Recently I solicited Twitter for the best Tom Kha Gai in New York City. The slightly spicy chicken coconut soup is a standard menu item in most Thai restaurants, but although it’s often served as an entrée in Thailand, here in New York it’s generally ordered as an appetizer. Appetizers are unlikely to be the dish that creates buzz around an eatery, so the quality often varies wildly from restaurant to restaurant, and a lot of places bullshit their way through a Tom Kha Gai. I’m ideologically and aesthetically opposed to reading Yelp reviews, and as a result, I have consumed a lot of very phoned in Tom Kha Gai. However, I’m also opposed to leaving Yelp reviews, so I won’t name names. It’s true that half-assing such a glorious soup is an ignoble disservice to the dish, but that’s a sin that’s better left between the chef and their god.
I should never have asked Twitter for a restaurant recommendation of course, because when one asks any large group of people for a restaurant recommendation, one will inevitably get the opposite of a restaurant recommendation: a recipe. “It’s actually really easy to make!” they chirp. “All you need is…”—this is the point at which I slam my laptop in indignation, not because the crowd has responded to my inquiry with information I have not requested, but because they have responded with treachery and lies.
It is not easy to make Tom Kha Gai. That is simply empirically untrue.
Unless you live near a market with a Thai section, the ingredients are expensive and difficult to source. It’s a fairly time-consuming and labor-intensive dish, and honestly the process is quite fraught; is difficult to get the flavor out of lemongrass, coconut milk burns easily, and if you overdo it even a little bit on the fish sauce, the entire batch will taste like low tide.
Of course Tom Kha Gai is hard. Cooking is often highly skilled labor (a fact that usually goes overlooked, especially when women or immigrants are the ones feeding people, as they usually are). But nowadays there is absolutely no dish, no matter how time-consuming or elaborate, that cooking enthusiasts won’t describe as “actually really easy to make!!!”. This is because they are delusional, unsympathetic people, who want nothing more than to draw you into their anachronistic cult of domesticity.
To clarify, it is not that I think people should not cook, or clean, or launder or garden. I like restaurants, and delivery, and I adore the odd fast food indulgence, but I understand that various aspects of keeping a home are enjoyable—even soothing—to some people. I can only assume a propensity toward housework of any kind can well be attributed to nature as well as nurture. A friend once claimed to me that his Italian Catholic upbringing inscribed upon him an almost spiritual pleasure in the ritualistic cleansing of his floors. Meanwhile his Jewish girlfriend, raised by a lesbian feminist, was happy to encourage his pious compulsions.
As a bohemian layabout made nervous by industriousness, I don’t even like when someone cleans on my behalf. I would prefer robots to clean my house, and maintain that dining programs must be integrated into any socialist vision (hardly a radical proposition; seize the hot bar at Whole Foods and you’ve got yourself a ready-made Soviet-style cafeteria). Anyway, home-cooked meals are nice, but they’re hardly necessary for a healthy and delicious diet. For example, I usually eat as if I were at a party—nibbling on charcuterie all day.
I understand that everyone has their strange little kinks—but as drudgery is not my personal fetish, I’m simply saying I’d rather press my hand on the burner than actually spend any measurable amount of time sweating over a hot stove. But obviously housework is a valid and necessary perversion—my issue is that a contemporary cult of neo-domesticity appears intent on undermining the difficulty and complexity of traditionally feminine labor by insisting upon the myth of effortlessness.
And it didn’t use to be this way.
Take for example, the late great Julia Child, a radiant soul if ever there was one.
Child loved cooking, but she also loved the challenge of it, and never denied that it was complex work, and allowed viewers to witness her frustrations and defeats. “Cooking,” she proclaimed, “well, lots of it, is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn.” Once, after a botched attempt to flip a potato pancake, she scooped up the spilled and splattered bits of latke and mashed them back into the pan, giving the viewer permission to do the same, remaining cavalier in her trademark sing-song voice, “if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is to see?” She would chuck broken or inadequate cookware into the garbage can like lovers that had outworn their use. She had strong aesthetic principles, and abhorred abstemious health and weight loss trends, once saying during a show, “I’m going to put some light cream in, or you can put in some more milk… if you’re on one of those hideous diets.”
