My mother always told me I should never learn how to cook. “You’ll just end up making every meal for a man for the rest of your life,” she said to me. It was a feminist statement, one that had precedent and about which much has already been written. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, childcare were all the things that were piled on top of her when she was already working full-time — and my father shared none of the load, even when he wasn’t working two jobs. My mom, out of a selflessness that I’ll never be able to repay, let me be a child until I was an adult, with my head in books or watching movies. Other than cooking up lunches of frozen food for my brother and myself during school vacations, I never had to do any sort of household work until I was paying my own rent.
I brought this up to my mother over drinks recently, while we were talking about how my boyfriend can’t cook. “I make him oatmeal before work every morning,” I said, horrified at my own behaviour, and she shrugged it off, because to use her words, I’d “finally found the right one” — a partner who took care of me in a million other ways.
Because, despite my mom’s advice, I learned how to cook. It was going to happen no matter what, considering how much I loved to eat. Her mother was the one with whom I’d cuddle up in bed as a young child, and watch cooking shows; she was the one who made me lamb chops and lobster, setting up a snobbish palate that couldn’t handle gustatory disappointment. So, once I started personally sautéing and roasting and baking my way through the days, I treated it as an intellectual exercise, guided by the cookbooks of big-name male chefs like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria. Two years ago, when I read Emily Gould’s essay about her pursuit of a domestic goddess lifestyle during her first live-in relationship, I couldn’t relate. To me, cooking wasn’t about being domestic or homey; it was about the pursuit of something loftier, more aspirational.
Now, though, I do want to know these women — these goddesses. I want to learn how to do things differently at home, to create a home through food — perhaps I’m finally nesting in my mid-thirties. But I still don’t want to fall prey to what my mother warned me about, the ease with which the domestic becomes drudgery, the naturalness with which a woman partnered with a man can fall into easy gendered traps, and so I’m seeking guidance in navigating a space I was warned to avoid at all costs. I’ve long had the cooking part down, but can I be a domestic goddess?
The poet Diane Di Prima, in her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman, writes of women needing to learn to bear more pain than men, not just because of having periods and giving birth, but because of the oil that spatters while we cook. “I would, she assured me, get used to it,” Di Prima writes. “My fingers would get calloused, and pots and fire wouldn’t hurt as they did now. I looked forward to this armour as a good thing; she described it as a blessing.” Born in in 1934 — two years younger than my maternal grandmother — Di Prima was taught differently by her mother than I was, during a time when the domestic wasn’t a choice but an obligation. It was dutiful, and it came with scars.
The only way I could actually make some move toward equality would be to reject the domestic as duty, to act as a man and take domestic activities on piecemeal as hobbies.
In her 1975 book Wages Against Housework, Silvia Federici calls these duties “unwaged work,” and that’s how the sphere of the domestic has functioned for most women in the world, despite what we might like to believe about the gains of feminism. The gains meant that my mom went to work, and also came home and did everything that needed to be done there. The only way I could actually make some move toward equality would be to reject the domestic as duty, to act as a man and take domestic activities on piecemeal as hobbies.
That’s what I did, and that was what worked until I became more and more disillusioned with restaurants as I heard about myriad stories of abuse and exploitative behaviour in kitchens. The more I realised these chefs weren’t gods — weren’t even artists — the more I realised that taking home-cooking seriously and feeding through love rather than through intellect and for profit could be its own act of culinary rebellion.
When Nigella Lawson put out her second book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, she was keen to let everyone know that she was using those words as a joke, an irony. The phrase was a costume for Lawson, one that she characterised in the preface as being “a cross between Sophia Loren and Debbie Reynolds in pink cashmere cardigan and fetching gingham apron, a weekend alter ego.” She wrote that it was a good thing we no longer had to get into “Little Lady drag” to tool around the kitchen.
But Lawson was — and is — stunning, striking a famously Loren-esque figure, and even if she didn’t want anyone to take her book’s title seriously, when I hear the words “domestic goddess,” it’s her image I see in my head and it’s her voice — both in writing and from her TV shows — that I hear: casual, funny, sensual, and suggestive. “I am not going to pretend that making profiteroles is a completely effort-free exercise,” she writes, putting herself in the place of a home cook who maybe has ample time but not a lot of confidence. She is compassionate, but knowing; she comes from a place on high. That is the tone, one ascertains, of a goddess.
