Dorothea Steinbruch? It’s OK. I’d never heard of her before either. She lives in Brazil, and she’s the only woman on a new list of the 50 wealthiest Jewish billionaires. We are led to ask: what have other women been doing while 49 of our male counterparts were prospering? Baking cookies? Nibbling madeleines?
I’m ambivalent about kitchens. Our kitchens are both indicators of social change and impediments to change. They’ve trapped people in roles of servitude, just as their modern iterations have liberated women from tedious and exhausting tasks. For the most part, our kitchens are the sites of non-incomeproducing efforts involving food (and often family), rarely fame and fortune. But despite the now almost-universal appeal — to men as well as women — of patchke-ing around in the kitchen (granite-counter-topped or nay), there’s still a gender imbalance to kitchen work.
It’s possible that my early feminist consciousness was formed in part by a bat mitzvah gift: my next-door neighbor, a Jewish woman much younger than my mother, a woman I admired and liked, intelligent and trying hard, gave me (no kidding) the Betty Crocker cookbook and wrote on its flyleaf, “This, more than anything, will make you and those you love happy.” Even at age 13, I knew there was something screwy about the sentiment.
And yet that book, with its full-page color photograph of Baked Alaska, was seductive. I still make popovers using its recipe. But my ambivalence persists too. Kitchen work is often solitary and isolated, yet I love the quiet opportunity to focus on concrete tasks with finite ends. You have to make meals over and over again, but that’s how you get proficient. On the third hand, there’s the book that beckons to be read. And worse, the book that beckons to be written. You likely know the drill better than you know the name Dorothea Steinbruch (whose wealth, by the way, was inherited from her late husband): the planning, marketing, slicing, cooking; the eating. And don’t forget the aesthetics of setting the scene, garnishing the platters….
But when the only reward is domestic and private, and not tied to the production of wealth, how do we value our labor?
Of course for some, there is a link between what goes on in the kitchen and financial gain. Mrs. Field and those cookies, Brownie Wise (the single mother who invented Tupperware parties and became the v.p. of the Tupper company). I’ve often ruminated about reviving the Yiddish term balebuste; now this kitchen wonder, mistress of making soup from a stone, has gone public. A new restaurant in Manhattan bears her name, albeit with a more phonetic spelling: Balaboosta. Similarly with Fania Lewando, the Vilna woman whose 1930s vegetar vegetarian restaurant, and the cookbook it inspired, are profiled in this issue.
At the Lilith office our own pattern has evolved. Our daily editorial meeting has morphed into a communal potluck lunch. Someone brings quinoa with raisins, someone else a salad. Berries from a garden. Cookies. Yesterday it was raw zucchini strips so thin they looked like fettuccini. How did this foodiness come about? We like to eat and to cook — or at least cut up vegetables — and it seems useful to multitask: eating while editing. Typically, men who come to the office are surprised by the ritual. Women visitors not so much.
The complex gender politics of the kitchen are front and center in a new exhibition, “Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen,” at the Museum of Modern Art. Its centerpiece is an installation of the actual “Frankfurt Kitchen,” designed in the 1920s by the architect Grete Schütte-Lihotzky as an efficient, hygienic workspace for public housing projects. There’s even a chair, so that the solitary housewife could peel vegetables sitting down. The rest of this show is full of carefully designed iconic kitchen stuff, and photos, mostly by men, of kitchen scenes that suggest both shifting gender roles and consumerism. And it includes “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” the brilliant 1975 video by artist Martha Rosler, who dons an apron and parodies a cooking show as she brandishes kitchen items — like a nutcracker and a rolling pin — with controlled fury. It’s both hilarious and eerie. Maybe it’s what the ideal housewife for whom the Frankfurt Kitchen was designed would have conveyed if she could have.
Have we fetishized our kitchens? Are we expending more energy worrying about our kitchen appliances than about feeding the hungry, who are lining up outside those food pantries forced to close down early each day because the food has run out?
As my grandmother would say (in Yiddish): “Some people complain that the pearls are too thin, and some people complain that the soup is too thin.”