Some thoughts about cooking

April 2, 2011 at 3:05 pm (Dan)

I’m a pretty confident cook. I don’t cook very often, these days, because I’m also a pretty lazy cook, but I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. I’m quite happy tinkering with recipes or inventing things entirely from scratch. I’ve made lasagne from the pasta up – the only thing I didn’t do was mince the meat, that’s because I asked my nice butcher man to do it for me.

When I’m making something I’ve never made before, I look at a few recipies for the same thing, and then forget about them all and do whatever seems right. I can pick flavour combinations that seem outlandish and horrifying, that I think will be good together, and I am rarely wrong.

I can’t bake, though. When I’m making something that needs to rise, I need recipes, and I have to follow them. This is because I don’t really eat bread or cake very often, so I don’t cook them very often, so I’m scared to make them in case they break.

Except pizza dough. I can make delicious pizza dough at any time without any reference materials – it’s easy, why would you need to look at a recipe?

The above is only a little bit so I can brag about how awesome I am (I’m pretty awesome, guys), it’s also to show that even confident cook-types can have areas where they’re uncomfortable, and those areas don’t necessarily make any sense, but they’re scary and will be avoided, or walked through carefully.

In my family, while growing up, all of us kids (me, my brother and sister) were involved in cooking meals. There are pictures of us with wooden spoons as big as we are, blue cake batter in our hair, delightedly stirring our cake monstrosities that we were allowed to put anything we wanted in, with some guidance from mum. The cakes were probably awful but we were involved in the process.

We wouldn’t be involved in chopping vegetables or boiling anything, but we’d get stuff from the fridge and the pantry, and when we were big enough to do it without making enormous messes, we’d measure and pour things, mix them, lay them out, whatever.

A great deal of this stopped, however, as we progressively hit school age. So when I was at school, the others were less involved in cooking because mum was doing other stuff as well, and by the time all of us were in school it didn’t happen often at all.

This means that I was the most exposed to cooking as a young child, and my sister, the youngest, the least. And while my brother and I have had family-adjudicated pizza-from-scratch competitions, with various styles of pizza each, in the past, he’s less of a generalist cook than I am, and my sister claimed to be unable to cook for a long time, but in the last two years or so has been doing so more and more, and is now more confident. But the general cooking skills gradient matches our ages, and also our exposure to the processes of cooking as tiny children.

Now, one family isn’t data, but it is an interesting counterpoint to the gender-essentialist view that men can’t cook and ladies can. First of all, no-one can’t cook. Cooking is easy but it’s definitely a matter of confidence, to some degree. Experience with the processes is also important, so you know, for instance, to start the rice earlier if you’re going with stovetop absorption rather than a rice-cooker for your whatever it is rice dish, but barring massive inattention or accidental use of the wrong measures for things, basically anyone can cook from a recipe and it’ll turn out.

It may, currently, be the case that more men than women claim not to be able to cook, which I think is more a fear of failure than a scientifically tested viewpoint, but I’m reasonably certain that more girls than boys are involved in the processes of cooking as children, at the moment (or 20 years ago – might not be the case for kids who are kids now, and if it’s not, the “can’t!” divide will probably vanish as they move out and start being adults).

A lady I lived with once, despite coming from a very much food-oriented culture, wasn’t really comfortable doing more than cooking rice and some vegetables, and attributes this to not being involved with the cooking side of food much as a kid. Food just appeared at the table, and you ate it (if said lady is reading this and being misrepresented in terms of skillset or upbringing, I apologise, but this is how I recall it from our discussions).

A lady I live with right now is much less comfortable with experimenting with food than I am, or at least was initially. Heather still likes to cook from the recipe but she does throw changes in, now, when she feels like it, and this is directly due to her increased familiarity with cooking in general (and also because she’s had to put up with me going “ooh! let’s put this in there, too!” for so long that it’s become part of her kitchen habits?).

So, yeah. Being uncomfortable with cooking isn’t a guy thing for any non-cultural reasons. There’re ladies who “can’t” cook and there’re guys who cook all the time. There are people who are masters of a few particular dishes that they know inside out, and there’re people who will give anything a shot based on a vague description someone gave them of a meal they ate when they were drunk, 19, and in Burma somewhere. They all exist in every gender and the only reason that there’s different numbers of each gender in these classes is because different genders are brought up with different expectations and experience in cooking in general.

Science fact. So there.



  1. juliadactyl said,

    I completely and totally agree that confidence with cooking is largely due to early exposure.

    I was taught to cook by my dad. He was my stay-at-home parent, and for as long as I can remember I took part in the dinner preparations. Early on this was just stuff like setting the table, but from the age of about 4 or 5 he had me stirring things, or at least sitting and watching him cook, while he explained stuff. It remained this way until I was in about year 12, because often I was busy doing homework or getting home late from school, and so then I wasn’t involved every evening. But still – for most of my childhood, I took part in cooking dinner every night. He actively taught me skills, as well, explaining the process of different things.

    He was taught in the exact same way, by his mother. He was an only child, and so she taught him to cook, and he loves food in a pretty hardcore way (which I think I have explored on other parts of this blog).

