"Well, I learned something new today!" exclaimed my friend Jessica Walters as I met up with her after a panel at today's Houston Summit for the Creative Economy. "Women cause diabetes!" She laughed, but we both agreed that the moral of the story from the panel had been rather bizarre.
Walters had been in the audience for the panel on which I'd been invited to speak at the Summit: "Creating Cuisine." In keeping with the overall theme for the conference -- creativity and how it drives and is affected by Houston's economy -- my fellow panel guests and I had been asked to speak on, well, we weren't quite sure.
Cuisine? Creativity? Grant Gordon, the 24-year-old executive chef for Tony's, and I quietly and laughingly confessed to one another before taking our seats that we had no idea what the panel session had in store for us.
Seated at a table in front of a lecture hall filled with people at Rice University's Jones School of Business with Michael Cordúa -- a man who needs no introduction, as he has his own Wikipedia page -- and retired executive director of Urban Harvest Dr. Bob Randall, the equally unprepared Gordon and I answered questions like:
In Finishing the Hat, the first volume of his collected lyrics, the composer of the American musical theater Stephen Sondheim compares cooking food to songwriting. "The technical details," he writes, "echo those which challenge a songwriter, timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it." Do you agree with his analogy? If yes, why? If no, why not? And, if you do agree, what might we do better in Houston coming out of the Summit to bring together in exciting, new and creative ways the composers, both of great music and great food to benefit the image of our city and contribute to our quality of life?
Midway through the panel, we finally hit upon a topic that seemed to deeply interest both the audience and myself: gender roles in food. Specifically, "What are your thoughts and insights on gender in relation to the production, distribution, and consumption of food in modern culture?"
Answering first -- as we had established an eerily apropos pecking order of "ladies first" early on -- I talked about the interesting dichotomy of home cooking versus professional cooking. That is, cooking in and of itself is not gender normative. At home, the cooking and preparation of food is still done -- by and large -- by women. On the other hand, the professional cooking field is strongly and almost overwhelmingly male-dominated.
Gordon had a good point, which is that the traditional Escoffier model of kitchen structure is highly militaristic and lends itself to a more masculine climate. There are ranks, stations, deadly weapons, blood, fire and gore: In this sense, the professional kitchen was more like a military subset and not really a place for a woman in Escoffier's time.
Kitchens still tend to have a "locker room" mentality, as Cordúa fittingly put it, and can be nasty, brutish places to work. The hours are long, and the concessions are few. Gordon and Cordúa both admitted that the women in their industry are drawn far more to pastry work or salad stations than to anything on the grill. And several audience members chimed in with their own suggestions: Women can't get the necessary child care to work restaurant hours; the restaurant industry is an exaggerated microcosm of other male-dominated industries with glass ceilings and salary imbalances; women prefer the security and calm of creating packaged foods like jams or jellies to line work in a kitchen.
And then things started to go off the rails.
Dr. Randall started out promisingly, by making the pertinent observation that "if only one person does the cooking in the house, then the food is going to be boring and repetitive." But he further illuminated his point by stating that it's because women are being boring and repetitive in the kitchen that we are currently experiencing nationwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
The audience didn't seem to take to this assertion quite as kindly, although there was scattered applause afterwards. (Side note: Huh?)
And as if to further demonstrate that gender roles are still woefully pigeonholed -- even among the highly educated like Dr. Randall and the highly creative and business-minded like Cordúa -- Cordúa himself exclaimed that "women would rather spend money on shoes than good food."
I, who own approximately five pairs of shoes, of course took issue with that statement. "I hate shoes!" I exclaimed, slightly shocked.
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"Oh, you don't count," joked Cordúa with a grin and a nudge.
The audience laughed. I was annoyed. After such a respectful and introspective discussion on gender roles in cooking, the sexualization of food and female chefs and encroaching feminism in the restaurant industry, were we really all agreeing that -- yes -- emptyheaded women and their Imelda Marcos-like shoe habits are hilarious and true!
Were we really all back to square one that fast? How quickly we all regressed to our comfortable assertions and assumptions in life. It was disappointing after such a wonderful, lively discussion.
It gave me pause for the rest of our panel and I'm still pondering the questions: Where do women fit in in the modern restaurant industry? Where is our place these days?