Saturday, April 23, 2011

gender-bending hash-slinging headaches

According to the Food Channel, one of the Top Ten Food Trends for 2011 is that of men invading the kitchen... and cooking with all the snobbery and possessiveness and self-righteousness once reserved for women in this decidedly female sphere. These "gastrosexuals" or "kitchen bitches" have invaded the domain once both proudly and spitefully reserved for the 'second sex.' Cooking their 'dude food', men knocked down by the staggering economy have arisen phoenix-like in that very maternally-scented, spatially-restrictive, efficiency-designed, often drudgery-filled unchosen space of female subservience. Yes, they are even wearing aprons without a hint of shame, with no egg on their faces, so to speak.

Allegedly, this trend is due in large part to the increased female power outside of the kitchen, the Sheconomy wherein women do not merely influence purchasing decisions, but earn the money to make those decisions in the first place. Women make up at least half of the U.S. workforce and are getting college (or higher) degrees at a rate out-pacing men. If this is a positive power shift, one that women have fought for and long sought, then why are they "left seething with petty rage and self-pity" (Rosin article) when their husbands choose to anxiously attend to the Sunday roast and actually know and care about the difference between mesclun and mescal, dorado and Dover sole?

Well, there IS actually a danger inherent in something that, on the surface, seems like it would relieve the over-burdened domestic duties of women up and down the nation. The social construction of gender is relational. In other words, men and women define how they see themselves (and would like to see themselves) in terms of the differences and similarities that occupy the space between them. Similarly, we don't really think about love without an understanding of its partner in crime - hate... or black without white, or night without day... and on and on. Thus, masculinity and femininity exist in contra-distinction with each other such that "the notion of anti-femininity lies at the heart of contemporary and historical constructions of manhood, so that masculinity is defined more by what one is not rather than who one is." (Connell, 1994, quoted in Emily Kane, "'No Way My Boys Are Going to be like That!' Parent's Responses to Children's Gender Nonconformity, Gender & Society, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr 2006), p. 153)

Nah nah na boo boo! It seems that men have triumphed... in our very kitchen! And women are mad! Their ducks are steamed! And not even by them! Where should we go when we get home from bringing home the bacon? Are these Mr. Moms going to even let us back into our kitchen to cook said bacon? Hey, it's even artisanal!

Perhaps part of it is the way that men are changing the kitchen. Testosterone alone seems capable of lighting the gas stove burners as the cream puff-sissiness of donning an apron and adding Cognac to the perfectly deglazed pan in order to make a velvety demi-glace (a.k.a gravy) while simultaneously chopping parsley and checking on the soufflé carries no irony anymore. Julia Child once embodied a very de-femininized version of a housewife. With no grand narratives to believe in, Child served the purpose of re-mythologizing characteristic aspects of American identity – as self-made, as practical, as down-to-earth and self-effacing... and ruthlessly ambitious... these very masculine traits... these traits that make Thoreau's Walden such an American classic and put the 'man' in manifest destiny. Child wasn't afraid to drop the roast chicken on the floor and proceed to serve it... and she wasn't afraid to tell the world about it either. She hid not in the 'behind-the-scenes' of the domestic sphere. Rather, she pulled that sphere into the media stream in which it now remains centered as we flip back and forth between the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, Top Chef, or Man vs. Food. Indeed, Child embodied some very typically masculine traits, thereby transforming her Cambridge kitchen from a domestic space into a full-on public sphere of sorts, a space of “egalitarian access to distinction,”[1] a space of community through the kitchen, rather than a private space.  The home is commonly theorized as the place where cultural nationalism is launched and the woman is repository of this national culture.  In this case, the home, more specifically the kitchen (the space of the woman), is the visual space of the imagined nation, a space to imagine American possession of Culture and our hegemony over the definition of cosmopolitan citizenship and in this “secularized world, the sphere of culture (Bildung or Kultur), which sometimes takes the form of the political community of the nation, has become a substitute for the infinite.”[2]

In order for Julia to become this figure of logic and reason which could overwhelm and subsume a quintessentially mystical 'French-ness' which she also embodies, she must be at once the national repository of culture (feminine) and a rational, knowledge owning and producing public figure, and almost an abstraction of Culture itself (masculine).  Her kitchen becomes “a space for personal challenge and growth,”[3] but even more, a space of performance and the pleasures of performance, a space of entertainment so that by the time the Food Network comes along “[t]hese chefs are focused on the performative moment when a dish arrives before expectant guests, and that moment of performance completely determines the chain of production required to make it possible.”[4]  Julia “promoted a new view of the chef as a figure of cultural authority”[5] in America and cultural authority, indeed authorhood, required a masculine presence.

The kitchen got cool. The kitchen became a place to perform, a place to make things happen, a place to rage against the machine and man up and yell and rant and scream and boss people around like Gordon Ramsey... even a place where "something as frou-frou as cake decorating is dominated by a goateed Baltimore thug -- Chef Duff from Ace of Cakes -- who is at best a lovable jerk. Women, meanwhile, are left holding the cupcakes." (Rosin article)
In her book, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro notes that “[t]here was nothing dainty about Julia Child and nothing stereotypically feminine about her kitchen.”  With its pots and pans hanging pragmatically on a pegboard designed by Paul, Julia stood in the kitchen not as the space of the American woman, but as the space of national culture which she was offering up for consumption.  In fact, she did not see herself to be a model for domesticity at all and was vehemently opinionated and vocal in her views on the ‘stupid housewife.’  “I will never have anything to do with housewives,” she made clear in interview after interview.  Her contempt is evident in the note riddled with irony that she wrote to Simca on the possibility of incorporating steps into Mastering such that one could prepare portions of a meal in advance: “I think it will be useful for the USA. Housewife can cook her dinner while she is boiling the diapers… and what a lovely mixture of flavors that will make!”[6]  When she first entered the program at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, she demanded to be taken out of the class with housewives and put in the class with ex-GIs training to become chefs.  When the French Chef first aired, it did so in a prime evening time slot purposefully aimed at gaining a male viewership -- a group who Julia argued were better cooks than women.[7]  In fact, according to Julia, “[n]othing would help resuscitate the art of cookery in America faster than bringing men into the kitchen… just as male participation assured that cooking would always enjoy high status in France.”[8]

