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Gender and Social Order in the Kitchen

 

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In modern times, it is naïve and antifeminist to think of the kitchen as a woman’s place. After all, women have equal opportunities in the workplace, and especially since the global economic slouch, there are more stay-at-home dads than ever before. However, despite the rise of gender equality and a shift in social order, chefing has not changed much. The kitchen at home is considered the domain of the woman, where domesticity, femininity, and motherhood are nurtured. Just think of memories of you cooking with your bubbe or mom growing up. On the contrary,  the professional kitchen still largely remains the place for a man to take over. After looking at the polarization of chefing versus cooking, and negotiations of credibility for who belongs and is entitled to which kitchen, I believe that recent changes in gender and social order in the kitchen and at home have not affected chefing in recent past.

One issue that affects chefing is credibility. Before the surge of interest in institutionalized chefing, professional chefs largely consisted of those who could “handle the heat” of the kitchen. This standard of credibility excludes women. Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, depicts this more than any “scholarly” piece I have read on the subject. While the professional kitchen is at times a place of experimenting and creativity, it is largely a battlefield where one has to keep fighting despite one’s wounds. Gail Simmons’ memoir, Talking With My Mouth Full, also expresses this sentiment—she once cut herself while cooking on the line and asked for a band-aid, only to be humiliated by a male co-worker for her request. Priscilla Ferguson and Gary Alan Fine’s article “Sociology at the Stove” points out that the kitchen staff is a brigade, and the language and management of the kitchen are much like those of an army. With these tough terms and brute mentality, it is no surprise that women are often uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unaccepted in the professional kitchen.

Although there are significantly more female chefs in the culinary industry than ever before, and the number is on the rise, chefing is still traditionally thought of as a male’s role, and in practice—particularly in kosher establishments—this remains the case. Thinking back to any experiences my family and I have had dining out for a Shabbat or yuntif meal over the past year, it is the expectation that the mother or daughters cooked the meal. In fact, if anyone from my family hears that the father cooked the meal, we are impressed and shower him and his wife with praise for having a husband so helpful. Whether the industry and our homes will always look like that is uncertain, but in my opinion, the “stigma” (or more appropriately, precedent) has not changed much: the man is a chef in a restaurant, and the woman is a cook at home. This is not to say that either one is being slighted, rather that this is my opinion of the current sociological breakdown of which gender dominates which kitchen.

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About Jessica Levenson

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Jessica is currently a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in religion, and actively involved in Jewish life on campus. She is from West Orange, NJ and attended Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School. Jess aspires to one day be a chef in Israel.

 

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One Response to Gender and Social Order in the Kitchen

  1. avatar says: Ali

    Nice article. Having worked in a professional kitchen, they are definitely male dominated. Anthony Bordain (I think it’s from his book) said that the kitchen is like a pirate ship, men cursing like sailors, showing off their tattoos and working with knives and fire. The time he wrote the book though, people could get away with a lot more “illegal” ways of treating people. My kitchen experience was great. Yes, I was the only Jew (in a kosher kitchen besides the mashgiach) and WOMAN in the kitchen, but besides for the usual crudeness of men, they treated and acted in a respectful manner. Kitchens are fast paced and in that case you have to make sure and build yourself up to “handle the heat” physically and emotionally.

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