And it’s the domestic that is Lawson’s territory: Other women who’ve been given a similar title all come from a professional space, whereas Lawson was a journalist prior to publishing, in 1998, her first book, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food. Martha Stewart’s Entertaining, B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends, and Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook all came from each woman’s work as caterer, restaurateur, or shop owner, respectively, as they transitioned their skills to the home. They attempt approachability in a similar way, but none make it so much a part of their voice as Lawson. That’s why it’s her books and TV shows I’ve been poring over more extensively.
The domestic can be a choice now, and some of us need notes because we were given the freedom to reject it.
It’s Garten’s Barefoot Contessa that I grew up on and whose culinary aesthetic remains essentially my own, though. There’s the extensive use of olive oil, her famous focus on “good” ingredients, an inherent simplicity that reads as “Hamptons” taste — a minimalism I recognised early in life as a marker of wealth and comfort, though I grew up about an hour west of the elite area where she opened her shop. Garten always does want to make Jeffrey, her husband, happy, sure, but it’s her aesthetic that comes first. With Stewart, as well— far more so than in Garten, whom you can picture being fed grapes by oiled-up men — there’s a strict adherence to what is considered “classy,” at least for her time. Lawson’s insouciance differentiates her from the bunch; her domesticity, depicted in her TV series with the kids in their school uniforms, has a shine of accessible truth.
But as I’ve dug into the books and rewatched her TV series, I’ve begun to understand that Lawson’s genius is just in seeming insouciant, while being technically unimpeachable. She may say she hasn’t “fiddled around” with a recipe much, yet she still knows precisely the ways in which one might. Despite the privilege with which she was reared, when Lawson speaks about sourcing ingredients, she is confident and to-the-point about why she’d choose certain chickens or eggs or local produce over commodity products without coming off with any of the arrogance one might ascribe to the Connecticut- or Hamptons-attitude of a Stewart or Garte. Smart but natural, with a wink — that’s Lawson’s strength. That’s why she’s the mental image of a domestic goddess, and that’s why it’s generous that she named her book in the style of a self-help book for anyone seeking comfort in the role, even if it’s used ironically: The domestic can be a choice now, and some of us need notes because we were given the freedom to reject it.
There are the new goddesses, too, such as Alison Roman and Samin Nosrat — millennial women getting a new generation to be comfortable with their Dutch ovens and understanding how acid and fat work in cooking. While many of us have been stuck at home in quarantine, finally cooking every meal for ourselves, it’s Roman and Nosrat who countless people have been turning to for guidance on bucatini and focaccia. For me, though, the old guard has sufficed, reminding me of my childhood, and imparting lessons from which my mother spared me. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that the restaurant chefs — long understood as gods of their craft — and their cookbooks haven’t been called upon in this moment? The centrality of home, the necessity of domestic skills… it’s women’s work that matters in a crisis.
I began New Year’s Day by making brunch for my boyfriend’s family, uncharacteristically eager to impress. As I stood sweating over the stove, refusing any help, I called myself a “domestic goddess” in my head — as a joke, and as a stress-busting mantra. Now, I say it to myself when I turn some steamed beets into a transcendent dip without a recipe, without a fuss. I say it to myself when I pour the canned San Marzano tomatoes into a pot for a simple marinara, or set a ball of dough to rise for flatbreads to serve with curry. I say it with a wink, like Lawson, and with a puff of the chest. But I know that when I decorate a cake with a piping bag in hand, I’m as precise as Stewart, and when I choose my ingredients from the specialty grocer, I’m as picky as Garten.
The horror I felt at becoming a person who enjoys domesticity has mainly dissipated; the gender divide where I prepare the meal and my boyfriend fixes us drinks no longer chafes. There are worse things in life than wanting to make people happy. But I’m glad my mother’s advice was with me while I slowly aged into domesticity — while I learned how to tell the gods from the goddesses.