This past weekend cooking for my best friend Julia, who was visiting for a few days from England, I was reminded of how much I enjoy cooking for the people I love. I find pleasure in every aspect — the planning, shopping, preparing and eating of a meal I know will bring joy to the person for whom I have prepared it. I especially enjoy cooking for Julia, with whom I first learned how to cook when we lived together during our second year of college. I remember her showing me how to wrap beets in tin foil before roasting them, how to season lentils, make granola and purée soup. Julia is one of the greatest appreciators of food out there and she is my favorite person to cook for.
With her visit approaching, I began a list of items I wanted to have in the house to make — mascarpone to stuff dates with, canned tomatoes for her favorite tomato sauce, and spicy sausage for pizza toppings. My favorite moments of our visit were those cooking and eating together — chatting while stirring risotto, relaxing while the stuffed peppers were roasting and savoring a freshly sliced ball of mozzarella di bufala together.
While reflecting on the joy cooking for other brings me, I was reminded of how in my senior thesis, The Gendering of Food: History, Culture, Family, one of the main themes I examined was the idea that food is an expression of womanly love. Advertisements and cookbooks throughout the twentieth century made it clear that shopping for and preparing food was an expression of a mother’s unconditional love and of a wife’s talent, personality and devotion. Never, however, was it suggested that men could also show care and love through the preparation of food. This theme continues to resurface in advertisements today and to be a part of our culture, reflected in the widely used proverb, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” While expressing love and care through cooking can be a wonderful thing, the idea that food must be an expression of love is also dangerous. If a woman doesn’t enjoy cooking or preparing food for her partner, does that mean she doesn’t love her partner? If a mother doesn’t have the time or desire to cook for her family does that mean she isn’t nurturing and caring?
In her groundbreaking study of feeding work in the 1990s, Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, Marjorie DeVault concludes that “The work must be seen as separable from the one who does it, instead of in the traditional way as an expression of love and personality” (12). If feeding is seen simply as a necessary part of family life and not as an expression of supposedly intrinsic female qualities such as love and caring, she argues, it would allow men the opportunity to be more involved, simply by acknowledging that it indeed is work.
Reflecting on DeVault’s proposed solution, I argue in my thesis that while stripping feeding activities of their sentimental aspects may allow feeding to become more gender-neutral work, some of the most enjoyable components of this work may be lost. As I described earlier, I have felt great fulfillment from cooking as an expression of love, and I have also received this care from female and male family members. I believe that food can be a powerful and meaningful expression of love and care, if that is what the feeder intends to convey.
So, is food love? For me, yes, but I realize that for others it isn’t, and that is just fine, too.