September 20, 2010 § 19 Comments

While I was considering starting this blog, I asked my kitchen manager (a woman in her mid-twenties) if she considered herself a feminist. She thought for a second, and then said, “Well, I guess so. I mean, I certainly believe a woman can do anything a man can, aside from the physical limits some women have. And we should absolutely have all the same legal rights.” (Ok, she rambled a little more than that, and talked about women bodybuilders, but she was just off a long shift and had maybe had a couple of glasses of wine.) Then she pulled out the copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential she was reading and showed me a couple of paragraphs. This is the one she had me start with:

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really studly women line cooks — no weak reeds these. One woman, Sharon, managed to hold down a busy saute station while seven months pregnant — and still find time to provide advice and comfort to a romantically unhappy broiler man. A long-time associate, Beth, who likes to refer to herself as the “Grill Bitch,” excelled at putting loudmouths and fools in their proper place. She refused to behave any differently than her male coworkers:she’d change in the same locker area, dropping her pants right alongside them. She was as sexually aggressive, and as vocal about it, as her fellow cooks, but unlikely to to suffer behavior she found demeaning. One sorry Moroccan cook who pinched her ass found himself suddenly bent over a cutting board with Beth dry-humping him from behind, saying, “How do you like it, bitch?” The guy almost died of shame — and never repeated that mistake again.

I found myself torn between fuckyeahwomancooks! and tears. Glancing up, the previous, introductory, paragraph describes a “tough-as-nails, foul-mouther, trash-talking female line cook” as “a true joy” and “a civilizing factor” in kitchens, “where conversation tends to center around who’s got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass.”

Oh, god. Ogodogodogod. Right. There was a reason why I never read this book, even though I enjoy Bourdain’s TV shows. I may puke.

Oh, goody, the next paragraph has even more sexual harassment!

Another female line cook I had the pleasure of working with arrived at work one morning to find that an Ecuadorian pasta cook had decorated her station with some particularly ugly hard-core pornography of pimply assed women getting penetrated in every orifice by potbellied guys with prison tattoos and back hair. She didn’t react at all, but a little later, while passing through the pasta man’s station, casually remarked, “Jose, I see you brought in some photos of the family. Mom looks good for her age.”

This is what my kitchen manager thinks feminism is. Oh, hell. Oh, spite. This is what she thinks of when I ask her if she’s a feminist. I despair. How the fuck am I ever supposed to make even a small change in kitchen culture if this is how the women here think. Oh, god.

Right. Well, this is why Shakesville talks about teaspoons against the sea. The point of this blog is to be one more teaspoonful taken out with every post. Time to break it down.

First, and most obviously, women have to act just as tough, gross, sexist, racist, homophobic, and generally bigoted and awful as the men in the kitchen do, to prove that they are good enough to work in the manly environment of the kitchen. If you don’t act like that, you won’t last long. Oh, nobody will tell you that’s the problem . . . but you’ll either be harassed into quitting, or some excuse found to fire you (or, in a “right to work” state, no excuse at all, just a dismissal).

And yet, women are still expected to be nurturing, caring, soothing, “civilizing.” They have to be as nasty as the men — but still be kind and caring and behave in traditionally feminine ways, ways that generally require them to take care of men. Wow, that looks like a familiar Catch 22.

Women are expected, required even, to ignore really horrifying sexual harassment of kinds that in most professional settings in the US would result in an instant lawsuit or the firing of the harasser. Instead, in the kitchen industry, the woman would at least be told to toughen up, that everybody puts up with that kind of shit, it’s just a joke; very possibly she’d be fired for not “fitting in” with the kitchen crew. Yeah, I know, reporting and suing (well, successfully) for most sexual harassment in most professions is pretty tough — but in most professions, harassers have gotten more subtle and sneaky about it. Hard-core porn all over someone else’s desk is a firing offense in most office settings. I’m not trying to belittle the harassment women have to tolerate in office settings — I’ve been there, and it can be just as awful, hell, more so, depending on the person and the circumstance, and it is just as wrong. What I am saying is that things which are generally Unacceptable in most professional settings are still accepted in kitchens.

Women are also expected to take part in active misogyny: to refer to men and other women, and even themselves, as bitches; to deal yo mama insults; to deplore weakness, weeping, and other “girl” faults; to make and laugh at rag jokes, rape jokes, and a host of other jokes relying on the revilement of women. Not just tolerate it from the men, but actively take part in it.

Women gain extra points for being as sexually aggressive as male cooks, and as vocal about it. Not just as aggressive, but aggressive in the same way. There’s a lot of debate in the feminist blogosphere as to whether and what kind of sexual assertiveness is empowering or positive for women and feminists — I come down firmly on the Proud Slut side of the argument, myself — but again, it’s an example of women having to act just like the men around them in order to be accepted. And just imagine, for one moment, being a sexually aggressive lesbian cook in this kind of environment (yeah, most of the homophobia is directed at gay men). . . . It’s just one more component of how working in a professional kitchen requires women to act like the men around them, and doesn’t allow for women who can’t or won’t act that way.

Oh, and of course, these “studly” women are “no weak reeds” — imply that any and all women who don’t act just like the men around them are weak. Fuck you, Anthony Bourdain.

I’m scooting right past the racism (notice how Bourdain makes a point of mentioning the origins of the cooks who harassed the women he’s talking about?) and most of the homophobia here. I’m definitely planning posts on both of these, and on other isms and bigotries, and on intersectionality, but I just don’t have the heart to delve into them in this post. Not ignoring, them, though.

