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Who are the better cooks, men or women?

By Vicki Swinbank - posted Wednesday, 12 June 2013


Underneath the silliness and clichéd gender stereotyping of the current "MasterChef" there are some serious issues at stake that need to be examined.

Throughout much of history, men have been employed as professional cooks or chefs to royalty and the aristocracy, whilst women have done the everyday domestic cooking for their families. The low status, unpaid, private, taken-for-granted role of women as domestic cooks in contrast to the high status, paid and public role of professional male cooks accounts at least in part for the belief that male cooking is better or more important than women's. The famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead once observed that in all known societies, any activity performed by men, including those usually done by women, such as cooking, is considered to be more important than if done by women. For centuries men have been adept at promoting the myth that they are better cooks, with the apotheosis of this being the development of 'haute cuisine' in C18th France.

Despite the fact that 'haute cuisine' is generally based on the appropriation and extravagant elaboration of women's everyday cooking, its intention has always been to distance itself from female domestic cooking which it considers to be innately inferior. This belief was expressed by the famous French chef, Paul Bocuse, who, whilst acknowledging that his mother was a good cook, nevertheless considered that she, "like women generally, lacked the imagination essential to genuine creativity." Indeed, one of the striking features of the recent film 'Haute Cuisine' is the chauvinism and hostility that the female protagonist had to deal with from the male cooking establishment clearly threatened by a woman becoming private cook to the French president.

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Although professional paid cooking has been and still generally is done by men, recently many men have developed an interest in cooking in the domestic kitchen. Significantly, whilst numerous sociological studies show that men's involvement in domestic work is little different from decades ago, the one area they have become more involved in is cooking. The fact that cooking is one of the few areas of domestic work that is potentially creative and rewarding (as opposed to ironing and cleaning the toilet) helps explain why men have tended to home in on this area of domestic activity. This, however, is usually done on an occasional basis, of their own choosing, to show off their newfound culinary skills as a hobby or leisure pursuit, rather that the everyday, unglamorous, routine caring work of feeding the family that is still overwhelmingly the role of women. When men cook it is generally to please themselves and to impress others, whereas women's everyday cooking generally is not optional, deferring to the tastes and needs of others.

Of course, probably the most important influence on men's recent interest in cooking is the rise of or, more accurately, the cult of the TV male celebrity chef over the last decade or so. No-one exemplifies this more than Jamie Oliver who made cooking desirable to men with his deliberate cultivation of 'blokiness' or 'ladishness'. In affirming his masculinity whilst distancing himself from the 'feminising' influence of the domestic kitchen which he nevertheless occupies, he reassures men that cooking is not only not going to emasculate them, but in fact that cooking is 'sexy'.

The discovery of cooking, approximately 400,000 years ago - that is the transformation of raw to cooked food through the use of fire - is considered by anthropologists, most notably Claude Levi-Strauss, to be the pivotal activity that defined the development of human civilisation. Indeed, it has been claimed that it is cooking itself that makes us human. Despite a prevailing belief that attributes the discovery of cooking to male hunters, according to many anthropologists and archaeologists it was in fact women who probably discovered the use of fire for cooking. In pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies it was women who were largely responsible for the gathering of plant foods which made up the bulk of the diet, and it was in this role that they invented or developed the controlled use of fire, as well as other technologies for the detoxification of plants, processing, storing and preparation of food.

Given women's central role throughout the ages in applying these technologies and skills in preparing food for their families, it stands to reason that it has been women who have been largely responsible over many centuries and millennia for the development of the myriad regional cuisines of the world. This heritage, along with the associated knowledge of plant selection and seed saving from wild plants and kitchen gardens, has traditionally been passed on from grandmothers to daughters and grand-daughters, forming in effect an inter-generational female culinary culture.

Of course there is nothing wrong with boys and men learning to cook –indeed it is an essential life skill that everyone should have. However, when men arrogantly and ignorantly claim that women are innately inferior cooks, they are not only denying the culinary talents and knowledge of women in general, but, even more significantly, they are not respectıng the history of women's collective culinary culture which has made an incalculable contribution to human civilisation.

 

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About the Author

Dr Vicki Swinbank is a Melbourne based independent researcher and writer, who is currently working on a book analysing food issues from a gendered perspective.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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