by Rachel L. Haas
I grew up watching cooking shows like some kids watch Sesame Street.
There were no furry monster puppets in my childhood, but there was Julia Child, her stockpots, her gracefully outlandish hand gestures and her love affair with food. A passionate love which sparked my own passions for food and cooking as the years went on.
I grew up watching her cook, and marveled at her bravery with sharp knives and flashing fire. I never knew how truly brave she was until I was much older.
Kitchens are for women. It’s a joke, a snarky remark that sparks laughter and juvenile interjections of “ooh” and “gotcha there.” In this world of the “kitchen joke,” there are chains that trail from stoves to loop around the ankles of wives and girlfriends. There are sandwiches to be made, many of them, always by female hands.
Kitchens are for women. At least, home kitchens. Because when you step outside of the domestic world of the family home, you’re greeted by a far different reality. A reality where kitchens are actually for men and artistic interpretation in the form of food is something that is far less attainable if you happen to be female.
Men are seen as the dangerous ones in the kitchen.
They’re the ones that eat exotic foods and turn molecular gastronomy on its ear. It taps into the primal “me Tarzan, you Jane” mentality of men as hunter-gatherers and women as supple homemakers standing at the door with a baby on their hip and a pie in their hand.
The world may be slowly working on becoming more “progressive” in their saccharine magnanimity, allowing women to be freed from their chains and become more accepted in professional culinary positions. But all it takes is a simple click of the TV remote and a flick to a food channel to get a glimpse of acceptable vs. controversial tasks for a woman to perform in the culinary world.
Women cook on home sets.
There are flowers and fluttery curtains and carefully posed Kitchenaid mixers in delicate tones. They host dinner parties and teach how to blend the perfect cocktail. They cook treats for busy families. Even “elevated” hosts, such as Giada de Lauritis, still finds herself smiling behind a camera while she whips up an Italian-style luncheon.
Men go into the wild. They eat foods with unpronounceable names and partake in rituals of masculinity. Generally they also eat the genitalia of at least one animal. It’s these ventures into the wild, somehow oddly juxtaposed against cufflinks and coiffed hair, that whisper loudly of the power of men when they set their hand to the stove. They are loud, devil-may-care chaps who don’t give a rip what anyone thinks. Chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey are highlighted for their brashness, profanity and prowess.
Meanwhile, powerhouse female chef Alex Guarnichelli is often criticized for her facial expressions, often called “bitchy” and “off-putting.” One simple Google search is all it takes to find chair-warrior bloggers referring to her “fat,” “scowling,” “ugly,” “butch” and a thousand other acrimonious adjectives I won’t even dignify by listing here.
Lest you think this is merely contained to opinion pieces and set designs, there are statistics to back me up.
In 2015, the James Beard Award was given to 17 rising star chefs (with two ties). Six of them were women. This is 38 percent. This is good. This is better than all other years previous. We were thrilled, elated even. With 38 percent. Because we are in a time when 38 percent female winners is worthy of note.
The 2016 Food and Wine Best New Chefs list was packed with top-notch male chefs — and one, single, lone female. Iliana Regan of Chicago’s Elizabeth restaurant. One Huffington Post blogger went so far as to do her own research on the subject and found a staggeringly low number of women having ever been on the list, with streaks of “lone ranger women” from 2004-2007, 2009-2011, and yet again in 2014. There were no women listed in 2003.
This is a world I will never understand.
The contrast between scorn and reality is so far-fetched that it would be laughable if not bitterly stomach-turning.
It is safe to joke that women belong pressed against the stove: feeding the menfolk, assembling sandwiches, baking pies and carrying casseroles to socials. It is safe to jest that women are somehow less when they cook and provide, a nod back to days of childbearing women barefoot in their kitchens.
It is less safe when women stop listening and pull out their blowtorches to melt the links of steel confining them to old-school misogyny. We find ourselves as women in this world having to fight our way up to the pass. Our knives have to be a little bit sharper, our skins just a smidgen thicker. We are more than just Jane on a vine or June Cleaver with her pie. We have chops, big ones, and they’re braising in a red wine reduction as we speak.
I wonder what Julia Child would say if she could see this culinary world of women that is starting to rise up against the heavy pressure of the male-dominated stockpot lid that is the professional kitchen. I wonder if she would think back to her days of sobbing over onions and showing every man in that French school that she could indeed be a woman and a force to be reckoned with at the same time.
I like to think that she would toss us a block of butter, raise her glass and whisper, “bon appetit, ladies. Now show them who’s boss.”
Rachel Haas is the author of Portals of Water and Wine. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and two daughters. She lives for pie, roasted vegetables and eggs Benedict. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.