Early in the 1954 film Sabrina — the original, starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart — the titular ingenue finds herself at a cooking school in Paris. Sent over as a gift from her father’s employer, the wealthy Larabee family, Sabrina continues to nurse her crush on the younger Larabee son, David (William Holden), even from Paris, and it shows in her cooking. The head chef inspects her souffle, and declares it “Much too low.” “I don’t know what happened,” she moans pitifully to herself. “I know what happened,” her colleague, a much older French gentleman, says, “You forgot to turn on the oven.” She cries out, and he guesses that she is in love—unhappily in love. “A woman happily in love, she burns the souffle. A woman unhappily in love, she forgets to turn on the oven.”
Cooking has always been a creative act, no matter who’s doing the dishes — it requires careful thought, imagination, and precision. It is, in short, one of the most skilled professions that anyone can take on, and also one of the most generous professions, because it requires thinking deeply about another person’s needs and desires. However, when a woman cooks for a man, and in doing so wins his heart, the woman appears conventionally domestic and feminine — traditional in her skill sets, understanding of her appropriate role in the house and in the relationship, and so subservient to the man’s needs. When a woman cooks on film, even when she cooks something extraordinary, there’s something profoundly submissive when she does it to please a man.
|Ruth Younger (Ruby Dee) and Walter (Sidney Poitier) in A Raisin in the Sun|
In the very beginning of the 1961 film A Raisin in the Sun, Ruth Younger (Ruby Dee) is trying to stir her husband Walter (Sidney Poitier) to start his day — he wants to talk about his dreams, his ambition, and she keeps reminding him to eat his breakfast. He lambasts her for her intolerance, but her means of affecting change — and her means of keeping the family together — have been limited to the kitchen.
|Like Water for Chocolate|
This impulse, to cook to incite pleasure and admiration, even surfaces in more modern films when women would be seemingly more self-sufficient. As recently as 2011’s It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s pastry chef gets to be the object of two men’s lusts, in part, in no small part because she’s a spectacular cook. The scene of her late-night date with a new love interest (Steve Martin), where she makes him chocolate croissants from scratch, shows her at her most ebullient (and sexiest) throughout the film. And it’s only a few scenes later that her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) tells his kids that their mother is the “best cook in the world.” Her talent equals her desirability, displayed in her gift to create a warm, indulgent space for the men in her life.
These scenes aren’t so disquieting on their own—after all, who wouldn’t want to be served a meal infused with lust, or have Meryl Streep bake you croissants at 2am? But the inverted message also comes that, when a woman lacks warmth or compassion, it shows in her cooking.
In Clueless, as Cher (Alicia Silverstone) prepares for a date, her voiceover tells us that “When a boy is coming over, you should always have something baking.” The punchline is then seeing her unwrap an entire roll of frozen cookie dough and dropping it onto a baking sheet. (No surprise later that the entire roll burns to a crisp. “Aw, honey, you baked,” her date condescends. “I tried,” she whimpers.)
The heroine in Mostly Martha, the spectacular 2001 German film, is a good cook, the head chef of a great restaurant, but her cooking doesn’t translate when she has to take care of her niece, Lina. It takes a more genial Italian sous-chef (and Martha’s future love interest) to get the child to eat, and instead of a sophisticated dish, it’s a simple plate of spaghetti that does the trick.
Where Martha’s ambition is rewarded in the restaurant world, it’s punished when she has to act as a surrogate mother (and potential girlfriend). Only once she’s later softened in the film does her cooking — and her parenting — relax to the point of acceptance. But in reality, women don’t just cook for themselves — most of the time, the act of cooking is done as an expression of survival, rather than seduction. Preparing a meal is one indication that a person is fully self-sufficient. It’s a biased opinion, I know, but I raise an eyebrow at anyone, male or female, who tells me that they don’t ever cook for themselves. While making boeuf bourguignon or baking a seven-layer cake takes a greater level of culinary ambition, preparing a series of simple, satisfying dishes show the difference between someone who can take care of themselves, and someone who requires a babysitter.
|Amelie (Audrey Tautou) in Amelie|
The brief scene in Amelie of the heroine preparing her dinner shows us what adulthood looks like — even when adulthood also comes with skipping stones and playing pranks on the local butcher. And no model proves more inspiring than Janette deSautel, the female chef from HBO’s Treme, whose narrative about her New Orleans’s restaurant is entirely without romantic motivation. Even when her restaurant crumbles due to the post-Katrina economy, she rebuilds her reputation in the hard-scrabble New York restaurant scene. By bringing her New Orleans roots to bear in standout dishes at David Chang’s fictionalized restaurant Lucky Peach, she reestablishes herself as a chef to watch — and finds a new avenue toward her culinary career back in her hometown.
|Chef Janette deSautel (Kim Dickens) in Treme|
And finally, there is Julie & Julia, the story of a modern-day woman (Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams) finding inspiration in Julie Child (Meryl Streep, yet again), and using cooking to dig herself out of her personal and professional ennui. Cooking in this story threatens to tear Julie’s marriage apart — not for her lack of skill, but her preoccupation with what the cooking might mean. Her husband (Chris Messina) doesn’t mind being fed, but he does mind her obsession with letting her cooking skill transform her life. When redemption comes, you know it’s arrived when her husband gives in, asking with a smile “What’s for dinner?” Food becomes a means of personal empowerment, rather than seduction…even if it’s ultimately the husband being fed. And, at least in Julie & Julia, it puts the husband in the role of the sous chef, the kitchen support system, even when the cook is melting down over her lack of trussing ability.