Men in the Kitchen: Food, Gender, Church & Culture

It’s been four years now since my mother died. Mum was an extraordinary woman, a force of nature — gregarious, chaotic, funny, eternally optimistic and with an endless capacity to love. She loved God, she loved her husband, her boys, their wives and her sixteen grandchildren. She loved her church and her neighbours and still she had reserves for anyone else who came along. In her passing, mum left behind a hole in my life and many others that remains. She also left behind a recipe book.

It’s an old school exercise book, the tattered cover post-box red and bound along its edge with a strip of woven tape. Mrs Holt’s Recipes it says on the front. In the painful process of sorting through mum’s life following her funeral, my father took the book down from above the refrigerator. “I don’t know who else would want it,” he said as he handed it to me.

The truth is, my mother had nothing to do with the compilation of this book. I did it. As a boy of nine or ten, despairing at the cardboard box stuffed with recipes at the bottom of mum’s pantry, it was me that got her organised. With a set of coloured pens and my best artistic flourish, I created chapters: casseroles; main dishes; large cakes; small cakes, slices, biscuits and confectionary; soups; and desserts. Each page was carefully numbered. Some recipes I handwrote, adding editorial comment here and there: “this one is good.” Most I stuck to the pages with sticky tape. Everything found its place and the cardboard box was thrown out.

Of course, my mother’s style was never an ordered one. The book today bulges with recipes randomly stuffed. There are casseroles in the biscuits section and sweet and sour pork in desserts. The recipes for curried sausages and cod casserole — the ones I thought I’d gotten rid of — had reappeared. Each time I hold the book, cuttings and scraps, even whole pages, fall to the ground. The book is everything mum was: overflowing, erratic, generous, and all-encompassing. In memory of her, I have nothing else as fragile and nothing as robust. It’s like holding a sacred text.

Recipe books like my mum’s are ubiquitous. You probably have or remember one yourself. Perhaps it’s a well-ordered book or just a collection of cards shuffled together. These collections tell us many things. Like a family photo album, a recipe collection provides unique snapshots of the way life was at another time. They hold memories, ones we can still taste and smell. What’s more, if we are prepared to read them just a little more closely, they can tell us far more than the ingredients for boiled fruit cake. They speak of our identity. The provide windows into issues of gender, taste, class and culture. They remind us, too, that sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. They may have been out taming the wilderness with the lawn mower or presiding over ‘the high altar’ of the backyard barbecue. Typically they were not found in the kitchen, except perhaps to do the dishes. Today things have changed. I am one of six sons. At least three of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to carving the Sunday roast or washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine.

The most current research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of daily, domestic responsibilities. According to the ABS, Australian men, on average, spend twenty-eight minutes per day on household chores while women spend one hour and eight minutes. Life in the kitchen is no different. In 84% of Australian households, women remain the primary cooks.

It is certainly true that men are cooking at home more than they have. Generally, though, the nature of the cooking they do is different. The truth is, men are more motivated by cooking as performance than as an act of service. Research tells us that men in the kitchen typically place a higher value on the mastery of technical skill than on the nurturing of those they cook for. I have a friend who is currently fascinated with the gadgets of backyard smoking and slow grilling. His mastery of these gadgets has led him into all manner of online groups where men share their skills with religious fervour. It is a particular male obsession. What’s more, as the social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, the male household cook is much more motivated by an audience and playing to them. Consequently, while the male cook may be lauded as “the kitchen hero” on weekends, it is still predominantly their female partners who keep the family fed and watered during the week: “the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.” So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, “still in the missionary position.”

The extraordinary success of television cooking shows provides an interesting commentary on our contemporary understandings of food. The celebrated Australian chef Gay Bilson, now retired to a farm in South Australia, has become one of our nation’s most intelligent food writers. For Bilson, the trajectory of shows like MasterChef is entirely “aspirational.” That is, they have little to do with the daily domestic life of our kitchens and more to do with the glamorous world of artfully stacked restaurant food we’re all meant to aspire to. While we salivate over stylized images of food ‘plated’ for the discerning consumer, we return to the dinner table with a diminished sense of what’s actually before us, its connection to the earth and the care that’s made it possible. The distance between what is aspired to and what our ordinary lives most need is wide. Most notably, Bilson argues, the value of the domestic cook is marginalized.

