I spent the week, working in the company of 18 women - varying in age from 26 to 85. Women only. A couple of weeks earlier, attending a conference on food studies in Warsaw, I noted with delight that one third of the participants were male. At about the same time the Second international conference on food history in Tours, France, also did not seem to be gender-charged. But here we were, in the heart of Harvard, MA, with our food studies as in the female ghetto of the academia.
We ignored the fact and we enjoyed fully our week together – we laughed all through. We were reading historical cookbooks: each of us studied at least six of them throughout the week and each morning we enthusiastically traded with our funny discoveries from the 15, 16, or 19 century – our entertainment peppered up by the sharp wit of the wonderful Barbara Wheaton. We found ourselves amused by the language, by the instructions, by the self-praise of the authors, by the very purpose of some of the publications. But I believe we most of all laughed with the old-fashion-ness of both male and female authors’ idea that women were there mainly, or even solely, to please men. “Gentlemen, also, have told me of great improvements in the family-table, after presenting their wives with this manual of domestic cookery; and that, after a morning devoted to fatigues of business, they no longer find themselves subjected to the annoyance of an ill-dressed dinner,” wrote certain Ms. Lesley in 1851 – we would read and would burst in laughter.
But then the working week was over, and on Friday night I found myself browsing the books in COOP – the main bookstore of Harvard University. My attention was suddenly caught by a small black book, called: Recipes every man should know. I opened it – a compact, pocket sized volume – straight on the introduction. “So, why should man cook?” started the authors Susan Russo and Brett Cohen. Asking this question, in first place, is kind of… interesting, so I read further. Which was not difficult, taken that the answer followed neatly numbered and in short sentences:
Women think men who cook are sexy.
It involves fire, sharp instruments and meat.
Women think men who cook are sexy and it involves fire, sharp instruments and meat.
Closing the book with a bang, I was wondering: was it Brett speaking over Susan? Was it Susan trying to be funny? Could it be that this was the deepest truth the two authors themselves have achieved? But if “of course not, it’s a joke, obviously!”, does it change anything? Whatever the background of these three sentences may be, they were there with the clear intention to sell. So they were seen as selling. May be they are selling…
I thought I’d buy this book as a memento mori – of how fragile is our female emancipation, in which we dwell and feel so secure, how delusive it actually is and how close are its limits. I thought we laughed at Ms Leslie and similar so wholeheartedly, because we do believe that we know better. That our modern world does. But does it?
At the end I left the book back on the shelf. I thought it would be like keeping a gun in your drawer. You never know who will find it and who will end up shot.