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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