In May this year, I put forth a question in a food group on Facebook. The group, which has over 155,900 members worldwide, a majority of them Indians, is a space for people to connect over ‘food talk’ but it is not just about food or recipes. As the pinned post about the group’s guidelines informs, this is a place to connect, mingle and share. Very often, you would find that the discussions on the group range from a number of things – from seeking suggestions and ideas on baby names, to sharing decor and festive tips, and sometimes, women would post in a lighter vein – how their spouses had failed to follow the simplest of instructions when it came to buying groceries or cooking rice in the rice cooker.
In my post, I asked if the men did any cooking – participating, and playing an active part in the kitchen. I wanted to hear from men and women both. I asked, because I was curious. On one hand, the pandemic had led to a surge in baking and making all kinds of tasty treats in the home kitchen, and there had been a lot of focus on cooking, trying out new recipes and rediscovering heirloom ones. On the other, I had also heard a lot of women complain that they were caught in a draining routine – cooking meals three times a day, juggling working from home and many other duties, with often little to no help from family members. I wanted to know if there had been a shift in attitudes when it came to Indian men and cooking duties, not just because of the pandemic but also beyond that.
Several comments started appearing on my post in quick succession, and most of them were from women. It appeared to me that I had touched a raw nerve.
Before the post was deleted (since it was deemed off-topic according to the rules of the group), I tried getting back to all the comments on my posts. I asked further questions and sought approval for quoting their answers for this article.
A woman quickly wrote back to me saying that I could quote her and I was so glad that she did so. Sheela Sharon’s comment on my post stood out because of its honesty, and it found resonance with many women, quickly gathering many Facebook likes and loves.
Sharon, who is based in the US, wrote: “My partner never helped me in the kitchen nor household chores for the last 10 years. He was pampered, spoilt and completely unaware. Covid-19 quarantine has been a blessing. [With] work from home, he realized how much I do at home which was unnoticed. Now he is the one who does dishwashing, kitchen cleaning, laundry which has made it so easy for me to cook and manage the house better. He only makes coffee and fried egg. You need passion to cook, and I don’t think he has it or will try to cook. My husband is not proud of himself for not helping me all these years. Better late than never.”
Sharon credited the pandemic for the shift in her husband’s perspective towards household chores and duties, including the ones in the kitchen. Many other women chimed in, some saying that their husbands didn’t even know how to cook rice and were not even interesting in learning how to do so. One comment simply read, “I have given up. He is just not interested.”
This reminded me of two incidents. During my post graduate studies in journalism and mass communication, I had gone for an overnight stay at my friend’s place. In the evening, a neighborhood aunty had come visiting. Suddenly as the clock struck six, she jumped up with a start and exclaimed, “Akshay (name changed) will be home any minute now and I need to make a glass of warm milk with Bournvita for him.”
“Aunty,” I asked, “Would Akshay be back home from cricket or tuition at this time?”
“Why no!,” she said, her eyes widening in surprise. “He is an officer with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited. He will be back from work, and he always likes to relax with a warm glass of milk when home.” And with that, she bade a hasty goodbye.
I remember being genuinely befuddled. Why would an adult man need his mother to warm up a glass of milk?
However, I knew fairly too well that it was a reality of many Indian households. Men depending on their mothers, sisters, and wives to do even the simplest of cooking tasks for them – be it boiling an egg or making tea.
Indeed, some mothers even took pride in the fact that their sons did not enter the kitchen at all. As one of my mother’s friends had once said, “My son doesn’t even know how to make a cup of tea. Or Maggi. And why should he? I am here, and when he has a wife, she will take over.”
While it is not fair or even accurate to make sweeping generalizations, many women did comment on the post saying that their men never learnt how to help their mothers with cooking and carried on with that attitude after they had families of their own.
However, a lot of women also chimed in with how the men in their families had set an example, and what they were doing as mothers to make sure that their children, irrespective of their gender, learnt cooking as an essential life skill.
Preeti Babji’s comment on the post was in a way, a tribute to her dad. She wrote, “I proudly say I learned cooking from my dad. I remember dad used to help mum in the kitchen 40 years back and [is] still trying new dishes. He is 70 now and during Covid he called me and asked for banana bread recipe, which he had when he visited us.” Another member, Nagashree Manwatkar wrote, “My husband and I share cooking [duties] almost equally. He comes from a traditional business family where men never cook. He is our breakfast guy, can roll parathas and make French toast and pancakes. I love to cook more elaborate food wherein he helps with prep and clean up. He also does our grocery for the week. He has also recently taken to looking up recipes and making brand new recipes. We have a good partnership going.”
