‘Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female... I’m not being entirely facetious when I say it’s a feminist tract.’
Nigella Lawson’s recent comments that her bakery cookbook, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, should be read as a “feminist tract” may at first sound bizarre — how is baking a cake a feminist act? Here’s how.
If we are working toward a society in which women are valued equally with men, it’s not enough to champion what I call the ‘Hillary Clinton route’: women accessing careers that have historically been the provenance of men. Of course, this needs to be done — there are glass ceilings to smash and equal wages to fight for aplenty — but we need to do the opposite, too: champion what has traditionally been devalued as ‘women’s work’ and respect it for what it is — work.
It’s true, as Lawson points out, that in our current food-obsessed culture, savoury cooking — the meatier and manlier the better — is slavishly praised by a foodie elite. Women chefs are only just now becoming accepted at top restaurants, and the food culture has a weakness for the women who present themselves as ultra-tough; matching the current nose-to-tail fetish by serving exotic animal bits is a quick way for a woman restaurateur to grab some press.
But feminism was never supposed to be about making women more like men. In my view, mainstream feminism has lost focus in the past 20 years or so because of its tunnel vision for the Hillary Clinton route as the only path to liberation.
I want to see a society in which not only can women attain positions of power in government and business based solely on their qualifications, but, more than that, I want a society in which child-rearing and baking and laundry and cleaning and cooking — not cheffy restaurant cooking, but everyday dinner-on-the-table cooking — are seen as equally important contributions to a balanced society.
And since we’re at it, I want to see that the qualities usually associated with women — a certain softness, a gentleness — are not thrown away in the race to prove how tough (and therefore manly) women are, thus deserving of rights previously only granted to men.
All these silly gender-assigned qualities have just got to go, don’t you think? They’re so tiresome, after all. Straight men are, it seems to me, increasingly fed up with holding up their end of the deal, and would be relieved to be able to cry in public and take care of the house while their female partners work on their career for a while without worrying if they will look soft to their friends.
I wish we could take all the traits we think of as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, toss them on the floor and let each person pick up a few randomly. What would happen?
Women CEOs would no longer be “women CEOs” and if one of those women CEOs brought in an elaborate home-baked confection for an office party, her power and respect at the office wouldn’t somehow diminish.
We’ve bought into stereotypes that are no longer useful — that women who thrive in positions of power can’t also enjoy ‘girly’ hobbies like baking, for example.
Or that men who bake must be either gay or somehow weak.
After all, what’s more hardcore and deserving of awe and respect, really, than baking? Every baker I know is much smarter than your average chef, who tosses ingredients into a sauté pan with no thought of maths or ratios.
Bakers — even everyday home bakers known for their birthday cakes and Christmas puddings — have an understanding of chemistry and maths and a certain exactitude deep in their bones.
Baking is a feminist act. It’s time to celebrate it as such. Sponge cakes for all!