Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cooking and Gender

Last week I had an experience that almost turned me into a vegetarian: I bought chicken from a butcher specializing in sustainable/organic meats...and it was the most expensive chicken I have ever purchased.  While the nice lady behind the counter told me the price and started packaging the bird in fancy paper touting all sorts of organic stamps and labels, I just stood there in a weird shocked silence, unable to take it all in, and then with my body on auto-pilot I paid.  The whole way home I just kept telling myself that it wasn't possible I just paid that much for a chicken and if this was the cost of buying "responsible" meat, we were going to have to 1) find second jobs, 2) stop caring about how livestock is treated, or 3) give up meat. None of those really feel like good options to me, and I haven't yet worked out what we're going to do about it, but in the meantime we won't be roasting any more chickens.

I found myself at the butcher in the first place, because we were having friends over for dinner (diehard meat eaters who wouldn't touch a vegetable with a ten-foot pole, or fish or cheese), and Niek wanted to work on his chicken roasting skills.  In the last few years, he's become something of a chicken roasting afficianado, and he'll most likely be working on perfecting his technique for the next few decades.

And this brings me to the actual point of the post, which is supposed to be about the gendering of cooking and my experiences in the Netherlands.  Growing up in the Heartland, I didn't see a lot of men using their skills in the kitchen.  I don't think I can say that any of my childhood friends' fathers cooked, and I don't remember my dad ever making us dinner (now that my dad is retired, he's taken on a lot more of the dinner making duties, so kudos to you, Dad).  Grilling on the barbeque doesn't count, since I would say it's seen as a pretty masculine activity.  There are plenty of discussions in our modern world about how home cooking is still perceived as women's work, and I really wanted to site this article, but my proxy server to the university's research library wasn't granting me access, although I found an amusing anecdote about gender and cooking here and a rather angry assessment of Michael Pollan's take on the matter here.  Interestingly enough, all of the partners of my friends know their way around a kitchen, and some of them even do the majority of the cooking in the relationship.  Regan should tell you about her husband's forays into bread, cheese, and beer making.  I'll refrain from using my guy friends as a representative slice of American culture since I dabble a little more in that crazy intellectual/academic world than most people.  But whoah, am I digressing a little bit?

This is really about gender and cooking in my home away from home.  Most of the home cooking I have experienced in the Netherlands has either been in my own household or in that of my in-laws where my mother-in-law wouldn't dream of preparing a meal and my father-in-law has been in charge of family dinners since my husband can remember.  It was early in our relationship that I learned that Niek's dad was the cook of their house, and I remember being a little shocked hear it.  It shouldn't really have come as a surprise to me considering that Niek cooked dinner for us on our second date and cooks about half of the time now.  Maybe if both of us didn't work it would be different, but since we both find ourselves busy with work and we both actually enjoy cooking, we are able to maintain a fairly even split.  I love that I find myself in a family that supports everyone's interests and skills and doesn't really seem to divide household responsibilities among any sort of gendered guidelines.  Are there swaths of Dutch culture that see women as being responsible for cooking simply because they're women?  Absolutely.  Is it a hard an fast rule everyone ascribes to?  No, and I am quite happy for that. 
Niek's chicken and roast potatoes were a rousing success the other night, even if he didn't think the skin was crispy enough.  Cooks are usually their own worst critics, which I know from personal experience.  It just gives him another reason to try again the next time we have a few friends to dinner, although we may have to wait at least a few weeks.  I'm  going to have to brace myself for the cost of buying another organic bird.


  1. There's always the option of raising your own poultry; some of my suburban neighbors have chicken coops (and I checked the roosters to make sure they weren't being used for fighting - a rather nasty thing that's cropped up here lately) and my parents had some - I still have caponizing tools, though I would never use them!

    I'm not much of a cook, but a better than average pastry chef, which strikes most around here as effeminate (guys grill). I had to learn to cook as my mother was a bad cook and I've always lived alone - or with people who couldn't cook.

  2. Oh, Steve, how I wish I could have a chicken coop; it's been a life-long dream of mine. Somehow I don't think they (or my neighbors) would be too happy if I kept them on my tiny balcony. Maybe I could sneak in a live one every now and then, but I don't think I could keep it for long. Did you ever read that Garrison Keilor story about butchering chickens? It was an amazing story about in-town chicken preparation gone wrong. Hilarious. I'll have to dig it up.
    I often wonder why pastry chef is considered a more feminine occupation than chefs who prepare savory meals. Is it tied to our cultural associations with women and sweets?
    I've become a better cook in the last decade out of necessity, but I'd much rather bake a cake than make a meal, even though I would prefer to eat a fancy dinner than fill up on sweets. Go figure.

  3. I think making desserts is seen as delicate and artistic (they haven't seen mine!), where grilling is all open fire and slabs of meat. In my mind, baking is chemistry and cooking is alchemy - weird rules about what flavors and colors and textures go together.

    But now I have to ask about the yellow cannisters in the last photo. I have similar ones; one for flour, one for sugar and one that sits empty because I've never found out what goes there. I've been told it was meant for tea.

  4. You are correct. The canisters held (in order of size) flour, sugar, coffee and tea.

  5. Hi, If you have already added this link to your blogroll, you may have to do it again as some readers have been having issues due to the privacy setting on it. Adding it again should fix that.


    Formerly Hot Belly Mama

  6. Know anyone who's got a good recipe for Turkish Delight? I now have a weeping pile of goo that's been mocking me.

  7. Hey, Steve. I think I can track down a good recipe. Niek works with someone, who has brought in his homemade Turkish Delight before. I'll try to get a hold of this week for you so you no longer have to have the bad self-esteem that goes hand in hand with failed candy making attempts.

  8. Thanks! The recipe I used is apparently notorious for failure, but I thought I knew enough to avoid the problem. Obviously, my self-esteem was rather in need of deflating...

  9. Hi, I had to move my blog again so that I can have a new blog profile as well. I will be closing this blog profile down soon. So sorry for the confusion! Here is the link to the new one, just moved everything over today: