feminism, bonbons, and The Kitchen

I love to cook. I find great fulfillment in the experience of chopping and combining and sauteeing. Baking? Even better. These activities propel me out of my wordy world, and often provide the positive psychologist’s raison d’etre: a flow state. But as a feminist, I am conflicted about this love. Since the second wave, feminist women have been throwing down their aprons in defiance. For generations, women were forced to cook. I choose to cook.

Two Sundays ago, Michael Pollan discussed a fifty-year long American exodus from the kitchen in a New York Times magazine article. I can really get behind a lot of his arguments. People should cook: its cheaper and healthier and puts us in touch with our cavemen roots. People should probably watch less TV, too, but I am pro-Food Network. I just can’t resist the Barefoot Contessa!

But there is more going on here than Pollan addresses. And a lot of it has to do with gender. In the 70s, Feminism did try to get women out of the kitchen, because it was an oppressive environment. There was an expectation that women would be there, that kitchen work would be done unquestioningly and for free. The kitchen became symbolic of traditional women’s roles and therefore women’s oppression.

During second and third wave feminism, women became increasingly aware that there were more choices: they didn’t have to be stuck behind a stove and the idea of the inherently domestic female was socially constructed. The corporate world helped women to “liberate” themselves by selling a variety of products that could quickly become dinner. And yet, women are still the ones cooking.  Only about 13% of men cook, according to Pollan — largely on the grill.

Personally, I have struggled with my more domestic side because I know some of it has been socialized. I probably like cooking in part because the world suggests that I should. Ditto for knitting, wearing dresses, and eating bonbons. I don’t want to give in to this socialization, but I do want to do things that I really love.

I think the changes in gender roles and the changes in food over the last fifty years have left us in a position where cooking can feel a little off limits.  We don’t value the work in terms of money: the GDP doesn’t include domestic work often done by women (childcare, cooking, cleaning), and even in the restaurant business all but the Top Chefs (hehehe) are paid pretty badly. And most of the top chefs are men. And (at least for me) there is still some ambivalence about how to be a feminist who values domesticity.

Cooking is thrice-daily opportunity for creativity, sustenance, political subversion, and satisfaction. But in order for America to fully embrace it, we need to respect it. And that will mean more than watching it on TV and more than sending women back to the kitchen. In essence, I think this is what Pollan is getting at. But in order to move forward on the home cooking front, feminism and mainstream culture need to come to terms with the kitchen, and actively transform it from a symbol of female oppression to a place where everyone can engage in social change and meaningful work.

2 Responses to “feminism, bonbons, and The Kitchen”

  1. 1 thetigressreader
    August 14, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    P.S. I have tons more to say about this, so you can look forward to future posts about how much I love Julia Child, about all the ways I think we have moved beyond the traditional view of women in the kitchen, and general ideas about feminism and home ec-type things.

  2. 2 katie
    August 15, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    this is a great post. it seems to me that this new cooking movement has inspired men as much as it’s inspired women. what is yet to be seen is who will dominate the money-making aspect of it. Just judging by the beards pictured in this article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/dining/25brooklyn.html?_r=1&scp=8&sq=brooklyn%20foodies&st=cse , i am inclined to believe that even though we’re in the midst of a food *revolution* of sorts, and even though women have dominated the home kitchens for the last millennium, men will continue to gain more notoriety and make more money from the whole thing. alas.

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