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Reverse gender roles in the kitchen
All the cooks in my life, of which I am not one. Lucking out in the lottery of spouses who love to cook.
Mark’s first instinct anywhere he goes is to head into the kitchen, and back when he was first introduced to my extended Korean family, that is exactly what he did. I don’t remember much about that day because it was more than 20 years ago at this point, but it was a big deal because no one had brought a white person to a family party before. For the women in my family, seeing a man in the kitchen was foreign at the time, and they would get flustered by his presence because they didn’t know what to do with him around.
“Why is he in the kitchen? Why isn’t he downstairs with everyone else?” my aunts would whisper among themselves in Korean as they watched him with amused, but puzzled expressions.
“Wah, look at him chop the vegetables,” they would remark to each other as he picked up a knife and expertly diced some onions into perfect half moons.
But eventually they would shoo him away, insisting that he was a guest, and banish him from food prep.
If I were to quantify the hours that he has spent in kitchens—as a restaurant pastry chef, a business owner, and the main cook of our family—I’m sure it would add up to more than half his lifetime. Mark’s entire identity revolves around cooking. So it was perfectly fitting that the very first time I ever met him was at the college deli where he worked. After I had quit art school and traveled around the country for 8 months, I transferred to a small college in the Pacific Northwest. I arrived in Washington the second day of January right after New Year’s, so the campus was still completely empty on winter break. I spent the first few days alone in my dorm, in a state I had never stepped foot in, and didn’t speak to a single soul until about the third day when I walked into the college deli and ordered a sandwich from the guy behind the counter. That deli worker would be Mark. Our interaction was brief and transactional, but he was first person I ever met or talked to on campus. Later the following week, I would see him again in my music classes.
Welcome to the “men’s club”
Being the oldest cousin in my immigrant family meant that I was paving the way for a lot of “firsts” for my generation. The first to go to college, the first to move away from NYC, and the first to marry outside of our race. It was a role that I didn’t ask for, but was mine, simply because of the luck of the draw in birth order. Aside from some strategic maneuvering of how and when to introduce Mark to my father, my extended family welcomed him immediately. His race was never an issue—but his gender when it came down to cooking was.
On that first family party after being banned from the kitchen, Mark headed downstairs to where the cousins were hanging out watching TV. The patriarchs of the family, my dad and uncles, sat outside on the patio around a large round table, engaged in raucous conversations and heated debates while washing down cans of Miller Lite and shot glasses of Soju with dried squid and peanuts. My uncle spotted Mark through the sliding doors and motioned for him to join them.
“Welcome to the men’s club,” I heard my uncle say as he handed Mark a beer.
I rolled my eyes, but felt relieved that someone over on the men’s side was taking an interest in him, even if meant that my uncle dominated the conversation for the next half hour about his love of classical music once it was revealed that Mark had studied music in college.
In the family gatherings since, Mark would join “the men’s club” once in awhile, but he eventually made his way back in the kitchen. You just can’t tear a chef away from the place he’s most comfortable. At that point, the family became accustomed to his presence and it wasn’t really an oddity anymore. I guess Mark was experiencing some “firsts” himself—the first white person to be married into the family, the first to break through the invisible, but impermeable line of kitchen work that always and forever belonged to the women. Eventually, my relatives would look forward to his cooking, asking him tips on how he roasted the vegetables on Thanksgiving and making sure that they tucked slices of his pies and cakes into their containers of leftovers to take home.
But every so often my mom would watch Mark cook in her kitchen, and she would turn to me and whisper, “you don’t cook at all? You let Mark do all the cooking?” It was a comment that had the slightest whiff of judgement—but also one of envy.
“You don’t know how lucky you are.”
I know I am lucky. I indeed lucked out in the lottery of spouses who love to cook, especially since I love to eat.
My own cooking adventures were mostly confined to my senior year of high school when I did a fair amount of cooking that summer, learning how to make carrot cakes, lasagnas and other dinners for the family, much like our oldest did before she went away to college. I can’t for the life of me remember what I ate during those art school years though. I don’t even remember cooking at all. What I do remember is cheap falafels in the West Village, Korean deli buffets along Broadway, and bagels and coffee (“one cream, 1 sugar”) at the bodega on St. Marks on my walk to school. I also recall that I ate a lot of free hors d'oeuvre-as-dinner at art openings in Soho and pined for a greasy, cheesy NYC slice every so often—a forbidden food because I was vegan at the time. When I moved to the West Coast and met Mark, he was working his way through a Thai cookbook that his mom had given him, a book that is still on our shelves, the cover stained with yellow curry powder and pages dog-eared from recipes he’s made over and over.
The end of my cooking days
I was horribly nauseous the first 5 months of my pregnancy with our first. At that point, I was back in NY and we were living in Brooklyn. During the worst of my morning sickness, I made Mark eat dinners on the hallway stairwell of the brownstone apartment we lived in. Cooking, with all its pungent smells was also out of the question. The only thing I could stomach were milkshakes (specifically made with peach yogurt) and, oddly enough, the occasional Ethiopian craving. I was so nauseous that I desperately accepted a contraption from another pregnant woman from an anonymous message board who took such pity on me that she sent me these nausea bands that basically sends electric pulses to your wrists in timed increments. Basically how it works is it’s meant to distract you every 10 minutes from your misery by disrupting your brain signals with electric stimulations to your nerve. Pretty extreme, but it got me through the worst of my pregnancy. It’s also what marked the end of my cooking days.
