(Rebe[L)ogic] My Iranian Father’s Journey into the Kitchen

BY HELYA AZADMANESH-SAMIMI

Kaveh Azadmanesh-Samimi is a man of small frame; standing at five feet and seven inches, he does not occupy a lot of physical space in a room. In a dinner party setting, one would likely find him sitting in a more peaceful spot, engaging in conversation with one of the older members of the crowd about the arts or politics. An introvert by nature, his very being defies traditional ideas of masculinity. Where hegemonic expectations of men prescribe football games, whiskey, and an obsession with cars, my father enjoys listening to classical music, drinking black tea, and identifying flora and fauna on his frequent hikes at the neighborhood trail.  My father, a retired man 63 years of age, worked himself to the bone. For thirty years of his life, he held rigorous, demanding jobs within the business world. His position as a manager in a manufacturing company served as his most exhausting professional endeavor, and marked the end of his working career at the age of 53. Though several aspects of his life have shifted since retirement, his most poignant transformation has taken place in culinary skill level.

Whereas the kitchen was an unfrequented space for a considerable portion of his life, it has become one of the spheres to which my father regularly contributes, since he adopted the role of our household’s primary food provider after my mom began working about a year ago. Upon acquiring one of the most comprehensive books about Iranian cuisine in existence, he devoutly read, practiced and successfully executed even the most complex of Iranian recipes. Given the societal connotations imposed upon the work of feeding, and its coding as a feminine responsibility, my dad subconsciously adopted strategies to facilitate the masculinization of the acts of cooking and feeding. In order to achieve this acclimatization within the kitchen, he implements principles of logic and professionalism, intertwined with a rebellion and defiance of my mother’s style of cooking.

When asked why he cooks, my dad immediately retorted with the objective response that he “[cooks] because human beings are not supposed to starve.” Although he went on to explain that his reasons were also circumstantial, given the power vacuum that was created after my mother’s exodus from the kitchen, his initial deadpan response speaks volumes to his reasoning. This contrasts greatly with the basis of emotion and love for family that characterizes stereotypically feminine motivations behind cooking. Women are continuously inundated with messages about a constructed responsibility to nurture and to grant their children happiness with their culinary creations. In her article “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles,” Katherine Parkin notes the Campbell’s company’s exploitation of the idea of mothers’ responsibility to love through feeding. The company did so in hopes of implanting a need within their female consumers to purchase cans of the company’s soup to fulfill their roles as good mothers. “Ads placed responsibility for children’s gratification and well-being on their mothers, warning them, ‘Do not disappoint your own children.’”[1] In this way, cooking and feeding by women was conflated with ideas of love and compassion for the family.

Contrastingly, my dad’s verbalized motivation for cooking lacked emotional elements, and was fully replaced by reasoning and rationality. When asked whether he took pleasure in cooking, he briefly addressed his own enjoyment of the act, but subsequently refocused his response on the logic-based approach of doing so because he believes that,

In order to cope with starvation, cooking is the first and foremost way that our [ancestors] could make something delicious, nutritious and sufficient.

In addition, he also acknowledged that “even if it was not that tasty or delicious or complying with tradition, he felt satisfied that he could [cook]” thus effectively categorizing the need to please his family members with his cooking as a secondary concern. This exemplifies a point made by Christopher Carrington in his article “Feeding Lesbigay Families,” as he outlines the general societal belief that “engaging in routine feeding work violates gendered expectation for men” and that “in heterosexual family life, men are usually capable of avoiding feeding work.”[2] Given that, in my father’s case, he is unable to avoid such feeding work, he moves onto a new method of distancing himself from its feminine association by reframing it and justifying it using rationality. By subconsciously replacing the sense of familial responsibility and love that defines women’s motivations for cooking with a principle of logic, my father effectively masculinizes cooking and feeding work.

In somewhat of a departure from his first guiding principles of logic and rationality, my father’s culinary style also reflects a rebellion from the style of cooking that my mother implemented as the preceding head of the kitchen. This subversion permeates through his methods of cooking and continues to deconstruct the otherwise “feminine” stereotypes that may be associated with engaging in culinary work. My mother’s experimental and seemingly arbitrary culinary method, one in which she puts together different combinations and measurements of spices and herbs, results in a unique and unreproducible plate of food at every meal.

Contrastingly, my father adheres to a cookbook of gargantuan proportions and great instructional detail. In doing so, he subconsciously distances himself from his perception of feminine cooking with his strict adherence to proper methodology and preparation tactics. In every stage of his cooking process, be it the shopping, the preparation of the ingredients, right down to the cooking time and even the motions of stirring stew, he employs great care and concentration, as if completing a task for a job. By working in such a professional manner, he imparts a sense of value and importance onto his actions that may not have otherwise existed in his mind, a process that perhaps aligns directly with his efforts to reduce feminine qualities and emphasize masculine ones. Thus, by employing professionalism and technical proficiency as guiding principles in direct rebellion against and deviation from my mom’s freehanded form of cooking, my dad continues to solidify his efforts of constructing masculinity in his experience.

My father, Kaveh Azadmanesh-Samimi, is an enlightened man. He is intellectually curious, open-minded in accepting new modes of thought, and reads incessantly. He regularly exposes himself to novel concepts and unconventional perspectives. Despite this, or perhaps as a result of this, he perceives himself as unsusceptible to most forms of prejudice and bias, especially those rooted in ideals of gender identity. When asked to consider the effects of Iranian societal expectations of men and how they inform his experience with cooking, he vehemently rejected the idea, claiming,

I am not an ordinary Iranian man.

This statement, which is reflective of an attitude of rebellion, one of his guiding principles within the kitchen, serves as somewhat of an “easy way out.” It creates a barrier, a verbal obstruction that hinders his intellectual journey in a particularly important realm: his own life. Given the exceptionally strong manifestation of patriarchal values in contemporary Iranian society, and the perpetuation of gender roles that disadvantage women, it seems incongruous and perhaps even counterintuitive to my father’s second guiding principle of logic. It seems to defy rationality to make such a statement of individual idiosyncrasy, despite the fact that he lived in complete integration in Iranian society, and regardless of his upholding of Iranian values and conventions after our family’s emigration from our home country. What kind of precedent does this establish? What is the true definition of an “ordinary Iranian man?” Does not this mindset further reinforce conceptions that he wishes to avoid in the first place?

Main Image: My father, Kaveh Azadmanesh-Samimi. Photo Credit: Helya Azadmanesh-Samimi.

Notes

[1]. Katherine Parkin, “Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles” (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 56.

[2]. Christopher Carrington, “Feeding Lesbigay Families” (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2011), 201.

Bibliography

Carrington, Christopher. “Feeding Lesbigay Families.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 187-210. 3rd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis,

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, by Sherrie A. Inness, 51-67. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.