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Monday
Apr012013

Men in Aprons

Man's slow journey from the table to the stove

Emma Wartzman

 

In 1941, Good Housekeeping ran an advertisement touting stoves that use natural gas—“the wonder fuel for cooking.” Placed by the American Gas Association, it showed a husband (with a faithful dog by his feet) and wife (with a cat by hers), each explaining why it would make sense to buy this newfangled kitchen appliance. “I’m too busy to wait for the kettle to boil, the oven to warm up . . . I want all the grand new time-saving and work-saving features I’d get on a modern gas range,” she says. “Guess it would be smart to take Mary downtown to pick one out tomorrow!” he says.

 

That same year, Ladies Home Journal ran an ad for Pyrex Ware—what “you need to bring your kitchen up-to-date and to help you be a better cook!” The “you” was, naturally, a woman, her silky brown hair pulled out of her face to better reveal her sparkling eyes. The feature stories made clear that cooking (and other household chores) were strictly women’s work. American Magazine, for example, ran a piece by Robert J. Knowlton that spoke of the ease any housewife had in completing her job, if only “she wasn’t stubborn, tied down by tradition, a poor organizer, and even just plain lazy.”

Women writers, for their part, generally held the same attitude. “Ted comes home at about 5:30 P.M., so 4:30 is Ginger’s deadline for beginning the evening meal,” Grace L. Pennock wrote in Ladies Home Journal. “We asked Ginger if she ever kept Ted waiting because she forgot to put in the roast on time. Did the peas ever cook to mush while she made gravy?”

And so it went in issue after issue of many of America’s bestselling magazines through the 1940s and ’50s. Rosie the Riveter may have found her way to the factory floor during World War II, but you’d never know it by looking at these publications. As far as they—and presumably the majority of the nation—were concerned, women were stuck inside the kitchen.

But in the midst of all this, a different voice was born: Gourmet. In the late 1930s, veteran magazine publisher Earle MacAusland came up with an idea for a publication that focused on gastronomy, but in a new light. Forget the practical struggles of preparing dinner. Forget cooking as a chore. The aim was for Gourmet to serve as a gateway into the world of culinary delights—the world of cooking for the sake of experiencing and wholly enjoying food.

The most striking aspect of the magazine, though, was that its intended readership included men. In fact, when the first issue was released in January 1941, not a single image of a woman graced any of its 48 pages. It was unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before—as if Playboy had suddenly decided to feature only models with their clothes on.

To be sure, there had been at least a few cookbooks written by men for men, including The Stag Cookbook in 1922 and The Best Men Are Cooks in 1941. And, of course, there had been a long history of high-end male chefs that came out of France ever since the beginning of the 19th century. But Gourmet was aiming not only for professional chefs. By dint of being a monthly mass-market magazine, its reach and cultural impact was extensive.

Gourmet would thus presage—and arguably contribute to—an ever increasing number of men cooking at home. In 1965, women spent an average of 9.5 hours a week preparing meals, compared with just 0.8 for men. By the late 1990s  those numbers had shifted dramatically; women now spent 5.4 hours cooking each week versus 2.3 for men, reflecting not only the fact that more women had moved into the outside labor force but also that more men had clearly grown comfortable wielding a spatula.

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In the beginning, we are told, men were hunters. And while women gathered, their main place was at the base camp where they assembled the family’s meals. During the Colonial era, women took on a similar role and trained their daughters to do the same.

The 19th century swept this sort of kitchen work into a broader movement called “domestic science” (also known as “home economics”). If women didn’t like the kitchen, they were fresh out of luck. Men wanted them in front of the stove. The commonly held conception of naturalized gender hierarchy persisted: men were designed to call the shots. “There must be the relations of husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employed, each involving the relative duties of subordination,” Catherine Beecher wrote in her 1841 book, A Treatise of Domestic Economy. “The superior, in certain particulars, is to direct, and the inferior is to yield obedience.”

Over time, domestic science adopted a more progressive gloss. The new spin: Just as factories were being modernized for men, the kitchen was being modernized for women. Enter the wonder of “scientific management.” “When housekeeping becomes a science . . . when it is based on measurement, then it becomes worthy of the best brains and highest endeavor,” Frank Gilbreth, a well-known engineer, declared in 1913. For the next several decades, the tools of housework were perfected. Electric vacuums eliminated grime from the cleaning game. How could a mop and bucket compete? In the kitchen, boxed, canned and frozen meals became the norm.

