Can I Love to Cook & Be a Feminist?
One lovely summer evening, I was preparing a buffet dinner with a friend at her place while simultaneously having a discussion on a non-related topic. In sharing my consistently feminist perspective on the topic, my friend’s husband could not stop himself from sharing unsolicited commentary.
“I do not see how you can enjoy cooking and at the same time consider yourself a feminist.”
I was flabbergasted and unsure of how to respond at that moment. His comment has since made me reflect on what it means for me to be a professional cook and a (nearly professional) feminist. And beyond that, I began to wonder how and why we perceive the action of cooking differently depending on gender.
My interest in cooking partially emerged from learning about the infinite amount of combinations and techniques that we can apply to our food. But mostly, it is my strong desire to connect with our natural world and the cultures that inhabit this planet that inspires my passion for cooking. When I think of action cooking–I think of creation, honoring, balance, nourishment, and care.
Unfortunately, these aspects are often missing in the professional gastronomic world. Here, cooking becomes a performance that clients pay for. And what shapes the professional kitchen standard? An atmosphere of masculinity. If you cannot keep up with the workflow, the professional kitchen is not your place. This may not be true everywhere, especially as workplace dynamics evolve, but it has often been a typical kitchen attitude.
Inequality in Gastronomy & Why We Need More Women Head Chefs
In 2018, I had my first professional kitchen experience in a well-known restaurant. It was then that I learned how to hold my ground in a male-dominated kitchen. Not only was the gendered division male-dominated, but the masculine spirit of performing, taking risks, and working fast was also the norm during most working shifts. When I attempted to implement some changes in the management of waste and water use. Practically nothing was recycled and at times, the tap would run unnecessarily. I received a friendly smile without further response.
It is hard to be an idealist in this world.
In most cultures and homes, women generally manage the task of food preparation. The long-standing sexual division of labor assigns most of the “caring” chores to women. These include cleaning, cooking, and in general, nourishing.
Aligned with this delegation of specific tasks between men and women, is the fact that patriarchy prefers to keep women inside the house walls. As such, we can conclude that ‘cooking women’ are to be kept in the private sphere.
However, when we look at the profession of cooking in the public sphere, we see what is consistent with many industries – a male-led and male-dominated gastronomic field. While there are differences between countries, the percentage of female head chefs as compared to male head chefs is generally 15 women to every 100 men.
Double the Burden, Decrease the Pay
As women began entering the labor market in recent decades, the concept of the “double burden” arose. Before, during, and after many women’s working day, a full list of chores awaits them at home. The unpaid chores of running a household–feeding the household, doing laundry, and cleaning, remain chores that women generally manage.
Interestingly, research shows that same-sex couples divide these tasks in a more equal manner compared to different-sex couples.
The concept of the double burden is one explanation for why there are so many more male head chefs in the restaurant industry. The profession is a very demanding job. It includes long working days and little time off during the weekends and nighttime.
And let’s not forget, of course, about unequal paid salaries based on gender, which is also accurate for this sector.
On top of all this, the professional gastronomic kitchen is rife with macho attitudes. It is hard for any person to survive a single day in a male-dominated kitchen without constant exposure to sexism, explicit dirty talk, and locker room-style jokes. Additionally, there is a common perception that women are not able to handle the physical workload or withstand the pressure in a space where a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality prevails.
So, in short, cooking at home is a woman’s task. Nourishing the family is a woman’s task. In the professional capitalistic world, men are more likely to dominate and earn more money by performing the same task. The difference? The masculine standard values their work differently and the patriarchal urge to keep women in the home. Does that sound about right?
Brewing an Ecofeminist Future
It’s 2022. We all know humanity is facing some immense challenges on top of gaining gender equality. Climate change, disease epidemics, and industrialized foods, to name a few, threaten a healthy and sustainable future for human beings and all species on earth. Perhaps, feminist and environmental discourses can complement and inform each other in their aim to offer solutions and change patterns.
Indeed, on its path toward equality and sustainability, ecofeminism addresses both threats. Ecofeminism sees the same dynamics happening in the capitalist exploitation of the natural world as in the exploitation of women within the patriarchal structure that keeps them from fully standing in their power, self-love, and strength.
Climate change seems to be the very obvious sign that our colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, and sexist society leads us to a path of decline. Studies show that we all benefit when women have the opportunity to thrive in business.
It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway–creating a society in which masculine and feminine energies are balanced in the homes, public spaces, and on the work floor, will make us thrive as planet earth as a whole.
Great potential lies in creating a more inclusive gastronomic field with equally paid salaries and a healthy, non-sexist workspace. Nonetheless, the work does not stop here. As long as we do not educate our children in a nonsexual/nongendered division of labor, the double burden for women will continue to be an obstacle for us to thrive in the public sphere. An equal division of household chores offers women more time, energy, and space to thrive professionally. Simultaneously, children that grow up in a space where tasks are not gendered, either to be completed by men or by women, will benefit our work towards equality in general.
And even more, a professional kitchen that embraces the existence of feminine characteristics is likely to invest time and attention in creating less waste, recycling, and turning off the damn tap when clean water is wasted for no reason. What it all comes down to is introducing feminine energy and balancing it with the masculine that prevails in most professional work environments around the world.
The Act of Nourishing Is an Act of Resistance
To anyone who, like my friend’s husband, believes that to be feminist means you must reject the act of cooking, I say this: Surprise! It is possible to enjoy the creation of nourishment and hold feminist beliefs about equality!
I believe in the power of cooking as a nourishing act of love. All our food comes from the earth. Our planet provides us nourishment, and as we cook, we combine and mix and heat and create something from ingredients and then share it with one another. We create with love from the earth and for one another. If we take this approach into the performance-driven, capitalistic gastronomic field, we may be able to tackle several of the big challenges that we face each day. (I know, it’s still hard to be an idealist.)
The more we realize how everything – the natural as well as the oppressive systemic one – is connected, the closer we might come to creating a new world of balance and equality.
Iris Dijkstra, of Aya Creative, is a multilingual, intersectional ecofeminist chef based between Amsterdam and Costa Rica, where she infuses all her interactions between humans, earth, and food with a lot of love, a pinch of spice, and plenty of fire.