The other day we had an old acquaintance, S, and his wife, M, come over for dinner. It was a very pleasant, very normal evening with everyone having a good time. All was going well until S dropped a bombshell by recounting how an uncle of his declared that M’s fish curry was nowhere close to what his mother prepared, although his other relatives could never have enough of M’s cooking.
M’s face fell . I blinked and said something about tastes being a subjective thing.Why, even siblings might have widely varying tastes, although most people are fond of their mother’s cooking because its what they’ve grown up eating. I did not mention that his uncle could not have meant well when he took it upon himself to pronounce a judgement of this nature. That it is not as innocuous as it sounds. And that it was insensitive, at best, of S to mention it to us in her presence when he must have known that she would not like it.
M, meanwhile,tried to salvage what she thought was left of her reputation by claiming that this same uncle had really liked her xyz dish and told her that nobody made it that well. This only made me feel sorrier for her.
It struck me later that S was actually trying to pay his wife a compliment in public–a left-handed one for sure, but then apparently left-handed is the only acceptable way to compliment a a wife. He was only trying to tell us how everyone loved his wife’s cooking–it was just that he could not bring himself to do so, for the sake of propriety,without bringing in his ‘uncle’.
His wife found it difficult to accept this ‘compliment’ because her cooking skills were unnecessarily pitted against her mother-in-law’s and judged in at least one instance to be inferior. It made her appear resentful and go on the defensive over a trivial issue. The way women always do, as men like to say.
So many Indian men seem to have a strange complex when it comes to their wife’s cooking. They do like it when others praise it, but somehow they rarely have a good word to say about it themselves. Its almost like they feel that openly liking their wives’ cooking would constitute a betrayal of their mothers’ cooking, which most of them(quite naturally) have been fond of until the wives came into the picture. And any man worth his ma ke haath ka khana would know that it is sacrilege to even appear to favour the wife in the event of a comparison between the wife and the mother(unless under really,really unusual/dramatic circumstances such as this 🙂 ).
They just don’t get it that it does not have to be a comparison in the first place.
It does not help that women, particularly unemployed ones, are very touchy on this issue. Being a homemaker with not enough money in her name and being constantly made to feel inferior to the working women– juggling homes and careers with ease– in her extended conjugal family, takes a toll on her self-esteem. She is led to believe that her cooking and housekeeping must be absolutely top-class for her to justify her homemaker status. She is hence exquisitely sensitive to loose comments of this nature even when they are made in jest.
A working woman often has her own demons to fights. There is this nagging feeling at the back of her head that a career might be all very well, but housekeeping and cooking skills are central to the being of a woman. She is aware that any woman, employed or not, who hires a cook at home is seen as shirking her primary responsibility towards her family which is to cook for them. Men whose wives do not cook for them or worse, who cook for their wives (gasp!!) are looked at with something bordering on pity. All said and done, she is under no less, if not more, pressure to keep a sparkling house and cook like Nigella Lawson. How often have you been assured by a working woman hosting you for dinner that she’s made every little dish herself, that she didn’t trust her cook when it came to complicated dishes or important occasions? She knows that guests in this part of the world feel offended if they are served food cooked by a help. (She might, of course, also know that guests have no way of verifying this and whats a little lie if it harms nobody and pleases everybody?o_O)
The pressure to be seen to be great cooks/housekeepers is unrelenting and is probably designed to stoke competition between women(any unity between women is a direct threat to patriarchy).
So it works like this–women go to great lengths to win approval/praise from everyone in general and husbands and in-laws in particular. The husbands cannot but know this, but they’ve only been raised to be good sons, and all good sons are taught to take their wives a little for granted and not mind it much if they mind. So despite the wife’s efforts, compliments only come few and far between, if at all, and often come cloaked in a language which makes them sound like criticism. Like, you really made this dish well that day(its implicit that you did not make it too well today)!! It is likely that this is intended to keep women constantly on their toes and keep striving for perfection in their wifely duties. Real, unambiguous compliments may go to their heads and make them proud or complacent or both, you see? You know how these women are!!