As soon as the kids were weaned off breastmilk, Mark took over the feeding for the family—something he was eager to do because cooking is how he felt he could contribute in those early baby years. He started off by making all of their pureed food from scratch, freezing them in batches in cubes in the freezer. And this is the beginning of how we split up our domestic chores: him in the kitchen and me in charge of cleaning the house.
As a pastry chef who left early before the crack of dawn, Mark was always back home in time to have food on the table by six, a dinnertime that we have kept even till now. It is a division of labor that is based on efficiency, who was available during dinner making hours, and who did it the best and fastest. It just happened that the roles stuck years later even as our schedules evolved because we preferred staying in our lanes. Domestic chores are just easier that way. I also have chronic psoriasis on my right fingers which makes cooking not very pleasant, and so, I rarely cooked meals. For the kids, their dad was synonymous with food, so when Mark went away for a few days on a solo trip for the first time when they were young, they asked a serious question with concerned looks on their faces.
“How are we going to eat?”
Growing up, a woman’s work was in the kitchen
I was having brunch with some friends a few months ago, when we realized that none of us were the main cooks in our families. I can also count another half dozen friends off the top of my head where the husbands do all the cooking. I don’t know if this is becoming more common or if it’s just the company I keep, but it was enough of a commonality among us, four Korean American women, that it was worth a conversation at brunch. It’s such a departure from how we grew up in Korean households where it was the women’s job to cook and serve their families at every meal.
I watched my own mom toil away in the kitchen after her nursing shifts to cook dinners every night. Often she would prepare two meals—Korean food for my dad who ate later than us due to his long commute home from Manhattan, and American-style dinners for the three of us. We ate typical meals like pork chops made with Shake & Bake, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli with generous pats of butter—food that my dad didn’t want to eat at home because Korean food was a connection to his home country that he insisted he keep. When I look back, I’m not sure why my mother felt compelled to cook two meals. I can’t imagine my brother and I refusing to eat Korean food, but I do remember her explaining that American food was much easier and faster to make.
Like most Korean men of his generation, I can’t remember a time that my dad ever stepped inside a kitchen except to eat. In the last 15 or so years that he was alive, however, he did start washing dishes and making the rice every day, so maybe the outdated realities of strict gender roles in the kitchen were starting to soften. But for my mom…she would still forever remain the one doing all the cooking in that relationship, and it was often a thankless job.
Like many things that I’ve subconsciously or intentionally rebelled against in response to my childhood, I’m sure this influenced my refusal to slip into gender defined stereotypical roles. Somewhere in my youth, I decided that I was not going to spend my life in a kitchen serving a man. I watched my mom serve my dad two to three meals a day because the culture and gender she was born into decided that it was women’s work and “her job”. She did this job till the very end, every day for more than 50 years, until we had no choice but to place my father in a memory care facility near the end of his illness.
It’s not surprising then that after my dad passed just three months later, my mom decided that she was done with cooking—and she meant it. She’s cooked very little in the two years since. The sad thing for us is that we miss her cooking terribly, the dishes that have come to define the kids’ childhoods and mine.
Learning how to cook to preserve family traditions
I realize that the Korean food I crave is not necessarily the food that I can order from restaurants. It is her version of these classic dishes that only exists in her head and made with her hands with equal parts muscle memory and instinct. Food like hers are not recipes that are written down—that sort of documentation didn’t really exist in her generation. Instead, it is born in the kitchen by years of making the same familiar dishes over and over, honing the flavors as she went along. We have tried to replicate our favorite soups and other comfort foods, but we have never come close to my mother’s cooking. I know that learning how to make these nostalgic dishes is something that I need to do before it’s too late. We made that mistake when my grandmother died. She made the best galbi and oi (cucumber) kimchee that I have ever had, and nobody in my family has been able to make those dishes quite like her since.
I have always vowed to learn how to cook Korean as a later-age hobby, much like the art that I was going to return to when I retired from design and tech. Maybe that time is sooner than I think. But if I’m being honest, I don’t really enjoy cooking all that much. As long as Mark and I are working and time continues to be a crunch, I much prefer the efficiency of our domestic chores remaining divided into our respective domains—him with the cooking, and me, the cleaning. I’m trying, however, to shift my mindset that cooking is this enormous endeavor that I need to conquer and perfect.
Because I want to be able to cook something simply because I crave the flavors that I remember from my childhood. I want to be able to cook for my mother when she is unable to care for herself whenever that time comes, to conjure up memories with one whiff of the aromas emanating from the kitchen when I want to remember her. And I want to pass on some of those favorite dishes that my own kids will want when they come home on breaks from college. As biracial children, it’s the strongest ties to their Korean side that they have.
Besides, who wants this said in their eulogy and tombstone??
“Jenna was a devoted mom and spouse, a cat lover and an artist in her twilight years. She was also really good at cleaning. We will miss her pot scrubbing skills immensely.”
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