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.


Cameron Semmens on gifts

This Sunday at Collins Street, we’re exploring the business of ethics at work. I’ve been thinking about how broad that term is – work – and how unique its challenges are to each of us. Still, from homemakers to teachers, stockbrokers to bricklayers, students to grandparents, the challenge of discerning God’s presence and call in our work is the same.

One of my favourite everyday poets, Cameron Semmens, provides this take on the gifts of the Spirit. I like it. It reminds me that no matter how ‘religious’ or otherwise our work seems, the calling and gifting of God is what we have in common.

The Gift of Everyday Spirituality

[Based on 1 Corinthians 12.1-11]

Our God is the giver of gifts
and all of God’s children are gifted:

to one is given the word of wisdom,
to another the word of knowledge,
to another the ability to give a word-for-word account
of what was said last Saturday;

to one is given faith,
to another faithful adherence to instruction manuals;

to one is given the gift of healing,
to another the gift of making a good chicken soup
for when I get the flu;

to one is given the ability to work miracles,
to another the ability to work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday;

to one is given the gift of prophesy,
to another the gift of profits;

to one is given the gift of discerning spirits,
to another the gift of selecting wines;

to one is given different kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues,
to another the ability to curl their tongue,
and to yet another
the ability to stick their tongue out at meanies.

To one and all gifts are given:
to some, otherworldly gifts,
to others, more earthy gifts,
but each is sourced from the same Spirit
and each is sent for the service of all.

Cameron Semmens, Love is the New Black, Crooked NoseWisdom, 2010.

After chopping cabbage with Sam, I stopped by one of the cabins for a quick shower, my first in three days, and put on clean clothes. Then, after a tasty lunch in the dining hall — fresh mesculin mix, eggplant parmesan, and challah — I ducked in the men’s room for a quick pee, where I found myself side by side with Danny the Rabbinical Rapper. We made small talk as men do who are trying to pretend they aren’t inches apart while performing an intimate bodily function, and then I remembered something a teacher in seminary once told me.

“Isn’t there a blessing for going to the bathroom?” I asked in mid-stream.

“Yeah,” Danny said. “It’s called the asher yatzar. It’s attributed to Abayei, a fourth-century Babylonian rabbi.”

“Do you say it?”

“Sure, all observant Jews say it. It’s sort of like thanking God that everything is working properly down there. In English It could be translated like this: ‘Blessed is the One who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifeces and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them was to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I said. A few simple words, and the act of taking a piss could suddenly become elevated into a song of praise.

Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

“A person makes a bed every day, as a service to themselves and perhaps their family member. A parent makes sandwiches for the children’s lunches. Someone else digs a trench in which to place sewerage pipes. Everyone of these things can be seen as ‘merely’ doing the job. It may seem a stretch to speak of them as having a ‘spiritual’ significance, but this is because we have so reified the ‘spiritual’ as to separate it from the practical, the physical and indeed from life as it is lived. My contention is that we need to re-think the idea of the Spirit’s presence precisely to embrace the ordinary, the practical and physical, including the beautiful and those things we might consider merely functional.” 

Frank Rees, “New Directions in Australian Spirituality: Sabbath beyond the Church” in Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Review 47 (2015: 1):75-88.

A blessing for today


May your home always be too
small to hold all your friends.

May your heart remain ever supple,
fearless in the face of threat,
jubilant in the grip of grace.

May your hands remain open,
caressing, never clenched,
save to pound the doors of all who
barter justice to the highest bidder.

May your heroes be earthy,
dusty-shoed and rumpled,
hallowed but unhaloed,
guiding you through seasons
of tremor and travail,
apprenticed to the godly art of giggling
amidst haggard news
and portentous circumstances.

May your hankering be
in rhythm with heaven’s,
whose covenant vows a dusty
intersection with our own:
when creation’s hope and history rhyme.

May hosannas lilt from your lungs:
God is not done;
God is not yet done.

All flesh, I am told, will behold;
will surely behold.


Kenneth L. Sehested, In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public, 2009, 82.
*Benedicere: (Latin) second-person singular present passive imperative of benedīcō “be thou spoken well of, be thou commended” (Late Latin, Ecclesiastical Latin ) “be thou blessed, be thou praised”
My thanks to Bruce Stewart for the image. Used without permission!

