Diner: A Broad's Perspective

The F-word and kitchen culture: feminism and white gloves

Aug 3, 2005 at 2:06 pm

"Lady-like is in with elegant gloves, pretty dresses and demure hairdos" coos a magazine advertisement, showing a photograph of a smiling woman decked out in what's titled as a "princess line" dress while seductively offering a pie to a man who looks like he could use a shave. She's wearing elbow-length gloves in a kitchen. He's wearing jeans, a rumpled T-shirt and acknowledgement. On the next page Britney Spears is not wearing gloves — or much of anything really except the look of a pissed-off bad girl. Though she's not serving pie, she's clearly serving something similar.

This magazine is dated 2003, exactly 40 years after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique lobbed a well-aimed grenade into the Formica kitchens of happy, coiffured American housewives. The ads depict a prefeminist and current feminist ideal ... or do they?

While perusing through boxes of women's magazines and cookbooks from my 95-year-old grandmother's estate — most from the '50s and '60s — I was completely captivated with the text and photos as they apply to shaping gender roles through kitchen culture. On nearly every page attractive women with white-bright smiles tout the joy of creamy peanut butter or the miracle of extra-crispy chicken fried in shortening, all the while exuding "lady-like" gracefulness while ravenous children or grateful husbands hover nearby.

"Desserts Men Like — Puddings That Please"; "Here They Are — Ten Cakes Husbands Like Best!"

Not a single magazine depicts images of men and food unless he's standing over a grill ("Hey Dad, It's Showtime!").

Food, cooking and the culture of the kitchen have shaped women's roles beyond passing down recipes for Grandma Millie's applesauce cake or mom's potato latkes. Through advertising, magazine articles and cookbooks, women were essentially taught how to behave "correctly" and to put ourselves under constant surveillance. We were socialized, amused, soothed, deceived, chastised and told what was acceptable (or not). And we loved it as much as we hated it. This is not to say that we bought it all. How many of us really believed that a religious epiphany was easily attained by using margarine instead of butter?

My interest in food and gender stems from my lifelong relationship to all food-related tasks — from growing it to cooking it professionally to writing about food, I have led a food-obsessed life — and from an equally long roller coaster ride through babe feminism, simultaneous acts of defiance and desire.

Growing up in the '60s and '70s, I digested a constant film loop of Barbie dolls, beach blanket bunnies, flying nuns, Wilma and Betty, genie in a bottle, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, pageant queens, These-Boots-Were-Made-For-Walking, Nancy Drew, That Girl, bionic and wonder and avenging women; a series of glimmering images that encouraged me to Be All That I Can Be All The Time. Despite these agents of feminism — and perhaps due to the more subordinate images — I primarily associated my grandmother, mother, aunts and our female "domestic help" with all of the meal planning, shopping and cooking. My father entered the kitchen only when he was moved to assert his creativity, of which the simplest dish was simultaneously praised and lampooned (scrambled eggs with Fritos? Oh dad, you silly courageous man!), or like the biological hunter, expected to assume responsibility for throwing slabs of raw meat on the fire. I cannot remember him ever making a complete meal, and he undertook trips to the grocery store only when someone was ill. My family was typical of what mainstream American society had long accepted regarding gender relationship within kitchen culture.

The spectrum of mixed messages could explain my schizophrenia. While urging us to be really-really cute, twiggy thin, blonde and deferential to men, my generation of women also learned that we could be shrewd, enterprising, rebellious and sleuthing super-heroines. Many of us were not going to allow our brains to atrophy by making "Occupation: Housewife" a full-time job; others embraced the romantic Earth Mother image by taking off our bras, putting on long dresses and baking bread. We were caught between contradicting voices, one insisting we were subordinate, one insisting we were equal. After a while, the tension became oppressive, and we found ourselves questioning our roles, unwilling to straddle the gap between the promise of equality and the reality of inequality. We raised our collective voice of wild, factional, insightful and egomaniacal sisterhood, bought a microwave (the ultimate labor-saving device) and got out of the kitchen.

Or did we?

It's difficult to escape noticing that despite a feminist revolution, that the gendered relationship to food has proved enduring. With the exception of restaurants, where paradoxically it is largely a man's world, food preparation in the United States is still very much considered a woman's responsibility. This would seem to be an antiquated notion, no longer pertinent in the 21st century when most households have two adults working full-time outside the home and, ideally, sharing the tasks of purchasing, cooking and serving food.

But the reality hardly meets the ideology. A profound segregation remains in men's food-related activities within the private domain. Men are less likely to be responsible for day-to-day cooking and shopping, even if their female partner works the same number of job-related hours. The stereotype of the male so inept in the kitchen that he needs to phone his mother about how to hard boil an egg has endured in today's liberated environment.

The popular media shaped the way we perceive the relationship between women and food, often keeping women in the kitchen by creating glossy images of appliances and food products designed to give women a sense of identity. Among the most influential media have been cookbooks, agents of society delivering expectations of women that might conflict with (or support) our goals. The Settlement Cookbook, first published in 1901, still closes its 1965 edition with the thought that "our book will continue to help the women of America find the way to a man's heart." McCall's Cookbook addresses the relationship between women's roles and cooking: "Social customs radiate from the service of food in the home. So does the most fundamental kind of social status. Thus, the woman who can cook well and serve food graciously is a successful homemaker." According to these books, one could surmise that women do not eat; the emphasis is on using culinary skills to seduce men and serve others.

Another cookbook from the same era, The New York Times Cook Book, contain no references to or assumptions about gender or marital status and show photos of both men and women preparing food. The emphasis is on the enjoyment of food by the cook, whoever that might be. Despite the books appealing to foodies, middle-class women today remain the primary audience for cookbooks, selling images of the home cook as master chef, creator of domestic bliss, protector of the earth, scientist and artist. Even faced with contemporary labor-saving kitchen devices, these images have encouraged and increased consumerism, persuading women to remain in the kitchen by suggesting fantasy roles intended to have cooking provide some of the satisfaction we receive from actual wage earning.

Many of us genuinely enjoy cooking and appreciate the sensuous colors and textures of the food we handle. In the today of conflicting schedules, carry-out meals and fast-casual restaurants, cooking at home has become almost a secret pleasure of escape, an absorbing, sometimes challenging activity that lets us feel achievement and triumph, even humility.

It's easy to overlook the importance of kitchen culture because it permeates our environment, but to understand how men and women are appointed as gendered beings, we need to continue to pay attention to and explore the messages about the roles of men and women within the kitchen and why food preparation is so strongly ciphered as a feminine activity.

More than ever, women are engaged in a delicate and continuous balancing act between career and relationships, independence and interdependence. While we've changed consciousness, we've barely begun to change structure.

Now, I'm off to buy some elbow-length gloves. I think this lady-like thing is going to be as @#$%*#! easy as perfect pie. ©