Old Habits Die Hard

Ever wonder where the male dominance of professional kitchens comes from? Or why pastry is often considered a woman’s job?

Greg found and downloaded a BBC documentary called A Tudor Feast at Christmas. The show had nothing to do with the holidays other than the 2006 air date, however the premise of the piece was that a group of food historians and archaeologists took over the kitchens at Haddon Hall (a Medieval castle) and spent 3 days cooking a Tudor-style feast. They hunted and fished and prepared food as it would have been done in 1590 when the kitchen was built (it had not been used for over 300 years when the documentary was filmed), right down to the peacock pie complete with the skin and feathers of the bird arranged atop the pie so it looked as if the bird were alive. (Fans of the TV series The Tudors will recognize the technique as the same one used for the swan served to Henry VIII after the death of Anne Boelyn).

In the interviews with the historians, two points came up that intrigued me.

First, it was made clear that kitchens of the era were almost completely staffed with men. Then more than now, strength would have been an issue, but even female staff (who were stuck with jobs like hauling water and plucking birds) would have had to have been incredibly fit and strong.

But in every job back then, men earned more than women. Since upper-class Tudor society was very much based on impressing friends and neighbours with one’s wealth, having a kitchen staffed with men was a status symbol, indicative of the great wealth necessary to pay their higher wages.

The association between women and pastry derives from a similar principle. In the show, one of the female food historians does a significant amount of work out of a separate area of the kitchen called the stillroom. Because the price of sugar at the time was so astronomical, equipment and ingredients used for making sweets were kept in a separate room under lock and key. Pastries were often made personally by the lady of the house or a female family member. Servants were not trusted with expensive ingredients like sugar or spices, and as the lord of the manor certainly wouldn’t ever enter the kitchen, let alone do domestic work, the pastry-making became associated with the highest ranking woman of the home.

As the roles of women (especially those of the working class) didn’t really begin to evolve until the 20th century, it sort of makes sense that these stereotypes have remained, especially as they’re so deeply based on wealth and status. It’s not fair, of course, but the inequalities we continue to see today in professional kitchens at least have a root cause.