My daughter-in-law, Wendy, brought to my attention a Vagabomb article about the acclaimed Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on how to raise a feminist daughter. Wendy and Mike, her husband and our son, are the proud parents of a seven-week old baby girl, and it’s none too soon to start thinking about such things.
One line in particular jumped out. Adichie said: “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.”
I was a proud grandpa. Earlier in the day, our daughter had posted a pic of our two oldest grandsons. She and her hubby had just taken the boys to a cooking class sponsored by a local grocery store:
It wasn’t a one-off either. It’s something they’ve been doing for quite a while. Both Mom and Dad cook, and they’ve always indulged the boys’ cooking impulses, even when it’s wound up creating more work than it’s been worth.
It’s also been a family tradition. Our daughter is a very organized cook. She’s the one who will track down recipes, follow them, and use the weekend to prep meals for the work week ahead. But our three sons are good cooks in their own right. Mike, the California son, is most apt to work the fresh & local route, especially in Mexican dishes. Greg, the world traveler and vegetarian, specializes in Indian and Middle-Eastern dishes. Nick loves homestyle dishes. He also has a garden, and keeps me supplied with collard greens, zucchini, tomatoes, hot peppers, herbs, and other fresh produce. We raised our sons, both by precept and modeling, that it’s perfectly “normal” for men to cook.
Of course, Adichie was speaking of cooking as just one example of a larger point: Daughters should be taught “to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms.”
We have talked before about the idea that African Americans are somehow “born to cook”. There isn’t a “cooking gene” for people of African descent any more than, as Adichie put it, cooking knowledge for women comes pre-installed in the vagina. There are logical historical reasons why African American cooks may have been more adept at seasoning dishes than their English and Scottish counterparts, and in the largely pre-literate world of cooking, such skills would have been passed down through the generations.
But the stereotype was also used maliciously to restrict employment opportunities and reinforce the notion that black Americans existed to serve white Americans, just as the stereotype that a woman’s place is in the kitchen was used to keep women in a subservient role, and away from the paid workforce, and is still used to leave working women with an unfair portion of the housework.
Traditionally, cooking was brutal, dangerous work. There’s a reason that families of means hired servants to do it, and why, in other circumstances, it fell to enslaved workers. But in modern America, food is comparatively cheap, easily accessible, and our technology makes it far easier to cook it up. Cooking no longer has to be pure drudgery. As the success of entertainment ventures like the Food Network prove, cooking can be satisfying, fun, a creative outlet, and can even become a hobby.
At that point, good parents will make sure that their children, boys and girls alike, will have opportunities to learn to cook for themselves. Not being reliant on an endless, expensive, and not-altogether healthy diet of fast food and restaurant dishes is just as important to survival in the modern world as learning hunting skills and baking bread was in the ancient world.
It’s also one element in putting men and women on a more equal footing.