The Sexual Politics of Dinner

After two decades of making dinner, I am finally ready to cook like a man.

The day my father died was the day my mother officially stopped cooking. From that point on, she might scramble an egg or make a tuna fish sandwich, but she would never again prepare what could be considered a proper meal, one with a protein, a starch and a vegetable. This was not a protest or a manifestation of extreme grief, it was merely her way of declaring a formal and definitive end to an era. She had put dinner on the table every night during the forty-one years of her marriage, and my father’s death provided a natural stopping point. She was, quite simply, done.

I am considerably younger than my mother was then, and my husband, thankfully, is very much alive. But I am feeling the first rebellious stirrings that I suspect will eventually lead me to hang up the pots and pans. After 25 years, I have been rendered sad and stupid by the grindingly repetitive nature of dinner, by the never-ending need to plan the evening meal, then shop for it and prepare it, night after night, year after year – a mind-numbing rotation of meat and side dishes that my family greets, more often than not, with an obnoxious chorus of  “chicken…again?” I am tired of having to remember who likes fish and who won’t eat red sauce, who will be home on Tuesday nights and who won’t. I am bone weary from it all, which is unfortunate, because I would actually enjoy cooking if I could do it as a lark, once in a while, with no pressure or expectations – which is exactly the way my husband cooks.

It may be a gross generalization, but I firmly believe that men and women approach dinner in entirely different ways. My husband cooks for fun – he tinkers with exotic and savory ingredients until he comes up with something novel and delectable. I, on the other hand, have cooked all these years in order to stave off starvation in the next generation of humans. I cook because otherwise children will die. This difference in approach leads to vastly different types of dinners: my husband’s meals are creative and beautiful while mine are grim and workmanlike. To put it in artistic terms, my husband’s cooking is like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; mine is like slapping a coat of primer on the backyard shed.

To be fair, it’s not like my husband and I have a level playing field. Since I work at home, with flexible hours, I am the one who cooks on weekdays, when there is limited time to shop or study a recipe. I will very often throw something together using whatever is on hand – my default meal is slathering some Dijon mustard on a chicken breast and calling it a night. My husband, on the other hand, only cooks on weekends and holidays, when he can spend hours going over recipes, planning his menu, going to gourmet shops to find the perfect crimini mushrooms or his favorite brand of Asian fish sauce. He takes great care with his ingredients – when he makes chicken, he will rinse it thoroughly in cold water, then pat it gently dry before painstakingly plucking each individual bit of feather, and massaging tenderness into the meat. For a chicken, being prepared by my husband is like spending the day at Canyon Ranch.

My husband can afford to be meticulous, since the whole family is around on weekends, and he views us as a small and resentful staff of sous chefs. He will not hesitate to bellow for me or one of the kids to come and put up a pot of water or get him a paper towel, or find the butter. When I prepare the weekday meals I do it alone, cooking all the courses, making the salad, setting the table and cleaning as I go.

And despite the drudgery, the effort has been worth it, because all of those meals, prepared by a grumpy and indifferent cook, were eaten by a family that enjoyed sitting down together to talk about their day and bond over an overcooked piece of poultry. But my kids are grown now, and when my youngest child goes off to college next year, I plan to stop cooking, cold turkey (which is what we’ll have for dinner some nights, on rye bread with mayonnaise). I may cook for fun once in a while, but I am looking forward to following the matriarchal tradition of turning my kitchen into the appendix of the house: a useless, vestigial organ that I may have to get rid of if it starts to rot. Except for the oven, which I will continue to use the way my mom did – to store sweaters out of season.

Image: Kevindooley