Easy-Bake Ovens are not traditionally marketed to boys. The commercials (see below) are festive and feminine, with girls grinning ear to ear as they bake mini pizzas and cupcakes with a high-powered light bulb. The colors on the box are pink, the spokesperson’s voice is female. A little boy watching a commercial for an Easy-Bake Oven should roll his eyes or make a fart noise with his mouth to assert his masculinity. Unless that little boy leans closer to the screen, scratches his head and wonders how he can tell his mother or father that he doesn’t want a bicycle for Hanukkah or a Light Bright. He wants an Easy-Bake Oven so he can learn to cook.
Not that I know from experience or anything. During my childhood, I was too busy collecting Garbage Pail Kids and playing Nintendo to worry over my lack of an Easy-Bake Oven. OK, I’ll confess, my curiosity was piqued, but I suppressed that part of myself. I suppressed it much the same way I suppressed my desire for a Bedazzler or my secret wish for a little sister whom I could dress up. When my younger brother was born, I ran to the car as my dad pulled up with the news and asked, “Is he a she?” (He was, and still is, a he.)
The desire to cook, though, ran deeper than the desire to do these other things. My mom recalls that when she fed me my baby food, I’d begin to bawl when the little jar was empty. “You loved food,” she says. “We really worried you’d be fat your whole life.”
So there was a love of food from the very beginning but no way to requite it. The kitchen was a forbidden zone, both for me and anyone else. No one cooked in my family, and the oldest son wasn’t going to be the one to lead the revolution. It took distance and college and time before I could brave my way into the kitchen. Is it a coincidence that my coming out of the closet junior year coincided perfectly with my coming out as a cook? The two events, while seemingly unrelated, certainly fed into each other. As a gay man, I didn’t have to operate within the confines of my gender. My unwillingness to play football at Thanksgiving was now acceptable and so was my newfound enthusiasm for artisanal cheese, cold-pressed olive oil, and Niçoise olives.
What’s fascinating, however, is that the struggle I went through doesn’t translate as clearly in the world of restaurant chefs. While men cooking at home frequently raise an eyebrow, restaurant chefs are, if anything, considered more masculine for what they do. Who’s gruffer than Anthony Bourdain? Who’s more brazen than Mario Batali? And look at how those Japanese Iron Chefs wield their knives like action stars.
Restaurant kitchens are like fraternities, particularly in how they haze their recruits. One need only read Bill Buford's Heat or Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential to become aware of the testosterone-fueled world of restaurant cooking. When I worked as a waiter in Atlanta, all the waiters were either women or gay men, and all the chefs were straight. The dynamic between the front of the house (welcoming, accommodating, warm) and the back of the house (hostile, angry, aggressive) provides a perfect model for the dynamic at play here: It’s Grandma vs. Godzilla. You can see why alpha males are drawn to restaurant cooking (just watch Top Chef) and you can also see why so many gay men, who are famously affable, funny, and amusing, make good home chefs.
Of course we’re speaking in generalities here. There are plenty of alpha-male gay men, and there are plenty of effeminate straight male restaurant chefs. I asked food blogger David Lebovitz, who spent many years as a chef at Chez Panisse, and he said, “Anthony Bourdain wrote in his first book that in a professional kitchen, all that matters after the first few hours is that you can do the job. Most people no longer care what color you are or if you're a homo. If you can get the job done, then you're in.”
I believe that. But it’s hard to ignore the dearth of openly gay male chefs working in restaurants today. Of all the famous chefs launched by the Food Network and Bravo, how many are openly gay men? I can name one: Ted Allen. But he’s not a restaurant chef, he’s a home chef. And you can see his confidence flounder when placed alongside a straight bulldog like Jeffrey Steingarten at the Iron Chef’s judging table. Steingarten (not a chef, but a distinguished food writer) wipes the floor with him every time, and Ted Allen’s credibility is immediately called into question. Who is this guy? What’s his pedigree? He was on Queer Eye and he has a cookbook. Big whoop.
Home cooking, then, is a locus of much anxiety for many men in our culture. Gay men embrace it because they can, but what about straight men? Is it effeminizing for straight men to spend more time in the kitchen than watching sports in the den? Does cooking at home make you gay?
That question is purposely naïve. Of course cooking at home doesn’t make you gay any more than skeet shooting makes you straight. It’s really a question of perception: how do we perceive the man who cooks at home in our society? Is it still effeminizing? Does it denote a lack of ferocity, of authority, of the basic male instinct to hunt the food rather than prepare it?
Straight men who cook are often seen as more tender-hearted, more sensitive. Think of movies: How do you establish a male character’s softer side in a movie? Show him cooking. Think of the cooking scenes in The Godfather and Goodfellas. What’s more character-defining, chopping a guy’s head off with a butcher knife or slicing garlic with a razor? Even Tony Soprano takes pride in manning his grill. True, the grill is a different thing altogether. It’s as far away from the Easy-Bake Oven as you can get.
Perhaps, then, the Kinsey Scale of cooking lies between these two points. Are you more Easy-Bake or Weber? More light bulb or charcoal? The answer probably says less about your sexuality than it does about your food. You can’t really get a good char with a light bulb.
Here's a bonus Easy-Bake commercial for you.
About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.