This marginalization has a long history. In his wonderful book The Pudding That Took a Thousand Cooks, Australian writer Michael Symons observes that for much of history, household cooks “have been in the background — both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. These cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.” Indeed, if the old adage is true, we are what we eat, then household cooks have not just made our meals, they have made us. For most household cooking — the cooking that marks our days and feeds our bodies — is not about art or performance. It’s about service and the daily sacrifices of earth and home. It’s about nutrition and wellbeing. It’s about the rituals and routines that hold us together as households and families.

It was this that my mother instinctively understood. When it came to cooking, mum did not care for detail. For the most part, her recipes are simple and to the point. Like the one she called “Chicken Casserole a la Jean.” Jean was mum’s older sister. As it happens I remember mum writing it down at Aunty Jean’s table. The truth is, neither mum nor Jean liked cooking. Life was too full to be distracted by detail, especially in the kitchen. The recipe is brief.

I chicken pulled to pieces
Fry onions and peppers and mushrooms
Add 1 tin of celery OR asparagus OR chicken soup
Add to chicken and into oven

I have never made Chicken a la Jean, and I probably never will. But there is something in the spirit of this recipe that hovers over me today. I am a serious cook, more serious and skilled than my mother was, but I am always conscious of her presence when I cook. “That’ll do!” she would always say. When I am prone to make food more important than people, and to give the processes of preparation more time than I give to those who will eat it, I hear her say, “That’ll do!” Mum cooked entirely driven by love, her love for those for whom she cooked. It was a service pure and simple.

Culinary historian Henry Notaker (A History of Cookbooks) writes on the role of women in professional kitchens. Though women are in the majority of professional cooks through history, Notaker demonstrates the degree to which they too have been marginalized, demeaned and paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Sound familiar? In 19th century France, women cooks were paid just a third of what was paid to men. Though these men commonly took the plumb roles in palaces and mansions, it was women who filled the majority of roles in household kitchens. They often combined cooking with other household duties, whereas men only cooked.

As women began enrolling in professional cookery courses in France in the late 1800s, one male gatekeeper was indignant and accused women of usurping a profession that did not belong to them. He was aware that women were immersed in cooking from birth and had no objection to women who cooked at home, but he claimed that they had no right to enter what he called “our work,” which, by the way, he considered too fatiguing for the female constitution and also too extensive for their flimsy knowledge.

Thankfully, there has been a long and honourable line of women in history who have persisted, the ones who have been able to see through the hubris and hypocrisy of men claiming their birth right in the professional kitchen. These women have found the courage to call out these male cooks as egotists with little real concern for the health and well-being of those they fed. The author of the first cookbook written by an Italian woman and published in 1900, said this: “For male cooks it is enough to pose as artist, these cooks are seeking a name for themselves and they want glory and laurels, even at the risk of spoiling other people’s digestion.” She accused men of pandering to the epicures and gluttons rich enough to pay, while female cooks were concerned that food is healthy, nourishing and an expression of care.

It is now 40 years since Victorian Baptists first ordained women to pastoral ministry. It was a bun fight at the time and our behaviour during that period is nothing for us to be proud of. You would imagine that four decades later we could confidently say that sex in the church looks fundamentally different. Indeed, there are instances where that is the case. Certainly we have made significant strides and women are now able to play roles in our movement they’ve never played before. But in other ways, little has changed. Still a majority of our churches will not consider a woman as pastor and certainly not as a senior pastor in a team ministry context. There is something at the heart of this continuing resistance that rests on a basic question regarding the nature of pastoral ministry. At its essence, is ministry a performance or an act of service?

As the youngest son growing up in suburban Dandenong, I got to sit next to mum in church. We Baptists only celebrated communion on the first Sunday morning of each month. Each time we did, it was men, exclusively men, who sat behind that table. It was a man, always a man, who stood to his feet and, as he held the elements aloft, uttered the words of Jesus: “this is my body given for you … this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” What I remember, however, is that prior to the service, I would accompany mum in the church kitchen as she cut up slices of Tip Top white bread into the tiniest pieces; as she poured the grape juice ever so carefully into those little Baptist shot glasses lined up in wooden trays. There was one roster for the men who would flank the pastor behind the communion table, and another roster for the women who made everything ready. The men performed; the women served. It seems that regardless of our brand or the clerical uniforms we wear, our churches confront the same persistent issues.

