Are All Grandmothers Amazing Cooks?
The food media’s overglorification of “Grandma’s cooking.”
By Joanna Eng • November 14, 2019
The food media has reached a consensus: Everyone loves Grandma’s cooking. On Top Chef season 16, guest judge Edward Lee tells a White contestant that her dumplings remind him of his Korean grandmother’s, and she takes that as the ultimate compliment. But why are we so quick to assume that grandmothers, especially those with roots outside of the United States, are naturally amazing, culturally “authentic” cooks? I have a Chinese grandmother, and the biggest food memory I have of visiting her as a kid is the paper bag of assorted muffins she would bring home from her job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
The very phrase “Grandma’s cooking” connotes soulful, traditional, and mouthwatering comfort food.
The very phrase “Grandma’s cooking” connotes soulful, traditional, and mouthwatering comfort food, in part because of the glorified relationship the media reinforces between grandmothers and homemade food. In a piece called “Why We Should Be Cooking Like Our Grandmas,” Food52’s Leah Koenig writes, “Anyone who has chased their own grandmother around the kitchen, trying to capture the secret behind her beloved apple cake or pupusas, understands their magic.” Similarly, in an article titled “How to Cook Like Your Grandmother,” Parade magazine asserts that grandmothers don’t use recipes and are intuitive cooks.
The phenomenon is essentially a threefold stereotype involving gender, age, and (for bonus credibility) ethnicity. These three factors together lead to assumptions of magical wisdom—something primal or naturally occurring—when it comes to cooking. But in a media landscape where we’re becoming more and more mindful of not falling back on stereotypes, why do we let this particular sweeping generalization slide past without commentary, time and time again?
The phenomenon is essentially a threefold stereotype involving gender, age, and (for bonus credibility) ethnicity.
The gender stereotype—and by extension, the age factor—can be explained by the traditional division of labor in most cultures. Many women of past generations may not have been naturally great cooks; rather, they were forced by patriarchal rules and attitudes to accrue a lifetime of practice and become efficient, dependable, crowd-pleasing cooks. They were often not allowed major roles in life besides the responsibilities of feeding and taking care of the family, and they did not have the conveniences nor the support of takeout, microwaves, food blogs, and equal domestic partners. So perhaps part of the reason that grandmothers’ role in the kitchen is idealized has to do with avoiding the fact that we’re making them perform unpaid work at every family gathering.
The way in which the media invokes the trope of “Grandma’s magical cooking,” in practice, furthers the invisibility of women’s actual mental and physical labor and expertise in the kitchen. As Meghan McCarron writes in Eater, men who cook generally get more credit for it than women who cook:
Many women of past generations may not have been naturally great cooks; rather, they were forced by patriarchal rules and attitudes to accrue a lifetime of practice.
The media-fueled mystique around [male] chefs is rooted in their image as professionals and artists—technically gifted and extraordinarily creative, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and seeking to revolutionize the way we eat (backed up by mountains of profiles portraying them exactly as such). Conversely, women cooking at home are portrayed as relying on instinct and love, hewing to tradition and happy to nurture their families for free. . . .
In other words, male chefs are considered cultural influencers because the cooking they do is seen as fundamentally more skilled—and more important—than the cooking done in the home by women. (Ina Garten may be famous, but few in our culture would consider her an artist, or a visionary, however short-sighted that opinion is.)
“Ethnic” homemade food is highly treasured in terms of culinary worth in the food media, but that doesn’t mean that “ethnic” grandmothers have received more credit for their part in creating it. (Ethnic is in quotes because it’s popularly defined as originating from another country and/or a non-White culture, even though most American foods and people fit that criteria.)
Ethnic is in quotes because it’s popularly defined as originating from another country and/or a non-White culture, even though most American foods and people fit that criteria.
To give one specific cultural example, Mayukh Sen writes for Food52 in “The Sad, Sexist Past of Bengali Cuisine” about a strict patriarchal tradition among upper-caste Hindus of West Bengal: As soon as their husbands died, widows were supposed to live the rest of their lives under extreme dietary restrictions, such as eating only one full meal a day and refraining from all meat, fish, onion, garlic, and red lentils. Sen explains, “The alienation imposed upon high-caste, Hindu Bengali women was meant to act as a hormonal suppressant, silencing the desire more dangerous than hunger for fish or meat: sex. In some cases, it was even thought to induce malnutrition, prescribing an early death sentence.”
But these widows still had to continue cooking for their families and were “forced to make do with the meager ingredients they were given to cook. But these culinary limitations inadvertently contributed to what is now a rich vegetarian cuisine, built around dishes made from scraps of produce. These women are this cuisine’s unsung architects, recognizing a spectrum of possibilities within their loss.”
When grandmothers do help carry on or enhance rich food traditions, let’s recognize them as the cultural influencers and masters that they are.
So to those who rave about this particular brand of traditional vegetarian Bengali cuisine, Sen writes, “These women suffered just so the rest of us could eat. . . . Sitting at the table and eating food from someone else’s hands affords you the privilege of not knowing the effort, be it minimal or extreme, it took to get to you.”
Of course, honoring a grandmother’s cooking is a way of honoring a grandmother’s life’s work in some cases, so I am not suggesting that we stop offering praise and appreciation in respectful ways. In fact, when grandmothers do help carry on or enhance rich food traditions, let’s recognize them as the cultural influencers and masters that they are—as opposed to the common but shallow invocation of “grandma cuisine” in the male-dominated culinary world, which Eater’s Meghan McCarron describes as “performative recognition of female home cooking—giving credit to those who came before as inspiration and nurturers but not as experts.”
It’s time for the food media to start representing grandmothers as multifaceted people—instead of making sweeping generalizations and assumptions about them.
Further, grandmothers should also be allowed to be less-than-amazing cooks or to just not enjoy cooking. It’s time for the food media to start representing grandmothers as multifaceted people—instead of making sweeping generalizations and assumptions about them.
As for my own “ethnic” grandmother—sure, she worked extremely hard for her family like most women of her generation, and that included cooking for them—but her very persona certainly doesn’t make me think of mouthwatering comfort food from her region of China. She will ultimately be remembered for her quiet toughness, her generosity, her humbling life story, her unique accent, and her love of fleece vests, among other things—not defined by her cooking.
Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and cofounder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She studied anthropology at Cornell University and is excited to finally be using her major for something. Joanna lives in the New York City area with her wife and child.