Wednesday, June 10, 2009

girlie cooks

So the other night, I was part of a panel on gender and cooking at Astor Center in NYC, organized by the fabulous foodwriting duo of Hugh Merwin and Tejal Rao. Lucky me, I thought: here I was, sitting at the front of the room with Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin, foodwriter extraordinaire Ed Levine, and Chicago wunderkind chef Grant Achatz, tasting food by some pretty fabulous chefs. *And* they gave me a microphone! What could be better?

The idea was to guess the gender of the chef who had prepared each dish; along the way, we were to talk about the whole question of how or whether gender plays a role in professional cooking. Fun, right?

Now, I'm pretty interested in this topic. I just published a book on appetites and gender in 19th-century fiction; I teach about food and about gender, and sometimes about food and gender together; I have some things to say. Mostly those things are about how much I really, really, really don't like gender essentialism. Especially the kind that keeps women out of kitchens and out of the foodpress. And I thought I was saying those things, at Astor Place, in the company of some pretty great culinary minds. Lucky to be there! Hogging the microphone! While eating! 


So we talked, and we ate, and we talked, and we ate. And then it was done, and lo! the blogosphere commented, and it was...surprising!

Apparently, I have become...a gender essentialist!

Seems my dry Canadian sarcasm, my air quotes, my raised eyebrow etc did not exactly read. (I'm pretty short. And my hair wasn't behaving. So maybe you couldn't *see* my eyebrows?) 

The blogosphere, it seems, thinks that I believe that 
a) women cook from their hearts (and/or their uteruses) while men cook from their brains. 
b) women's cooking is subtler than men's cooking.
c) women are essentially, in some way, different from men in the kitchen and have been from lo! back in the mists of time.

This was a surprise to me. Especially as, just prior to reading some of those posts and comments, I was busy standing in my kitchen yelling at the radio, because NPR was featuring these two journalists (both women) who seem to think that there should be more female managers because women are naturally! more! empathetic! and groupwork-oriented! 
"No!" I yelled.
"Women are not 'naturally' more anything!" I yelled.
"Biological determinism is such bullshit!" I yelled.

Then I turned on my computer and discovered that the enemy? c'est moi!

(Some examples: check out the comments here . and the post here

*Horrors*, I thought, gasping. The gender studies police are gonna be pounding on the door any minute now! My book will be ripped from the shelves! My students will be asking for grade changes based on the clearly documented fact that I am a big fat liar!
Hence: my brand! spankin'! new! blog! because ohboy do I have some things to say about this.

So. Here is what I have to say:

1. I do NOT think that you can tell whether a man or a woman cooked a dish by tasting it. 

2. I do NOT believe that men and women somehow cook differently due to innate taste or pheremones or different numbers of taste receptors or testosterone or estrogen or phases of the moon or times of the month or mothering instincts or masculine braniacness or feminine emotionalism or hysteria or conjones or castration complexes or electra complexes or being from mars or being from venus or being interested or uninterested in fashion or the pull of the womb or fear of flying or flexing or fat or or or...
anything else inherent or innate or hormone-induced. 

3. I do not think that women are inherently more "precise" cooks, or "better" cooks, or more "careful" cooks--as some folks said the other night. I think, in fact, that women who are more "precise" etc in the kitchen are probably just--you know--doing that thing women do? where they work three times harder than men? just to hold onto their place on the line? because of all those people who think women aren't naturally suited to the kitchen?

4. I think that kitchens are still, by and large (though not always), tradition-bound, chest-pounding places that, like high school football teams, are veeeeeeery slow to accept women--and the reasons that there are so few prominent female chefs have very little to do with estrogen and arm muscles, and a whole lot to do with tradition, mentorship, access to funding, differences in education and attitude towards girls--in other words, culture. 

We've come a long way, I think, from those back-in-the-mists-of-time days when chefs and restaurateurs had no problem saying (to me! a woman!), point-blank, "women don't belong in the kitchen." All those arguments about women being able to lift stock pots? Made considerably less credible by women, lifting stockpots. Women being too emotional for the kitchen? Not cerebral enough? Not able to stand the heat? Puh-leeze. These days, women helm restaurant kitchens, join crews, work on the line, stand the heat. The sisters, they are doing it for themselves. So to speak.

But that doesn't mean the bad old days are gone. Women still face pretty serious barriers to making it in the kitchen, for lots of reasons--the lingering perception that women are somehow too weak for the kitchen; the paucity of female mentors and role models (this is changing, slowly); inequities and differences in how girls and boys are educated about their choices and interests; differences in access to funding for restaurants; that thing (perhaps you've heard of this?) where women are expected not only to do all the work of bearing children but also to do most of the work of raising  them, (otherwise they are "bad mothers")...I could go on.

Oh--and let's not forget that let's-not-talk-about it background anxiety that cooking is somehow home-work, women's work, etc.--an anxiety that, I think, continues to help shape a seriously machismo-driven culture that still makes its presence known in lots of places in the restaurant world.

As I said the other night, even if you *do* believe in essential differences between men's cooking and women's cooking, you can't actually measure it yet. Until half the important restaurants in the country are run by women--until half the chefs who mentor others, half the culinary instructors, half the professionals are women--until the term "woman chef" seems, in other words, as unnecessary and self-evident and silly as "man chef"--how can anyone judge?

One thing that we didn't talk about in the forum was the idea of the ways *diners' desires* shape who's in the kitchen. The restaurant, after all, is a business; diners vote with the wallets. I really think that, in the era of the celebrity chef (something I've written about elsewhere),  we tend to think that we're swallowing stardust with our meals:  our food is flavored not only with spices and oils, but also with the reflected glory of the chef. So do we have different appetites for men and women in the kitchen? You decide, dear reader...