Monthly Archives: May 2012

Return to Retro

One of the things I love to do, that makes me most worried that I’m turning into a stereotype is cooking.  I love to cook.  I get a real sense of achievement when it works out the way I plan; I enjoy watching others enjoy eating it and of course, I’m also quite a fan of eating it myself.  Despite these very real pleasures, I find myself subject to gentle mocking when this comes up in conversation.  I have a close friend who calls me a “1950s housewife” whenever I tell her about what I’ve been baking recently.  Now, I’ll have to admit that I do favour a pink pinny when I’m in the kitchen, but I maintain that I’m such a Rottweiler in other areas of my life that this kitchen uniform is worn with a great sense of irony.  The even greater irony is that she too enjoys cooking (and in particular, baking cakes- the most 1950s housewife thing you can do in the kitchen, in my opinion.)   The only reason for my being dubbed “the housewife” is that quite often my partner reaps the benefits of my kitchen endeavours.  Is this fair?  I would argue that cooking, when it’s my choice to do so, actually empowers me.  Here’s why.

First of all, for me, cooking has always been a symbol of independence.  Rather than being a chain imposed by a husband and family that lashed me to a kitchen, I always thought of it as a sign that I could cope on my own.  That I could look after myself properly.  If nothing else, when I moved out of the familial home, my parents did not need to worry about malnutrition.  I’m a notoriously fussy eater, and being able to cook meant that I could eat food that I liked, when I wanted without being an imposition to others or having to resort to the tandoori round the corner every night.  In fact, moving back to my parents’ house after university was frustrating in a way because it took some of this independence away. Of course, it’s always nice to come home to meal that has been cooked for you, but sometimes, I missed being able to eat what I fancied, when I felt like it.  For me, although I was very appreciative of the effort my dad, in particular, went to, I felt a little bit like I had regressed.

I also find cooking and in particular, baking, to be a great creative outlet.  I love to make things and take great pleasure in crafting something from scratch.  I think it’s an extension of the child in me that used to drive my parents crazy because I was always making things out of toilet roll tubes.  Anyone who has experienced one of my cupcakes knows that I take a lot of pride in making them look pretty.  And even though cupcakes are a pretty girly thing to cook, there’s actually skill involved and knowledge required to make them turn out properly.  It’s not all fluff and frivolity you know.  Cooking is also a means for me to switch off and forget about the stresses of the day.  When I’m cooking, I have to concentrate on the food, and so, anything else is shoved out of my mind.  Then, when the end result apparates from the oven, wok or pan, there is a huge sense of satisfaction.  Like I managed to do something good that day.

More recently, cooking has become a way for me to take control of some health issues.  I have long been bothered by a ridiculously volatile stomach.  Who knows when it will take offence and at what, but I have spent considerable time and great inconvenience and discomfort investigating possible food allergies.  However, the thing that has had by far the greatest effect was this year’s New Year resolution: to cook more from scratch.  Over the last five months I have taken this challenge and really stuck to it.Not only can I take part in lunchtime ‘show and tell’ with my head held high, but my stomach has personally thanked me for my efforts.  I’m not sure if it is the fact that I’m consuming far fewer nasty additives and stuff made in a lab rather than a kitchen, or the fact that when you cook from scratch, the food seems to incorporate healthier ingredients, but I very rarely have problems now.  This might seem like a little thing, but anyone who suffers from IBS will tell you that it can have an extremely disruptive effect on your life, so for me, cooking has actually made a hugely positive impact on my life.  I would argue that anything that allows you to take control of a problem and solve it independently is something that an empowered, modern woman wants in her arsenal.

I know it sounds corny, but I really feel that cooking is in my blood.  There is a strong tradition in my family (from my father’s side might I add) of being a bit nifty in the kitchen.  My father is the main cook in our household, and takes great pride and pleasure in it.  My aunt is a master baker, and holds the key to some amazing family recipes.  My cousins, my siblings and I all enjoy cooking.  I think partly because it is something we have all grown up with and enjoyed.  As a family we always sat down to a fabulous three course meal on a Sunday.  This was a tradition we upheld, even as we all grew older and got jobs and cultivated social lives.  It was a tradition that stuck.  It’s the same at family gatherings- home cooked food is a big part of our shared experience, so much so that there are certain dishes which are expected at family gatherings now!

In fact, one of my most treasured possessions is a cookbook of my grandmother’s from the 1950s.  I never met her, she died before I was born, but my dad entrusted me with this cookbook from quite a young age.  This means a great deal to me because I know that cookbook means a lot to him.  Both because of whom it belonged to and what it is.  My favourite part of this book is the ‘pet recipes’ section at the back.  It’s a section of the book with blank pages where the owner can write their own recipes.  It is this part that I use most frequently. It almost gives me a feeling like I am communicating with the grandmother I never met; her voice comes through, spelling mistakes and all.  It feels like I am carrying on another family tradition, and this is very important to me.

