Dogs, Boys and Cooking
A few years ago, a friend alerted me to a contest. I could submit a photo of my child to the Nestlé company and, if chosen, they would create a children’s cookbook with the image of my child on the cover. The problem at the time was that I did not have any children.
In the throes of IVF, I was flustered and frustrated in so many ways. It seemed like the church didn’t want me because I didn’t have children. It seemed like I didn’t have anything to speak to anyone about –in or out of the church- because I didn’t have a child as an icebreaker. Better still, I didn’t have children of common age to even make small talk to try to make a new friend. And now….. even multi-national chocolate companies seemed to be conspiring against me!
So I did what all flustered and frustrated women do: I submitted a photo of my dog to Nestlé. My dog was like my child, after all, and Nestlé makes sweetened condensed milk, powdered milk and other baking items (as dogs are not supposed to have chocolate). He travelled with me sometimes to go to the IVF prep appointments, and I snuggled with him and cuddled him as though he was my child. When I baked cookies, because he was a Labrador, as well as being my baby at the time, he would presume some were for him and occasionally help himself to an unattended plate. One Christmas, as I left the kitchen for a moment, leaving 6 gingerbread men cooling on wire racks, to return to none! My dog’s eyes and wagging tail declared it a Christmas miracle! So did I. Seriously. It wasn’t like I was going to get them back.
And- speaking of miracles….. my dog’s image was chosen! (God bless the Australian sense of humour!) I laughed so hard that I cried, and the friend who had told me about the competition declared that she had a new favouite cookbook! It was an all-around win. That Christmas, we arranged to send copies of this small cookbook to most of our friends.
Most people were as amused as we were with the image of our dog gracing the cover of a dessert cookbook. One woman was flustered and seemed confused that they had chosen my dog, but the recipes weren’t mine… and the recipes were for people- not dog recipes. But, interestingly…. people with sons thanked us because their sons liked cooking, but most children’s cookbooks were aimed at girls. This was a surprise to me, but something I grew increasingly aware of as time passed. Even when the children’s cookbook covers are ambiguous, often images inside included smiling mothers and daughters… and the occasional apron-adored boy with a burger flipper.
The dog on the front of a cookbook made the book appeal to the daughters— and sons of our friends. Their boys wanted to learn to cook, they told us, but they also already felt pressure to be …manly. And confectionery-coloured cookbooks did not work for that, even if the occasional cookbook had a boy in a blue apron.
As a student of masculinity studies, I found this interesting. One argument that anti-feminists have is that men will become obsolete if women do everything. It’s a ridiculous argument, but one that reinforces a simplified theme in masculinity studies: what are we teaching boys about how to be men? When we teach boys that they have to go on missions to fulfill what God wants, then they do their best to go on missions. When we tell boys that women’s bodies are made for motherhood, then they see women as mothers. When we tell boys that “immodestly dressed” girls will sexually entice them, then they learn that it is okay to objectify women based on appearance. Often, it is the little messages that we send to boys, as much as it is the messages that we send to girls that cause such disharmony, bias, and developmental segregation.
Back to food: When my husband and I were newlyweds, he enrolled in a cooking class. It was called “Cooking for Blokes.” (Yes, he is Australian and he was taking the class by his own choice.) The class was taught by a man, and my husband said he was the anomaly student in the class: all of the other students were in one of two groups- newly divorced dads who needed to know how to cook for themselves and their children, or university-aged students who were too poor to keep ordering pizza every night, yet too ill-informed to boil noodles. The message in this was astounding to me- these males had not learned to cook at home, and needed to learn even the most basic principles– like the difference between a saucepan and a frypan.
Truth be told, the cooking in this class was great. Curried sausages, roasted veggies and seasoned pasta were a few of the things recreated at home, much to my delight. So I forgot about how people outside of my marriage might still be segregated when it came to the basic skill of cooking: men cook when women aren’t around, or if it involves outside cooking (“manly” BBQs or dutch-ovens), and women cook because that is what they are supposed to love to do.
As adults, there is some cultural correction in sight as we watch Jamie Oliver throwing things together with ease and expertise, and as we cheer for Iron Chefs battling over sieves, stoves and crockpots for the winningest dish. But are we really helping our boys to understand that they could be as much in the kitchen for love, compared to the way we teach that to our girls? In other words, what messages are we still subconsciously telling our boys and girls about what they should and should not like, especially when it comes to something as life-sustaining as food preparation?
At food gatherings when I most often attend church, the Relief Society is traditionally enlisted to bring “pot-luck mains” whilst the bishopric “donates dessert”– i.e. they often buy a bulk dessert item and serve it with cheap ice cream from a local grocer. Read as: women are in the kitchen and bring hand-made goods, but the men work, so their contribution is paid for in dollars, made by someone else, and delivered to the door. This isn’t a perfect example, but it is common. There is the odd sausage sizzle (cook sausages on an outdoor BBQ- it’s an aussie thing)- but that is also typical– the men cook the meat, the women prepare the salads and side dishes…not unlike many of my American friends’ Thanksgivings. With this in mind, if we subconsciously, or culturally make a habit of segregating food preparation duties, and food is something we share 3 times a day, it seems to reason that some men can be as lost in a kitchen as they are in how to seek egalitarian relationships with women.
I recently did a quick search in DeseretBook for cookbooks, and found there to be no children’s cookbooks aimed at boys. None. There is one cookbook aimed at girls, called The Snow Princess Cookbook, and two cookbooks (here and here) with “girl” in the title—but those are aimed at women, not children. This in itself is a symptom of masculinity ideology, where females are always referred to as “girls” no matter their age or status (infantile), and males are “little men” and “young men” and “men” (masculine). Indeed, the only cookbook that looks like a male child is on the front is dedicated to mothers of fussy eaters, extending a message that the adult woman must submit and trick to please her male child. And only collection of mens’ recipes in the Deseret collection was the Cougar Football Cookbook, wherein men who are celebrated for their athletic (masculine) performance share their favourite recipes. In a masculinity studies context, this equates to men being allowed to express culinary prestige without appearing feminine, because it is in association with football. It is classic sexism in the kitchen.
To be clear, I love cooking and cookbooks, so have no ill will toward the content of any of these books. But I am concerned about the messages we are sending boys about cooking– after all, if we want boys and girls to develop in the ethos of egalitarianism, then we need to make a effort to be sensitive to the messages we are sending to boys in all areas, not just about sex and priesthood. Further, there are cookbooks aimed at children, both male and female on Amazon (yay for the star wars cookbook!). But again, the majority of marketing and advertising of these cookbooks is aimed at women- as purchasers, as culinary artisans and as teachers of the kitchen. In a world where our routine is developed around 3 daily meals, the social influence in teaching girls that cooking is fun, and for boys that cooking is done *only if you must* — has a higher stigma. Indeed, it is more socially segregating that what we might presume at first glance.
So what is the magic of a cookbook with a dog on the front? Both boys and girls can like it, without baggage. That is a good thing.
And in the end, if males become more welcome and comfortable in spaces that are traditionally female, then it seems to reason that females might also be better welcomed in spaces that are traditionally male. In an era when women are finally being invited into the (traditionally male-only) room to be a part of the planning stages of ward meetings, it is increasingly important for males to be familiar with the work and spaces that are known to be traditionally female dominant. In other words, we need to invite our boys into the kitchen, because that makes feminism a family affair.
If you have sons, do you cook with them as often as you do with your daughters?
What (gender-neutral) cookbooks do you recommend for children?