In today’s restaurant kitchens, more than 75% of head or executive chef positions are maintained by men. Indeed, it is a stubborn figure that does not move. As a rule, it is men who perform at the pass while it’s women — those who make up more than 60% of kitchen staff — who serve in the background. It seems that today’s professional kitchen and today’s church have much in common.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus met with his disciples to anticipate his death and the challenges that lay beyond it. To demonstrate the essence of the ministry for which he was preparing them, Jesus took off his outer robe, knelt before them and washed their feet. There was no audience to play to, no positons to protect, no power to maintain or authority to exercise. There were only dirty feet, and it was Jesus who washed them. “You do likewise,” he said to them.

In 2017, my wife and I enjoyed some of the most delightful weeks in Tuscany, Italy. As part of our travels, we spent a day in the fortress town of Montepulciano. While we were there, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of San Biagio, a magnificent 16th century edifice built on an open field below the town. As it happens, I was the only visitor inside. For as long as I was there, it was just me, a magnificent space, and a priest.

The priest was an industrious young man, dressed in uniform black. Though he smiled warmly at me, we did not speak. He was busy. With his clerical collar unbuttoned, he was carting stacks of plastic chairs from the central sanctuary to an outer door. Seated in a pew, I watched him for about half an hour. Back and forth he went, stack after stack from one place to the other. At one point I offered to help, but he brushed me away with some words in Italian I couldn’t understand.

As I sat in this sublime place of worship watching my brother work, I reflected on just how domestic is most of what we do in this business. No matter what our tradition, no matter how grand or plain our context, how large or small our congregations or how notable our titles, so much of what we do is carting chairs. Oh, there are moments, those grand unforgettable moments: those occasional sermons in which our spirits sore; those pastoral encounters in which we sense God’s transforming presence; those remarkable moments in a church’s life when you know the delight of God in the most extraordinary way. But then, you go back to carting chairs. After 30+ of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that it’s this that lies at the heart of what we do.

At the end of the day, you know, for all the TV hype, the cooking shows and celebrity chefs, those who cook for a living offer a service of the most basic kind. They feed us. When all the glamour is stripped away, they are, in fact, part of the modern, professional servant class. A contributor in the pages of the journal Quadrant reflected recently on the contrast between her life as a writer and her work as a functions manager on weekends. In this reflection she describes “the gross materiality” she confronted every evening in those she served: “Mess, vomit, rotten food, garbage, sour smells, burnt offerings, and drunken bodies regularly confronted me at the end of the night. Quite literally, I had to put my hands in the muck that other people had left behind. My job was to sort refuse, dispose of it, then create a picture anew, as if it had never taken place.”

It’s a pretty ordinary business really.

As fond as I am of my mother’s recipe book, I know that I cannot romanticize it too much. Mum never liked cooking. For her it was a means to other things. It was an act of foot washing. Seven nights each week, for twenty-plus years of my life, my mother took of her outer robes, put on her apron, knelt down and washed my feet. There was no heavenly light streaming through the window as she did so. There was no audience, just a table full of tired and hungry people who were just as likely to turn up their noses at what was on their plates as they were to give thanks. Cooking was service, a humble and routine act of service. But in that service there is something of the essence of ministry and the spirituality that shapes it.

As we in the church continue to wrestle with the nature of ministry, with what it means to be communities of faith in which all contributions are received with gratitude, we have much to learn from our kitchens and much to learn from the God who inhabits those kitchens as much as God inhabits our churches.

I conclude tonight with a prayer, a responsive prayer inspired by the words of Baptist pastor and writer Kenneth Sehested (In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009). Perhaps you can join me in reading those words printed in italics.

breast-feeding God,
hungry and thirsty we return to your lap
and to your table again.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

Fill us again with bread that satisfies,
with milk that nourishes.
Drench our parched throats
with the cool taste of your goodness.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

We come to your lap
and to your table
to rediscover your romance with the world.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.

As you nourish us with the bread of life
and the milk of your Word,
let your Spirit hang an apron around our necks,
fashioned and patterned
like that worn by Jesus.

Feed us, O God, until we want no more.
Nourish our hearts and strengthen our bodies
so that we can feed others.

Instruct us,
here in the halls
of your kitchen-kingdom,
with the recipes of mercy and forgiveness,
of compassion and redemption.

Leaven our lives
‘til they rise in praise:
offered, blessed and broken
for the healing of this earth.


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