SOME DAYS AGO, at a function, a distant relative was gently ribbing me and my husband as to who was responsible for cooking at home. Specifically, he was taking a few shots at my expense, that I must be ‘making’ my husband do all the cooking. Most of this was inconsequential small talk; I doubt this relative really cares about who cooks at our place or whether we cook at all. I didn’t take it seriously or feel riled. Still, behind these jokes are some notions so ingrained that we have a hard time recognizing them. The joke exists because the notion exists that a woman must be an excellent cook, devoted to feeding her family.
I started thinking about how this notion has impacted me. In our culture, food has a role to play not just as nourishment for the body. It is also believed to have an impact on behaviour, which is why we categorise food as sattvik, rajasik and tamasik. Beyond this, food is also believed to be an important form of charity — feeding the poor is a key activity for many religious organizations. Hindus revere the goddess Annapoorani, considered the giver of food. With the importance accorded to food, cooking naturally cannot be a casual affair.
Today, many of us eat out frequently — but there is always an underlying consciousness that food cooked outside cannot be as healthy as home-made food. Processed food/ready-to-cook meals are still a rung lower on the…er…food chain. This venerated ‘delicious, healthy, home-made’ food has always primarily been made by women. Even today, when many women work outside the home, it continues to be so.
For many women, perhaps, this deep-rooted belief in the importance of healthy, home cooked food clashes with the time and energy left after working long hours. Still, one’s role as provider of food is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult for even an educated, young woman like me to view it objectively. I’ve seen my mother waking up at 5 in the morning to get the meals ready and prepare lunch boxes for three demanding children. Life seems so much more convenient today with the appliances we have; it seems somehow shameful not to cook.
When this relative ribbed me, I caught myself hastening to assure him that I managed the kitchen myself. While I explained to him that my husband is a fairly poor cook, I was also quick to reassure myself that I wasn’t just taking on prescribed roles (“after all, my husband does many of the chores at home that would usually be done by women”). If I sound confused in my attitude to cooking, it’s because I am.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I avoided learning any cooking at all. In the days when I was first forming my own feminist ideas, my logic was very simple. Men often overrode women’s decisions. Men worked outside and earned money. Most women didn’t. What most women did was cook and keep house. Women couldn’t work outside if they got caught in this role. Ergo, I didn’t want any of it! It seemed to me that only the food was really valued, not the cook herself. Through my early twenties, I was often the butt of jokes as someone whose repertoire consisted of maggi and toast. Gradually, as I began living on my own, and got bored of eating out, I started trying my hand at cooking. And realized (gasp!) I enjoyed it!
But even when I realized that cooking could be an interesting and creative affair, I always felt a little embarrassed about it. Especially when I got married, I was afraid that I would become ‘just a housewife’, the state I’d always dreaded. I was so afraid of falling into traditional roles prescribed for women that I tried hard to keep myself away from them. (Though I’m using the past tense here, many of these fears still persist.)
In reality of course, traditional women’s roles, including cooking, bring in tremendous social wealth, even if they cannot be measured in monetary terms. In earlier generations, most old people, even those without children, could be assured of some care and support from extended family. This was possible, mainly because of the presence of at least one woman staying at home. Home makers spend an enormous amount of time with children, besides doing many other chores which would otherwise be outsourced. Similarly, home cooking has a lot of benefits in terms of health as well as cost savings. It is a pity that I (and perhaps other women like me) feel embarrassed to don these roles.
Am I advocating that women should take up all the traditional roles again? Not at all. For one, our horizons have broadened — we have any number of choices when it comes to career and work. Full time caregiving will not be feasible, or interesting, for many of us. The best situation of course would be for men to enter (traditionally) female bastions as much as women have entered male ones. When men cook and feed a family as commonly as women do, I bet that cooking will be seen for what it really is — a time consuming, high-involvement activity requiring skill, patience and love.