In our small, cluttered house, I can track the evolving pursuits of our boys, now eight, eight, and nine years old, by the toys on the living room floor, the e-devices plugged next to the toaster, and perhaps most of all, the stacks of books teetering on tables and shelves. Over the years, these stacks have morphed: chapter books ousting picture books, nonfiction nudging out coloring books. Often, a whole series will work its way through the pile on our coffee table. Recent months, for instance, saw a proliferation of how-to books for boys: The Dangerous Book for Boys, The Boys’ Book of How to be the Best at Everything, and The Boys’ Book of Survival. All three of my sons, but Jon most earnestly, explored these books page by page and attempted to make a catapult, dowse for water, catch a fish with his bare hands, and many other amazing feats.
These books aim for a retro, whimsical vibe, from the Dick-and-Jane-style covers to instructions on hypnotizing chickens and surviving a school dance. While I’m not a fan of perpetuating gender roles through boys-only activities, I must admit that the books—whether read by boys or girls—hold some appeal in our current indoor, no-risk culture. They encourage adventure, trial-and-error problem solving, and resilience. They also teach DIY skills at risk of extinction in our electronic world.
With one very notable omission.
It seems catching a fish (or mesmerizing a chicken) is daring and dangerous, but seasoning, grilling and serving it for dinner is not. Reading a compass, according to these books, is a vital skill; reading a recipe is not. Enduring a stuck elevator is a handy trick; enduring lunchtime without mom is not. In other words, creating and sharing tasty, healthy food isn’t boyish, adventurous, or particularly cool.
Cookbooks teach these skills of course, but I’ve found only two marketed specifically to boys, one of which is called Boys Can Cook Too! As Jon, who loves to cook as well as build catapults, might say: duh. Gender-neutral cookbooks for kids abound and some are very good. The Betty Crocker Kids Cook! shows boys and girls making (semi) nutritious food as well as climbing mountains, hanging from tree branches and conducting crazy experiments. In general though, cookbooks are quite staid, if not boring, compared to the thrill of launching a garden rocket or mixing diet Coke and Mentos. One cookbook is even subtitled: Nothing sharp, nothing hot. How exciting is that?
So where are the popular role models for kids like Jon who crave adventure as well as fantastic do-it-myself meals? Where’s the inspiration for kids—boys and girls—who eat danger for breakfast but also want and, let’s face it, need to learn the art of cooking and serving great food?
Jon has grown frustrated with the boys’ how-to books (too many untestable challenges; how to fly a helicopter etc.) and bored with our library’s selection of kids’ cookbooks (too many sparkly cupcakes). He has now moved on to cooking shows. We watch recent episodes via the Food Network and other online venues and have discovered a virtual herd of adventurous male chefs. There’s Gordon Ramsay, for example, wielding power and expletives in Hell’s Kitchen. There’s Anthony Bourdain traveling to “parts unknown” on a seemingly limitless budget. There’s Bobby Flay clashing with chefs who want to “take him down.” In these and many other “reality” shows, men swear, battle, and roam. They might get around to making food too, but their creations have more to do with conquest than feeding themselves or their families. In fact, on these shows, the words “home cook” can humiliate a chef faster than a scalded Béchamel.
Meanwhile, female cooking show hosts seem tied to the homestead: Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa; Giada at Home; Nigella Lawson, the domestic goddess. Their episodes and recipes focus on reasonable, comfortable meals for families and guests, all served from a calm, home-style kitchen. This on-screen division of labor corresponds to the off-screen world where the vast majority of professional chefs (exciting; competitive) are men, but the majority of home cooks (practical; accommodating) are women.
Of course, there are exceptions to this division and there are also signs of change. Michael Smith is one of Jon’s favorite celebrity chefs, in part because he lives on Prince Edward Island (a family stomping ground) and in part because he makes dishes Jon can copy—at home. Smith enjoyed a high-flying career as hotel chef and restaurateur then made a deliberate move to market himself as a dad and home cook. On his current television show, Smith makes family meals from his own kitchen. Wikipedia describes this career shift as Smith’s “most challenging initiative to date.” No doubt it is, not only because top-chef-turned-family-cook bucks a trend, but also because cooking for families every day is challenging.
I would be thrilled if my sons become professional chefs; if they swooped in from New York or London and made what-have-you en croute and flambéed desserts for Mom, but I’d be more impressed if they took pride in home cooking—the budgeting, planning, shopping, preparing, serving and cleaning up of home cooking. That’s “reality” and it takes skill, stamina and, when faced with Ewww! I don’t like that!, a fair amount of courage, too.
Recently, Gordon Ramsay deviated from his bad-boy persona to release a new book and television show called—are you ready?—Ultimate Home Cooking. That’s just shy of extreme home cooking I’d say, especially as his tips include: Be Bold. Be Adventurous. Does this signal a new wave of daring home-cooks? If so, I hope my boys will ride the crest. Jon can now stoke a campfire, pogo 97 times, and concoct slime from borax and glue. He can also mince garlic, roll pie crust, and whip cream into perfect peaks by hand (if not yet catch a fish that way). He makes the best fried chicken in the house and serves it with satisfaction and a side dish. We’re still working on cleaning up, but in my book, these feats are both intrepid and very exciting.