Are we past the point where girls expect that they will grow up to cook for their households, and boys expect that girls will cook for them? I’d like to think so, but the thin online commentary on men’s skills in home kitchens suggests that young women don’t assume competence in male dates.
It’s true that most people, men and women, aren’t cooking enthusiasts, and therefore that it’s easy to exaggerate gender effects. Nevertheless past gender norms have long reaches, and the traditional assigning of kitchen duties to women has left any man in a delicious place if he really likes to make meals.
Men are so well served by skilled knifework and pan-handling that encouraging sons to pursue such accomplishments is one of the best ways, I think, in which parents can foster their thriving. The returns come in so many ways.
I’m not suggesting that boys should be badgered to cook. I am proposing that if a boy shows interest, many benefits may accrue from his exploring that interest. Especially if he gets started early (as I did).
There is, first, the ability to self-nourish, which is not a small thing.
Yes, on a hungry winter evening one can order online. Generally, it is a much more powerful exercise in self-care to prepare a minestrone soup from sauteed onion and garlic and celery, cubed potato, stewed tomato, carrot, capsicum, tinned beans, pasta, dried oregano, a stock-cube and water. And to serve it with crunchy fresh bread or toast, and possibly shaved reggiano.
You’re taking time for yourself. You’re learning. The result is more satisfying. You’ve spent very little. You’ll have soup pre-prepared for at least two more nights.
There is, second, the ability to nourish others, which is self-nourishing too.
People who cook for households have long understood that serving good food to one’s family is an end in itself: even taken for granted and left to clean up alone, it feels good to express love in this way.
Yes, unassisted it becomes a grind; unappreciated, it triggers resentment; demanded, it signifies disrespect. But in itself, it is still fun to do.
Men who cook are more likely than women to be helped and appreciated, and much less likely to experience rude demands for their services. In so far as they contribute at all, they are bucking tradition.
And so fellow members of a student household will applaud a young man’s simple provisioning of a communal dinner from gently steamed vegetables, steamed rice, and a pot of spicy sate sauce, made with sauteed garlic, fresh ginger, a little vinegar, peanut paste, water, and commercial sweet chilli sauce. Peer pressure on the diners to clear up will be powerful.
Relaxed and forgiving
There is, third, the ability to extend hospitality, frugally and self-sufficiently. And to generate from the hospitality a memorable social occasion.
Serving your guests something unusually toothsome sets a relaxed and forgiving tone for an evening: people take more risks in conversation, respond more generously, and express more vulnerability.
My thoughts on this are guided by the Oscar-winning movie Babette’s Feast, in which a grateful servant’s extraordinary catering thaws the grimly ascetic elders of an austere religious sect, dissolving grievances that had been harboured for decades.
My go-to entertaining dish right now for carnivores is coq-au-vin, a French tradition in which chicken pieces are stewed on the bone in a red-wine reduction. With boiled and browned potatoes, green beans, and a pool of that winy, garlicky, mushroomy, bacony, buttery sauce, it is a tongue-loosener par exellence.
I think that a gender element flavours such recipes, too. When entertaining at home, it may matter that a man has prepared the repast.
I connect this with the rarely articulated but widely held assumption that the domestic preparing of food is quintessentially a feminine art. A woman’s competence is no more to be remarked upon than one would remark on her expert use of eyeliner. Guests will express appreciation, but will not assume that their hostess has extended herself.
In contrast, a man is playing against type. That he nourishes his guests so delicately suggests that he thinks them extraordinarily worthy of his ministration.
Laws of attraction
Fourth, skill in the kitchen is a romantic asset for a man, much more than it is today in the West for a woman. Women of all ages value men who can cook, and value more those who can cook very well.
(Readers might educate me, in comments, about how this applies to men whose romantic orientation is firstly to men.)
Several elements are in play here. It’s a sign that he’s not looking for a mum substitute. It says he isn’t captured by oppressive tradition. It’s an indicator that he appreciates the value of traditionally feminine skills.
Then there is his ability to show care through his cooking. Expensive dinners out are nice. Delicious dinners at home speak to resourcefulness. There is the greater likelihood that these would persist. There is the possibility that the burdens and pleasures of entertaining might be evenly shared.
There is the demonstrating of accomplishment. How effective your date is at work you won’t know. But you can get a strong sense of his focus, creativity and timing when you sit down to his fresh salmon risotto – the bite-sized salmon pieces moist and barely poached, having been added with chopped broccolini to the soupy risotto after it’s removed from the heat. All whipped up in barely half an hour, and served with an acidic dry white.
The master is you
Here too there will be all the melting that was operating when Babette served her feast: the sense of special attention paid, pains taken, deep interest, and the irresistibly soothing effect of enduring and tangible pleasure.
Fifth and finally, there is the sense of mastery enjoyed by the experienced cook for its own sake.
A bad day at work, anxiety over an investment at risk, poor luck in love, a transfixing dilemma – none of these things has as much power to convince you that you’re a has-been, a loser, a dreamer, congenitally ugly, or perennially poor, when you can cook for yourself, and perhaps for a companion, something healthful and especially delicious.
You can compliment yourself on the speed of your chopping, admire your searing, reflect upon your expanded repertoire of sauces, notice how accurately you’ve presided over the heating of diverse ingredients combined in real time.
Even solo you can sample a master’s production. And you can remind yourself that the master is you.