I was asked for some recommendations the other day, it was a very specific request that got me thinking about some of my most deeply held beliefs, about my place in the world, about my very sexuality. The request was for some cook books. But not “poofy” ones.
At first sight this seems like the age old association of men who enjoy cooking with being gay or overly feminine, despite the fact that time and time again cooks tell us what a testosterone filled environment the restaurant kitchen is. They do love to go on about how shouty and macho they all are. Which is odd of course, since quite a few of the gay men I count as friends could probably beat the shit out of me, drink me under the table and then make me top notch eggs Benedict. Whilst fixing an engine. There is of course another age old, not very subtle distinction as play here. The restaurant kitchen is somehow a forge, a trial by fire, where men are real men despite the fact they do dainty things with parsley, somewhat akin to the army. Cooking at home, particularly anything beyond reheating or barbecuing or the creation of a “fucking hot chili” is viewed at potential to be booted from the straight camp. Of course, attitudes change. These days more and more men want to be seen as the kind of bloke who likes to cook. This inevitably becomes competitive.
Get more than one man “who likes to cook” in a room and you’ll see. It immediately becomes an alpha male thing. Whose kitchen is the baddest, who’d got the phat knives and meat thermometers. Who’s cooked the biggest bit of meat. Who’s made crazy shit from scratch. You made Cassoulet? I cured my own bacon, muthafucker! Mayonnaise from parts? Eat my Bouillabaisse! Once a pecking order is established then normal conversation can resume, but for a few minutes it’s akin to stags butting horns.
Celebrity chefs, TV shows and the press have imbued the process of cooking with competition, with machismo and now it’s possible to wear an apron with impunity, as long as it looks like something the “pros” would wear. Cooking can make you look cool; cooking can even get you laid. As long as the cookbook or recipe has swearing (sic) and the guy who wrote it was a crack head, kills the animals himself or eats bits of animals you’d never even heard of then it’s ok. If he’s pretty normal, he’d better have a cool sounding job in a cool sounding restaurant. If any of these are missing the guy better be telling you how to cook a meal that’s, in the words of the immortal Ollie Reed, a guaranteed leg-opener.
Let’s look at the March 2007 issue of Esquire magazine. A suited and surly Robert Downey Jnr looks out from the cover, which also promises The 2007 Esquire Recipes for Men. We have a stack of blokey recipes like Steak Tacos, Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Spaghetti with Lobster by a group of male owner proprietors and then a few pages later, how to hold a knife, how to braise etc with car manual style instructions by various executive chefs. Not a woman in sight and “It’ll get you a lot of love for a little cooking time.”
So, back to the question. How did I answer? Well, I figured Antony Bourdain, Fergus Henderson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had had enough press and told the guy to buy a Donna Hay book. I figured he could do with something a little less macho in his life.