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Thursday, April 15,2010

Women in the kitchen: nurture or necessity?

By Lauren Duncan
Julia Child’s cooking show, The French Chef, first aired on television in 1963, with her demonstration of how to cook an omelet. The show pioneered complex home cooking at a time in the United States when many women did just that. Nearly 50 years later, in a world of female CEOs and full-time mothers, women’s roles surrounding food and cooking have changed drastically.

The days of Julia Child’s 12-hour pot roasts and intricate soufflés have in large part vanished, at least on television. More popular cooking shows today include Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals and Giada De Laurentiis’ Everyday Italian, both of which emphasize timely preparation for a busy individual.

Shelly Miller, a full-time engineering professor at University of Colorado at Boulder and mother of two, says her options are limited in terms of dinner preparation.

“I usually get home at 5:30 and then the kids really need to eat by 6 or 6:30,” she says. “I make really simple things. There are recipes I want to make, but I just can’t make them because I can’t deal with more than three ingredients at a time.”

While a popular movement in the food world today is the Slow Food movement, which encourages long meals and local ingredients obtained from the farm down the road, such a lifestyle is difficult for many of today’s women to uphold.

Robert Buffington, a CU-Boulder professor in the women’s studies department, explains that the stay-athome wife is a rare, privileged arrangement.

“When the U.S. was on top of things and the economy was expanding at an amazing rate, that created opportunities for men to make a living wage which meant they could pay for their wives to stay home,” Buffington says. “It became more common for women to be able to stay home, which had been the privilege of just a small percentage of the women in most societies.”

When the women’s movement gave more women permission to work, the extra income contributed to increased consumption among households. It also went toward paying for services that the women had previously done themselves, such as cooking or cleaning.

“Now it’s changing, and real wages have stagnated in the U.S. as Americans increased their consumption,” Buffington says. “What would have been a living wage for a family in 1960 may not support a contemporary American lifestyle.” This means that many women today don’t just want to work — they have to.

“So these days, when everybody’s working all the time, it’s hard to decide who’s going to do what,” Buffington says. “It usually falls on women.”

Miller says she feels lucky that her husband, Ken, who also works full time, prepares meals during the week as well.

“It helps that we take turns,” she says.

“I think I’m pretty fortunate that Ken is willing to [cook]; I’m not sure there are so many families that are like that.”

Indeed, Buffington explains that women throughout history have traditionally been associated with nurture, and that feeding people is part of that nurture. He says that in most societies, women also have to manage other work in addition to food preparation. For example, in Latin America, where corn tortillas are the staple food, women historically spent six to eight hours a day just grinding corn, but they’d also have to do other work.

“It’s fairly recent and still very rare that women don’t have to do other work,” he says. Which is why the “50s housewife” scenario, where women stayed home and were able to focus primarily on the preparation of that night’s dinner, is quite rare.

“The idea [of the Slow Food movement] will either be the people with incredible drive to accomplish all those things, or it will be the people who have the privilege,” Buffington says. “It sort of holds up this idea of the good life to which most people have no way to obtain — not necessarily in Boulder, but for most people out there in the world.”

A different ballgame

If women have traditionally been the primary preparers of food, why are there a higher percentage of men in restaurant kitchens? According to the annual Salary Survey by www.starchefs.com, men dominate the culinary profession. Seventy-eight percent of the survey’s participants in 2008 were men, and only 18 percent of the women that responded held the executive chef title.

Peer inside any restaurant kitchen and it will likely be testosterone-driven.

Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of awardwinning Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, says that the industry’s hours are what make restaurant work the most grueling.

“It’s really hard on people, it’s like an athletic career,” he says. “And then you throw in having a family; the average of having the responsibility of motherhood tips the scales.” One of Frasca’s male employees, a father for two-and-a-half years, is leaving the restaurant because working five nights a week is too hard on his family. Stuckey also recalls a server who left the industry six months after giving birth; the work was too much as a new mother. Stuckey, who has spent 26 years in the restaurant industry, does not have children of his own, and says that probably makes it easier for him and his wife to work harder.

“The business’ hours, when you’re having children, eliminate the one who is raising the child [quickly],” he says.

According to Sheila Lucero, executive chef at Jax Fish House in Boulder and Denver, having children would be a challenge in her position.

“I’ve considered having kids, and I don’t know how I’d squeeze it in,” she says. “A lot of the women in this field don’t have kids, and this is just what they do.” Even if she were to take several months off for maternity leave, Lucero says her career would fall behind.

Time constraints aside, Lucero adds that restaurant kitchens do have a considerable “boys club” element, which may by nature exclude some females.

“When you get four or five men in an environment that’s 110 degrees, it can be interesting, it can be funny,” she says. “It’s very testosterone-driven.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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