Wearing The Pants & The Apron In The Family

I have a friend, a guy who loves cooking and sometimes talks about the gender stereotype that he faces. He opines that men cook by rules, follow recipes to the step… wouldn’t know that you can dilute coconut milk powder in water if there is no coconut milk and so on. The argument states that women are more instinctive when it comes to cooking.

Come again? I think that is a sweeping generalisation. I hate following elaborate recipes. Most of the stuff I cook up, are by instinct, visualisation and a sense of balance of spices. And I know that I am not the only one.

I’m the mirror image of him in that I’m a woman who struggles under the assumption that I’m a good cook while he opposes the idea that as a man, he necessarily isn’t. The kitchen, in my mind, is reminiscent of the dungeons of Harry Potter’s Potions class – warm, dark and full of alien smells and eerie bubbling noises.

My earliest lessons were of learning to turn the pressure cooker off and on and landing the weight right at the top. I was petrified of fire but my parents weren’t too sympathetic with my fears and learn I did. Tea and coffee and rice came next, followed by sambhar and dal.

I must add that to this day, I consider Indian cooking extremely indulgent and wasteful. I mean, patriotic sentiment aside, we just don’t have the time and effort to put into soaking spices, boiling the dal, frying the tadka, chopping and stewing the vegetables and then bringing them all together for the grande finale. It just is too laborious and all for something that disappears in about ten minutes. I carry over that attitude into the rest of cooking as well. I’m a Mumbaiker after all, I’m always looking for the shortest, fastest way to get things done. Three hours of preparation for a ten-minute result and a subsequent clean-up ritual of another hour is just not sensible, no matter what anyone says.

Of course, there is the fact that I’m not exactly a foodie and consider food, simply fuel for the human body to be able to do other, more meaningful things. I can tell you this attitude of mine has not been well-received at all. My otherwise liberal father showed his disappointment in my lack of interest and talent in this field over many years with what he thought were funny lines like…

“My daughter can burn water very well!”

I don’t think he even realized that there was a fundamental chauvinism in that statement till I stood up to him and pointed out that I cooked every time my mother was not around. Not just sandwiches and Maggi but full Tamilian meals complete with sambhar, curry, salad, rice and home-set curd.

I even managed to pack lunches for both of us. Admittedly I did not enjoy it and I was nowhere near my mother’s expert cuisine but my food never sent anybody to the hospital. I dramatically concluded with,

“If you don’t think that being a girl entitles me to special treatment, then why do you assume that I should possess any special talents in the kitchen just because of my gender?”

He didn’t like it but he didn’t reprimand me for backtalk. He taught me to think for myself, after all. Needless to say, the jokes have stopped and each time my mum has been unavailable, dad and I both share the cooking.

Other men, however, are not so accomodating (which brings me back to the premise that there just is no one like Dad!). I remember an ad a few years ago showing two girls on a moped, meant to show off the β€˜modern-girl’ attitude where one of them asked the other, what if we start asking the boys questions like

“Do you know how to sew? Can you cook?”

It struck me as a brilliant thought and I actually did do that. The first man I asked that to, gulped and goggled at me like I was an alien from outer space. And then – would you believe – he had the temerity to say,

“But why do I need to know?”

That date didn’t go very far but my confidence in the question increased as did my patience with men’s answers. I realized that most of them had never been exposed to the idea of being truly independent.

A career was all very fine but they had always had doting mamas, subservient sisters and later, girlfriends and wives to pick up for them. Well, that’s a little bit of another story but to come back to the point.

All of us eat, don’t we? It’s a human need, non-specific of gender. Isn’t it just as important that a man be able to fend for himself as a woman? Women are learning to take care of themselves in the physical rigours of the outside world. And really, truly, it isn’t because we’re trying to take away something from the men. I think all of us really see it as taking responsibility for ourselves and burden off the men’s shoulders. In turn, should the men also not start shouldering responsibility for their own upkeep and needs? And hence, why should a man not know how to cook too?

Of note, when I raise this question, I’m often hit with the argument that most of the world’s best cooks are men. That is so not the point. I am not talking about finesse in an art, I am talking about possessing a basic survival skill. It does not matter if all the best cooking in the world is done by men.

At an individual level, are you able to manage your own needs without depending upon another person, whether you are a man or a woman? I’ve just admitted freely that I am not a great cook. I do not possess talent but I have sufficient skill that I can take care of myself. And that in my mind, is true independence.

And finally, the aforementioned friend has my sympathies for facing such blatantly ignorant stereotyping. I have great regard for people who can do things that I can’t and what’s more a man who cooks well, is someone who has overcome both the fears I have as well as social norms. Men in the kitchen, bravo!


An earlier version is posted here. A version is posted at Yahoo! Real Beauty!

13 thoughts on “Wearing The Pants & The Apron In The Family

  1. read this article on Yahoo…very well written…I am blessed to have parents who dont believe in such stereo types…i enjoy cooking not because Im a girl but because I like it, just like I like doing a million other things that only men are supposed to do…

    1. @Sanhita: And welcome to my blog then! While here, do check my other blog, The Idea-smithy.

      What are these million other things that only men are supposed to do? I’m struggling with the ones I’m ‘supposed’ to and a few that I’m not supposed to. πŸ˜‰

  2. P (my husband) is that kind of an intuitive cook. He has such a knack with ingredients, cooking times, flavors, textures, etc. Au contraire, I am the more go-by-the-recipe kinda cook. Finally, I had no clue about cooking (could just about make a cup of coffee for myself) until I got married. The Internet was my cooking instructor but really, it was P who taught me to cook.

  3. I think i agree with your friend here, the gender bias [ I hate to use the word reverse gender bias] for cooking men is definitely present. I love to cook, not just for me, for my family, which includes my wife and parents.
    There have been so many times, when I have been asked, oh you cook well?, I am surprised. or your wife is going to be lucky. Some times norm drives the conversations, but too much of norm irritates me.
    Gender bias aside, I think that every person who is very particular about what he/she eats, end up cooking themselves. It could be for different reasons, taste, calories, presentation, etc..

    1. @Rambler: That’s a thought I’d love to subscribe to. Except that I’ve met far too many men who enjoy eating but feel no need to learn cooking for themselves. (Kisliye? Mummy/sister/girlfriend/wife hain na?)

  4. Judging by the way my husband cooks, I’d agree with the first comment. He follows the recipe to the T, as they say, whereas I just go about dunking in masalas and things solely by instinct. I think men who like cooking must also be instinctive about their cooking, rather than religiously sticking to the outlined steps.

    1. @Gargi Mehta: Perhaps that bit of it comes with practice? This post was written a few years ago. Now I cook a lot more and my style follows a little more of the instinctive dunk-in-masala routine. Instinct plays a big part in any kind of creative endeavour, even the creation of food.

  5. Oh and I must say, I totally agree with this – “I consider Indian cooking extremely indulgent and wasteful”. Ne’er have truer words been spoken…er, written!

  6. Actually you know what? Men in the kitchen don’t need a ‘bravo’ at all. Do us women get any bravos from anyone for knowing when to put the tadka in the dal? No, na? Because its something that is necessary for us to do. Same is the case with men as well. I am lucky to be blessed with a truly independent husband who does not think he is doing me a ‘favor’ or doing something ‘special’ when he cooks a meal, which he does most nights. πŸ™‚

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