What’s Cooking, Good-Looking ?

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!!

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21 Responses to What’s Cooking, Good-Looking ?

  1. There are two things about men that should be stated here – They don’t know how to give a compliment and they don’t compliment their mothers (for their cooking) as well. Giving a direct compliment would seem dishonest for men, and hence they avoid it. They then try to give an indirect compliment and mess up big time!

    In this age, its not a very good idea to be a home maker (alone) for young women. They need the financial security provided by a job or at least should be in a position to take a job when its required. This will put them in place to combat abuse, if any.

    Destination Infinity

  2. Good point, Destination Infinity. Come to think of it, why do men think it is dishonest to give a direct compliment if it is deserved? To find something good and pretend that its just about okay is more dishonest, no?
    Personally I’d like to believe that there are men who can and do compliment freely and generously–I have indeed come across quite a few such men myself. Just that they are few and far between!
    Completely agree that its a bad idea for any young woman to be an unemployed homemaker in this day and age.

  3. Sheesh! If I end up getting married some day, at least we’re not going to have THAT problem. My mother sucks at cooking anything beyond bare basics, and she freely admits that to anyone who cares to pry.

    My family’s a bit non-traditional for a desi family in the sense that it’s always been me and my dad who’ve been into cooking. I’m no Michelin starred chef, but I AM passionate about food and can generally whip up a nice meal at short notice. I’m proud of that, no matter what our screwed up society says.

    It’s not that hard for men to give a direct compliment! I am a man and I find it easy enough.
    It’s more of a cultural thing – men are supposed to be, you know, aloof and iron willed and all of that shazam. Showing too much emotion about something you like kind of goes against that. If you disapprove, you’re supposed to make a ruckus, but if you approve, that’s only what’s due to you, so you don’t make too much noise.

    But I’m with you- playing down genuine accomplishments is as psychotic and stupid as continually boasting about them. It’s good to be lavish in one’s praise, and clipped in one’s criticisms. Patriarchal cultural norms be damned.

  4. Hats off to you and to your parents too for caring two hoots about stereotypes. We definitely need to have more such people here 🙂

  5. I just read all your posts since Aug 5th.
    It was time well spent.
    I am glad I stumbled upon this blog.
    I reached here via IHM’s blog.

    I have just subscribed with my email address.
    You write very well indeed and I have enjoyed reading your posts.
    Count me in as a regular reader henceforth.
    Hopefully I will find the time and motivation to leave a comment too.
    With regards and best wishes
    G Vishwanath
    Bangalore
    Age : 63

    • Thank you so much, GV, for taking the time to go through all my posts and for your kind words. And a big, big thank you for subscribing. I’ll now make an extra effort to write more regularly and meaningfully, knowing that I have at least one regular reader 🙂
      Regards,
      S

  6. Writerzblock says:

    This reminds me of something that happened just after I had got married. An old spinster aunty (in-law) gave me a huge lecture on how another bahu in the family was SOOOO accomplished…. she could cook well/do the house-hold work/even draw kolams beautifully. Stupid as I was, I wondered what that had to do with me, and thanks to being so stupid I didn’t feel hurt at all. Now ofcourse I realise exactly what that woman was trying to achieve!! This comparison concept just does not help. Does it?!! And unfortunately, Indian women are just as bad as Indian men, when it comes to treating the DIL well.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with ‘good sons are taught to take their wives a little for granted and not mind it much if they mind’. So damn true.

    • Yes Writerzblock, comparisons serve absolutely no purpose other than spawning resentment. Maybe that itself is what the comparison-makers want–to keep the poor things perpetually at loggerheads and to make them spend their lives trying to outdo/outperform each other.

  7. hopped over from IHM’s blog! 🙂
    I do agree with what you have said.. Compliments if involve any sort of comparison are no longer compliments! It will take a while for women in general to be less “touchy” about their cooking skills, and for men to give open compliments and be more vocal! It pays to be shameless at times, I feel. I mean, I am no star chef, but I am completely ok with not being a star chef. Especially because I treat cooking as just a chore which I do half the time. The husband cooks half the time and I feel really happy that he cooks far well than I do! And then again, there are different set of people who react in different way to our cooking arrangement of taking turns and cooking (as if its their business to comment..but still;)). Some of my friends are really happy for me and say that they will make sure their hubby has this quality when they marry. And then there are some who will make jokes which are quite derogatory if you go past the ‘humor’. So I guess, it pays to shut your ears to outside world and sometimes to what your own husband says!

  8. My era says:

    Couldn’t agree more on this sensitive issue. I have myself faced countless situations like your friend S and I know it well how much it hurts when someone understates your achievement and to mar it further compare it with someone else.

    With lot of practice I finally learnt the art of resisting to justify myself and my skills whenever faced with this hurting scenario.

    I am glad I found your blog…would love to be a regular here 😀

    • The best way to deal with such situations is indeed to not let them affect you at all, and developing such an attitude does require some practice.
      Welcome to this blog,My Era 🙂 I’d love you to be a regular here.

  9. Me and my wife have a nice arrangement that has worked well for the last 36 years we have been married.
    I can’t cook and she refuses to teach me.
    She can’t drive and I in return refuse to teach her.

    Our interdependence is thus ensured.
    This is perhaps the secret of our happy married life.
    Regards
    GV

    • GV, my husband and I too have a somewhat similar arrangement. There are slight differences though.
      He can’t cook and doesn’t even want to learn.
      I can drive but not too well. Not that he refuses to teach me, just that I don’t happen to get enough practice. So he drives me around whenever he can.
      So we are interdependent too in that sense!!

