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Too many cooks

Cooking has always been a gendered activity, and the arrival of gourmet foods as part of globalised lifestyles and cooking as a glamorous spectator sport on TV, has done little to alter the politics around food, writes Manjima Bhattacharjya

Nigella Lawson

Last night I went to a party where we acted out our own Masterchef Australia dreams. We were all avid watchers of the hit TV show where amateur cooks compete over endless weeks to become a Masterchef -- last man or woman standing from the original 25 or so contestants to prove themselves a professional after walking through a minefield of culinary challenges (including things like cooking for miners in a goldmine or diplomats at the United Nations!). When did we become like this, I wonder, as the family settles down at 9 pm to watch the kindly hosts of Masterchef Australia empathise and honour the dreams of contestants from diverse backgrounds who have one thing in common – that they love to cook? When did cooking go from being a fairly gendered and mundane activity, something reserved for women of the household to labour thanklessly over, to a glamorous spectator sport?

To be honest, I have never really had a comfortable relationship with cooking. It has been in my memory one of those sharply gendered things, an obvious error, a glitch even in a more egalitarian or progressive household, inexplicable that the ladies of the house could and would cook, but not the men, who wouldn’t venture near a kitchen. On the other hand, the men would always be served first, the best pieces, and finally the women of the house would sit to eat the leftovers. Cooking and eating have always had a gendered element to it, and as a sociologist and activist, the evidence was all around me. A woman I interviewed in rural Rajasthan told me how she deviously made the last two rotis in the pile extra thick, because she would be the last to eat but expected to only eat two rotis, which left her still hungry. So she had devised a way to manage both social expectations and her own needs. Amartya Sen reported once after a particularly terrible drought that more men had died than women. His explanation of the statistic was chilling: women were used to starving and had therefore been able to withstand the effects of the drought, more than the men.

Cooking moreover brought into focus other class, caste and social matters: for example, how people of a certain caste or religion would not eat food cooked by people belonging to castes lower in the caste hierarchy (especially the dalit caste) or of another religion. My father has a funny anecdote. As a 17-year-old college student, my father went back to visit a tea garden in Silchar where his father had been head clerk. He had left the estate as an 8-year-old and wanted to visit the place he had such fond memories of. On this nostalgic trip he stayed as a guest at the home of a gentleman who was the doctor of the tea garden. That evening, the doctor dropped a bombshell on him. He would be providing my father with the requisite utensils and ingredients for my father to cook his own meals, because he reasoned, my father was a brahmin and he was not, it would be inappropriate for my father to eat food cooked by non-brahmins. Alarmed, my father assured him that he would happily eat anything prepared by them. “By that time I lived in a hostel and we had started coming out of these superstitions,” he says. “Moreover, I did not know how to cook and would have had to stay hungry!” There are more ominous aspects to this, strict social rules of pollution and purity and the rigidity with which they were maintained resulting in social discrimination: separating utensils used for cooking meats from those used for vegetables or those used for making prashad for the gods; having separate crockery in households or even in dhabas and hotels in small towns for people of certain castes – a hotel owner in Karnataka told me once that they have earthen pots to serve ‘small caste’ people so they can just break the pots after use and don’t even have to wash and reuse them.

All these have cast a long shadow on the ethics of cooking and consuming food.

It would be unfair for me to suggest though that these social rules impinged on me to cook, as a woman. For many in my generation, there were different expectations: our mums (or cooks) cooked in the kitchen while we were expected to focus on education and career. In fact, the first time I really had to cook was when I went to Europe to work and lived with flat mates. My Australian flat mate taught me how to make dal, an embarrassment yes, but also bringing realisation that in the West more or less everyone could cook, women or men, even though here too, feminist academics had pointed out obvious discrepancies. Men cooked in professional roles, as chefs, usually for money, while women continued to be the ones who cooked for love or family, always for free. And there were those sayings which had gendered undertones (“the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”) indicating that cooking was as entrenched as ‘woman’s work’ in the West too.

The last decade has really shaken things up, with globalisation-induced gourmet foods entering the market, the profitability of culinary businesses leading to a boom, the celebrity enjoyed by male and female chefs and food writers, TV programming and even entire channels based on food, and a new approach to food in general (some would call it food porn), as part of a ‘global lifestyle’. Has this made the gendered aspect of cooking irrelevant? It would seem not. A few weeks ago the micro blogging site Twitter had ‘women who don’t cook’ as a TwitterTrend, and the hundreds of misogynistic posts (“women who don’t cook aren’t really women”) showed the continuing politics around it. We are still struggling with stereotypes (‘Men seem creative when they cook, women seem stuck in old gender roles’) having bypassed any potentially volatile conversations on these issues.  

Earlier this year, celebrated food writer and British TV show hostess Nigella Lawson made a provocative claim at the Hay Literary Festival while speaking about her bestseller book How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. “I'm not being entirely facetious when I say it's a feminist tract," she said, “Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There's something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female.” What she was trying to say is that baking has been perceived in their society as a ‘mumsy’ thing, a more feminine activity than say, stuffing a pig or carving a turkey, usually taken on by men, and has therefore bypassed any appreciation or recognition of the sort of exacting calculations it requires or any specific skills. Part of Nigella’s statement also aims to make baking, and indeed cooking, more glamorous than it currently is, perhaps to counter the misplaced notion that ‘liberated women’ don’t cook (the protagonist of the hit American TV series Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw, used her oven as a shoe cupboard).

Cooking and cleaning, traditionally ‘women’s work’, is everybody’s work. And perhaps the current paradigm pushes some of us to do that. Certainly it has caught the imagination of many creative men who seem happy to put on the apron after a hard day’s work, something they wouldn’t have been able to do in the straitjacketed gender roles of another time. But in part, much of this culinary enthusiasm has become another indicator of class and social mobility. It is what makes us one of the ‘global modern’, an eminently enviable association with strong social benefits, amongst those who understand and consume global cuisines, know their wines and their kadai from the cloche. It is also driven by a market that has become a strange beast in itself: the current craze for cupcakes can be traced to the same series Sex and the City when a particular cupcake shop was featured on the show becoming hugely popular in New York and starting a global boom in cupcake consumption!

I’m wary the most though that all this sexing up domesticity will lead to a new sort of gendering of  cooking: ‘how to be a domestic goddess’, the title of Nigella’s book, is a reminder of domestic manuals in colonial times that used to be published in regional languages for married women to teach them how to be precisely that. A book I chanced upon on the online store Flipkart is an anthology of translated selections from nine ancient Bengali domestic manuals called ‘How to be the goddess of your home’. New wine, old bottle? Enough to make me a little cynical about the new expectations coming around: good daughter, good wife, career woman, super mom, yummy mummy, soccer mom, now I have to measure up to Nigella and become a domestic goddess? I would rather take a step back, and remind myself, also in Nigella’s words, that ultimately ‘a cake is just a cake’.

Infochange News & Features, November 2011