My grandmother loved watching Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa.” Perhaps this was, in part, because she modeled Ina Garten’s living in many ways: she wore the same comfortable yet crisp button-down shirts, cooked comfort food with ample amounts of butter. She emanated a strong, yet feminine grace.
Grandma worked as the vice president of several banks over the course of her lifetime. She would don her pantsuit and heels, travelling to conferences across the Pacific Northwest. But when she returned home, she turned on the television, and watched Ina Garten cook dinner for her husband Jeffrey. And Grandma would, in turn, cook many of the same dishes for her farmer husband.
Perhaps it’s this personal story that led me to question Megan Garber’s recent review of Ina’s new cookbook, “Cooking for Jeffrey.” While Garber notes that Ina and Jeffrey’s relationship is “at once old-fashioned and uniquely modern,” she seems particularly concerned with the “old-fashioned” part of that couplet. More particularly, she voices some concern that Ina, by embracing the barefoot-in-the-kitchen trope, is in fact rejecting the tenets of feminism and leading women backward into the patriarchal abyss.
Can Good Feminists Cook Dinner For Their Husbands?
In Ina’s cooking show, Garber notes with some disapproval, Jeffrey appears “usually at the end, after the work of the cooking has been done.” And in “Cooking For Jeffrey,” Ina references her husband “with cheerful reverence” (reverence not being a feeling one can or should have towards a husband, we presume). Jeffrey “exists, here, simply as a bundle of desires waiting to be fulfilled.” Garber takes issue with this “Jeffreycentric universe,” exhibiting as it does Ina’s fixation on the pleasures of her husband:
You could read Cooking for Jeffrey, in all that, as a kind of slow-roasted rebuke to the general arguments set forth in All the Single Ladies and Spinster and Lean In and Unfinished Business and The End of Men: The ultimate recipe the book shares, perhaps, is for a voluntary regression to the divided domesticities of bygone eras—a celebration of feminine servitude. You could cringe, a bit, when Garten tells interviewers, of her husband, “I love to cook for him. He doesn’t have to do anything and that’s my pleasure.” You could cringe as well when Jeffrey explains of that instant attraction to Ina, “She looked like she would take care of me.” You could look, overall, at the show and the books and the general Jeffreycentrism that permeates the Contessa empire and argue that, far from smashing the patriarchy, Garten has instead chosen to serve it some perfectly seasoned smashed potatoes.
But perhaps, Garber suggests with some hope, it’s not as bad as all that. Perhaps this seemingly traditional marriage is really, deep down, a modern marriage with eccentric tastes:
The male Garten may be the direct recipient of his wife’s labors, emotional and otherwise; he may well be, as she has suggested so many times before, the central force in her life. But fame is a tricky currency. And when it comes to Garten’s celebrity—if you set aside any Marxist readings of this self-styled American contessa—what becomes clear is that Jeffrey, Quintessential Husband, is, as a celebrity, playing the role of the wife.
Phew. Don’t worry, folks: we avoided that most fearful of catastrophes, the Wife Who Enjoys Being Domestic. Ina isn’t just some silly woman who enjoys cooking dinner for her husband: she’s a bestselling cookbook goddess who controls her marriage (and thus her husband) via her fame. Jeffrey “is beloved,” writes Garber, “in large part because he is widely seen to be beneath.”
Why Equate Domesticity With Servitude and Drudgery?
Garber seems almost afraid of the possibility that a traditional marriage, with traditional roles, might also be loving, respectful, reciprocal, and genuine. Instead, she proffers this convoluted Jeffrey-as-wife scenario in order to circumvent that possibility.
I cannot help wondering, however, if this is making things a bit too complicated. As much as I applaud feminists for urging greater career choices and dreams on the women of the world, I do not see anything wrong with being barefoot in the kitchen. Or even with being barefoot in the kitchen, cooking dinner for one’s husband. If this brings you pleasure, it’s what you should do. Domesticity needn’t be equated with servitude: many have found empowerment by embracing its old-fashioned virtues.
Ina Garten, in all her sparkling, comfortable glory, suggests to us that perhaps the most “feminist” thing you can do is embrace the people you love most, and serve them in the way you enjoy most. If that is cooking, so be it.
Far from smashing the patriarchy with her marriage—or even needing to—Ina is an excellent example of an old-fashioned matriarch. She’s the queen of her castle, sovereign of her kitchen, ruler of her garden. Jeffrey enters her kitchen (and her show) with timidity, respect, and gratitude—because this is Ina’s realm.
Don’t Abandon Kitchens Just Because Feminists Say So
That’s what I saw in my grandma’s house. She loved cooking dinner for her husband and family. She invited us over at least monthly for splendid feasts. The house was always sparkling and warm, filled with flowers and exquisite china and charming trinkets. Dignified lady and banker that she was, my grandmother saw nothing wrong with rolling up her sleeves and spending a whole day cooking in the kitchen. It was her realm of service and love, and she was never happier than when she was hosting a whole crowd of people.
Many feminists believe that women can only succeed in overcoming the subjugations and oppressions of times past by becoming “patriarchs” themselves—by asserting their dominance over men, by abandoning the home, by shirking the kitchen and all domesticity. Yet in so doing, many leave behind a realm of familial and cultural activity that is not only crucial—it’s actually quite enjoyable.
Not every woman loves the kitchen. Not every woman has to. But it’s saddening to see women desert a sphere of life they might actually enjoy, out of a false sense of feminist uprising. There are few realms as important to human flourishing, familial solidity, economic stability, and environmental sustainability as the home. It touches on every point of a happy, healthy life. In addition, the home often enables us to express our artistic, creative selves in a way few desk jobs allow.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Serving Those We Love
Ina knows this—and she celebrates it. Her home and kitchen are a wealth of beauty, color, and comfort. The fact that she cooks for her husband isn’t a begrudging task; it’s an artistic pursuit.
But apart from the self-fulfillment and enjoyment she seems to procure from these activities, it’s worth noting that Ina also, by her own admission, does it for Jeffrey’s sake. I would argue, as a wife, that this is not a bad thing. Marriage is all about giving of oneself for another. Since marriage will invariably involve a division of labor and sharing of tasks, there is no reason why a wife should not choose to make meals for her husband as a display of love—just as he should give his time and effort to bring her pleasure, comfort, and enjoyment.
My grandmother loved cooking for her husband and family. It brought her pleasure—not just because she enjoyed cooking and baking (although she did), but because she loved serving people. Cooking was her way of showing affection.
Believe me, we felt her love. It was tangible, tasteable. My grandmother died in 2014, but when I make caramels or bread pudding during the Christmas season, or stuffing and sweet potato casserole for Thanksgiving dinner, the tears well up. Because Grandma is there.
I also turn on “Barefoot Contessa” whenever I have a spare moment. Because in Ina’s smile, in her gorgeous floral arrangements and buttery foods, I get a little taste of my grandmother. I see her zest for the home-centric life. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that.