Catching Fire: The double-edged chef’s knife

In Victorian England, the aesthetic writer John Ruskin argued that household labor was divided harmoniously and that women were superior to men. He credited women with greater organizational skills than men and explained that women were therefore better at managing households. But to philosopher John Stuart Mill, it was obvious that women were treated unfairly. Ruskin’s gallantry, he said, was “an empty compliment … since there is no other situation in life in which it is the established order, and considered quite natural and suitable, that the better should obey the worse. If this piece of talk is good for anything, it is only as an admission by men, of the corrupting influence of power.”

Mill’s accusation that Victorian British men used power to their own advantage might be applied equally well to all nonindustrial societies. The women living on Vanatinai had as much control over their lives as in any society. They were not regarded as inferior to men, and in the public realm they were not subject to male authority. But even when they were tired and men were relaxing, they still had to cook. [Anthropologist] Maria Lepowsky does not report what would have happened if a woman had refused to cook, but among hunter-gatherers who are similarly egalitarian, husbands are liable to beat wives if the evening meal is merely late or poorly cooked. When there is a conflict, most women have no choice: they have to cook, because cultural rules, ultimately enforced by men for their own benefit, demand it

The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoptions of cooking has also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

—Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

This is one of the most depressing chapters I’ve read in a while. Up until this point I was enjoying the idea that cooking made us human, that it shaped our bodies and brains to be what they are today. But the idea that cooking also made us patriarchal is decidedly uncomfortable, especially since I am on the receiving end of that patriarchy. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where I don’t need a husband to guard my food (or books!) from marauders, but men still do make most of the decisions in the world, and let’s just say that there is some room for improvement there. I can only hope that we will continue to evolve in the direction of equality so that we can all enjoy being human.

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2 comments on “Catching Fire: The double-edged chef’s knife

  1. Stefanie says:

    I am in the happy position of having a husband who does all the cooking. I distinctly remember when I was a kid my mom telling me I had to learn how to cook especially for when I was married. I told her that I was either not going to get married or my husband would do the cooking. Even when we were living together long before we were married, my guy realized that if he wanted anything more than soup from a can or bean burritos for dinner he would have to be the one to make it. He cooks and loves it and hates it when I express any interest in cooking something myself. It's a wonderful arrangement 🙂

  2. Stefanie, your mother must have been astonished at how things worked out exactly as you predicted. Clearly you and the Bookman are highly evolved creatures! 🙂

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