16 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 2 (#365FeministSelfie 2)

#365FeministSelfie, August 26
Banana muffin for my son's birthday
celebration at school
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure.

Second in my #365FeministSelfie series 

I grew up with three main parental figures in my life: my mother, my father, and my paternal grandmother. Their stories illustrate three very different narratives of gender and cooking. 

My grandmother cared for me nearly every day after school and many weekends. In Armenian culture in general and for my grandmother specifically, food held a central place. She turned out traditional Armenian dishes—tas kebab, kefta, dolma, yalanchi—dishes that could take all day to prepare, without even calculating in the time to grocery shop and clean up. She also made decent American fare: spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken marinated in red wine, garlic, and a little brown sugar. 

Both of my parents could count on her to feed me if they were unable to pick me up before dinnertime. She would call me to the table; when I lagged, she would inevitably chastise in her Long Island accent, “Anoosh, it’s gettin’ cold!” Obviously, my grandmother could cook like this, and care for me, because she was a housewife. For her, this represented a step up from her pre-married life, when she worked to support her parents and younger brother during the Depression and World War II. 

My mother, on the other hand, held a full-time job as a middle- and high school teacher at a K–12 private school. On the nights she fed me dinner, we ate primarily what I call insta-food: buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken, packets of ramen embellished with chopped scallions and cubed spam, frozen fish fingers. I remember my mother saying to me once with irritation that when she was married to my dad, he expected her to put on dinner parties. As with many second wave feminists, my mother embraced the life of a professional at the same time she rejected the foremost task of the domestic: cooking. 

My father, on the other hand, had a reverse experience. Naturally, he had expected to lead a professional life. He had not, however, expected to find himself the sole caretaker of his child for half of every week. Raised on my grandmother’s cooking, he felt obligated as a parent to provide home-cooked meals. At a time when men were being encouraged to “embrace their feminine side,” my dad decided to learn how to cook. On weekends and when I was with my mother, he would put on an apron and cook up giant pots of staples like spaghetti sauce, black bean soup (a dish he’d eaten while in Peace Corps in Costa Rica), tas kebab, and adobo (a Filipino tradition from my mother’s family) and store portions in the chest freezer he kept in the basement. (He learned this from my grandmother, who likewise had a second freezer built like the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Dinners at my dad’s were always a complete meal: protein, starch, and a vegetable. 

When I reached high school, my dad made a new household rule: whoever cooked, the other person had to clean up. I had never felt particularly drawn to cooking, but I knew which side of that equation I wanted to be on. I pulled down cookbooks from the shelf over the telephone and started searching for easy recipes. 

And I liked it. 

Cooking took thought, but in a different way from, for example, writing an essay for an Advanced Placement course. I had the satisfaction of accomplishing something material, but without the drudgery and dirt of other types of housework. Cooking could be artistic, both in flavor and in visual appeal. It could be improvisational and experimental. And it created connection, whether it was simply a shared meal with my dad, or a batch of cookies that I gave out to friends. 

#365FeministSelfie, February 3
Making quiche, a recipe
my friend Zara gave me
The act of cooking itself created connection, too. I might spend a Saturday afternoon with my grandma as she baked a batch of churag, a kind of sweetened bread. Many recipes for churag exist, but my grandmother’s recipe was specific to her origins in Marzevan, a town near the Black Sea. Although she grew up in Istanbul, her family kept their country recipes. As we braided dough, she would tell me about her years in the orphanage after her family migrated to the United States to escape the Armenian Massacre, or her cross-country bus trip to California, or her journey to become an artist. Cooking was both the opportunity and the vector to pass down family history. 

As I’ve recounted before, my mother and I had a fractured relationship during my childhood (better now). Some of my best memories, little islands of ideal mother-daughter moments, are baking with her, the one cooking activity she seemed to enjoy. Every aspect of sifting flour—the click-click-click rhythm of the handle, the sight of flour piling up in a drift, the dusty itch in my nose, and the anticipation of cake—is suffused with feelings of love and comfort. 

I can’t help but want to pass this down to my own children. 

Cooking is a microcosm of my family’s dynamics. It promotes tolerance of difference, because my husband is vegetarian and I am not. It embodies my family history through smell and taste. It retains the identity and memory of my immigrant origins. It symbolizes our togetherness and our cohesion as a family, not only when we sit down together to a meal, but also as we assemble it together, sometimes with a lemon from our tree or tomatoes from our garden. 