A Prayer for Winter

Dear God,
Let us prepare for winter.
The sun has turned away from us
and the nest of summer hangs broken in a tree.
Life slips through our fingers and,
as darkness gathers,
our hands grow cold.
It is time to go inside.
It is time for reflection and resonance.
It is time for contemplation.
Let us go inside.

Michael Leunig, A Common Prayer, Collins Dove, 1990.


What am I to do?

I am a father to two very fine people. In their early 20s, they’re each at a pivotal point in their lives. The uncertainties of work and questions of life-direction are pressing. It feels to them like a high-stakes time. To a degree it is, for amidst the pragmatics of career choice and job hunting — challenging in themselves — are some big questions, questions that are as ancient as they are urgent: Who am I meant to be? What am I meant to do? 

I have just finished reading David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, and he says some things early on that I have been wondering about since. 

Many young people are graduating into limbo. Floating and plagued by uncertainty, they want to know what specifically they should do with their lives. So we hand them the great empty box of freedom. The purpose of life is to be free, we say. Freedom leads to happiness! We’re not going to impose anything on you or tell you what to do. Instead, we give you your liberated self to explore. Enjoy your freedom! But the students in the audience put down their empty box because they are drowning in freedom. What they’re looking for is direction. What is freedom for? they ask. How do I know which path is my path?

So we hand them another big box of nothing — the box of possibility. Your future is limitless! You can do anything you set your mind to! The journey is the destination! Take risks! Be audacious! Dream big! But this mantra doesn’t help them either. If you don’t know what your life is for, how does it help to be told that your future is limitless? That just ups the pressure. So they put down that empty box. What they are looking for is a source of wisdom. Where can I find the answers to my big questions?

So we hand them the empty box of authenticity. Look inside yourself and find your true inner passion, we say.  You are amazing! Awaken the giant within! Live according to your own true way! You do you! But that is useless, too. The ‘you’ we tell them to consult for life’s answers is the very thing that hasn’t yet formed. So they put down that empty box and ask, What can I devote myself to? What cause will inspire me and give meaning and direction to my life?

At this point, we hand them the emptiest box of all — the box of autonomy. You are on your own, we tell them. It’s up to you to define your own values. No one else can tell you what’s right or wrong for you. Your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself. Do what you love!

Brooks concludes with this:  

You will notice that our answers take all the difficulties of living in your twenties and make them worse. The graduates are in limbo, and we give them uncertainty. They want to know why they should do this as opposed to that. And we have nothing to say except, Figure it out yourself based on no criteria outside yourself. They are floundering in a formless desert. Not only do we not give them a compass, we take a bucket of sand and throw it over their heads!

Though I’m not sure about all of this, there are elements of Brooks’s critique that resonate. At one point, he quotes the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:  “What I really need to be clear about is what I am to do, not about what I must know … It is a question of finding what is truth, of finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die … It is for this my soul thirsts, as the deserts of Africa thirst for water.” I doubt we all feel it with the intensity Kierkegaard infers, but the thirst is real. It has certainly been so for me, and I sense it in those I love and others I care for. The questions persist: What am I to do? What is it I’ll give my life for? 

As a person of faith I have found in the Christian story an “idea” that has directed my life, a relationship that gives purpose to my living. Honestly, this story has been for me so compelling I can’t imagine life without it. It has shaped every decision I’ve taken and every commitment I have made.  The truth is, though, my faith is not my children’s faith. The story which is life-defining for me is not something that I can simply download to them. Though always respectful, my 20-somethings have come to be skeptical of my God-centred view of the world. I understand why and I honour their conclusions as they honour mine. So how then do I help? What can I offer beyond Brooks’s “empty boxes” of freedom, possibility, authenticity and autonomy? 

I have a suspicion that those boxes are not entirely empty, but the gift of each thrives when earthed in something beyond them — a larger story, a purpose into which our small lives are gathered.  Perhaps my role as a dad is to continue to ask those deeper questions, amidst all the uncertainties to gently return them to what they hold to be most true and important for themselves and their world. It may not diffuse the anxieties of the present moment, but it might bring a sense of perspective into which those anxieties can rest. Perhaps.