For a recent New York Times Magazine issue, the writer Virginia Heffernan penned an essay in which she worked through some complicated feelings about home cooking. She never liked making dinner, and the chore is especially problematic because she has kids, she wrote. They’re hungry, and in order to get food on the plate, she has to first navigate thorough holistic wisdom put forth by writers like Ruth Reichl and in family-table-centered cookbooks. All of this is an issue, Hefferan wrote, when she really just identifies with the Jessica Lange character in Tootsie who calls herself a “born defroster.” The piece elicited supportive responses — “Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I won’t feel so alone at 5pm anymore” — but other readers were deeply polarized: “This article is more pompous than the cookbooks it tries to condemn,” one wrote, while several more offered various secret techniques for learning to love cooking. Yet other readers opined that Heffernan was selfish, or worse.
Michael Ruhlman, the prolific food writer and cookbook author, felt compelled to write his own response piece in which he offered sound advice about approaching meals, along with a chicken schnitzel recipe. The problem with this, however, turned out with some unfortunate and problematic words that made their way into the self-promotional but well-intentioned post: Ruhlman singles out Heffernan’s “long, shrill, monochromatic whine,” and elsewhere called out her “hysterical rhetoricals” made in response to figures like Reichl. Soon enough, comments started piling up at Ruhlman’s site that were critical of the writer, and elsewhere, it was clear the piece had struck a nerve with others, including the Times’ own Pete Wells.
Regardless of intention, these kinds of associations between women and food shouldn’t exist in 2014. More globally, they are, of course, a huge problem in professional kitchens. Here’s Tom Kerridge, who holds two Michelin stars and appears regularly on cooking shows as an expert on food things:
“I like girls in kitchen a lot: it does bring that testosterone level down a little bit, it makes it not so aggressive. But then at the same point a lot of that fire in a chef’s belly you need, because you need them to force themselves to be ready for dinner service. That’s probably why there [are] not so many female chefs.”
The British chef didn’t say this 15 years ago; he said it earlier this month. “They are out there; it’s just whether it’s the industry for them. I’m not sure, at that level,” he added, just in case the message were unclear.
Types and stereotypes abound not just within the industry — “I’m still not sure how a smattering of douchebag gives that extra zing of flavour to a meal,” The Guardian writes — but something of the same ineluctably carries over to the home kitchen. Pretty much everyone has a bad or preconceived idea about what kinds of roles men and women should play in the kitchen, so it’s good that the conversation is ongoing. It’s a shame, however, it often seems stunted.
By now, things have seemingly been smoothed over between Ruhlman and Heffernan on Twitter; the veteran food writer called himself shrill and denied being sexist. Both seem to agree they are each preoccupied with the tyranny of bad cookbooks, and the overabundance of bad cooking advice, and the skirmish, of course, may beget an entirely new project between two writers: “Looking forward to the new cookbook collaboration in a few years,” a reader wrote on Twitter. The suggestion was later retweeted by Ruhlman, then favorited by Heffernan.