I wasn’t dreading going home for dinner, but I wasn’t exactly relishing the prospect either. Going to the parents’ for dinner is usually comfort food heaven: proper old school roasts with all the trimmings, or a hearty casserole that hugs you from the inside; & always seconds or even thirds of pudding. But today Dad was cooking!
Mum had broken her arm & so Dad had been drafted into the kitchen. I’m not sure whether he received a guided tour, a health & safety induction, or even a map to the kitchen; but it was certainly unfamiliar territory for my old man. Occasionally, Dad would have to cook for my brothers & I when we were kids & we knew that meant only one thing: baked beans on potato waffles, maybe with some bacon if he was really pushing the boat out. The thought that my dad went nearly sixty years without ever properly cooking somewhat horrifies me. Of course, he was a product of his time. Today’s modern man would never get away with such surreptitious shirking from the stove would he?
It’s certainly true that in the age of celebrity chefs & ubiquitous TV cooking competitions it’s far more normal to see a man in the kitchen. Most fellas can happily knock together a spag bol or chicken fajitas when required. Yet, I’d argue that there’s still a distinct gender division in daily household cooking. This disparity can be represented by two cooking vessels: the barbecue & the casserole.
Men love to barbecue. Every June or July, as soon as the sun promises to keep long evenings warm a very midsummer madness descends & men who have barely buttered a slice of toast all winter are lost within a fug of smoke around the barbecue. Suddenly, cooking becomes a macho, carnivorous activity to be done with a beer in hand. Whilst the sun shines, cooking is a man’s job. What is it about cooking outside over a naked flame that entices man out of his culinary apathy? Is it a primeval instinct, some genetic hardwiring to hunt, make fire & provide; or is it collusion with a long-enduring narrative of power? Man cooks when he wants, when it suits him, when there’s prestige in it. Even as Jamie’s disciples move from the barbecue into the kitchen, climbing the culinary ladder to experiment with beef rending & pad Thai; men still tend to cook to show off. We do the glamour cooking, the Friday night dinner party or the Sunday morning pancakes.
But when it comes to 6pm on a Wednesday evening, in most households, it’s still the woman who knows what’s in the fridge, who throws down her handbag, kicks off her shoes & wanders across to the stove. And sometimes, if the man is lucky, she might pull down the well-worn stoneware casserole & put on a stew. The casserole is slow & unglamorous. There are no flambés. There’s no need for gadgets. The casserole is hearty, nourishing & economical. It will often produce enough for tomorrow as well & it even tastes better the next day. It represents feminine cooking in that it’s no-nonsense, practical & everyday. Whilst our Jamie Oliver inspired men may break out into the kitchen on a Friday night to play Masterchef, it’s largely down to the women to reliably put dinner on the table day in & day out. Despite our pretences to domestic equality, it is often women who do the shopping, plan the meals & run the home.
Research suggests that 8 out of 10 married women do more household chores than their spouse & 70% of all housework done in the homes of cohabiting couples is done by women.
Ironically, the word we have for wisely using what you have & managing the household economy well is husbandry. Wives make better husbands. So what does all this matter anyway? Shouldn’t we be celebrating man’s greater involvement in the kitchen, even if it is limited to weekend glamour cooking? Yes, but it’s not enough. In previous generations women would often stay at home with the arrival of children. It was a logical division of labour for the woman to cook at home whilst the man was out working in paid employment. But now that both men & women often work, why should it still be the woman who comes home to the responsibility of putting dinner on the table? This doesn’t seem fair, and too often it can lead to the preparation of mid-week dinners becoming a laborious chore to be endured or avoided via microwave dinners & take-aways.
If the responsibility for preparing meals was shared, perhaps we would have more time to cook nutritious meals properly & share them around the dinner table. Perhaps us men could take pride in a quick mid-week veg curry that’s tasty, cheap & gives others time to relax after a hard day at work too. The barbecue’s fun, but the casserole is indispensable. Reassuringly, it’s never too late to start. That fateful night at my parents’ house; despite nearly sixty years of kitchen avoidance, my Dad, under the careful tutelage of my Mum, made a dinner that was comforting, nostalgia-inducing & delicious. He brought a casserole to the table. Newsflash! I’ve just spoken to my Dad on the phone. This evening he is cooking, from a step-by-step recipe kit, pork & apple sausages on polenta with a blue cheese sauce. Wow, if only I lived close enough to pop over!
10 Days to Go until Chef Tim Hirst kindly hosts a Dwell Dinner at Fusion Sheffield where we will screen our #NametheAbuse videos.