My kitchen is the crime scene and I am the culprit. To underscore this, a strip of yellow police tape cordons off the cooking area, where the crime was perpetrated. The tape, emblazoned with black lettering reading "Do Not Enter," is a stray tassel I picked off the ground near a condemned building and tacked up myself. Behind it sits Natalie, contentedly sipping a glass of wine.
I am paying my debt to society, or at least Natalie. Victim's Reparations. Boyfriend Community Service. Natalie's mad because I cooked for another woman--Jessica, an old girlfriend, visiting from out of town. Bad move. I should've gotten rid of the evidence. But Natalie followed the trail and found the sauce left over from the trout Veracruz I made for Jessica. I guess it was pretty good, because when Natalie discovered it, her eyes brimmed up. "How come you've never cooked for me?" she said with a sniffle.
Well, there's a reason I've never cooked for Natalie. She's the only girlfriend I've ever had who can cook, and so we cook together. So now I've tacked up this yellow tape to make it clear I am the one doing the cooking, not her, not us, no collaborating this time. I am here to prove that I am a full-service boyfriend.
Cooking can be a touchy subject between men and women. On my first date with Jessica, the old girlfriend, I asked her if she liked to cook. I remember her responding in her gentle, understated manner with something like, "What kind of redneck, inbred hillbilly are you, anyway?" She thought for a second, then added, "I'll bet you've even got bank robbers somewhere in the family." Well, actually I do have bank robbers in the family, but somehow this didn't seem like the right time to admit it. We were, after all, talking about cooking.
At least I thought we were. I was wrong. I was talking about cooking. She was talking about the gender war, which I thought was already over except for a few minor skirmishes.
For my money, the kitchen ranks with the bedroom as the most romantic room in the house. The sizzling of scallops as they're seared in a skillet, the scent of spices, the sensuality of it all--what could be more seductive? But for Jessica, any mention of kitchen duties conjured issues of domestic servitude. She assumed I was sizing her up as a household slave, probably expecting my next statement would be along the lines of, "I like a woman with a strong back!" Granted, we had a culture gap between us; a nice Jewish girl from New York, she thought anybody from below the Mason-Dixon line had serious gene pool issues. On our second date, though, I cooked her arroz con pollo, and by dessert she finally stopped calling me "Sling Blade." Still, it was a long time before I dared ask a woman if she liked to cook.
From where I stand--which is over the stove--it's the men who wear the aprons these days. Men started cooking because women stopped, and because even males can only eat so many Tombstone pizzas. Men also started cooking to get women into bed with them. It's a pretty good gambit, assuming there's already some harmonizing of flavors. Women stopped cooking because Gloria Steinem told them to, and because they entered the work force and didn't have time anymore, and probably because their collective ancestral memory was just plain fed up with doing all of the cooking.
By now they've forgotten how. I have a friend, a product of the '60s, who thinks she can cook. She puts something on the stove, turns up the flame and sits down to watch television. She knows instinctively when it's done: when the black smoke rolls from the kitchen into the living room. (I've tried to explain to her that the smoke alarm is not an oven timer, but to no avail.) She hardly ever lit a burner when we were roommates, but she'd get pretty surly if dinner wasn't ready when she got home from work.
So call us Men in Aprons. As a matter of fact, I have an acquaintance, Rochelle Fleck, founder of Chicago-based Chefwear, who designs kitchen garments for professionals and amateurs, including, of course, aprons. According to her national sales manager, Carl Nordberg, purchases are--get this--"pretty much dominated by males." The trend even extends down to teenage boys who watch the Food Network (50% male viewership) and who Nordberg says "want to look like Wolfgang." I suppose if you're a parent, this represents an improvement over hip-hop garb, but I'm not sure.
In other ways, I suspect this is a fairly boomer-centric proposition. I was born in 1960, the last gasp of the baby boom, and my unscientific assessment is that women ranging from my age to 10 years older are about as comfortable in the kitchen as my grandmother would have been in a bar on V-E Day. (This probably tilts more toward singles and couples without children; once you've got kids, cooking is usually an economic necessity, even for two-income families.) But we men who've learned to tell a whisk from a spatula don our aprons not to bury feminism, but to praise it.