As a true sensualist, she paired entrées not only with wine, but with beer, and often recommended bubbly with dessert. “You could serve this with coffee or tea, but we’re going to serve it with champagne.” (Yes Julia, yes we are.) She had good taste, but she was never pretentious or snobby, and when asked what her favorite wine was, she would shrug and laugh and say “gin.” Numerous interviews asked her for her favorite meal, and without fail she would reply “red meat and gin.” She had a natural élan, an easy laugh, and a contagious bravery.
Compare that to one of the most prevalent genres of cooking instruction now: the time-lapse tutorial. You’ve probably seen them on Facebook, as BuzzFeed’s Tasty vertical has over 82.5 million followers. The videos are comparable to POV porn, which is shot from the perspective of the party receiving sexual attention (usually orally); correspondingly, the cook’s face is not visible in Tasty videos. You don’t hear their voice, you see only a pair of hands doing the work in a rapid fast-forward that belies the actual amount of work necessary for the dish. Most prep work is never shown—ingredients are pre-portioned and measured. Repetitious tasks are shown only once. No mess or dirty dishes are ever visible, and the twee instrumental music that plays (they love ukulele) seems to imply a breezy, mess-free little craft project, rather than the toil of dicing onions. The food itself is almost always some Guy Fieri nightmare of inelegant American gluttony, but look! It only takes two minutes to make macaroni and cheese breadsticks! And of course, sometimes the videos are sponsored, though often in confusing ways. Philadelphia cream cheese makes sense for the cream cheese stuffed monkey bread, but I’m not quite sure why this Garlic Citrus Chicken and Veggies video is brought to you by Bank of America.
Tasty videos aren’t just sterile lies, they’re a social media servants’ entrance, where you’re the servant, and all the unsightly or dull work that you’re being invited to perform has been hidden away. They edit the prosaic labor of cooking into an effortless leisure pursuit. Every time I see another one on Facebook I have to resist the urge to denounce the person who posted it as a closet reactionary and possible misogynist. The most generous assumption I can make is that they’re a hopeless philistine suffering from a pathological compulsion. If you eat cheeseburger onion rings at the State Fair, you’re an American. If you’re fantasizing about actually making them, in your own home, you are in need of treatment.
And it is a fantasy. That’s why those videos are primarily shot from the perspective of the cook. They’re hardcore domestic pornography, so they don’t have to be real, they just have to be graphic. The people who circulate Tasty’s content almost never actually make that terrible, nearly poisonous food, but they like to imagine themselves as the sort of person who could, the sort of person who has the time to learn and try new indulgent recipes. Tasty tutorials edit and accelerate cooking into a carefree blur of alienation because we don’t have the time to do anything at a regular pace, and these sedative little videos (dare I call them “opiates?”) offer a little bit of escapism.
The frantic bleakness of neoliberal efficiency does make a retreat to the home sound appealing, but the idyllic warmth of the hearth actually comes with a lot of maintenance—home is another workplace. Nonetheless The New Yorker declared 2016 “the year of hygge”—a Danish term that everyone insists has no translation but appears to mean little more than “coziness.” The lifestyle craze imagines a home replete with “candles, nubby woolens, shearling slippers, woven textiles, pastries, blond wood, sheepskin rugs, lattes with milk-foam hearts, and a warm fireplace.” Being aspirationally cozy sure sounds expensive and time-consuming. And collecting all the accoutrements of relaxation sounds pretty stressful; in fact it sounds a lot like a job, specifically the sort of job worked mostly by women.
What’s worse, these lifeless, cutesy interiors, with all their bland affectations of comfort, have become the aesthetic of choice for so-called “creatives.” What was once the boho dirtbag pad is now clean white walls, décor artfully curated to look “rustic,” and perhaps an austere but lovely potted succulent. (In my own experience, real bohemians can’t even keep a cactus alive.)
There is a feminine energy to the entire domestic lifestyle endeavor, but nowadays even men love making a house into a home, reveling in anachronistic skills that they inevitably get an absurd amount of credit for. (Cooking is one of those things that people are always shocked that men are capable of. Parenting is similar; they wipe one ass and they’re father of the year.)