However, in our family, cooking is not just a fluffy pass-time that you share with others and then gleefully accept the applause and adulation.  No, competition is rife in our family, particularly between siblings.  Of course, it’s all very civil and polite, but nobody gets to tell a tale of what they have been up to in the kitchen recently without the rest of us trying to match it.  I always feel that my brother, having worked in a kitchen and my father, being retired and having time to indulge in cookery classes, have a bit of an advantage.  I am certainly an untrained cook, but I like to think that when it goes right, well that’s just an example of a raw talent.  My knowledge of cookery is a patchwork mishmash of things I picked up in home economics, cookbooks, internet recipe forums, cookery shows (thank the Lord for Heston Blumenthal!) , phone calls to my father, text messages to my brother, discussions with my sister and experimental procedures.  I like this.  It feels more organic than having gone to college and learned all the rules.  It makes me feel like some sort of renegade kitchen artist!  I think you can score more points in the competition for talent than knowledge.

And let’s not forget, that professional cooking is a man’s industry nowadays.  Male chefs far outnumber female.  People like Gordon Ramsay promote this idea of a macho kitchen, where you need to be tough to survive.  All that fire and all those knives: it’s dangerous.  Even the fabulous Baker Brothers, who to me seemed like the very essence of metrosexual, new-age, modern men are insistent that their show is for the boys; that it only deals with ‘manly’ food. That sounds like a challenge to me. If the boys think they have a monopoly on it, then the girls need to get in there.  Plus, I always feel a bit Kill Bill; a bit Dexter when I’m playing with my knives in the kitchen.  Nobody messes with me when I’m cooking!

Now, I know it kind of sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet here, and for fear of a Samantha Brick-esque backlash, I would like to point out that I’m actually not that great at bigging myself up.  However, being such a fussy eater, I feel reasonably well qualified to say that I’m doing this well, and good on me for seeing that.  And just to prove that I’m not all talk and no trousers, here’s a little something I whipped up earlier.


So, what’s it all about?

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.  That’s what Tammy Wynette once sang, but she didn’t know the half of it!  In 2012 the closing gender gap certainly makes some aspects of a woman’s life easier (not having all of the house work as “my job” is one of my top ten) but sometimes it can make us feel, well, guilty!  We don’t take any shit, and fight for what we believe in, but there are things that feel kind of like betraying the cause. Does liking high heels mean you’re pandering to men’s fantasies?  Does enjoying whipping up a cake mean you are succumbing to domestic slavery?  I really hope not!

However, some ladies get this horribly, horribly wrong!  They seem to think that ‘Alpha Female’ is just a polite way of saying ‘bitch’.  They stamp all over anyone they have to in a dogged attempt to get to the top, whatever that is.  I truly belive that’s not what it’s all about.  People can’t be forced to treat you differently.  If it’s not a real belief, if people let you be the boss because they’re scared of you rather than because you are genuinely the best at the task in hand, that’s not really worth the supposed victory.  In my humble opinion of course.  This version of ‘girl power’ doesn’t really sit all that well with being a nice person.   Yes, I don’t let my partner walk all over me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t ever do something nice for him (like making him a snack that he really likes- and mine really likes snacks!).  Is this a naive outlook?  I don’t think so, because surely feminism gives us the choice to be the woman that we want to be, even if that does involve wearing a lacy bra and doing the ironing?

Feminism has become such a loaded word, so stuffed full of different connotations, that some girls are afraid to admit to liking stereotypically ‘girlie’ pursuits.  Surely this isn’t what our predecessors had in mind when they took up the fight for equality?  Men aren’t silently judged for liking stereotypically macho pursuits.  I don’t purse my lips and frown if my other half goes to play football.  I applaud him for engaging in a positive activity that not only he loves, but also keeps him fit. It seems that men are also applauded for engaging in typically female activities-  very forward thinking of them and who doesn’t love a man who can cook?  This is a glaring double standard that I think we need to address.

Ok, so I like to bake cakes; so what?  No one comments on my enjoyment of painting or writing, they compliment my creativity (on the occassions that it works out of course) yet when I bake a batch of cupcakes, more often than not people make some comment related to me being a wee housewife.  Yet I would argue that my love of baking stems from my enjoyment of being creative.  It’s the same principle: pride and enjoyment that comes from making something from scratch.  Some might also be surprised to learn that my passion for baking (and in fact, cooking in general)  comes from my father, who I witnessed pulling off delicious feats in the kitchen almost every day of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

I do most of the cleaning in my house.  This is not because I’m the woman, it’s because I’m the one who borders on obsessive compulsive when it comes to cleaning.  If my partner mentions that something around the house looks a bit untidy, I’ll happily write him a list of instuctions to help him remedy that to my standards (I really do- look at the photo).

I also love make up (helps me to blend in with the human race); shoes (I have an actual shoe problem) and clothes (In my defence, I dress to impress the ladies, not stinky boys!) Having said that, I truly believe that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about yourself, and these things make me feel good about myself.  Surely celebrating ones femininity helps the cause, not betrays it.  Trying to be the same as men- that’s not feminism.  Having the same options available to us to choose to be and do what we want and what makes us feel happy is.

This is my attempt to negotiate the delights and dangers of being a woman, who does consider herself to be a feminist, in the twenty-first century.  I hope some (or all) of it rings true!

Be prepared for my musings (some may say ramblings) on, let’s say, a varied selection of topics.  And to illustrate my point, I wrote this while wearing lipstick and heels; but I didn’t do any ironing!