THE MASCULINE KITCHEN
AN ESSAY BY JAGO RACKHAM
Before the height of second wave feminism, as we bid adieu to Fordist capitalism and the nuclear familial structures it entertained, it was unusual to find a man cooking at home. One could find them inside restaurant kitchens but there they were called chefs rather than cooks, executing a professional role: bread maker and winner.
This was also the case in larger homes with servants: the grander places had chefs who were male, preferably poached from France. The smaller ones had ‘Cook’ who lurked in their kitchens, hid red hands from scrubbing and red eyes from chopping onions. In poorer (read: the majority of) homes without servants, cooking fell to the mother and, if there were any, her daughters. The husband did not figure in the kitchen, and the son only snuck in once and a while to steal bread. Aside from stints of bachelordom (after mother’s soup and before the wife’s), this was almost universally true.
However, there came a point when women began to go to “work”, too (“work” because they already worked only in a context in which it was recognised as a natural role) and, because of this, men deigned to enter into the place of fire, smoke, and smells. Many idealists believed this entering into the kitchen, and occasionally the other areas of the home, would herald the forming of a new man, neither feminine nor masculine, and allow for the creation of a new woman of the same stripe. However, a cursory scan of articles, books, and television programmes relating to food in the home, tells a different story. Just as women wearing trousers did not allow them ownership of masculinity (qua power), but saw the trousers being repurposed into something uniquely feminine, the contemporary kitchen has been rendered more masculine for the man.
My great grandmother was a housekeeper whose hands bore deep indents, pink on the outside and white within from peeling potatoes, cutting mutton, and chopping carrots with a blunt knife which she did not care enough about to sharpen. In grandmother’s eyes, the knife was a malignant necessity, dangerous and mean: its ineffectuality a symbol of a role, which, by the end of her life, rendered her sick and bitter. In the other (less damaged) hand, the knife is a tool that allows men to remain men in the domestic kitchen. It possesses something reminiscent of the fields of hunting and of war, marked in the footprints of men. The man, who wishes to retain his masculinity in the face of domesticity, can, to calm this hysteria, use the knife to cut or carve some beast: an ox’s heart or a pig’s head. Furthermore, he cares for his knives, fetishises them almost, as he would his golf clubs or sports car.
This fetishisation is illustrative of the manner in which the masculine role is carried into the kitchen and is superimposed over the previous domestic role. To the male cook, the kitchen is not a place of work, and cooking is no chore. Rather, it is a theatre of sorts in which he can express himself and extend his charms to the plates and bellies of his guests. Cooking is less a provider of fuel than it is a field for expression, or a means of impressing. In the kitchen, he can escape his real work in the office. Here, too, he has a chance to regain some lost physicality and glory, worn down by “real”, money earning work. Better still, he is congratulated for this. He appears to be stepping out of his masculine role: a man who cooks has an extra skill, an extra dimension.
A woman who cooks does not. A woman who does not cook is missing something. Growing up, my father always cooked (the academic enjoyed getting his hands dirty), and my mother almost never did. I have an uncle, a banker, who could not even cook spaghetti, and an aunt who liked horses. They made a great point of my mother’s inadequacy in this field of “womanhood”. Yet, when cooking needed to be done, mother cooked, even when it bored her stiff. This is a widespread trend. If the man enjoys cooking, he does. If he does not, the woman naturally does.
To a great extent, the way that men and women cook at home differs greatly. I believe, however, that this model can be applied to a broader context: women as workers within the home, cooking to satisfy the growls of her family’s hunger, and of men seeking the home as a place of freedom from work – cooking as a form of enjoyment. This model is loaded with gender roles. Woman as homemaker. Man as home buyer and enjoyer. Woman as cook. Man as chef. Masculine domesticity, then, is not really domesticity at all. Man does not take over the dull cooking responsibilities of woman – rather, society is so weighed down in gendered construction that man is given different responsibilities altogether.