he decided to use sage as an ingredient in cookies. (Quite good, in much the same way that the Montreal ice cream store Léo le Glacier’s raspberry-thyme sorbet works.)

So, while I do appreciate compliments for my culinary efforts, I don’t care for the “Hey, a man cooking! It’s like a dog walking on its hind legs!” version of them. That’s just more patriarchal bullshit in action, internalized by both men and women.

In sloughing off the layers of patriarchal conditioning that have built up around this everyday human activity, it’s good to remind oneself that cooking isn’t anything special, nor is it some sort of inferior work: If you’re a man, it’s not trespassing on female territory, or stooping to something that’s really “women’s work”, or, conversely, something that flashy male experts (“chefs”) do better than everyday, mundane women (“cooks”) – and therefore should be paid better than women to do. Those two contradictory poles of attitude speak volumes about that patriarchal conditioning. It’s really an odd phenomenon when you think about it: cooking is, on the one hand, denigrated as mere “women’s work” (“Shut up and make me a sandwich!”), but on the other hand, when guys get paid to do it, it suddenly becomes this expert skill that men do better, since they get hired more and get paid more to do it. (“Out of the way, woman! Let a real man show you how it’s done!”)

If you’re a woman, it’s important to assert the dignity of this activity and your right to be recognized and compensated for it on a equal basis with men, and to have the responsibility for it equally shared by men, and to insist that they make the effort to recognize your rights in this as much as in anything else in which women have not received their due.

The main point for men to take away (women pretty much already know this) from a comparison of mainstream societal views of men cooking vs. women cooking is that, as with so many things that should be gender-neutral but aren’t, there’s a double standard that’s applied. It’s considered an essential and mandatory part of femininity, while being considered either un-masculine (within the domestic sphere where it’s a mere daily chore) or something that, as a voluntary activity, can be transformed into a hyper-masculine display (the big production around the Weber grill on the back deck, or the showiness of a chef like Gordon Ramsay, who presides over a hierarchy of “lesser” chefs, beta males, if you will, and women, who do nearly all the real work, in a kind of corporatist model, at multiple restaurants that are the mark of his capitalist success.) This manifests in the following ways: Because men aren’t expected to cook, they have the luxury of dabbling in it for fun, whereas for most women who have to cook for themselves, and, frequently, for others, “fun” would be not having to cook every damned day. (Having had to cook for myself for years, I can tell you that when I could finally afford to eat out or even order takeaway more than once in a blue moon, I appreciated it far more than someone who never had to cook every damned day.)

Men get an undue amount of credit for cooking at all (this is the source of my discomfort that motivated me to write this), whereas women, if they don’t perform their “duty”, get demerits.

This is similar to the situation with childcare, where, except for the first six months to a year when biological necessity (breastfeeding, principally) rules and the man is just “support staff”, both mom and dad actually are equally good (and bad) at parenting, but, since women are assumed to be “naturals” at parenting, the default is usually to leave it to the mom, who then accumulates more experience at it, and thus after a few years, she seems to be a natural at it. She isn’t; she just has more practice than the dad does. Thus, due to the expectation that women just should naturally be good at parenting, when the dad steps in to “dabble” in fathering (rather like firing up the grill to much fanfare on Labour Day), he gets undue credit for something that should be expected of him just as much as of his partner, while the woman, if she slacks off momentarily from fatigue, losing it when the kid has a tantrum, or whatever, gets sniped at with all sorts of “bad mother” comments and clucking about how she should be grateful her man steps in once in a while.*

But skill at cooking, like childcare, is really just a matter of practice, and there’s nothing inherently feminine or masculine about it. It just looks feminine because patriarchal expectations have ensured that women get the lion’s share of practice at both those skills. It’s because of those expectations that when a man cooks, especially at home, he’s a “chef”, while the woman is a “cook” – one of the core duties of being a “homemaker”. Dudes: it’s your home, too, and you should be “making” that home equally with her.

I have a musician cousin in New York City who’s a stay-at-home dad, who’s raised their kids for the vast majority of the time after their infancy, ’cause his wife had and has the better-paying job, and I’m very proud of him. (Cooking is part of his homemaking, of course.) I think his Albanian in-laws in the old country (they’ve visited there) didn’t know what to make of him, but hey . . .

When men do the cooking at home just as much as women do, and when chefs in restaurants are women as often as men are, and are respected and paid equally with men, then we’ll be able to say with some conviction that cooking is just something human beings can do, period, with varying facility, and it’s no more remarkable than anything else – and no less deserving of respect than anything else, either.

—Kai Matthews

(*Special thanks to parents Anna-Liisa Aunio and John Faithful Hamer for their feedback on these points.)

About kaimuse

Kai Matthews is a musician, composer, and philosopher-in-training (with degrees in both fields, to the extent that that means anything.) As a 12th-generation American and 8th-generation Canadian, but born as an ex-pat in Germany and feeling more European in outlook, he feels at once both a deep rootedness in and a critical reserve toward his culture. He feels most comfortable being a little out of his milieu - that is, being uncomfortable and challenged. He's a cisgendered hetero white boy who's lived in a gay neighbourhood in San Francisco, and is a middle-class WASPy anglophone living in a poor, multi-cultural immigrant 'hood where most people's first language is neither French nor English. He was a rock and roll hippie getting a classical composition degree at a jazz school, and is a perpetual beginner student of North Indian classical music, in which his Western training is less help than hindrance. In philosophy, he naïvely wonders why the perpetually feuding analytic and Continental traditions can't just get along...

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