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The feminine mystique

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Once upon a time — say, a generation ago — daily newspapers had sections just for ladies. You know them better now as the Lifestyle or Living sections, but back in the 1970s, they were still called the women's page, or the women's section. 

Guys, apparently, only read guy stuff, like the sports and the business and the news sections. Gals, naturally, only read about girly things, like art and literature and parenting and baking. In the world of food, men could be chefs, while women were merely cooks. Women fed the masses; men attended to the desires of the chosen few. 

So in the 1950s, while celebrity chefs such as Pierre Franey and André Soltner wowed East Coast gourmets with their French cooking and macho habits (catching their own fish, for example), their friends Craig Claiborne and James Beard staged a quiet revolution of their own. The New York Times hired Claiborne to head up the paper's food section, while Beard made home cooking seem like a manly pursuit, with his articles and books on cooking freshly killed game, barbecuing, and cooking with liquor. 

The celebrity chefs of their day were comfortably hetero. Claiborne and Beard were gay. So you could make an argument that, if guys were going to take over the women's pages, Claiborne and Beard were the best candidates for the job. But Claiborne and Beard didn't use their mostly closeted sexuality on the job. The job was about making cooking feel OK, even cool, to the red-blooded American male, and that's what they did.

Nowadays cooks of all backgrounds — professional chefs, home cooks, men, women, and a globeful of races and origins — have written cookbooks and hosted television shows. Cooks are celebrities, and their names are affixed to cookware, foodstuffs, and endorsements. It's OK to be a guy and cook. But it's not, apparently, OK to be a male celebrity chef and be the literal face of your own magazine.

Martha Stewart, naturally, began it all with her omnivorous Omnimedia publication Martha Stewart Living. Oprah Winfrey has her own eponymous publication, of course, the glossy O magazine. And lately the peppy Food Network stars Rachael Ray and Paula Deen have followed suit, with the magazines Every Day with Rachael Ray and Cooking with Paula Deen. 

There are indeed men behind food magazines; Christopher Kimball, of Cook's Illustrated, and Edward Behr, of The Art of Eating, come to mind. But these men do not appear on the covers of their magazines, nor are they shilling their own lifestyles as models to emulate.

If Martha is the aspirational doyenne of the female-celebrity-cook-mag world, with her elaborately taxing and gorgeous recipes (quail-egg appetizers, anyone?), Rachael and Paula are the just-folks cooks, with their quick meals that often rely on prepackaged goods. We still look up to male chefs, apparently. But we want to feel at home (even if that home is a fancy pad in the Hamptons) with our female cooks. 

Guys get to be called Claiborne and Beard, but gals are just Rachael and Paula. Even Time_ magazine is guilty of this way of thinking; in its otherwise thoughtful food issue last summer, the magazine assigned a writer (a guy) to write about two chefs (gals Suzanne Goin and Giada de Laurentiis) and how they (amazing!) stay so thin.

Next up: an article, maybe, on why we admire fat male chefs but denigrate plump female ones?