This is exactly the point.  Her iconization was based precisely on her not being such a motherly figure to the nation.  Like the ideal liberal public sphere of Habermas, Julia’s kitchen was part of this cultural network, echoing and reaffirming “the arena, the training ground, and eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeois men, who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’ and preparing to assert their fitness to govern.”[9]  It was not just the denunciation of housewives that made Julia into such a figure.  Much more surprising – especially considering her upbringing, era, and class – was her raunchy and risqué sense of humor.  She mocked an assistant produce on Good Morning America for his failed pronunciation of croque-monsieur:  “in her loudest voice, she said, ‘No it’s not cock-monsieur, it’s croque-monsieur!’”[10]  She swore often and could be heard nonstop making comments such as “Jacques, I have a nice piece of tail for you,”[11] when Pépin and Julia were showing how to remove lobster meat in one of their shows.  Her racy jokes were most often presented in this sort of public arena.  During a cooking demonstration at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, a member of the audience questioned whether Julia shouldn’t be using extra virgin olive oil to sauté a chicken.  Julia said no, “that should be used as a raw ingredient to finish off a dish or as the base of a salad.”[12] The woman asked why and Julia said “everyone knows that a heated virgin just doesn’t work very well!”[13]

And along with the performative and the public-ness of the kitchen came the scientific approach. Men hobbying around with molecular gastronomy like Nobel-winning scientists.  The kitchen as a place to tinker, to change the oil, to improve, refine, and re-design so that it is gadgetry-seasoned and technologically superior. Similarly, when Child first appeared on public television, there quickly evolved a group of MIT physicists and engineers who gathered weekly to watch her show. Though their interest was not in cooking per se, they were enthralled by “her technique, her attention to detail and rules.  Here was a woman on television who was not sexy and was not selling something; she was demonstrating technique, and they were fascinated.” [14]

So what to make of this trend? And is it that? Just a trend? Will things flip back to our more comfortable (and traditional) gender roles? And should they? Are women afraid that life will leave them uncomfortably homeless? Even if they weren't sure they really liked that home space in the first place? That the kitchen will lose its semi-secured status and become the glass house where too much is apparent? Where, as in the movie Glass Bottom Boat, the femininity to which we don't want to be tied and yet fear to let go of will be erased -- the smart kitchen out-smarting us such that "this kitchen doesn't need a woman" (Doris Day in Glass Bottom Boat)? As Genevieve Bell and Joseph Kaye write in "Designing Technology for Domestic Spaces: A Kitchen Manifesto" (Gastronomica, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 2002)):
Food, cooking, and kitchens represent a significant set of icons in most cultures. They are evoked, deployed, and employed as metaphors and as shorthand—stand-ins for longer conversations and more complicated plays of meaning and history. Recipes are family secrets, national identities, corporate mysteries, poetry. Foods are memories of lovers, vacations, childhoods, family dinners gone wrong, family dinners gone right, first dates, last dates, and shared memories. Cooking is a chore, an act of love, a ritual, a lesson.

Yet, in the American corporate context, food is often regarded as fuel, cooking a task, and the kitchen a site ripe for Taylor-like interventions. Indeed, over the last century, American kitchens have been the ongoing sites for projects to reduce cooking to a domestic science, the kitchen to a collection of labor-saving devices, and food to exercises in packaging. Of course, this corporate concept of the kitchen is by no means hegemonic, and in both the u.s. and western Europe it is possible to find other models for understanding the “kitchen.”
Maybe we need another model for the kitchen. Maybe we need another model for our notions of gender, of who we are to be as men and women, of who we are to be as partners within a 'home' and not just a household. While Bell & Kaye express their desire to disconnect the kitchen from 'smart house' rhetoric, maybe we, as a society, need to disentangle it from the imbalanced gender relations with which it is redolent.

"Honey, I'm home!" The kitchen could be the center of communication, affection, and messages of love and family... probably not such a new idea after all. Maybe that is the smartest kitchen of all.

[1] Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “Stardom and the Hungry Public,” Gastronomica, p. 123.
[2] Pheng Cheah, “Spectral Nationality: The Living On [sur-vie] of the Postcolonial Nation in Neocolonial Globalization,”  Boundary 2 26.3 (1999): 243
[3] Nach Waxman, “Rendering Miracles,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 94.
[4] Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, “Stardom and the Hungry Public,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 123.
[5] Wurgaft, Gastronomica, p. 121.
[6] Laura Shapiro,  “Sacred Cows and Dreamberries: In Search of the Flavor of France,”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer 2005), p.56.
[7] Noël Riley Fitch, Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child (New York: Random House, Inc., 1997), p. 367.
[8] Laura Shapiro, Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) p. 229.
[9] Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Bruce Robbins (ed.), The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 6.
[10] Jacques Pépin, “My Friend Julia Child.”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 13.
[11] Pépin, Gastronomica, p. 12.
[12] Julia Child quoted in Stephanie Hersh, “A Full Measure of Humor,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture,Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 2005), p. 15.
[13] Julia Child quoted in Hersh, p. 15.
[14] Fitch, p. 309.

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