Much has been said in recent years about the feminist question; about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, and especially about the anti-feminist connotation.
The pandemic brought on a bout of cleaning. You open the door of your one closet (closet space is at a premium in Brooklyn) and start flinging on the floor a shirt not worn in years, three pairs of trousers that don’t fit, the vintage coat never worn and that dress that has nowhere to go. In between making piles of these stay, this doesn’t, you find a book of recipes purchased when on a fierce campaign to become a cross between Nigella Lawson and Carmen Aboy Valldejuli, with a touch of Julia Child.
The book was bought before the pandemic hit and locked us all up. It hasn’t been read during the long hours of 2020, so it will probably not be read or used at all. And this gets one to thinking: why this quest to be a great cook, to be the next Barefoot Contessa, or Laura Esquivel?
This, on top of everything we do? It begs the question: Is cooking anti-feminist?
For women, food ends up being a political subject. Hillary Clinton learned that the hard way in 1992 when she said — “I suppose I could have stayed home [and] baked cookies” and had hell to pay for it.
Women, and especially working women, are still expected to take on the bulk of the housework. One comes home after winning a major case in court or heading a newsroom to wrestle with a Julia Child recipe, all the while muttering awful things about Julia under one’s breath. Roasting a chicken is not my idea of a wonderful ending to a busy day.
Then why do we do it? Is it eons of training that women can only show their nurturing through cherry pies and casseroles? Is it true that one must win a man through a platter of engagement chicken?
We were told growing up (and I believe other Hispanic women can relate) that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Put a bit more eloquently, here you have a case in point:
“A woman who knows how to compose a soup or a salad that is perfectly harmonious in flavour ought to be clever at mixing together the sweet and harsh elements of a man’s character, and she will understand how to charm and keep forever her husband’s heart and soul.” Berjane, ‘French Dishes for English Tables’ (1931)
The writer Nora Ephron stated that “whenever I get married, I start buying Gourmet magazine.” I can assure you, I didn’t. I was far too busy jumping off helicopters in war zones. I was a huge disappointment, in that department, to the women in my family.
My grandmother was an amazing cook, an army of pots and pans going at the same time, meat sizzling and white rice simmering away. She was the Generalissimo of her kitchen, a stained, dog-eared copy of Cocina Criolla by Dona Carmen Aboy Valldejuli always by her side.
My Mum was also a great cook and seemed to do it all by instinct. It was in her DNA, passed on by my grandmother and all the other women that came before. These women took pride in their cooking and expressed their love via a plate of rice and beans, fried plantains, and sweet mango slices.
I have always seen the kitchen as a sort of a dungeon and relate to the words written by Laura Esquivel in Like Water for Chocolate — “The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop.”
Cooking makes me cry, maybe because I am not very good at it and it makes me feel like I am not complete as a woman. And one tries. If my friends saw me with this red apron stamped with apples, wooden spoon in hand, arguing with Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking, they would be shocked.
Did you know it took 50 years to translate that cookbook to Spanish? It’s prologue states that women will not find a better antidote to the rush of the day than taking a quiet look at its pages. Hmmm.
So let’s do that.
Ingredients: roast boneless pork, baked in salt for several hours, if you want. Twelve to 18 white onions of one to one and a half inches in diameter peeled, 12 to 18 small new potatoes peeled and cut into ovals of one and a half inches. Salt and pepper. A founded iron saucepan. Two tablespoons of oil or oil extracted. Julia says that “onions and potatoes absorb a distinctive flavor when they cook with pork in this manner.” And this is just the beginning.
Buy the meat the night before and marinate it with what she calls Marinade Seche — a tablespoon of salt, 1/8 of fresh pepper, 1/4 of thyme or sage, 1/8 of bay leaves, a pinch of all species. Half a garlic — optional. Place it inside the refrigerator. We’re doing fine. Roti by Porc Grand’ Mere — just simply a pork roast with potatoes and onions. How hard can it be?
Well, I’ll tell you, cooking a Julia Child recipe is like running a marathon. It’s like nailing yourself to a culinary cross. It’s work. And this was one of the easiest recipes in the book. Julia was a strong woman and she didn’t panic or get tired.
But we do — it’s enough. I follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s codicil: Those invited to the White House quickly learned a vital rule: eat before you go.
So I leave you with this question: Is cooking anti-feminist? Discuss.