Thursday, February 27, 2014

On cooking, gender-roles, and the language of love

My first few days of marriage are a blurry haze in some ways, but I'll never forget the day my mother-in-law told me to get dressed for visitors coming to meet me, the new bride. I remember putting on the sky blue salwar kamiz with the beaded sequins along the edges. I remember following my mother's admonition, that new brides wore makeup and dutifully applied lipstick and mascara. Earrings and gold necklace, check, I headed downstairs to greet the visitors. I remember sitting down next to my mother in-law. I remember putting on my best smile. And I remember the first question the Auntie asked.

Do you know how to cook?

I panicked. Not wanting to lie, but not wanting to embarrass myself and my new mother-in-law, I nodded a hesitant yes. 

Auntie's eyes narrowed. Perhaps she sensed my hesitation. Leaning forward, she tilted her head, and asked the question I hoped she wouldn't: What can you cook? What's your specialty?

Fairly certain she wouldn't be impressed by the water I once boiled or the eggs I'd occasionally fried [and burned] I turned my attention to the blue lace embroidery of my kamiz and wished I could click my feet together like Dorothy in her red shoes and transport as far from there as I could possibly be.

They'll learn, my mother-in-law interjected. They'll figure it out in their own time.

A lot has changed since that terrified afternoon sitting on my in-law's couch. I've gone from bewildered by a cooking spoon, to owning more than any person reasonably should have. I covet cookbooks, and research and compose recipes with the intensity of putting together a law review paper. In making food for my family, I find joy and an outlet for creativity in a daily task.

I hadn't thought of Auntie in a long time until I recently read the news of Fatima Ali, the first Pakistani, and female to boot, to make it to the top ranks of NYC chefs. Reading this news, I paused, feeling an emotion bubbling in me. On one hand, cooking is woman's work. On the other hand, women are not given the same respect for this task as men who cook do.. Peek into the top restaurant kitchens in the world, the chefs are overwhelmingly male. Women winning Top Chef is news. A Pakistani woman cooking for a top restaurant makes international headlines.

Perhaps it's prevalent in all cultures, but most certainly it is in mine: women cook. Men don't. The raised eyebrows when my son got a toy kitchen for his birthday belies that ingrained assumption despite the gender inequalities favoring men in the professional cooking world. Don't get me wrong: I embrace my home-cook status but cooking is my choice. While K loves that I cook for the family, he does not expect it and didn't complain the three years in law school when frozen food and take-out where the prime course du jour. Cooking is my pleasure. I love it. It brings me joy. And frankly, as the person home with the kids I consider it part-and-parcel of the deal. And yet, to the outside world its my gender role. It's what I must do. And it's not limited to just women who are home. Be she a doctor or a world-traveling journalist, I've heard the remark more often than I can count but can she cook? And if she can? It's not necessarily respected, it's expected.

It's been many years since my living room interrogation, but every now and then, I think of Auntie. She didn't mean harm. Perhaps she was simply trying to spark conversation. Perhaps it never crossed her mind that a girl might not know her teaspoon from her tablespoon. I don't have a daughter. I have sons. They sit on the counter next to me. They crack eggs, and sift flour, and remind me to preheat the oven. If I ever had a daughter, I imagine she'd be joining her brothers in the measuring and mixing and baking. But not because she's a girl. But because its the joy of her mother to teach her children cooking. I will not be teaching her because it's her duty. I will not be teaching her because she's less of a woman for not making meals. I will teach her because cooking is my daily love letter to my family, and because I hope both she and my sons will take with them these meals I teach them and pass them on to their own families one day carrying on this tradition of cooking and sharing my language of love.

6 comments:

Susan Jett said...

This is really interesting! I love reading about how people develop a "personal relationship with the food they eat" I grew up in a family where my dad was far & away the most active, interested cook. To this day, it's cooking with my dad that I remember. And I do love cooking, though it took me a long time to really embrace that about myself--I think I internalized a lot of "women cooking = oppression" stuff that was so prevalent when I was in school, even though I learned from a man.

And my favorite meals are ones that I cooked with my dad, and yes, I dearly hope that Henry takes some of his favorite meals with him when he leaves my house to form his own home--the thought of recipes and favorite foods carrying our love with them through generations is one that's dear to my heart.

Wendy said...

Lovely essay. I have two boys as well. I'm not the cook in the family. I can DO it, but my husband is better at it -- faster, probably more skilled, certainly more enthusiastic. He's also a stay-at-home dad. But this weekend I had a plan to show my boys how to make homemade noodles. I thought they would love rolling the dough out with the rolling pin. For me the push to teach them to cook is self-sufficiency. I want them to choose mates for the right reasons -- not because they are afraid to be alone or can't care for themselves. (Secondary to that, of course, is I also don't want them to see cooking as "women's work," but since their dad is the cook of the family I don't have to work too hard at it.)

Tracy / Latinaish.com said...

This is one of my favorite posts by you, Aisha - so many great quotable lines.

It's so true. We're expected to cook but not respected for the skill (a skill EVERYONE should learn because your very survival depends on it.)

As you know, my MIL used to make comments when the boys helped in the kitchen and I'd remind her that the top chefs in the world were all men. She would just sniff --- no witty comment to give, but I never thought about how unfair it is that all the top chefs are men, when surely there are millions of anonymous women out there who can perform on the same level - fancy Parisian cooking school or not. I think that's one reason I like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmerman - they seek out just "regular" home cooks around the world (many times they're women) and praise their authentic dishes as "the real deal."

Aisha said...

Thanks for sharing your POV Susan, it's important for me to realize that its not just a my culture thing but transcends cultures. H is going to be so lucky to know all he does!

Thank you Wendy for sharing your POV and what an important point! Self-sufficiency is so important. Lucky them to learn homemade noodles soon! And lucky you that your spouse loves to cook! :)

Tracy, Aw thanks!!!! I was just watching Bourdain today and he was doing just this, seeking out home cooks-- its just annoying the disparate treatment of mena nd women in the cooking world, and the perceptions at home. But one day, one son at a time, this will change :)

Fatima Siwaju said...

Beautifully written. I really do love your work!

Autumn said...

Beautiful.

Post a Comment

I love to hear from you!