Food, Culture & The Kitchen: Reclaiming Gendered Spaces
Gone are the days when the kitchen was considered the sole territory of a woman. As time passed and the possibilities of our existence was constantly being redefined, the gendered lines that once divided society into gender roles seem to be blurring. But even then, gendered roles have been so deeply ingrained in us all that it almost seems incapable of a complete overhaul. Unfortunately though, gendered roles and biases run the world and are still prevalent in several parts of the globe.
Back in the day, the woman had her world and was taught her place- a world that revolved around the four walls of her home, the only place where she knew she was queen. While men gallivanted and boasted of their exploits, they always knew they had a warm meal, a bed and a home to come back to, thanks to the dedication of their wives and mothers. However, these roles were laid out for convenience before it backfired and came at a heavy price. During hunter-gatherer times, both women and men would step out to hunt, but when the same hunter-gatherers started moving from place to place, women decided to stay home to take care of offspring as a matter of convenience. These roles didn’t originate in gender differences and were laid out as part of an evolutionary process. But as the practice continued, it trickled down to stricter gendered roles and eventually an imbalance of power structures.
Today, many people are still of the belief that women belong in kitchens and at home, even though we’ve seen women reclaim spaces that they were once denied. A study from a few years ago reveals that gender stereotypes are still quite strong today, just as they were several years ago. Owing to feminism and a re-examining of the imbalance of power structures within gender, today it seems a lot easier for a woman to fit into the societal role of a man (though after much contention), than it is for a man to imbibe a traditional female role.
When it came to cooking food, nurturing children, building a home, and being domesticated full-time, it was always known and considered to be the territory of a woman. So then it begs the question: how did this space, too, find itself dominated by men, with more male chefs in the culinary workforce than women chefs? Statistically speaking, the culinary world is today ruled and heavily dominated by men. In India alone, it is said that close to 80-90% chefs are males, leaving us wondering how the rhetoric changed from “women belong in the kitchen” to men almost entirely dominating the space?
The role that left us all at the cliffhanger and took a surprisingly different turn was this overtaking of men in kitchen spaces. Why, how and when did the culinary industry and food and cooking become a male-dominated space?
Food is a shared cultural experience on a global scale that on close examination reveals a lot about gender, race, culture and class. Sexist notions still govern and imply that the woman may function to her best capacity within the walls of her home and her own kitchen, but when it comes to the outside world, the kitchen is the space of men. Several women in India who have graduated from some of the top Hotel Management Universities speak of how they were at some point nudged to avoid the intensive training for a permanent role in the kitchen citing reasons such as their reproductive predispositions, leaving public kitchens to be a very testosterone charged space.
Having such notions is lopsided especially when workplace demands don’t take into account child-rearing, menstruation, and other biological and sociological factors that require more out of a woman. A man, on the other hand, doesn’t have to juggle the many worlds that a woman, in the same position would have to, and even if he did, there’d be a work-around.
Another commonly perceived notion is that the kitchen is too hot and a woman’s body cannot survive the toll that a physically strenuous job like this would endow. If you’ve watched cooking shows on TV, you’ll find that the kitchen is a very tense environment, and people get crass and sometimes abusive under pressure. What many don’t see outside of these shows is also what manifests in the backdoors of a restaurant where it’s high energies, fast-paced deliveries, crass language and some all-round sweaty and heavy-lifting. In all of this, the decision that women aren’t fit for such an environment is made by men who govern the space, rather than laws and policies that would nurture an environment to make it inclusive, one that would be fit for all devoid of gender, class or creed. An environment that nurtures talent rather than a gender-based selection. The problem isn’t that women cannot work in such spaces, it’s that the environment doesn’t create space to nurture their talent through sufficient training and preparation.
Rhea Barucha, a 23-year-old pastry chef at The Sassy Spoon, Nariman Point, and also the only female member of the culinary team, says “It’s not that a woman can’t work in the hot kitchen. But rather that they aren’t trained sufficiently. I once interned at an eatery, and I fainted because of the heat”.
Indian kitchens don’t take women into account when it comes to their innovative, smart design. A big reason for excluding women is this very same reason that Indian kitchens aren’t designed to be inclusive. An Indian institute will any day find more men compared to women, while if you enter some of the top reputed institutes around the world, the spaces have been designed to be women-friendly, throwing open the window of opportunity devoid of gender or backgrounds.
Instead of asking women to rethink their career choice when it comes to public kitchens, it would be great to have spaces that include women and minorities. A woman may or may not enjoy cooking and household chores, but if the conditions of her existence and her contribution are seen, valued and included, the very possibility of her existence is thrown wide open and she can be anything she chooses to be.
Women have it in them to rule kitchens as they’ve done so for centuries with little to no help. Excluding them from public spaces due to their biological and physiological makeup is limiting the very conditions of her existence. Ultimately, the forces that govern and influence these spaces, also influence the aspirations of those it celebrates while at the same time diminishing those it may deem unfit. Possibility shouldn’t have to be a luxury, but rather a necessity; and including women in such spaces is one of the greatest ways we can reclaim the gendered spaces of public kitchens.
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