In the exasperated moment when that, yes, admittedly sexist, sentence came out of my mouth, everything changed for me.
“Why can’t women cook anymore!?”
Please go easy on me. I know that the above quote will make a lot of folks uncomfortable, and probably for a good reason, but I ask you to stick with me for a minute. In the exasperated moment when this, yes, admittedly sexist, sentence came out of my mouth, everything changed for me. It was truly my light bulb moment, and one that has led me down a path of exploring male identity, mine and males in general, in this modern, post-feminist world.
Several years ago, I was producing a television show in Atlanta and was working on a segment with a local chef. The piece included “sourcing” ingredients from a seafood distributor, followed by a cooking segment. We procured, cooked, filmed, wrote, and edited the segment and I turned it in for broadcast. When the air-date neared, I invited the chef over to my home for dinner and to watch the show, a tradition that I had always tried to start with anyone whom I’d profiled, but no one had ever taken me up on, either for geographical reasons or lack of interest. This time, the chef accepted. As I hung up the phone, the reality set in, “Did I just invite one of the best chefs in Atlanta over for dinner and did I actually tell him that I would cook?”
I really enjoy cooking and have been doing it most of my life. As I talk about in my Good Men Project piece “My Mother’s Counter,” from a very early age my mom had me in the kitchen with her as she prepared our daily meals. First, I was merely there to keep her company, but quickly I became a sous chef, and eventually the tables turned, and I took on most of the cooking duties.
I experimented with recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetite; voraciously watched Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on television; and by 14, I could cook a pretty decent Coq Au Vin or Chicken Cordon Bleu. My parents even had me “cater” their dinner parties of 10 to 12 people. During college, I made an incredible venison chili, if I do say so myself. My roommate hunted on the weekends and we were the lucky recipients of his efforts. After college, with my own kitchen, my desire to improve my culinary skills became more focused, my friends encouraged my efforts, and soon I was hosting regular dinner parties.
Still, despite some level of confidence in my cooking and my friends positive comments, cooking for a chef was a whole different kettle of fish, if you’ll forgive the pun. Though he kindly softened my anxiety by saying, “No one ever invites me over for dinner. It’s the curse of being a chef,” my nerves were still building.
What I thought would be a dinner of 8-10, became a party of 40. The company featured in our episode generously offered to send a bounty of seafood the day of my party, but they could not tell me in advance what would be included. So, I shopped, prepared, channeled Iron Chef, and braced myself.
As my guests began to arrive and the wine began to flow, a festive atmosphere took hold. At least, it took hold of every one but me. I tried to conceal the sweat dripping from my brow, as I cooked in a blur. I can’t remember the menu anymore. I think there was fish and shrimp on the grill, a ceviche, and a risotto. I’m pretty sure there were even vegetables.
Looking out at the party from inside the kitchen, I surveyed my friends with pride. I’d known most of the guests since we were teenagers starting college. Now, we were successful men and women, working in interesting jobs and engaging in lively conversations about current events, politics, and society. Several women joined me at the counter where I was cooking. This was an accomplished bunch and if they represented what our generation had to offer, the nation was in good hands. Should I sever a limb (a distinct possibility as I nervously chopped veggies), or need a lawyer (if I slipped and chopped someone else’s finger off), I would be able to find help in an instant. But at that moment, the help I needed was someone to deglaze a pan and check that the risotto wasn’t overcooking.
I looked around for help and my eyes landed on one of my oldest friends in the room. She caught my glance and as I tried to telepathically communicate my rapid descent into the weeds and need for her assistance, my friend looked at me expectantly for a moment as well. Finally, she held up her empty wine glass and, rather impatiently, asked for a refill.
And that’s when it happened. Exasperated and overwhelmed I blurted out the line that would guide my path for years to come. “WHY CAN’T WOMEN COOK ANYMORE?”
The moment of stress passed; dinner was a success, even the guest of honor, the chef, was effusive in his compliments; and we all cheered as my episode aired on TV.
Later, I thought about that moment, and my emotional outburst. I don’t really care if women cook or not. Sure I needed help in that moment, but in retrospect, it was really a moment of realization for me about how the world was evolving and how mine already had.
I was born in 1973, 10 years after the publication of The Feminist Mystique and have been around and attracted to strong women all my life. My mother and her group of feminists friends raised me; early exposure to artists like Lynda Benglis left me curious about the female voice in art; and working on a program at CNN on the playwright Eve Ensler and her work The Vagina Monologues, awakened an interest in the political power of women. I soon came to realize that women were the role models I was looking towards to both guide me, but also change the world. Women’s leadership, and how it differs from male leadership is a heated question and one without simple answers, but one that is endlessly fascinating to me.
In the years since that dinner party, my interest in feminism, and specifically the roles of men and women, how they’re changing and how they’re staying the same, has evolved from a curiosity to a mission. I became an insatiable consumer of the writing surrounding the topic. I read the classics from Betty Friedan to Mary Daly to Andrea Dworkin; I read the newer voices in the movement from Naomi Wolf to Inga Muscio; friends and family began to send me articles and research they’d read.
Over time, my life changed dramatically. The job at CNN went away, as did my life in Atlanta. I moved to San Francisco, then Los Angeles, and finally New York in an effort to rebuild my career and my interest in gender roles took a backseat to my practical concerns of making a living and a life. Still, I never lost interest in how male and female voices came together in harmony or clashed in tone. I watched politicians of both genders making decisions and wondered if they were reflections of a changing society or just politics as usual. Over cocktails, I would challenge my friends to question their behavior and that of those around them through the filter of feminism. Late one night, down an internet rabbit hole, I discovered a personal theme song, jazz singer Ethel Ennis’s “If Women Ruled the World.”
A few years ago, I took a job in a field dominated by women. It was an unexpected career turn for me, but one that had offered me endless satisfaction. With my professional life back on track, I once again found myself obsessively exploring the world of men and women. Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men statistically illustrated the shifts in gender politics and economics. An explosion of articles and websites, including Good Men Project, confirmed my suspicion that I’m not the only man (or indeed, person) exploring what his role may be within this changing landscape.
I know don’t want to ever go back to a world with defined gender roles, where I’m expected to hunt and gather, while women are home changing diapers and preparing my martini, but at least I would like to know what is expected of me (hunt and gather, do the dishes, or both?).
After constantly engaging, and sometimes boring, my friends for years on the topic, I finally felt the need to take the conversation to a wider space. With a background in television, I immediately wanted to create a documentary or even a series of them. As an unrepentant storyteller, my friends encouraged me to write a book. I thought about exploring a possible male response to feminist art in a series of photographs and paintings.
Ultimately, I just wanted to have the conversation in whatever way I could so I turned the the most immediate of mediums — the internet. When I started my website devoted to exploring these thoughts, I knew instantly what I wanted to call it. WhyCantWomenCookAnymore.com launched in February, 2012, several years after that fateful dinner party. I’m not sure what I can add to the conversation, but what I do know, with every bit of myself, is that we need to have a conversation. It’s the only way we’ll be able to get the help we need in the kitchen, a full glass of wine, and a better world all around.
Photo credit: Flickr/thefoodplace.co.uk