Does a Chef's Gender Affect the Taste of Food? A Debate

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About two weeks ago, The Guardian posted a piece about gender and food—did you read it? It uses a couple of English advertising campaigns to illustrate how the food industry, and more to the point, food advertising, works to create gendered product identities (presumably to its advantage).

The post, written by Eva Wiseman, discusses how eaters make unconscious choices based on gender identification. You know the drill. Man, steak. Woman, chocolate. Wiseman concludes, "Men don't eat steak because they are men, men eat steak to show they are men."

Most of the chefs manipulated stereotypes, sawed them in half, and put them back together. They turned their dishes into brilliant little jokes about gender.

At this point, most of us agree that presumptions like these can be insulting and incorrect. It was no surprise that the comments were flooded with men claiming they loved chocolate, women declaring their affection for steak or their disdain for chocolate, vegetarian men maintaining their masculinity, carnivorous men suggesting their desire for meat is based purely on taste etc. Because the paradigm is wrong, it misrepresents a huge number of complicated, multi-faceted people who choose, and don't choose, lots of foods, for an infinite number of reasons. Still, it persists.

Talking about gender and food is important—and tricky. I was reminded of an event I helped plan last year, after I noticed a couple of writers claiming they could actually taste whether food was made by a woman or a man. Turned out, a lot of people thought they could taste the difference. I found it beyond absurd. Irritating. Impossible! Also, dangerous: If women in fact cooked differently, the value of their work in the professional kitchen would be somehow different from a man's.

So I helped plan an event with the fantastic, New York-based Astor Center to talk about gender and food with restaurant chefs and, hopefully, put this whole magical taste-telling of a woman's cooking thing to bed.

I put in calls to chefs and mixologists I knew who might be game, and Anne Burrell, Doug Psaltis, Brad Farmerie, Akhtar Nawab, and Alexandra Guarnaschelli, among others, graciously agreed to take the night off and shake cocktails and cook dishes for a panel that included Grant Achatz of Alinea (whose thoughts on the event are quoted in Wiseman's article), Dana Cowin of Food & Wine, Ed Levine of Serious Eats, and Gwen Hyman, a cookbook author and professor who had just published a book about gender in the 19th-century kitchen.

The chefs were assigned a key ingredient in pairs, each person creating a dish for the blind panel, which was invited to discuss ingredients, presentations, cooking methods, and what these things said about the cooks, if anything. Then the chefs walked out to reveal which dishes they had made, and to chat.

Most of the chefs manipulated stereotypes, sawed them in half, and put them back together. They turned their dishes into brilliant little jokes about gender, either by working as they would any other night, or by planting decoys that played on our expectations. (Eben Freeman, gentleman barkeep, made rhubarb Gimlets, blushing pink drinks in delicate stemmed glasses.)


MORE ON FOOD AND GENDER:
Nicole Allan: Food Porn
Lauren Shockey : What A Girl Wants

It was great. All these smart people, all in one room, all talking about gender and how it exists for them and how it doesn't. It was also a disaster. Although the audience had been told they'd just get cocktails, they were getting hungry for food. A few people misinterpreted some of the most interesting comments, which came from the very articulate Gwen Hyman, mistaking her sarcasm for a genuine belief that women cook from their hearts (or uteruses) while men cook from their brains.

At the end of the night, most people ripped at the unscientific nature of the experiment and the uselessness of the data. I was crushed! I spent a long time thinking about other ways we could have set it up (mostly, I thought, I should have known to call on someone more articulate and more experienced than myself to moderate).

Should everyone have made the same dish? Should we have given everyone the same quantities of the same ingredients? How could we have conducted a perfect experiment?

It drove me crazy. I didn't stop to consider that when it comes to gender, there is no perfect experiment. Because gender in the kitchen is a culture, not a science. Because there's no constant, only variables, we can't evaluate food and gender reliably—which is why I wanted to do the experiment in the first place. If you can taste that the food you are eating was made by a woman, you are revealing something about yourself—and not about the cook.

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Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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