Shut Up And Make Me A Sandwich
I have never quite understood the logic. For as long as time can be counted a woman’s role in society has always been around food. Eve and her apple. Neanderthal women gathering while the men would go out hunting with their pointy sticks and pricks. I can’t even remember the first time I heard the classic quip, “women belong barefoot and in the kitchen,” but I knew it well before I was 5 when I’d watch my teenage cousin come home from high school and make dinner for her family. She would often joke that luckily she wasn’t pregnant. Even then in the dawn of 90s power dressing and the rise of “the work bitch,” I still knew then where a “woman’s place” was.
So if our fundamental Edwardian cum 1950s white American housewife understanding, that a woman’s (or at least her female house worker of colour’s) place was to be in the kitchen, then why is it that the minute she decides to step into a professional kitchen it’s a problem? How is that a woman all of a sudden can’t cook just because she wants to be paid for it? What makes the throes of the professional kitchen as such that it’s different to the home fires that we were subjected to maintain in all those caves before? Is it the shiny counters, the luxury ingredients or the state of the art tools? Or just the tools who work there?
I have interviewed a lot of male chefs in my time and pretty much all of them have a story of a maternal adult teaching them the secret to female culinary wiles. Of generational secrets passed down from grandmother to mother to son; of tricks and tips on how to make their favourite childhood dish – they even go on to swear hand to heart they could never replicate it justly. How ironically feminist?
Feminism is a curious multi-headed beast whose colours change depending on the comment thread on your social media feed. When I was at varsity, my bra-less lady lecturer told us her textbook definition: that essentially feminism was the crusade of making sure that all things to all people were equal and that there is enough space for all of us. That yes, mostly due to the insurmountable ancient odds stacked against us, women should have, you know, basic human rights and – god forbid – equal pay and opportunity. But at the same time men should be allowed space in the warmth of all things deemed heinously feminine and not be judged for it. Cue the hordes of male chefs that stepped inside a household room of feminine power, dared to cross the divide of their own accord and actually liked it.
Then why do those same men that were welcomed into that initial space make the female chefs I have interviewed feel so unwelcome? “It still happens, even this week,” chef, food stylist, and all round badass Khanya Mzongwana tells me. “I was there to teach the chef’s the new menu I designed for this restaurant and this guy just turns to his friend and says, “who does this chick think she is?” and walks out of the kitchen.”
She confirms that all the sexual harassment, yelling and “locker room talk” are all accounted for in these professional steaming, crowded rooms of testosterone. “They all think they’re Gordon Ramsey,” she says. “Are you saying that some of these guys got taught by Gordon Ramsey how to yell in the kitchen the same way that some men learn to have sex by watching porn?” I ask. She laughs at me, “Exactly that.”
But being a woman is not all Kitchen Nightmares and Khanya believes there is an advantage to having to work twice as hard to prove yourself; it makes you a better chef. She doesn’t think she wouldn’t be the chef she is today if she didn’t have to rile against the tension. And her tension is harder than most, as she’s a chef of colour who is open about her struggles with mental illness. “I have to be, it’s so important to tell my story, to trust my own taste buds, and to let other people know that it’s ok to do the same,” she says. The same way that it’s important to acknowledge that as hard as the system is when you’re lucky enough to have a vagina, it is unfathomably harder on those who are not the next white-faced Nigella. Especially in a country where 90% of the faces around you look like you but the smallest of decimals are donning chef whites on your tv screen. Instead it’s a space that now she plans to dominate.
“The great thing about being black and a stylist or doing anything creative,” Khanya says, “is that it shows other young black girls who aspire to be something in the food industry that it doesn’t end at cutting fruit in a gross hotel kitchen at 5 AM. We’re more than just a cheap workforce, we’re creative people who can access these interesting and experimental food spaces. We’re leaders and we’re sensitive, and it’s that sensitivity that allows us to do the work we do effectively.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we need more of this in the world, let alone in the kitchen. The professional kitchen will always be a hard thankless fight and although some of us may have to fight harder to be there, it would do us well if we all just fought a little bit harder so as to make a bit of space for someone else to stand next to us at the station.
This doesn’t mean I believe that men don’t belong in the kitchen – we all belong in the kitchen, if we want to be there – it just means that sometimes I want them to shut up, give everyone an equal chance to go make me a sandwich.
Fuel To Fight The Patriarchy | A Sandwich by Khanya Mzongwana
Cut two slices of Ouma bread thickly, top one slice with a handful of grated mature white cheddar, a spoonful of kimchi, a spoonful of mayonnaise, two fried eggs (or scrambled eggs w a little turmeric and chilli), half an avo smashed with green pepper and salt, some thinly sliced spring onion, a handful of lightly salted Lay’s, some sliced dill pickles, another handful of grated mature white cheddar and the other slice of bread. Spread both sides of the sandwich with salted butter. Heat a pan on a medium heat and drop the sarm into the hot pan. Toast the sandwich until golden brown and cheese has begun to melt. Flip the sarm over and toast until cheese has completely melted. Serve with Dijonnaise and HP sauce. Forget the fuckbois and enjoy. xx
Sylvia McKeown is possibly the most awkward lifestyle journalist and illustrator in Joburg. You will most likely find her eating some form of breakfast food (at any given time of day) while staring at the closest plant available.