It can also provide a platform for strife, which is still a part of family life. Sometimes I want my kids to help, and they don’t want to. Sometimes they want to help, and I just want to make a meal in peace, alone. Sometimes I create a dish with love and devotion, and they just don’t like it. 

On the other hand, I have those times when my son says, “Thank you, Mama, for making a yummy dinner!” 

I persist in the face of my children’s disapprobation of my cooking because I want them to know that if you live a rich and varied life, you aren’t going to like everything. 

When I lived in Senegal, I ate some things that I did not care for: a slimy okra-based dish called suppu kànja, dried sea snails called yéet. In Fiji, I downed some chicken livers that not even cumin, coriander, and turmeric could make palatable for me. These were meals I ate in people’s houses, people who were not rich by the standards of their own countries, much less ours. The women prepared food for me with kindness and generosity, and yes, it took them hours to make, and to turn up my nose at it would have been the pinnacle of ingratitude. (These dishes were the exceptions—in the main, I love Senegalese, Fijian, and Indo-Fijian cuisine.) 

The first time I tried bitter melon at my great-aunt’s house in Hawai’i, I didn’t like that, either. Everyone laughed as my mouth puckered and my eyes started to water. When I was served bitter melon in Fiji, I was prepared for it, and I started to acquire a taste for it. Eventually, I learned how to prepare it myself, and I found a recipe for it I like. (My husband is still resisting its charms, however.) 

Cooking is not just about feeding the body. Food is heritage, tradition, family lore. It holds valuable knowledge about plant variety, preparation, and use. Our farms are becoming vast corporations; our fields are becoming monocultures. Do we want the same to happen to our kitchens and our bellies and our palates? 

I feel very lucky to live in a city where I can find nearly every ingredient that I can imagine to cook with: grape leaves for dolma and yalanchis, bitter melon for ginisang ampalaya, epazote for beans, cassava for Fijian pudding and West African stews. I can’t find these in my local supermarket, but instead must go to “ethnic” groceries and farmers markets. The simple act of food shopping ties me into the specificity of my place: people, communities, traditions, and economic networks that are marginalized yet still so central to what makes Los Angeles, Los Angeles. 

And so I choose to keep cooking. But for many mothers, to cook or not to cook is not a choice they can make, but a decision bounded on many sides by traditional sex roles, economic pressures, food insecurity, and poor urban planning. In Part 3, I address the authors argument point by point and examine some of the structural barriers to cooking, as well as some of the ways parents are trying to reconfigure domesticity to be more gender equal.


  1. Nice post, Anoosh! I think cooking is only anti-feminist when the woman is forced to do it by societal expectations and doesn't like it. For example, I love cooking but don't think it's antifeminist... hate cleaning though... go figure :D My mother was a working mom too. But in communist times, she used to cook, bake, make bread brioches, croissants, you name it she made it... and at time when there was hardly anything in the stores. My father expected her to cook and she did. But then they went to Germany. My father saw all the produce and also learned to cook. He is now the main cook of the family and my mom hardly ever cooks unless my father is away. She figured, why do I have to cook when I can buy everything? My father thinks, I can buy everything, I can learn to cook! Also, he is more like you, when he cooks he sees the effects it has on the family: the smells, the taste, the presentation etc. In his work as a theoretical physicist he doesn't get to do much with his hands. Thank you for writing. Another thing is whether for example cleaning is anti feminist. A friend once argued that not having a cleaner and doing it yourself is feminist because you don't care about a perfect house, defy societal pressures to always have a clean house (which you can't have when you do it yourself, especially with children) and feel empowered by doing it yourself. But there are many ways of feminism, and I feel that the current one just takes the oposite of what the first wave said and considers that feminist. I see that in birth a lot: when the first wave either ignored birth or argued for hospital births and pain relief, contemporary feminist say that natural birth, and especially homebirth is feminist and empowering and in the same way, they seem to think that whatever you do yourself is empowering. Personally, I thin they're wrong...but it's sometimes confusing what is feminist and what isn't.

    1. Hi, Olga! You hit on a key idea: a specific action can be feminist or anti-feminist, depending on several contextual factors. What I do think is anti-feminist is to make a blanket statement about how it "should" be, especially without knowing how class, race, sexuality, etc. play out in other women's lives. It's also true that waves of feminism benefit yet also react to what has come before. My mother's feminist choice to opt out of cooking that she didn't enjoy also propelled my father to make a feminist choice to learn how to cook. He and his wife now take turns cooking dinner, which was not the case when my parents were married!

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