by Rosemaria Mathew
Questions on culinary skills of a girl or remarks on how good or bad a cook she is are not really surprising, if not common, at least in an intimate circle. When I began staying alone during my mid-twenties, such questions and remarks increased dramatically. After frequent such questions, I was rather surprised at this new-found interest that some had in what I ate for breakfast or prepared for lunch. When a person I didn’t really know much asked me the same question on a day when I was rather moody, I enquired about this new kind of concern, to which she replied, “Well, it’s just because you don’t seem the cooking-type.” Now whatever is that supposed to mean? Who exactly is a ‘cooking-type’ girl?? One morning, when I went down to get milk, the milkman asked, “What do you eat for lunch?” and again I see surprise written large on his face when I reply that I eat rice, which I cook in the morning instead of eating from the university canteen. And he gives me a peculiar look and says, “I did not think you are the rice-eating-type girl. I thought you would prefer something like noodles and pasta.” Really every day!!! Much as I love these dishes, I can’t imagine having them for lunch every day. The other day, a co-scholar at my university is shocked, a level beyond surprise even, when he got to know that I visit a nearby weekly vegetable market every week. He says, “What do you cook so much? Anyways you don’t look the cooking-type.” There comes the ‘cooking girl’ reference again!
And then there’s this another caring friend of mine who keeps on reminding me to buy a big packet of oats whenever I visit the supermarket just so that I need to cook less. Then there is my really close relative, whom I actually like a lot, who occasionally tells me to learn cooking while I am staying alone so that I can woo a guy and then impress my in-laws in future. And how can I forget my dearest aunt who never fails to express her disapproval at my inability to get her favourite dishes perfect and the way she likes them whenever she visits home or her absolute wonder as to how my cooking skills are rather dull when almost everybody in my family loves cooking. With great concern she reminds me that to be a good girl, you should also be a good cook. I also remember how a professor of mine was deeply hurt and angry when during a visit to his friend’s family, the friend remarked on seeing his daughter that she must occasionally come home so that his wife, a good cook, can teach her how to cook. And the surprising thing is that the little one, at that time, was just six or seven years old. On another occasion, a dearest friend shared how her boyfriend’s father asked her to marry his son soon since their home was badly in need of a good cook! Certainly a lot of people genuinely want you to cook well so that you can eat healthy and tasty, especially if you stay alone. But is that what all who make such comments have in mind?
Of all the fantasies that the society has with respect to the feminine, some are really bizarre. From the next-door-neighbor enquiring if the girl cooks well enough to occasional celebrity remarks in this context to your colleagues who wonder at your supposedly poor culinary skills (when compared to theirs) to relatives who evaluate your tea every time they come home, I am sure most of us can think of a string of other such examples to add to this list… but that’s not really the point. The matter here is about how certain skills are socially and culturally transformed into gendered signs and assessment markers. Culinary skills are often taken to be a defining criteria in the assessment of a girl’s skills. A kind of disapproval at your reluctance to cook or lack of high culinary skills, repeated advices to learn cooking so as to impress the future mother-in-law and what not… well I have certainly never heard anybody telling a boy to hone his cooking skills so as to impress his future in-laws!
Sometimes it’s not just the ‘bad cooks’ who are ‘scolded’ but also the good ones. I have had female friends telling me how they have been not only praised but also looked down upon for possessing excellent cooking skills. One felt extremely bad when her grandma, after enjoying a meal she had prepared, remarked “the girl can now be sent off to another house. She has learnt to cook well.” And another one was constantly teased by her sister-in-law saying that all she could do was to cook and nothing else. It’s clearly not about cooking good or bad, but how it is linked to aspects of gender.
Cooking is no doubt an art for some, a hobby for some, and the best-thing-to-do-during-free-time for some others. For some, it is about seeing the smile and the look of satisfaction on the face of their loved ones when their dear ones taste their dishes. For instance, my sister, who cooks wonderfully, often tells me that she is immensely delighted when she sees the family relishing her dishes. But there are also some, for whom cooking is one of the necessary tasks to be done every day for life survival and small pleasures. I fall into those category of helpless innocent people who constantly attempt to cook well and try out light new dishes, but are not met by a tasty success every time. Be it a girl or a boy, one must think about how meaningful it is to evaluate a person on the basis of the snacks he/she prepares in the evening or how successfully he/she makes different kinds of tea depending on the mood of the other person and the time of the day. When we do this, I wonder what kind of message we pass on to our little ones. Okay I get it. My cooking isn’t that great. In fact it might not even be fine for somebody else. I myself don’t enjoy it at times. So what if my culinary skills aren’t exactly at their peak, I think I do have some other skills. No matter what others say, I am happy that I cook, and I no way strive to be a professional. Of course I can try to make my dishes better at least for myself and surely I will be happy to prepare food for my loved ones. I cook to eat healthy and for my little pleasures. I love it when my mother enquires how my curries turned out to be or when my sister hunts out new recipes which I can easily make and get them perfect too! My half- burnt cakes, not-very-tasty soups, almost- okay paneer dishes and the not-so-bad sambhars are my little culinary pleasures.
I smile at my slightly burnt vegetable curries, which often happen because I am reading a novel or listening to music in the next room and forget all about my culinary experiment sitting on the stove until it reminds me with the typical odour that brings me running into the kitchen in super speed. I smile when I fry the onion to the correct light brown colour or when my noodles are in the perfect form. I grin cheerfully when I get the cake right or when I chop the vegetables exactly in the shape as I see in the online recipe pictures. I smile with satisfaction every time I get that delicious odour which I hope is a sign that my under-preparation dish is coming out good. Most importantly I am on cloud nine when my dear one tells me that he likes my curry or when my new type of rice turns out to be much better than I expected. These are my precious moments of little culinary pleasures that happen every day. My occasional half-burnt veggies are honest attempts to improve my dishes and signs of a culinary struggle that happens every morning in my tiny kitchen between me, the vegetables and the recipe kept in front of me.
But should I be judged for my culinary skills? Should anybody be? After all I am just a simple ordinary girl who tries to get my recipe as faithful to the recipes I find online, and I am happy when they do. ….and well if they don’t, which they most often don’t, I tell myself, ‘I have my share of imperfections’, and as my uncle once reminded me nothing is perfect in this imperfect world. But this does not mean I stop trying to get the dishes perfect in the kitchen. Neither does it mean I can be judged on its basis outside the kitchen. ***