Even in the kitchen, women can’t win

You have to break a few eggs to make a Twitterstorm omelette.
You have to break a few eggs to make a Twitterstorm omelette.
Image: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
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Ladies, are you in the kitchen right now? Because if you’re putting any thought into what you’re cooking, you’re probably doing it wrong. Whether you’re making an egg in a custom-crafted egg spoon or drying out chicken skin with a cleverly repurposed hair dryer, society would like to point out that you’re using the wrong tools. In fact, unless you were intending to cook a mediocre casserole or some brownies from a box, you should probably just hang up your apron now.

Wait, aren’t we supposed to be relieved that more men are cooking than ever before? Well, yes—though that data also shows that women still spend significantly more time in the kitchen. When it comes to the idea of culinary mastery, and who gets to use nifty tools and who should stick to a rubber spatula, the tables aren’t really turning. While men who use weird and wonderful gadgets are heralded as culinary MacGyvers, women with smart hacks or expensive gear are viewed as spoiled dilettantes.

It all started with a hair dryer. On March 21, Helen Rosner, the New Yorker’s roaming food correspondent, posted a photo on Twitter of the chicken she was preparing to pop in the oven. She was using a hair dryer to dehydrate the skin prior to roasting for the purpose of “achieving a shatteringly crispy skin.”

Twitter had questions. Many were about her fancy hair dryer, a $400 Dyson Supersonic. Others seemed to think that she was attempting to fully cook the chicken with the dryer. As The Verge pointed out, “the phrase “$400 hair dryer” is headline-writer candy.” In her own defense, Rosner shared the complete recipe for her perfect chicken on the New Yorker’s website, speculating that “maybe, if I’d wanted the tweet to read as an Alton Brown-calibre kitchen hack, instead of ditzy prop comedy, I should’ve gone for unvarnished nails and a hairier knuckle.”

A few days later, the New York Times dining section ran a piece by Kim Severson about the charmed history of the egg spoon, a long-handled kitchen tool beloved by the likes of foodie demigods Alice Waters and Tamar Adler. Waters had a Bay Area blacksmith craft her an egg spoon so she could hand-roast her breakfast in her kitchen’s open hearth, a technique she shared with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes in 2009.

At $250 a pop, many articles have pointed out that slow-cooking a single egg in a fire is an experience saved for the privileged few… while also admitting that it sounds kind of great (if you can afford it). Both Waters and Adler have been criticized by Anthony Bourdain for their out-of-touch tweeness (paywall), being made to feel guilty for leading lives that look aggressively lovely.

In a time of ludicrously expensive kitchen gear, fancy items adorning your countertop have become a culinary status symbol. A Vitamix for your morning smoothie or crepe batter starts at around $350 for the cheapie version and can run above $1,000. Alison Roman’s famous chocolate-chip cookie recipe assumes the maker owns a stand mixer like a KitchenAid, which starts north of $150. Chef’s knives, which have long been a serious kitchen status symbol, can approach infinity in their cost, depending on how rarified you want to get with your steel of choice.

Repurposing cheap household goods for the kitchen has therefore become trendy. The Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith, famously made Peking duck using a bicycle pump to separate the skin from the body of the duck. Other kitchen hacks incorporate dental floss, butane torches, and thumbtacks, and Thrillist wants you to cook hotdogs in your drip-coffee maker.

But using a hairdryer that costs more than a le Creuset dutch oven to crisp your chicken? Unacceptable—at least if you’re a woman.

Women are presumed to be comfortable in the kitchen, but not actual experts at cooking. Try to walk that line on social media: If a woman uses dental floss to cleanly cut a cake, she’s heralded for her ingenuity, because it’s lowbrow enough to not seem intimidating. But if she uses a handmade whisk, bought for herself on a trip to the French countryside, to whip up the perfect soufflé she learned how to make there, it’s seen as silly, extravagant, or worse: “precious.”

Not so with men. As Kat Kinsman pointed out in a defense of the egg spoon on Extra Crispy, if noted open-flame roaster Francis Mallmann busted out an egg spoon, no one would blink—they’d just “be crowing about how he’s very goddamned baller.” There are many articles devoted to compiling Alton Brown’s kitchen hacks, include repurposing a cordless drill to crank a pepper grinder and binder clips to hold a thermometer in place.

Besides, how surprising is it that Alice Waters owns a hand-forged egg spoon? What would be shocking is to discover that she lives in a modest house in the suburbs with an electric stove and peeling wallpaper, not that she has an open fire in her kitchen (as does Rene Redzepi of Noma, as Ugly Delicious revealed to us)Of course she has an envy-inspiring kitchen. That is her job as Alice Waters: to live a gracious and beautiful life. Ever see anyone question Michael Pollan’s lovely home and garden in Berkeley where Waters also lives? Or Jamie Oliver’s very posh digs?

The double standard doesn’t just exist for professional chefs and food writers. In the domestic sphere, there’s a certain emotional labor that goes along with encouraging men to cook on the regular. While I see many more men cooking than in my parents’ generation, I also see their partners doing a lot of work to support thatThey embrace Dad’s “special mac and cheese” when they’d rather have a lentil salad for the sake of having a night off from making family dinners. Women are expected to cook, but men expect to be praised for it, regardless of the deliciousness or healthfulness of the result. Their motivation in the kitchen is rewarded cart blanche, and they are allowed to use fancy knives or re-purpose power tools, a la Alton Brown, without criticism.

As Waters and Rosner found out, it’s fine to be a woman who cooks, so long as you’re zapping leftovers in the microwave (an appliance 60 Minutes viewers were appalled to discover Waters does not own). But add in specialized equipment or devices that cost considerable amounts of money, and some dude on the internet is going to tell you that you’re doing it wrong—and then do the same thing himself for dinner.