    My sister, who ALSO was taught to cook and made a part of the process from a young age, also enjoys cooking and is fairly confident. My mum, who spent a lot of time at boarding school, then had a stepfather who cooked (but not with her) when she was at uni, is a pretty good cook (probably due to her aunt and grandma teaching her when she was very small), but much less confident overall than my dad. She says a lot of her confidence happened when she was living overseas and she had to learn for herself, but she wasn’t particularly adept until this point.

    Excellent blogthoughts, guy!

  2. chromefist said,

    I don’t say I can’t cook; but I don’t cook well.

    a) I’m bad at focusing on multiple tasks and managing them so that I perform specific tasks at appropriate times.
    b) I’m extremely bad at judging the state of food by colour, look or smell. If it actually catches alight, that’s a good guide for me.

    In both cases, I could probably improve, if I practiced more, or had practiced more as a child. In neither instance is my penis directly involved, so I’m not sure my gender has a lot to do with it. Therefore, I agree with your social conditioning thesis.

  3. notoriousharv said,

    I think it is definitely true that most able-bodied people can cook, with practice, and I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that people born with a Y chromosone can’t watch over a bit of meat in a frying pan or follow a recipe. I never suggested this was the case. All I ever said was that all the people I’ve met who can’t cook are male (although I’ve since been informed by my lovely girlfriend that I do know a girl who can’t cook, who happens to have grown up with a maid), and I have no difficulty accepting that it’s because they never learned.

    Now, there’s something I feel maybe I either didn’t explain properly (it’s hard to convey fine distinctions over Twitter), or I couldn’t state without sounding like I was being all “oh I hate political correctness” and therefore likely to inspire instinctive hostility. Now, I think it’s more true to say that what there is is a cultural expectation floating around that women should be able to and they’re maybe a bit useless as people if they can’t, whereas it’s more excusable for men if they can’t (I was still regarded as being a bit useless when I was/felt incompetent in the kitchen, but in more of an affectionate way, rather than a pernicious one), and a cool feature of who they are as a person if they can. It’s pretty crap that this is the case and it’s of course attributable to simplistic ideas about gender that are being challenged.

    I can agree that learning to cook as a child is the best way to feel confident about it later in life. I can also agree that it’s more common for cooking to be a mother-daughter thing than a father-son or mother-son thing. But there’s a point where I can’t go all the way in agreeing with you and this is what’s causing the clash between points of view, I feel:

    “…the only reason that there’s different numbers of each gender in these classes is because different genders are brought up with different expectations and experience in cooking in general.”

    My opinion is that this is *a* reason, not the *only* reason. I’ll go as far as to concede that it’s possibly the *main* reason but I’m not totally convinced of that. I can’t provide studies, and I can’t give you a fractional account of how much of this I’d attribute to nature and how much I’d attribute to nurture. But I’m still of the opinion that if you get your kid, and you try to get them to help you out with the process of cooking, and they fucking hate helping and seem bored and distracted the whole time or actively resist learning how, and they just want to go and play with their Tonka Trucks or Barbie Dolls or some shit, I think the child you’re dealing with here is more likely to be male than female.

    Basically my issue is that I struggle to accept that social conditioning is so powerful a force that it determines everything about who we are. Up until pretty recently social conditioning told people in our culture that it was wrong and immoral to be gay, or that being gay was a “choice”, and I don’t think it’s ever really ungayed a gay person. Similarly, I’m of the view it’s going to take some epic social conditioning to get someone to enjoy cooking if they just don’t, and you’re going to have to be pretty firm with your kid if you’re trying to teach them how to do something and they’re actively resisting. You see more women that cook well, and enjoy preparing nice meals or treats for friends and family, then you do men. You see more men that prepare meals under sufference, and don’t bring nice foods they’ve made to picnics or whatever, then you do women. And I think it’s horseshit to say it’s only due to social conditioning. If social conditioning was so powerful, there’d be less example of, you know, people defying social conditioning.

    Speaking from my experience, my mother has tried pretty hard with all three of her boys to get us interested in learning how to cook because, FFS, it’s a pretty useful thing to know how to do. Her strike rate is one from three. My youngest brother is 12 and he’s already pretty good at cooking – there’s more than one picture of the little bastard proudly standing over some brownies or something he made floating around on my mum’s hard drive – and he’s always had a keen interest in food. He actually remembers events in his life or over the past week or so based sometimes on what he ate that day, I kid you not. My other brother and I, by contrast, were a very hard sell on this kind of thing; he ended up doing food tech as an elective because he knew there’d be lots of girls in the class, but he’s still pretty bloody hilariously incompetent, and I still find cooking to be a drudgery.

    I’ve recently learned how to do it a lot better to impress a girl (also being told that I pretty much have to do half the cooking is a strong incentive), and still the only emotion I really feel when I make something edible is relief, rather than joy or pride or whatever. I don’t think this is a way of thinking and feeling about cooking that has been conditioned into me, it’s just fucking not fun. It’s boring, it’s stressful, and the end result is never worth the effort you put in. Now, I don’t think that I am this way because I am male. My brother is male, and he’s a different way. What I believe is that because I am male, me turning out this way is *more likely*. Attribute it to social conditioning all you like, I feel socialization has to be influenced in the first instance by, or be a reaction to, natural tendencies. Otherwise why would it happen? There’s no such thing as a tabula rasa.

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