Friday, March 5, 2010
Kitchen Bitches and Nourishers
In the article “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” published in the June/August 2009 issue of The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh exhorts her readers to avoid getting married and recommends some alternative models of (loveless) marriage for those of us who have found ourselves in the unenviable position of already being hitched. She does this in the context of rationalizing her own infidelity and the dissolution of her marriage of twenty years, and what she sees as a growing dissatisfaction among women with the venerable institution and their partners in it. Although she does not portray women as blameless for this sad state, for the most part she points a disdainful finger at the postfeminist pussies they married, who, unlike the detached patriarchs of yore (for whom she seems to pine), are involved with every detail of family life except for their wives’ emotional and carnal needs. These men, represented by the trope of the “male kitchen bitch,” have forgone pants-wearing in favor of home economics and hen-pecking. She describes the husband of one of her friends:
Ian subscribes to Cook’s Illustrated online and a bevy of other technically advanced gourmet publications—he’s always perfecting some polenta or bouillabaisse. If someone requests a cheeseburger, he will fire back with an über-cheeseburger, a fluffy creation of marbled Angus beef, Stilton, and homemade ketchup. Picture him in bike shorts (he’s a cyclist), hovering over a mandala of pots that are always simmering, quietly simmering.
She calls Ian a “Competitive Wife” who scolds his spouse for her transgressions against saucepans; she mocks him (and another friend’s husband) for building custom kitchen shelves to house their specialty cookware. Her gripe is not just that these man-shrews have taken over the wife/mom role, but that their contemptible competence in multiple spheres alienates and demoralizes their all-too-human wives. Even the traditional male arena of home improvement is derided as fussy, passive-aggressive performance. Although the bedroom may be the locus of shame and disappointment for Loh and her jilted kinswomen, for the purposes of her attack on renaissance dads who ignore their wives, the kitchen is the seat of power for the new oppression.
Hanna Roslin says everything else I would have written (plus more, plus better) about the meme of the kitchen bitch in this excellent piece on Slate.com.
I was thinking about this trope as I thumbed through my favorite cookbook (from the editor and publisher of Cook’s Illustrated) in preparation for cooking last night’s dinner. (I have been responsible for the majority of our dinners since Dr. Mom went back to work.) Later, as I lovingly dried the All-Clad Dutch oven and nestled it in one of the cabinets I had built while remodeling the kitchen, I realized that despite a passing resemblance to Loh’s character “Ian,” I would never rule the kitchen in our house, aspire as I might.
In addition to the fact that my cooking skills are still rudimentary and my competence in other areas of housewifery is marginal, my feelings about food preparation are much more superficial than my wife’s; and therefore I’m sure I will be demoted back to sous-chef as soon as her love affair with the breast-pump sputters to an end.
I propose a counter-trope to the Kitchen Bitch: The Nourisher. Hanna Roslin (among others) points out that men cook to “show off,” whereas the traditional, feminine motive for food preparation is to express love. I don’t suggest that every cook falls into one or the other of these categories, and I don’t think they are strictly “masculine” or “feminine” positions. But while I could name of a handful of female kitchen bitches off the top of my head, I don’t think I know any male nourishers. And I have to admit that my interest in cooking has to do mainly with satisfying my own decadent appetite, succeeding at constructing something impressive, and winning the praise of anyone who shares the end product. I’m a selfish cook, and would be a kitchen bitch if I were less lazy. My wife is a nourisher, like her mom, who cooks selflessly, and derives most of her satisfaction from watching people stuff her food in their faces, even if they neglect to tell her how wonderful she is. As I am an inveterate glutton, we have achieved perfect symbiosis. And our children are providing Mom the Nourisher with more satisfaction every day (see video below).
This kind of enthusiasm is what motivates Mom to steam and blend fruits and vegetables and portion them into tiny plastic containers in the middle of the night between half-conscious breast pumping sessions. She derives endless satisfaction from the idea that our babies are made out of her milk and the food she has prepared. I can’t compete with that.
Both Dr. Mom and I were raised by nourisher mothers, and most of our friends growing up had similar experiences. The nourishing was not reserved for family, but rather extended to anyone who crossed the threshold: if not food-as-love, at least food-as-hospitality. My mom was (and is) a nourisher of the wholesome appetizer variety. If anyone was at our house between mealtimes, they could expect to be served a plate of fruit, cheese, and some kind of bread or cracker. This became awkward in the later years of high school (“Mah-ahm…we don’t want your bourgeois cheese plate! We’re anti-establishment punk rock non-conformists! Do you not see our leather jackets? Geeez! Don’t we have any Doritos?”) But my mom was indifferent to my discomfort, and the cheese plates persisted. And were always consumed in the end.
The manifestations of my mother-in-law’s nourishing compulsion are far more extreme than modest appetizers. Regardless of the time of day, her kitchen—the working area of which comprises industrial gas-burners and jerry-rigged appliances in a shanty cobbled together on the deck so as not to fill the house with the smells of cooking oil and fish sauce—simmers with multiple meals in various stages of concoction. Sit down at the kitchen table at 11:00 p.m. and you will be expected to eat several bowls of rice with pork and greens, and perhaps a fried trout or two. If you decline her hospitality, she won’t be personally offended. But she will think much, much less of you. (My appropriate response to her cooking gestures, by the way, was one of the few ways I was able to convince her that I was not the worst choice her daughter could have made for a mate.)
Lately, I have racked up a couple of impressive (to me, anyway) culinary triumphs, often involving deep-frying; and I am on the verge of reading a book about cooking that doesn’t have color pictures and recipes in it. I well up with pride when I see my girls eat lustily—I guess I consider it a genetic gift—and I’m happy to think that they will derive great joy from eating good food, which is among the top two best things about being alive. It’s important to me that they eat a wide variety of high-quality foods and I hope they will fearlessly approach new eating situations. But whether my wife or I prepare the food doesn’t concern me. Once Dr. Mom is released from the clutches of the breast pump, I will show her the secret shelf where the lemon zester and shrimp deveiner live now, and turn the kitchen back over to its rightful chef.