But rather than add dignity to housework, these changes further separated the woman’s sphere from the man’s. The perfect wife was one who could instantly prepare flawless, prepackaged food on the table for her husband. Meanwhile, high schools and colleges reinforced these gender roles through the emergence of “home ec” classes for girls.

The face of the domestic science movement through the 1940s and ’50s was entirely female. But that hasn’t kept some observers from branding them anti-feminist, if not puppets of the male establishment. They were “a group of ladies who, if ever there is a feminist hell, will be tortured eternally with feather dusters,” Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have written. “These were women who made careers out of telling other women they couldn’t have careers because housework was a big enough job in itself.” Such an idea was even further perpetuated through the media. Though Donna Reed herself was a strong force behind the sitcom “The Donna Reed Show” because she made the woman the focus of the family (something that few popular shows had done up until that point), there was no deviation from the classic image of the perfect nuclear family; she always served dinner on time, her windows always sparkled, and she always answered the door in heels and pearls. That’s simply the way things were done.

Others are more forgiving, maintaining that the women leading the domestic-science movement were well-intentioned and brought real advances in certain areas, such as nutrition laws. But either way, the home kitchen had become a no-man zone.

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It’s hard to know if Earle MacAusland was consciously trying to steer against these strong social currents or was somehow oblivious to them. Regardless, he was determined to move quickly. And to put his plan for Gourmet into action, he needed support. He asked Samuel Chamberlain, a Boston-area artist with a particular affinity for French cuisine, whether he would like to come on board. Chamberlain agreed. Louis Pullig De Gouy, a professional chef with his own cooking school in New York and some well-regarded cookbooks under his belt joined up, as well. Pearl Metzelthin, who served as editor for the first two years before MacAusland took over the role himself, was the final key to the magazine’s start.

MacAusland’s vision for the magazine was always clear. “He thought big,” explained Ruth Reichl, the renowned food writer who in 1999 became the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, in her introduction to Endless Feasts, a collection of pieces that had appeared in the magazine over 60 years. “In a time when food was not considered a serious subject, he believed it was the only one. To him food included hunting and fishing, history and science, politics, anthropology, and fiction. It certainly included drink. Refusing to limit his imagination, he invented a food magazine that roamed the world long before it had been shrunk to its current size by the speed of jets.”

Along the way, the tone of Gourmet was strikingly gender-neutral. A 1945 story by Bill Rhode, for example, opened with this line: “The food that appears daily on your table has to be prepared by someone—you or your cook, or your husband or wife—and that someone must like what he or she is doing, or the results will be far from satisfactory.”

Other pieces took a more men-don’t-need-to-be-helpless-in-the-kitchen tone. Still, that they focused on men at all was unusual, if not revolutionary. “Yes, you and every other man can cook—for the simple biological reason that a man is able to do anything a woman can, and generally do it a darn sight better,” Leslie Swabacker chided in 1950. “Every married woman can prepare a more or less edible meal. Every bride-to-be cooks her fiancé a dinner as a promise of what culinary delights the future holds for him. And what has a bride-to-be that you haven’t?”

Of course, certain men had always been considered gifted at preparing a meal, taking a mundane household chore and elevating it into a profession (one from which women were long excluded). “Men have seized the cook’s knife and called it the ‘chef’s knife,” observed Michael Symons in A History of Cooks and Cooking.

But even here, Gourmet added a twist. A January 1955 promotion of the new Gourmet cookbook showed an illustration of a professional chef next to an illustration of a man in a suit, wearing an apron. The text below it read: “Chef… or… Amateur? Whatever your culinary talents, one glance and you’ll agree there’s NO cookbook like the GOURMET COOKBOOK.”

All the while, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping could never conceive that a man would wear an apron; it just wasn’t the way of the home kitchen. For their editors (who during this span of time were all male), advertisers, and readers, this was a task far better suited to a real-life Betty Crocker. In fact, researchers in 1953 found that the General Mills Corp. icon had become to the public “the externalized image of the ideal American woman”—one full of “self-doubt by providing ‘a vindication of the value, dignity, and importance of the role of the homemaker and cook.’” 

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Gourmet’s assault on the notion that only women had a rightful place in the home kitchen went beyond depicting men as cooks; the magazine also relentlessly attacked the heart of America’s female-as-kitchen-goddess sensibility: domestic science.

MacAusland refused any advertising that even looked like it might appear in a woman’s magazine. Stouffer’s, for one, wanted to sign with Gourmet. But McAusland said no, according to Stewart, because he thought Stouffer’s produced the kind of tasteless, prepackaged food that he detested—and that a majority of the nation’s women, and the men they served, had grown to love.

