BY AMANDA YAN
Eight years ago, when I first noticed a spike in the amount of time my sister, Stephanie, spent in the kitchen, I could not quite pinpoint the reasoning behind her sudden interest. Knowing her, my best supposition was that she discovered craft in preparing food and appreciated the ability to express creativity in the process. Over the years, my 24-year-old sister amassed an impressive amount of cooking experience and knowledge from self-teaching. She gradually transitioned from emulating the decadent dishes that frequently graced the screen of my TV towards preparing simpler styles of American food—all of which were sharp contrasts to the intricate Chinese dishes my mother served on a daily basis since before we were born. Many of my friends and relatives—Steph included—attributed this change to her increased health-consciousness and growing desire to lead a healthy lifestyle. However, my sister’s demeanor and childhood background suggest that her current cooking style is reflective of a growing desire to escape from the unfair household cooking/gender dynamics that she witnessed amongst my parents.
Every night at 6:00 p.m., both of my parents arrived home together; my mother immediately changed out of her work attire and set off to prepping ingredients, all whilst my father made his way to the couch and opened up the day’s newspaper. For the next hour and a half, we could hear the intense sounds of efficient food production—the bashing of her steel cleaver against the hefty wooden cutting board, the searing of the sharp Cutco knife slicing through meat, loud crackling and simmering of vegetables in our wok, oil popping off of the crunchy skin of sea bass—resonating throughout the house, mixed with the muffled referee whistles and basketball commentary coming from the living room TV. When the noises died down, we knew that there were four flavorful dishes waiting for us on the dining room table.
For as long as we could remember, my mother was the one who prepared dinner for the five of us. She cooks good Chinese food—savory, starchy, and saucy in nature—and she cooks it quickly so she could feed the family and carry on with the other activities in her life:
“Mom likes to be really quick with it. She wants to bust out ten dishes in an hour. She’s very just like boom boom boom, I want to get it done.”
Occasionally in the past, her speed resulted in undercooked meals, which typically invoked the wrath of my short-tempered father. I distinctly remember one occasion in which I quietly watched my father pick up recently plated fish and throw it in the trashcan after seeing that it was still slightly raw. For us three children, such experiences were traumatizing and illogical; we never understood why or how he got away with doing such unreasonable things, especially since he never bothered to help make family meals.
The idea that women commonly cook in order to gratify men, who are free and qualified to judge their work, has long remained a stereotype describing the typical American household.[i] This concept is more strongly demonstrated within many Chinese families, largely due to the patriarchal mindset that has long defined traditional Chinese culture. As a result, my mother not only plans meals strictly according to my father’s cravings, but also sheepishly absorbs whatever criticisms and backlash he gives her, despite the unequal distribution of work. She produces the same types of dishes—his favorites—repeatedly, and unsurprisingly also refuses to take suggestions that compromise the aspects of her cooking that he enjoys.
Steph always questioned my mother’s submissive behavior and wondered why she never tried to rebel against my father’s control. After every dinnertime outlash, the two of us would quickly gobble up our bowls of rice and escape to our shared room, where I, as the supportive younger sibling, would listen attentively to her criticisms and try to make sense of her frustrations. Living as a millennial in the extremely liberal New York City only fortified her feelings of opposition towards the patriarchal dynamic of my household. Though she never vocalized her opinion in public, Steph’s cooking history and culinary preferences speak volumes about her concealed beliefs. When asked about her opinions on my mother’s cooking, Steph shared that she did not have any objections to the cooking itself, but rather the lack of nutritional balance amongst meals:
“She has a repertoire of x amount of recipes that she repeats all the time. And they’re good and it’s a very very big variety, but I realized that Chinese food in general is like… it’s very savory. It’s very saucy, starchy sometimes and it’s just… as a pescatarian now it’s very hard to kind of see eye-to-eye with her on cooking style. In Chinese culture, it’s all about tasting good, but they don’t really understand or focus on the nutritional value of things. So, if you ask dad what do you want for dinner, he’ll say, ‘Ah, I feel like having uh fried pork chops.’ But if you think about it, you shouldn’t be eating fried pork chops on a Monday and a T-bone steak on Tuesday and then sweet and sour fish on Wednesday, you know?”
