Gender & Food Week: A Woman’s Place in the Kitchen: The Cinematic Tradition of Cooking to Catch a Man

Meryl Streep and Steve Martin in It’s Complicated
This guest post is written by Jessica Freeman-Slade.

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.”

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina
As centuries of unequal domestic duties have shown us, women who are happy in the kitchen must, by extension, be happy in love. Having fallen in love with the 1995 version of Sabrina long before seeing the original, I had assumed that Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) maturity and allure upon returning from Paris were indebted to a haircut, long walks by the Seine, and a new passion for photography — not a new talent at whipping up souffles in perfect capris and ballet flats. The ascription of her romantic desirability to her talent with food is an uncomfortable, backward narrative, one that’s hard to escape from even in modern cinema.Young women have heard throughout time that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and film and television have done an excellent job of backing up this assumption. Not all women who can cook were taught to do so at the behest of future matchmakers, but the prevailing attitude, taught to us in women’s magazines and through the constant refrain of mainstream narratives, is that if you catch a man, you’d better make a decent meal. The loathsome popularity of dishes such as “engagement chicken” carry with them the promise that women need only master the kitchen to hook a man. DIY domesticity, maybe, or just cooking to couple up, but either way, it’s an uncomfortably old-fashioned message.

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
But cooking for a man, as shown on film, isn’t without its rewards — for good food is one of the best (and cheapest) means of seduction. When someone takes you into their kitchen, hands you a glass of wine, and promises you a delicious meal, it’s a method of flirtation that’s hard to resist. The pairing of womanly passion and culinary skills has been present as long as women’s emotions were captured in fiction: because a woman’s place has been primarily in the kitchen, her expression of whatever feelings or agency she may have comes by way of what she cooks. Look at the way Tita expresses her passion in Like Water for Chocolate, her emotions dripping into the food and infusing each bite with lust, sorrow, and joy. Her desires, forbidden by her family, cannot help but find their way into her cooking.(When this is later adapted into the romantic comedy Simply Irresistible, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s restaurant chef is accused of being a witch, manipulating her love object with the delicious meals she prepares. Just as women would be kept out of the boardroom for fear of their emotions, so too is she kept from running her own kitchen.)

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
Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Eric Powell (Chris Messina) in Julie & Julia

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.

So we’re getting a lot of mixed messages here — can a woman ever cook on film without it looking old-fashioned? Will preparing a meal ever been completely self-satisfying, for the benefit of the chef rather than the diner? Or, like an apron, will the function of cooking on film be forever tied to an expression of gender norms and traditional divisions of domestic labor? I don’t know if we can ever really have much of a distance from Sabrina’s souffle, for depictions of cooking will almost always be expressions of generosity, love, and compassion, no matter who holds the whisk. But for now, I’m hoping for more characters like Janette and Julie, cooking for their own satisfaction and survival rather than someone else’s. That, at least, is a dish that can be served any time of the year.

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a cookbook editor at Random House, and has written reviews for The Rumpus, The Millions, The TK Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She lives in Morningside Heights, NY.

One Trackback

  • By burberry バーバリー バッグ on September 20, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    burberry バーバリー バッグ

    Gender & Food Week: A Woman’s Place in the Kitchen: The Cinematic Tradition of Cooking to Catch a Man | Bitch Flicks