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... 


  1. Wait, now I'm confused. I thought the whole point of that movie was that Catherine Zeta-Jones needed to learn to love before she could be fulfilled as a chef ..?

  2. Hello, mslaas here, poster from Serious Eats. Agree with you completely that there's no difference between men's cooking and women's cooking. And, I might add, I'm not a member of the Gender Police (I tried to join, once, and failed the entrance exam).

    I just read your post on SE about sexism in kitchens and gender in cooking. You're def. right that they're both social constructions that affect the real world, but surely they're slightly different social constructions with different real world effects? If a lady cooks a steak, that doesn't de-masculinize the beef, right? Maybe you can talk about how one led to the other - perhaps labor-intensive sauces in the French repertoire were created in part to differentiate “men’s cooking” from humble pot au feu made by the chef’s mother – but they’re still not quite the same thing.

    If I'm wrong about this, would you explain to me why?

  3. Hi Gwen,

    I'm not sure you're fairly characterizing the commenters on Serious Eats, who aren't calling you a gender essentialist. My only information about the event was initially via the SE post (which is self-contained, not leading to a link with a more thorough explanation or alternate perspective), and this post does not make the points you're making here.

    I do think the setup itself was flawed (because of the self-consciousness on the chefs' parts), but the SE post made it seem that the panel started with gendered assumptions and finished with gendered assumptions. (And I still haven't figured out what, exactly, this means: "Gender certainly affects how chefs cook, but neither the chefs nor the panelists could articulate how and why exactly.")

    Having read what you've written here, it does seem like this event was set up with much better intentions and involved more thoughtful discussion than the SE post led me (and, I think, many of the other posters there) to believe.

  4. mslaas, I'm intrigued and thinking about the differences you're articulating. I guess my point is that gender in cooking is not really separable from the ways that we think about women and men in terms of their roles in the kitchen. to wit: let's choose a dish--say, rigatoni with pork ragu. now, depending on who you ask, this is either one or the other of the following:

    1. a great example of cuisine grand-mere, the sort of dish a farmwoman would make, from scratch, for the hard-working men in her family; a vehicle for cooking from the heart, making a virtue out of poverty, bringing love and soul and sustenance into the kitchen


    2. hearty, meaty, ballsy, manly cooking, by men for men; all about big appetites and big flavors see what i mean?

    steak is a funny one--and a great example--because it *is* so widely perceived as manly, and is so strongly historically associated with eating houses and so forth, bastions of manly dining. And I do think the idea of a woman cooking a steak has the effect of, for instance, Mariska Hargitay smoking a cigar on the cover of Cigar Afficianado--it's a little sexy, a little cross-dressed, a little tough-chick outre. (Sometimes this is how it feels to be a woman *eating* a steak, too.) But does that mean you can tell the difference between a woman cooking a steak and a man cooking a steak, or is the effect all in the visuals, so to speak?

    So glad you're not the gender police. The written exam is really a bitch, huh?

    And Anna--maybe I'm over-reading--I hope so! I think the panel was a great way to kickstart a discussion that's clearly of pretty serious interest to lots of people. Let's hope we can keep talking productively about it.

  5. Very interesting point about the same dish being interpreted multiple ways - great example, absolutely right on. And it's funny - think about someone like Mario Batali, who freely admits that he's largely inspired by the family style of cooking, and yet his dishes are generally characterized, like in your example, as "bold" rather than nurturing/homey.

    Your point about steak reminds me about a NY Times lifestyle article awhile back all about how women were choosing to eat steak on first dates because it made them seem not "girly" or high-maintenance, like eating a salad would.

    And in the restaurant where I used to work, there was this unspoken assumption that the grill cook's word was law, and anything he asked you to help out with, you would, no matter how busy you were - because it was all in the service of the meat, which took priority over all things.

    A lot of interesting points made, thanks for being so thoughtful! And yes, it's a discussion I look forward to seeing continue...

  6. Gender Police Academy Dropouts, unite!

    I agree that gender in cooking influences how we think about women’s and men’s roles in the kitchen, but I don’t think they’re quite the same. If by “gender in cooking” you mean “gender roles inherent in the act of making food” I get what you mean. But the finished dish is separate from the act of preparing it, which feeds into my “woman grills a steak” example. You’re right that there’s a gender confusion appeal to steak, so that I can appropriate a bit of masculinity if I order a T-bone at Peter Luger.

    But of course that doesn’t mean that I can tell if it was a man or a woman chef who prepared that steak for me. I think that asking whether a diner can somehow *tell* the gender of the chef by his/her food is just not a question that will yield an interesting answer. The only way for an eater to guess is by picking up on those durable gender stereotypes in the food itself, (e.g. the ol’ “salads are for girls” stereotype) and those were constructed long before the chef picked up her knife. I’m fascinated by how and why they were constructed; seriously, why are salads for girls?

    Food is a rugged and versatile cultural symbol, and so your rigatoni with pork ragu can be both something grandma made for her family and a big porky dish for dudes. These issues do come to the fore when women seek to enter professional kitchens, as you note quite astutely. Men defends themselves from the female onslaught in two ways: by cultivating a sexist reaction (saying women don’t belong in kitchens) and by retreating a smaller, more exclusive all-male space (haute cuisine, steakhouses, the upper echelons of wine connoisseurship, and to my mind Anthony Bourdain’s entire oeuvre… hope I’m not being unfair) to keep out the chicks. Of course, this reaction is by no means exclusive to the food world. These are barbed questions, probably more uncomfortable than Astor wanted to get into at the forum. I don’t really blame them! Looking like a sexist, or like a feminist bomb-thrower, would harsh everyone’s mellow. But there you are.