Discover more from Notes from the Field
Slaving over a hot stove? No.
When a culture has a very sophisticated and complicated cuisine, that tells you something about the historical role of women in that society. Essentially that creating a complicated cuisine doesn't leave women much time for doing anything else. And it tells us other things about that society. These tend to be communities of the cloister, the purdah.
Importantly, these tend to be cultures in warm climates with fertile soils. Where producing food is easy, so women’s labor was not needed in farming. Women could develop baroque crafts and complicated food, precisely because they were not also planting vegetables, tending hogs, or doing any amount of other work that farming requires.
By contrast, look at cultures, like those of Northwestern Europe, where the traditional food is in many ways less complicated (tends to involve boiling or roasting things for a long time). The environment is a major factor. In an unforgiving climate, the challenge to produce food for the year in the growing season meant women's labor was always needed. Even if it was still on the farm, they were doing a lot of work that wasn’t in the kitchen. They did not have the time to be making intricate dishes that take hours of active preparation. They made things they could put on the stove and leave. The economy couldn't survive with women being trapped indoors all the time (and this is economy at the macro and micro level: a household would struggle without at least 2 adults to do the work, and in a monogamous society this was usually a husband and wife).
My favorite food in the whole world is Peranakan (Straits Chinese) cuisine. Truly delicious. And unbelievable time-consuming to prepare from scratch. It features many intricate dishes (including sweets based on palm sugar and coconut). Much of it is influenced by Hokkien and Malay foods, but tends to be just that bit more fancy.
This cuisine emerged as the product of a distinctive trading community in port cities (so no outdoor farmwork to do), and ladies stayed inside. There were Peranakan ladies in Malacca and Penang in the nineteenth century who left their parents’ home for the first time only to be taken to their wedding! (for more about their culture, check out the Pinang Peranakan Mansion).
Of course, women with time on their hands can be incredibly creative. Their distinctive foodways, intricate embroideries, all reflect women’s time and skill.
Here’s one blogger’s instructions for making popiah (a kind of soft spring roll). A key ingredient is the fabulous cooked turnip-which takes hours to make, and in the days before refrigeration would have to be made fresh every time.
Today if someone wants to make this food, they are assisted by the various home appliances that make it somewhat easier. But it’s still going to take a fair amount of your day.
Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave describes the paradox of improved household technology - it tends to have reduced the household work required of men, while increasing (or maintaining) the amount of work required of women. She describes the industrialisation of homelife in America over the last 150 years. Every “improvement” brought higher expectations: for instance, that women would prepare more sophisticated meals once the technology existed. When the closed oven and commercially milled flour arrived in the nineteenth century, this meant an expectation in middle-class homes of baked cakes and breads (which meant time spent mixing and kneading dough).
I think of the high expectation for home cooks that all our tv kitchen shows creates. I can’t remember who it was said cooking was like opera. Skilled experts do it in public for money. Those of us trying at home are doing cooking karaoke. And we want to show it off! (or architectural trends are focused on assuming we want to). Rather than being tucked away as a functional space, like the laundry room or bathroom, we have houses with large open-plan kitchens in the middle of the living space (which is my idea of hell. If I wanted people to watch me cook, I’d work at Benihana. My cooking is weak, my dishes are dirty, I need to be able to close a door on all that, rather than have it as the centerpiece of my home thank you).