Of course there’s a lot of brilliant feminist thought on housework, but one of my favorites is literally quite elementary. Free to Be You and Me was a 1974 progressive children’s entertainment project created by actress Marlo Thomas, and co-produced by The Ms. Foundation for Women. The book was popular, but the album and television special were a legitimate phenomenon. My favorite segment was from the record, but it was so mired in controversy that they decided not to include it in the TV special. In the poem “Housework,” the glamorous and ebullient Carol Channing gives the kids a dose of reality:
Remember, nobody smiles doing housework but those ladies you see on TV.
Your mommy hates housework,
Your daddy hates housework,
I hate housework too.
And when you grow up, so will you.
Because even if the soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach
That you use is the very best one,
Housework is just no fun.
Children, when you have a house of your own,
Make sure, when there’s housework to do,
That you don’t have to do it alone.
Little boys, little girls, when you’re big husbands and wives,
If you want all the days of your lives
To seem sunny as summer weather,
Make sure, when there’s housework to do,
That you do it together!
In her review for The New York Times, Deborah Jowitt managed to take the poem personally, saying, “The skit, unintentionally, I’m sure, demeans those who accept the clean‐up chores without fuss, and makes those who take pleasure in such chores sound like real suckers.” Ms actually received letters from upset parents as well, one of whom felt uncomfortable hearing the track in the presence of their maid, saying “It seemed too demeaning and insensitive to this woman, who does derive a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from her work.” Now it’s very possible this woman enjoyed her job cleaning up for wealthier people than herself, but I think the fact that her cleaning was wage labor and not a hobby may have been lost on her employer.
Personally I am only domestic to be social. Aside from wage labor, I never cook or clean for anyone that I do not love. (If I have ever so much as made you a cup of tea, it is likely that you are very dear to me.) I avoid the broom and spray bottle until I have a guest that I don’t want to disgust. When I actually get an urge to cook for myself, I almost immediately regret the commitment, seething with boredom and dreading the clean-up (handy tip: if you have a friend suffering from depression, finger foods, disposable plates, bowls and cutlery make a merciful gift). And I like home-cooked food, but there is nothing social or intimate or culturally resonant for me about a pot of stew for one. I learned to cook from my grandmother, from whom I inherited an ancient cast iron skillet that I almost never use. The most delicious cuisine from where she’s from in rural Kentucky is labor-intensive, and evolved from the batch production necessary to feed large families. Talk about anachronistic labor—tending to a pot on simmer for six hours probably isn’t so bad when you have nine children thanking you for the meal (of course, Jesus always gets thanked first, feminine labor slighted yet again).
As for even more ambitious domesticity, like say, gardening, I am unable to even discuss it without sputtering in incoherent anger. If my grandparents knew that they left their bleak cabins and precarious agrarian lives in Appalachia only to see their granddaughter raise chickens in Brooklyn, they’d assume I had cracked, or perhaps fallen on hard times.
It used to be that domesticity was the province of conservatives, but progressives now adore a cultivated domestic lifestyle and frankly I find the fetish insidious. On the other hand, I think Rosa Luxemburg missed the mark in her 1914 barnburner, “The Proletarian Woman,” when she said that domesticity is a reliable way to keep women complicit and complacent, saying:
“The bourgeois woman has no real interest in political rights, because she exercises no economic function in society, because she enjoys the finished fruits of class rule. The demand for equal women’s rights is, where it arises with bourgeois women, the pure ideology of weak groups of individuals, without material roots, a phantom of the contrast between woman and man, a quirk. Thence the farcical character of the suffragette movement.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that petit bourgeois domesticity has driven many a woman to literal suicide, and that anxiety of crushing boredom has historically been pretty fertile ground for radicalization. (Also, call me a bourgeois reformist, but women’s suffrage was a Good Thing.) What Rosa got right in that essay though, was the gilded cage of capitalist hygge patriarchy:
“For the propertied bourgeois woman her house is the world. For the proletarian woman the whole world is her house, the world with its sorrow and its joy, with its cold cruelty and its brutal size.”
It’s not only a poetic insight, but a liberating truth to we feminists of the lazy, louche and carousing variety; one cannot roam the world and keep it clean and cozy at the same time. Feminism once championed a salient skepticism of domesticity’s so-called “comforts,” and I think that labor critique (and intellectual tradition) is due for a comeback. At this point it would be ideal for me to leave you with a thought from Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, by Sylvia Federici, but honestly I’m on deadline, and I can’t seem to find the book. I think it’s under some dirty laundry.
Illustrations by Clifford Vickrey.