I live and work in a very different city than Bourdain writes about (his career has mostly been in NYC), and the kitchen culture out here is not this vile. I could never work in a kitchen in New York, nor most of the Northeast, nor most of the Eastern Seaboard. The kitchen culture out here may not be as bad, but all of these elements are here, they’re just not as extreme. I’ve never worked in a kitchen where someone who left hard core porn all over another cook’s station wasn’t likely to get fired. I never would. But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t expected to put up with a lot more than women working in offices around here are. It’s hard. It’s hard for me to see and tolerate even the more mild echoes of this kind of misogyny that we experience here. But to get to where I am, I had to work in other people’s kitchens, and that meant having to put up with it. And now that I have my own kitchen, I still have to put up with some of it, because I have to employ at least some cooks with experience in other kitchens, and they’re all acclimated to it and want to perpetuate it. I can forbid the worst of it, but not everything. Since none of my cooks see any problem with the way things are, why would they want anybody to act any differently?

Teaspoons against the sea. *sigh*

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§ 19 Responses to Confidentially

  • Delicious Friend says:

    From outside the culture, it looks like the disability post, part 2.

    • …in that being a woman or otherwise different is also a disability?

      When I started in the software industry, I had guys swapping in porn as my background wallpaper. And nobody complained about it being on my screen. That wouldn’t fly in most places now, but it’s been 20 years.

      • Ginny W says:

        …in that being a woman or otherwise different is also a disability?

        It certainly is considered to be.

      • Ginny W says:

        Also, I’m planning to post about STEM and kitchens and women sometime, and I’d really like to sit down and talk to you at some point. I’m planning on interviewing several women I know on the topic. I think that feminist cooks can learn a lot from women in technical fields.

      • Delicious Friend says:

        Well…more the absolute refusal to tolerate any kind of difference at all. But also, yeah, Not Like Me = Less Than Me, as seen by your average healthy 50+ white male. I say 50+ because they’re usually the ones in charge; the white men under 50 I know tend to be far less sexist. (Race issues deliberately left aside; I’m a 40ish white woman, so I’m sticking to what I know.)

        • Ginny W says:

          Mm. In kitchens, it’s usually more like 35+ white men. Kitchens are a young person’s place, and a lot of chefs are quite young by the standards of other professions.

          • Delicious Friend says:

            Huh. The 35-40yo (white) guys I know aren’t that level of jerk. Or maybe not around me? No, I know. They’ve all been to college. I bet that has a lot to do with it.

          • Ginny W says:

            DF? I love and adore you, but you are making unfounded assumptions about education levels among kitchen personnel. College degrees are not as uncommon as you seem to think.

            No, the real problem is that people who are chefs at 35 generally have at least 10 years of experience in the kitchens that have always been the way I’m describing them. Maybe they went to college before they got into the business, or they started working in kitchens while they were in college and decided they liked it, or they didn’t go at all, but they’ve now spent ten years in an unremittingly misogynistic environment. And kitchen people usually hang out almost exclusively with other kitchen people, or at least restaurant people, meaning they don’t get a lot of exposure to less misogynistic cultures.

            And people who don’t like this sort of atmosphere tend to get the fuck out of the business at a much higher rate.

            Misogynistic kitchen a vicious circle, perpetuating itself both by teaching people to think and act that way and by ejecting people who refuse.

          • Delicious Friend says:

            It’s not an apprenticeship system? In my head it’s like electricians and mechanics–the ones I know either did vo-tech in high school, or college-prep HS and then jr college. I thought that culinary-school grads were a minority.

          • Ginny W says:

            In the US, there’s no formal apprenticeship. A lot of people do work their way up from the bottom, but an increasing number of people go to culinary school.

            Cooking is also a popular second career because entry is so easy, so plenty of people have gone to college for something else entirely.

            Don’t worry about it, you sound less like you missed the point and more like you got distracted for a minute.

          • Delicious Friend says:

            Why is there no way to delete stupid comments after posting? so yeah, I totes missed your point.

          • Delicious Friend says:

            Me, distracted? Perish the thought. I’ll just try not to derail so hard next time.

          • Ginny W says:

            I appreciate it, even though there’s not much conversation around here to derail. Yet.

            I’ve topped 250 views today.

    • Ginny W says:

      Heh. I actually wrote this one first, and had it scheduled for posting, and then wrote the one on disability when it became relevant. But yes, they’re very much of a piece with one another.

  • efnord says:

    The chapter “The Life of Bryan” near the end of the book is worth reading: “there are different kinds of kitchens than the kinds I run. Not all kitchens are the press-gang-crewed pressure cookers I’m used to.”

    And I’d prefer that reading and signing off on the chapter “OWNER’S SYNDROME AND OTHER MEDICAL ANOMALIES” be required to issue any new restaurant license…

  • […] thought STEM fields were tough places for women to make a living – and they are – but this post makes, say, your average physics department or engineering construction site look like a care bears […]

  • Yvonne says:

    This post just kicks ass on so many levels. You rock. And yes, the biggest teaspoon we can weild is the one we use to create alternatives to the shit we’re told is reality.

  • Sixwing says:

    Yowch. I’ll join the chorus and say, here I thought working in IT was hard. At least when it got to the level of outrage, HR came and kicked some butts once someone told them what was going on, and the problem stopped.

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