March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in the US, UK and Australia while the United Nations marks March 8 every year as Women’s Day. As women bloggers active in the food space, we thought it an opportune time to discuss the relationship between women and food within the home and outside.
Women and food: A changing relationship?
When was it that women and food, more precisely the act of cooking for a household become synonymous with each other? One can either philosophize about this while trying to locate historical sources or view what is through the dual lenses of praxis and pragmatism. Either way, one thing is quite certainly going to happen: Patriarchy and its overbearing hold on women’s lives will come up. Question is, are we subverting the rules it laid down, even if it means taking domesticity mainstream?
Maa ke haath ka khana: The trope of mom’s homemade food
As women of South Asian, specifically Indian descent, we grew up surrounded by the oft used trope of “maa ke haath ka khana,” i.e. food cooked by mother with her own hands, in popular culture. From films to television-extending to male chefs waxing eloquent about family recipes on their TV shows – to other platforms of public discourse, least of all within the home and extended family; the mythic and comforting idea of this kind of food endures.
Like many stereotypes and tropes, there is truth to the continuing draw of “maa ke haath ka khana” in many cultures. Ma, grandma, aunts have been the keepers of culinary secrets and legacies for generations. Willingly or unwillingly, they were taught to take on household chores and cook for the family while their male counterparts were groomed for roles outside the home. Whether any of them had an inclination toward it mattered little. The hearth was a woman’s domain and continues to be; while some households have willing participation from men, it is still a rare occurrence.
Among households with children, 80% of the mothers said they were responsible for cooking meals and 71% said they did both chores-grocery shopping and meal prep.
Nurturers and keepers of recipes; is anything changing in this relationship?
According to a 2019 survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women do more grocery shopping and cooking among American couples. Among households with children, 80% of the mothers said they were responsible for cooking meals and 71% said they did both chores –grocery shopping and meal prep. Even in households without children, women spent more time in the kitchen than their male partners. Similarly Gallup and Cookpad’s 2022 World Cooking Index found that though there was a small drop in the amount of time spent cooking in India and more lunches were being eaten outside the home, women were still overwhelmingly responsible for food preparation.
From “Maa ke Haath ka Khana” to “Ghar ka Khana”
The affluent, middle and upper classes in India are an anomaly because they often hire help to take over tasks such as cooking and cleaning with supervision from the lady of the house. So while she may not be in the weeds, each day, every day, she is still the one managing the kitchen and her family’s diet. This presents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand the employer is trying to free herself from the hassles of cooking daily, on the other that very skill is economically empowering for the employee. This reality might be reflected in social media posts that use the hashtag gharkakhana –food from home, in lieu of maakehaathkakhana –food made by mom, because it often isn’t so though just as good and comforting.
Domesticity, women and food: economic tropes?
Looking through the economic lens, whether one is a domestic cook, a TV or restaurant chef or a food blogger, the skill of transforming raw ingredients into palatable and even enjoyable dishes can be the basis for a stable career. Not a soft skill, but one that can lead to economic prosperity. Yet, domesticity and food go hand in hand on social media, the blogosphere, media and entertainment. There is something primal about our need for nourishment in a safe environment that refuses to break these two apart.
Ma, grandma, aunts: tinkerers, inventors, flavor gurus
As food bloggers we are just as guilty of evoking nostalgia of food from home or made by our first caregivers-mothers and grandmothers. Beneath it all is a basic, honest truth: These women are the keepers of culinary secrets and legacies passing down recipes that become heirlooms. They are also inventors, tinkerers in their own ways no less creative than the most highly rated chefs around the world. From making delicious food with a paucity of ingredients to making versions of foreign cuisines with local ingredients; their ability to constantly innovate and keep families fed is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet their achievements are couched in the softness of domesticity, while men have dominated the professional space.
From behind the screen to reality
Slowly, recognition of the genius of women is becoming more mainstream in no small part thanks to shows like Netflix’s Chef’s Table and YouTube content made by home cooks. Yes, there were trailblazing presenters like Julia Child, Tarla Dalal and Madhur Jaffery, but they didn’t become engines of economic success for others, only themselves. While they did much to promote their cuisines of choice (French for Child, Indian for Dalal and Jaffery), they weren’t championing the cause of women in professional kitchens. In that sense, the rise of Asma Khan’s all women team at Darjeeling Express is a welcome change. And the makers of recipe videos, from grandmothers cooking outdoors to homemakers sharing their recipes, are teaching a new generation to cook their version of “ghar ka khana.” This website hopes to be a small part of that movement.
Domesticity for All!
Women and food have been intrinsically linked by no choice of their own. Patriarchal structures have dictated this relationship. On the other hand, for as long as women have labored inside home kitchens, men have wielded ladles as halwais (dessert masters in Indian sweet shops) and cooks. The same cooks returning home to food made by their wives, closing the circle of patriarchal domesticity where the man earns and the woman manages the home.
The pandemic forced us, men and women, to rethink our relationship with food. From washing, cleaning and storing produce at the peak of pandemic anxiety to actually cooking; the labor that goes into all these chores became obvious. If pre-pandemic it had been obfuscated by clashing schedules so partners couldn’t acknowledge in realtime the effort put into planning and meal prep, working from home brought that into focus.
The pandemic also forced us all to become domestic mavens. Home, the place of enduring comfort became the focus of our attentions. We customized zoom backgrounds, styling shelves with books, plants and tchotchkes; cleaned incessantly, and cooked. Perhaps the dawning of how much labor goes into actually making a home home and replicating the food of our childhoods, or from anywhere for that matter, will enable a new found appreciation for the unpaid, under appreciated labor of women. And perhaps this is how we subvert the grand narrative of patriarchy, by spreading the virtues of good living and eating. A new kind of domesticity for all – men, women, children.