She acknowledges my mother’s skills and talents as a cook, but criticizes the choices she makes in regards to what foods to make, leading me to believe that many of her culinary decisions were driven by a strong resentment towards my father’s judgment.
The dynamic between my parents definitely affected the trajectory of my sister’s culinary experience. During our one-on-ones, Steph frequently spoke about wanting to move out, like any naïve teenager annoyed with her living situation. Though she never acted on her words, she always tried to distance herself from my family’s traditional values—doing her best to escape without actually leaving. Steph independently learned how to cook by watching the fast-paced Food Network[ii] and taking over kitchen duty on weekends; she developed an attraction to shows that revolved around using fresh ingredients in making healthy foods, specifically Everyday Italian and Barefoot Contessa, and prepared meals that were noticeably different from my mother’s—asparagus roasted in extra-virgin olive oil, oven-baked salmon seasoned with salt and pepper, quinoa mixed with scallops, cucumbers, and tomatoes. She actively tried to avoid learning how to prepare greasy, unhealthy foods and even openly criticized programs that promoted the use of fatty ingredients:
“I wasn’t a fan of Paula Deen at all. She was just over the top… butter was her main ingredient in all of her dishes and it just grossed me out. It just seemed like she was using butter as that thing that made her food taste good, but she wasn’t really exploring the essence of other ingredients. Her cooking wasn’t very artful. It was just fatty and greasy and of course that obviously tastes good.”
Sometimes she would only opt for organic products, and the high costs would drive my mother insane. “You can get the same thing for half the price at the Chinese supermarket,” she would say, demonstrating the underlying tensions that existed.
As Steph continued to amass her culinary knowledge and experience, she noticeably gravitated towards simpler styles of food preparation. Though she eventually lightened up on the battle for organics—my parents made her pay for her own groceries after graduation—she remained steadfast in avoiding the use of any processed sauces, artificial sweeteners, or additives. Nowadays, her most common dishes are seasoned only with salt and pepper—an even sharper contrast to my mother’s dinners that still evidences an existing, and continuously growing, antagonism towards the events she witnessed as a child.
Despite her obvious opposition towards the Chinese cuisine that essentially defines my mother’s palette, my sister made sure to cite my mother as one of her inspirations. When I asked her about who taught her how to cook, she replied:
“Everyone on Food Network and mom.”
No one in my family will deny that Stephanie was a self-taught cook. Hearing her acknowledge my mother as a teacher caught me off-guard; she admitted to me her immense respect for my mother’s tolerance and that she, in many ways, strived to become the type of cook that she wishes my mother were able to be—both talented and free from the obligation of having to serve a male figure.
Now, as she approaches her mid-twenties, Steph is seriously thinking about moving out to live with her boyfriend of eight years. Knowing this, I asked about her plans on who will do the cooking when it is just the two of them:
I don’t think it’s primarily going to be one of us in the kitchen. I think we’re both going to play a very big role in the kitchen. And I think that’s really important because the kitchen is such a central part of the home and it’s just kind of the life source of the home. And so having both parties involved—both the female head and the male head of the house—in the creation of your life energy—food—It’s really important and I think he’s on the same page as me.
With this opportunity to leave, she is doing more than escaping from patriarchal home cooking; she is playing an active role in redefining kitchen gender roles.
Photo Credit: Paul Kang
[i] Katherine Parkin, “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles,” in Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, comp. Sherrie A. Inness et al. (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2001), 62.
[ii] Michael Pollan, “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” The New York Times, August 1, 2009.
Parkin, Katherine. “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles,” in Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, compiled by Sherrie A. Inness, 31-67. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2001. Print.
Pollan, Michael. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Aug. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.