Rasana Atreya has ensured that both her children learnt how to cook. She shared in the comments section: “I have a 19-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. My son will be moving into an apartment in August (at school). I’ve made sure both can cook. My husband can cook, but we all think that his dishwashing skills are more useful for us.”
Many women also pointed out that when their husbands took an equal and earnest role in the kitchen, it had a positive effect on their children. As Divya Mani wrote: “My husband cooks everyday. In fact he cooks more than me. It’s by choice and sometimes circumstantial. And looking at this, my son has also starting showing an interest in cooking and he is only four years old!
It was also important to hear from the men themselves. That is, if they hadn’t ventured into their kitchens so far, what would motivate them to do so and if they were indeed a regular at cooking, what or who was their inspiration?
Dhrumit Sheth, an IT professional currently based in Canada shares, “I have always been a foodie since childhood, and very particular about what I want to eat and how it should taste. While growing up, both my parents went out to work and I have seen my dad cook and help my mother in the kitchen. Also, even as a kid, whenever my sister and I felt hungry in our parents’ absence, we used to make snacks and other food rather than wait for them to return and then eat. So that made me interested in cooking as well, and I strongly believe it’s a life skill everyone should have.”
Sheth, who grew up in India before shifting base to Canada in the recent years, says that there have been some rare occasions when friends or relatives have asked him why he is so active in the kitchen. “If someone asks me why my wife doesn’t cook [as much], I just say that she is not that fond of cooking (which is true) and takes care of other things, while I am interested and fussy about food, so I take care of that part of our life.”
What are Sheth’s favourite things to cook? “I love to make, eat and offer lasagna, veg kurma (a Kerala curry) and shahi paneer,” replies Sheth.
Sometimes, it is also a change in circumstances that leads men to alter their childhood habits .
Shailin Nath (name changed) confides, “I wasn’t very good in the kitchen and to be honest, if I did do something after marriage, my mother wasn’t very pleased with it. She would say – you work full time, leave the kitchen to your wife. My mother always attended to, and still does to this day – every little thing in the kitchen. She doesn’t think it is a man’s job to contribute or even take part in any of these chores. I grew up that way, and amongst that kind of attitudes.”
So, what changed? Nath says, “This was way before the pandemic. When we were expecting our first child, neither my parents nor my wife’s parents could come and stay with us in the United Kingdom. My wife’s aunt came after delivery, but how long could she stay and help? The doctor had suggested that my wife eat a lot of green leafy vegetables and a nutritive diet to get her strength back. After my wife’s aunt left, I started looking up recipes. I realised that it was just the two of us and if I did not help, my wife would not get any respite at all. If the baby was sleeping, I would ask her to get some sleep too, and I would quickly make something for us – mixed lentils khichdi, palak paneer, or even an egg curry. I learnt so much in those months and if I hadn’t, I would have carried a lot of guilt. Because I helped her in the cooking, she was able to look after herself and in turn, our baby’s health and wellbeing.”
Another quote from a father of two, again with a request to let it remain anonymous, was on similar lines. “When we had our daughter, we had decided that we would feed her good, homemade food. The sort of food we had access to when we were growing up. And since we both worked, it was important that I learnt to cook as well. How could I say to my daughter that in order to be fed hot and nutritive food, she had to wait till her mother came home? And that even if I was home earlier, I couldn’t give her a hot roti with ghee (her favourite) because I did not know how to roll one?”
“Even if my initial rotis were misshapen, they were still homemade, made from fresh dough and layered with ghee and a sprinkling of sugar. Just the way she liked it. I learnt how to cook because feeding my daughter was not just my wife’s duty. A hungry child needs food – and hunger can’t wait till mummy comes home.”
Perhaps there is hope. The great Indian kitchen as depicted in the movie of the same name, is changing. One little recipe and baby step at a time. From a father who makes a hot roti for his daughter, a husband who learns how to wash dishes and cut onions after a decade of being spoilt and pampered by his mother, a brother who brushes up his batata poha skills during the pandemic. To a mother who insists that the kitchen and its many duties belongs to, and should be claimed by everyone, and not just by the women in the household. A mother who vows to raise her children differently, ensuring that cooking is not a skill dictated by one’s gender.
And then, there’s always humour. What we cannot conquer by change, we do so with humour.
Like a friend who responded to this potential match who had written to her ‘I want to marry a good cooker.” By which, he meant, a woman who was a good cook.
“Maybe you should try Hawkins or Prestige,” she had emailed back.
Perhaps ten years to that email-exchange, I am hoping the man got a cooker and also acquired some cooking skills. It’s about time. Really.