BY JENNA E. CHAPMAN
When asking the question “why do you cook?”, a number of responses can be expected: “I cook as a hobby.” “I cook to destress.” “I cook so I know what I’m eating.” “I cook to impress.” “I cook for my family.” “I cook for myself.” But can a deeper causality be assigned to the various reasons so many people cook? In an effort to unpack this question, I interviewed Marie Adams[i]. Marie is a high school teacher, and a health-conscious, married mother of three. She has been my mother’s best friend all my life, and as such I have been able to witness her working in the kitchen on a regular basis. What intrigues me most about her relationship with cooking is the importance it holds in her household. In the years that I have known her, cooking has never appeared to be something she enjoyed, but it always seemed to be essential to her family values and how she conducted her household. In interviewing Marie, someone who does not care to cook but does so anyway, I hoped to discover a reason people had for preparing their own meals that ran deeper than the simple “because I enjoy it.” I soon discovered that Marie identifies with the many women who cook not because they take joy from it but because they see it as part of their duty.
I began by asking Marie when she began to cook. Coming from a home with three sisters and a stay-at-home mother, I had assumed that someone had taught her passed-down, family recipes from a young age. But “No,” Marie informed me.
I began cooking probably between third and fourth grade from a recipe book. My mom didn’t ask me to or anything. I just did it for fun, for entertainment, to eat.
She fondly recounted stories of learning how to make cakes from scratch, and how to make the fancy fillings and sugary frosting that her mother would not make. I eagerly asked Marie if this was the reason she continued to cook, to take control of what she ate, and she just laughed. “No,” she corrected me once again:
I quickly learned that I hated cooking and I didn’t do much of it for a while, until I got married. Then I realized that someone had to do it, and my husband wasn’t about to.
As we transitioned to the more recent stages of her life, I began to ask Sally about her current relationship with cooking. When asking who she cooked for, Marie easily replied “my family.” Why she cooked? To have something on the table to eat. What her favorite dishes to prepare were? Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Beans n’ Greens. Why? Because they are “easy, quick, tasty and not too expensive.” By the end of the interview, with a general sense of the reasons why she cooked, I asked Marie how much her inclination to cook was driven by a sense of duty, and how much what she prepared was limited by her career. While the answer to the former question was as expected (she revealed that yes, she only cooked because someone needed to and she felt it was her responsibility as mother and wife in the family to do so), I was surprised by what she said next. Marie admitted that while the limits of time and money posed by her job did play a role in what she could prepare, that even with vast time and resources she would still not enjoy cooking. She recounted,
For me, it’s a chore. It’s something I have to do,. Most of the time, I would just rather spend my time outside, running, hiking, biking.
Being brought up in a very active lifestyle, Marie confessed that the outdoors were much more her ‘natural habitat’ than the kitchen ever would be. Because of this, I asked her if she felt that these inclinations were brought on by the way she grew up. “Definitely,” she answered.
As a kid, I spent all of my time outside, running, playing. I cook now because I’m the Mom, and someone has to do it, and that someone’s me. But I would much rather spend my time outside, doing anything else.
This comment made Marie out to be the perfect target for the rising pre-prepared food market. As a working mother who hated wasting time on cooking, but still felt the obligation to prepare meals for her family, women like Sally were the exact intended audience for these foods.[ii]So I asked her, if she felt this strongly about the time she spent cooking, why she didn’t make use of pre-prepared foods in her meals to cut down the production time? Marie laughed and replied,
There’s something my mother always used to say. She said, ‘I cook because it’s tastier, cheaper, and healthier than eating out.’ Well, it’s the same thing for ready-made food. That stuff will kill you.
Ultimately, while Marie would admit that many pre-prepared foods had good flavor and some were even comparable to home-made dishes, she was adamant in her stance against them. While it would save her the time that she so desperately craved to get back, in the end, she stated simply,
It wouldn’t be worth it. It just wouldn’t be. I’d rather just spend the extra thirty minutes in the kitchen than serve my family any of that.
In the end, while Marie hates cooking, it is a duty she upholds. As a wife and mother, she feels the obligation from her assigned gender roles to prepare food for her family. With the constraints of time and money, she prepares the easiest and cheapest meals she can manage without forsaking taste (which I can attest that she always manages to achieve). And yet, with all these reasons bearing down on why she should not cook, with the bounded obligation in her heart towards keeping her family healthy, she refrains from implementing pre-prepared foods into her meals, if not solely for principle then also for fear of seeing the results it would wreak in her children. To conclude our interview, I asked Marie directly if she only cooked because she felt that, as a woman, to fulfill societal standards she had to prepare meals for her family. She admitted that that may actually play a large role in why she does what she does, but she stated that in the end:
For those of us who don’t like to cook, it’s not a question of asking yourself, ‘Am I just doing this because I’m a woman?’ but it turns into a question of ‘Who else is gonna do it?’
In today’s society, where when men set aside time to make dinner for their family they are saluted and praised, but it is simply considered a women’s “duty” to do so every day, Marie makes do with the lot she feels she was given in life. After working all day, she comes home to her family to make dinner, because not just her family, but her entire society looks to her to do it. Our expectations were such that as women began to put one foot out of the door to enter the workforce we expected them to keep one in the kitchen to maintain the home. In promoting this mentality, we have burdened countless women with the weight of straddling between these two worlds that no amount of pre-prepared cans of soup can ease. And now, many women, who may or may not actually enjoy cooking, carry the obligation to do so every day. Because really, looking into the expectant faces of your children, your husband, and your friends, recalling the dutiful hands of you mother, your grandmother, and hers before her, you step into the kitchen and begin, because well, “Who else is gonna do it?”
[i] Names changed for privacy purposes
[ii] Parkin, Katherine. Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles. Compiled by Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.