Consider, in this light, Dutch Pantry Pie, the recipe for which could be found not only in Good Housekeeping and McCall’s but even in Life and Time. The instructions were simple: Melt American cheese in Carnation evaporated milk and add potatoes. Put the mixture in an already made pie shell. Cover with cubes of Spam and add a top crust. It sat on the serving platter, looking flawless, which at this point was deemed far more important than the actual taste. Sapping food “of taste and texture, packaging it . . . decorating it—these were some of the major culinary themes of the domestic science movement,” noted Laura Shapiro in her book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century.

It was also about as far from Gourmet as you could get. A true love of food, along with a keen appreciation for the way it came together, were the bones of the magazine. Gourmet hopes to offer people “explorations into new bypaths of culinary delights, to whet their appetites and excite their senses so that they will strive for broader horizons in their dining and wining adventures,” MacAusland wrote in his inaugural letter to readers. “And so that this new enjoyment will soon become a part of their lives.”

Article after article provided elaborate descriptions of cheese and lobster and chocolate. Ingredients were personified (often from the clear perspective of a man), every aspect of them considered and appreciated. On the clam: “…despite its odd sexual behavior, is a model member of molluscan society, far more respectable and self-sufficient than its rowdy relative the oyster. Its superior nature has apparently carried it above the gang wars, the political corruption, and the commercial malpractices that cloud the oyster’s reputation.”

On the melon: “This melon, this mistress of so many passionate palates, is the muskmelon, with probably as much changes in skin, texture, color, fragrance, and flavor as the all the most seductive women from time immemorial have possessed to charm mankind.” On the mushroom: “Harmless in its proper self (though it has more virulent brothers), it captures the breath of the soil in which it grows and preserves it as nothing but its famous and rare relative, the truffle, can. It is unassuming, quiet, garbed in a dress of severe dignity, yet it possesses one of the greatest natural flavors in the world.”

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Despite its strong sense of self, Gourmet ran into trouble in the 1960s. Circulation declined, and McAusland’s staff knew they had to do something bold in order to survive. The most obvious solution was to broaden the magazine’s audience to the half of the population that wasn’t previously targeted: women.

And so they did. “The shift to women was not much discussed,” Stewart said. “It was acknowledged, but not much discussed.”

MacAusland’s personal chef—a man who had come up with many of the recipes in Gourmet since the beginning—was replaced by an editorial team, led by a woman. Hard-to-make recipes—the kind that only a professional chef could decipher—were soon replaced by far more accessible instructions for the everyday cook.

Even then, MacAusland drew a line. Gourmet’s test kitchen was increasingly populated with women. But he made sure that none of them identified themselves as “home economists.” “They were just women who knew their way around the kitchen,” Stewart explained.

To Stewart and her colleagues, it was clear that, deep down, MacAusland still wished he could produce the Gourmet of old—a Gourmet aimed primarily at men. But the world had moved on, leaving MacAusland standing on the other side of a generational divide—a “charming man from another time.” He died in 1980 at the age of 90.

And yet the link that MacAusland’s magazine had forged—between men and the kitchen—didn’t rupture entirely. Even as more women picked up Gourmet through the 1970s and ’80s, “there was absolutely a readership of men that stayed with it,” Stewart said, “an older generation in particular who loved the travel articles and loved to tackle the recipes.”

Meanwhile, something else started to happen across America: More and more men outside of the Gourmet universe were beginning to find their own way into the kitchen. “As more males mastered home cooking, its status rose; as its status rose, it become more acceptable for males to do it,” Harvey Levenstein recounted in Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. “The media now featured prominent celebrities such as actors Danny Kaye and Walter Matthau and Hollywood director John Frankenhemier as outstanding home cooks: standing at their woks and restaurant-gauge stoves, being creative in the kitchen. Home cooking, which had been regarded as quintessentially feminine—an expression of women’s nurturing, emotional, and intuitive nature—could now assume what was regarded as a decidedly male cast.”

In 2009, Gourmet folded. Publisher Condé Naste noted that with about 900,000 subscribers, it had only two-thirds of the readers of its more pedestrian sister publication, Bon Appétit, while earning less money per page of advertising. Earle MacAusland’s baby had enjoyed a 68-year run.

 

Emma Wartzman is a senior editor of The Y and served as acting editor for Issue 5. She is a frequent contributor to The Y as well, usually writing about food policy and related issues. She has written for the food section at L.A. MagazineHer writing has been featured on the Los Angeles Times' blog the Daily Dish and the Huffington Post. She is currently a junior at Scripps College. This summer she will be editorial intern for Food52.