Time to applaud the Domestic God

Gosh, it’s hard to get men to do what you want them to do sometimes, isn’t it? So hard. Happily, 77-year-old British television presenter and cook Mary Berry has some helpful ideas, reminiscent of dog training manuals, which she shared with a reporter last week. “You’ve got to persuade [men] gently to do things, and of course when they come back they say ‘oh wasn’t that fun?'”

Genius. Berry went on to argue women who took a year’s maternity leave (she had five weeks) were exploiting their employers, and that feminism was a bad word. Single-handedly, Berry revived the myth that women who cook are compliant and hostile to movements that might restore women’s rights, or allow them outside the home. “Take one part ignorance”, went one headline, “add poison and stir in well.”

Last year Berry was roasted when she said the fact that her daughter loved cooking was “lucky for a young wife and mother. You’re going to be doing it your whole life, so you might as well enjoy it.”

And what of those women who do it for their whole lives and don’t enjoy it?

Here is the nub of the problem many have with the domestic goddess ideal – not just that we should, perhaps, aim higher – but that it is plastering lipstick on unpaid work that for many, is a chore. And that it promotes a myth that a love of cooking equates to happiness, or the domestically competent woman is more rounded, grounded, fulfilled and pleasant than those of us who, it is assumed, lead sadder lives; like prime ministers who come home to empty fruit bowls.

In Australia, fertilised by the sun, feted by women’s magazines, and watered by the ever-growing cult of the home cook, the image of the domestic goddess is ubiquitous, most usually found in advertisements, on blogs and in Sunday papers. She has survived successive onslaughts of feminist thought, and remains groomed and beaming, in our midst, an icon of the Perfectly Happy Woman Often at Home (PHWOAH).

Home cooked food is wonderful. But for most of us, it is still a chore.

While more men are cooking today, the bulk of it is still women’s work. The most recent census data shows 1.4 million women do housework and cooking between 15 and 30 hours a week, while 500, 000 men do. But the more stretched and inadequate we are, it seems, the more we like to pretend we can float past ovens licking fingers, being sumptuous while creating increasingly elaborate, serious feasts.

Our expectations of food preparation and delivery also seem to have soared, partly due to shows like MasterChef. Our mothers produced meals, now we also need to present them. Our mothers tipped cans of soup into pasta; we grind pastes from herbs with pestles. Several mothers have told me, thanks to MasterChef, their children have begun scoring their dinners at night – and not terribly highly.

Where is the rage, ladies? Where, in short, are our domestic gods?

Women have been fighting to get out of the kitchen for 150 years: usually the site of repetitive, unpaid and unsung work.

In the 19th century, before Mary Berry’s mother was conceived, suffragette Charlotte Perkins Gilman dreamt of a world with apartments without kitchens, and speedy delivery of food in “insulated containers by gasoline-powered motor van.” Henrietta Rodman said the ideal feminist residence would be a 12-storey apartment house with meals produced by staff in a basement filled with food-making machines. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn concurred: “There is no great credit to making a pie like mother used to make when a machine tended by five unskilled workers turns out 42,000 perfect pies a day!” Oh, sing it sisters.

We’re not singing it any more though.

Research shows home cooked food is best for all concerned, and crucial in combating obesity. (Though, it should be noted, a study just published in the British Medical Journal found the recipes of television chefs had more saturated fat and calories than ready-to-cook meals bought from supermarkets.)

We all love delicious food. There should be a term for those of us who adore the comforting sight of domestic goddesses, and long to be fed by them, but through lack of talent, inclination or time, will never be one. Domestic pagan, perhaps.

So there is only one alternative now, and a place for a new, sweet dream: the Domestic God. This species exists, but we don’t applaud them, make icons of them or fawn over them nearly enough. A recent University of Cambridge study, based on a survey of 34 countries, found men were happiest when sharing housework; couples argue less and the home is a happier place. Hurrah! Apparently the men thought this gave them a quieter life.

But the problem is – and I feel like a traitor to my sex revealing this – a recent study claims men who do more housework have less sex, even though egalitarian marriages were happier overall. The difference is about 1½ times a month. This means that, for women to continue the domestic revolution begun in the 19th century – we need to stop salivating over sponges other women cook, and start lusting over men in aprons.

Australia needs a Nigel Lawson. I am not talking about a saucy male chef: we all know chefs work ridiculously long hours, which is why only a quarter of them are female. I mean a man who cooks in his own house, who relishes family responsibilities; a man who women would, consequently, like to ravish. We need to finally, totally eradicate the long-held prejudice that men are somehow emasculated by the home front, and make it clear that domestic gods are enchanting and covetable.

The problem isn’t cooking; who doesn’t love a home cooked meal? The problem is that we need to share more of it. We don’t need to waste time coaxing men to mow the lawn, and coo when they return, as Berry suggests. We need to drum into the heads of future generations – boys and girls – that men in aprons are extremely desirable. It’s a far more certain recipe for happiness.

Appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald February 1st, 2013.