I spent part of this weekend on the fringes of a cooking competition, watching as eager young amateur chefs tried their hands in a professional kitchen. There was an even gender divide, and quite frankly, there wasn’t much to choose between the men and the women as far as skill sets went. The winner got a substantial cash prize and a cooking show on YouTube. (And no, sorry, I can’t tell you whether a woman won.)
The day after the competition ended, I found myself at lunch with some friends in the hotel business. “So,” I asked, fresh from my experience at the cook-off, “Do your kids like to cook?”
“Oh no,” replied the lady. “I told my daughter from the beginning that the kitchen is a trap. Once you get in there, there is no getting out.”
I must confess to being startled, never having seen it quite like that. Is the kitchen really some sort of swamp that sucks you in, or even sucks the life out of you? Is the gas range a place where the dreams of young girls go to die a fiery death? Does roasting, grilling, frying, baking make a kitchen slave out of you?
Well, I have been turning over this conversation in my mind ever since, and while I totally get where my friend was coming from, I think we are doing a disservice to our daughters by telling them to get out of the kitchen, or else...
Yes, there was a point in time when kitchen work was sheer drudgery, when women could end up spending entire lifetimes sweating behind the stove, putting food on the table for their families. There was an era in which men wouldn’t be seen dead cooking; the mark of masculinity was to be waited on hand and foot. And yes, it wasn’t that long ago that women would routinely be told that their place was in the kitchen; and I can only imagine how bloody annoying that must have been.
That’s probably why the first wave of feminists regarded housework as something to be rid of, why they saw the kitchen as a cage within which entire generations of women had been imprisoned, and why friends like mine advised their daughters to steer clear of this stifling jail.
If you ask me, though, those days are long gone. We now live in a world in which the kitchen has become an intensely glamorous space. It is a place where high-powered careers are forged in the fire, where celebrity chefs pout and preen, where food bloggers find their inspiration and their place in the sun. These days, it is entirely possible to get both fame and fortune from behind the kitchen range. Just think of how Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson have spun their cooking abilities to gain world-wide celebrity. Or even how Manish Mehrotra and Gagan Anand have become household names in India.
Men have cottoned on to this transformation and no longer treat the kitchen as a no-go area, and cooking as something beneath contempt. They experiment with recipes, they write food blogs, they review restaurants, they publish cookbooks, they pitch for TV shows. They realise that the kitchen now represents a career opportunity like any other.
Don’t you think it’s time women caught on as well? Well, some do, and have made the most of the opportunities cooking represents in the modern world. But there are still too many women who view the kitchen with suspicion, as a cunning trap set to lure them in and tie them down. And that is truly a pity.
But even if we leave all this stuff about careers and fame and fortune aside for a moment, and just think of the sheer pleasure involved in making a meal for those you care about, the kitchen begins to look like a far less scary place. That’s when cooking ceases to be a chore and becomes an act of love.
And just for that, it might be worth it to put on that apron, break out that recipe book your grandmum left you, and reclaim the kitchen.
From HT Brunch, February 23
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