  10. Thanks for responding.

    Jokes aside, I gave up trying to teach her how to drive.
    All past  attempts to teach her proved near fatal !
    (for the pedestrians, not fo her!)
    She has no physical handicap.
    It’s a mental thing.She gets all tensed up.
    She grips the wheel, instead of merely holding the wheel and I can see the veins on her neck swelling as she battles to stay calm while coordinating the hand and leg movements and also keeping her eyes on the road while trying to drive. 
    She honks incessantly and complains about the habits of pedestrians, cyclists and two wheeler wallas.

    Yes, she knows all the controls in a car but she can drive only if she is given a broad aircraft runway with absolutely no one else using it.

    This was over 30 years ago when traffic on Bangalore’s roads was just 10 percent of what it is now. Today teaching her driving is ruled out.

    She too finds it convenient not to know how to drive.
    Now she drives me while I drive the car.

    As regards my learning cooking, she is not too  keen that I learn.
    Stores and provisions last only half as long when I have access to the kitchen.
    My kids used to love the sandwiches I prepared when she was indisposed and taking bed rest.
    That was because the  layer of  butter and jam that I would spread would be twice as thick as hers and would actually ooze out from the sides of the slices.

    There would be no “kanjoosi” of  any kind in my use of sugar and ghee.
    I have been ordered to stay out of the kitchen particularly after she came back after four months  of separation, on the occasion of my daughter’s delivery over 33 years ago. She found that I had gained a few Kg after eating my own cooking during those four months of forced bachelorhood.

    Even today, whenever she hears a noise emanating  from the kitchen she asks “What mischief are you up to?”
    Sigh!
    I guess I will never learn to cook

    Let me conclude by copying and  pasting something entirely unrelated which I sent out to my internet contacts this morning.

    To 
    All my internet friends,

    My son Nakul Krishna’s article on R K Narayan has appeared in Eye-The-Sunday-Express-Magazine/October-30-2011

    If interested please browse the following link:

    http://epaper.indianexpress.com/15339/Eye-The-Sunday-Express-Magazine/October-30-November-5-2011#p=page:n=10:z=2

    The illustrations are by Mithun Chakraborty (No, not the actor)

    For a quick plain text reading of the contents without illustrations the link is 
    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/malgudi-then-and-now/867062/1
    This takes you to the first page. Other pages follow.

    My son has written for other Magazines too like Caravan, Tehelka, Outlook Traveler  etc earlier.
    Regards
    GV

  11. Smitha says:

    This is so common, isn’t it? That comparison factor, the need for the woman to excel in all activities considered ‘womanly’!

    One of my friends,a working woman, and a mother of one, is a prime example. Her husband is very ‘strict’. He demands certain rules to be followed, and she sticks by them. Both of them do similar jobs, both are equally qualified, drawing similar salaries, yet the wife bends backwards to please her husband. Despite her busy schedule, she spends most of her weekend cooking, and her husband spends time with their child. It reached such a point that she hardly bonded with her daughter, a 4 yr old. And despite everything she did, her husband found some ways of comparing her unfavourably with other women around.. The poor woman goes out of her way to be the perfect wife for her husband! Sadly it is not just about compliments or cooking, it is about the attitude that some men have that attitude, that they can take their wives for granted, be served on hand and foot, and yet find reason to complain!

    • Some men feel it suits them to have this attitude. In the case of your friend, her husband must be patting himself on the back for keeping his wife in her place. She might be as qualified as him, she might be drawing the same salary as him, but she must spend all her free time cooking and cleaning and waiting on him–its the price she must pay for being born a female,heh heh, and by comparing her unfavourably with the other women around he makes sure that she is constantly on her toes trying to win his approval. Suits him to a T, doesn’t it?

      It takes a good amount of conscious effort on the part of a woman to stop making unreasonable efforts to please everyone around her, so deeply ingrained is it in her psyche and her self image. Trying to please comes naturally to her and she does it without even her realizing it.

      Welcome to this blog, Smitha 🙂

      • biwo says:

        I think men like these have a great deal of fear and distrust of women.
        They favour a top/bottom approach to marriage. Somebody has to be on top and somebody the bottom (not in S&M terms). 🙂
        They are also insecure and think that constant criticism will deflect the wife’s attention from their own flaws.
        Attack is the best form of defense as they say.

  12. biwo says:

    Is there anything that Indian men don’t have a complex about?

    It’s not just their wives’ cooking, its almost every aspect of marriage. Marriage is central to a man’s adult identity. Yet unlike women, they recieve almost no preparation for it. 🙂

    So they stumble into marriage ill-prepared, with mixed feelings and you know how it all ends! Disgruntled wives, clingy MILs, devoted sons, emotionally absent husbands and fathers.

    Our family structures ROCK!

  13. Scribby says:

    ah the comparison 😀 well in my case it’s a little ulta you know Husby keeps comparing my cooking with my mother’s…he says yes you cooked it so well but your mother makes it much better…or before I’m starting to make some out the of blue dish he’ll say call your mamma and confirm the recipe with her 🙂

    now that is happening for past 7 years, I think I’ve not minded at all..may be because I know my mom cooks definitely better than me or may be because it is my mom that is being put in superior position as compared to me? or may be I just don’t care or may be Husby doesn’t mean in that sense to compare you know?

    well..I think it’s individual !

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