Wednesday 06 November 2002

On gatekeeping

Dorothea Salo mentioned—in the context of sharing responsibility for household tasks— gatekeeping, a habit displayed by “some people, typically women… [who] shut other people out of particular tasks and then complain about lack of help.”

I’m not sure whether this is true of all gatekeepers but I’ve noticed that the exclusion is frequently done on the grounds that the task must be performed in a specific way. A few years ago, I was slicing some lemons in a friend’s kitchen (at his wife’s request). Suddenly, she snatched the knife out of my hand and snapped: “Don’t you even know how to slice a lemon? Don’t worry about it, I’ll do it myself.”

Apart from thinking, “What a graceless, inconsiderate hostess,” I wasn’t too troubled—I don’t have any emotional or intellectual investment in my lemon-slicing technique. As we squeezed lemon juice onto our oysters, however, I did take care to check her lemon slices (mine had been consigned to the wastebin). The problem was that my first slice had been horizontal, through the “waist of the lemon,” as you would if you intended to extract the juice with a hand squeezer. I had then sliced the halves into quarters. Her first slice had been vertical, then she’d sliced each half into three, yielding six slim elegant slices, instead of my chunky four.

Of course, the juice tasted no different. But I realized that whereas I’d taken a functional approach, my friend’s wife was also concerned with how the lemon slices looked. She had conceived the whole dinner party as an aesthetic experience, a kind of theatrical event in which her food and its presentation played the starring roles and her guests were simultaneously the audience and bit players in the drama. I mistakenly assumed I’d been invited for dinner only to find myself co-opted into an elaborate piece of performance art.

To be honest, I prefer simple food and, when I’m eating on my own, cheap restaurants. For me, the fine dining ethos adds a layer of stress to what should be a relaxing occasion, while almost every foodie I’ve encountered has been a pedantic, pretentious bore.

It’s not that I can’t tell the difference between a salad fork, a fish fork, and a dessert fork: to the contrary, I’ve been told on many occasions that I have exquisite table manners. If this is so, it is entirely due to a former employer, a Middle-European countess who drilled me relentlessly in the rules of etiquette. Alas, the lessons did not cover slicing lemons—or anything else—since it would never have occurred to my instructor that I might be called on to assist in preparing the meal.

I wondered briefly why I’d been asked to slice the lemons instead of my friend, but it’s hardly a mystery. The other side of the gatekeeping coin is what one might call calculated incompetence, the strategy by which some people, typically men, botch a simple task so that they won’t be asked to do it again. The classic example is mixing whites and coloreds in the washing or, alternatively, jeans and lingerie. But it works in almost any context: filling the supermarket trolley with expensive deli items and imported beer, ironing synthetic fabrics with the thermostat set to maximum, accidentally dropping a piece of bone china as you’re taking it from the dishwasher.

What a delicious irony, I thought later, that the hostess had consigned me into the same category as her “useless” husband, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. My mother taught me to shop, cook, wash, iron, and sew; accordingly, I’ve never had the slightest trouble taking care of myself. Whenever I’ve lived with a woman, domestic tasks have always been evenly shared though I’m generally happiest if my responsibilities only include cooking a couple of nights a week. I don’t care what anyone says, cooking for two is ten times harder than cooking for oneself.

As for my friend and his wife, I hardly see them anymore. It’s impossible to say which came first: his incompetence or her gatekeeping. Either way, it was exhausting and dispiriting to be around them.

The countess and her (third) husband never argued—yet it wasn’t because they were wealthy and their servants did most of the work. They loved and respected each other and they embraced both the sorrow and the sweetness of living. They were generous with their money, their hospitality, and themselves. The most formal dinner parties were simultaneously spirited and relaxed because the countess took such care in selecting her guests and her husband had the happy knack of putting everyone at ease. The hours I spent in their presence were amongst the happiest of my life.

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Interesting. You say her husband was incompetent, but could it have been that he'd been equally categorised?

I'm a victim of gatekeeping when it comes to putting things away. I'm not sure of the rules you see, so exhibit ignorant imcompetence.

Posted by paul on 6 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting views on gatekeeping, but I wonder if you might be a little harsh on "foodies?"

While I think my tendencies with respect to food preparation are very close to yours, I do enjoy an elegant, formal meal, perfectly prepared. (Invariably, by someone else.)

At it's best, I tend to regard it as something approaching the Tea Ceremony, albeit with a lot more moving parts.

Unfortunately, I suspect your hostess wasn't in the mindset of performing a Tea Ceremony, but perhaps she might be one day.

Posted by dave_rogers on 7 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I find myself to be the gatekeeper when it comes to a few household tasks. Most notably putting the groceries away every week. My girlfriend gets kicked out of the kitchen when we get home, because she is just too slow and gets in the way.

Posted by gilmae on 7 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Paul, I didn't mean to imply I thought my friend was incompetent. I think he feigned incompetence as a strategy but, who knows, perhaps he eventually convinced himself he was incompetent.

Dave, you're more charitable than I. I can't imagine her attaining the lack of attachment necessary to perform the Tea Ceremony. And, I probably am harsh on "foodies" -- but I've met some truly awful ones over the years.

Gilmae, if I were you, I'd sit back every now and again and drink a beer while your girlfriend takes her time to put away the groceries.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 7 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I must confess I have to fight the urge to be a lemon-slicer, a battle I have frequently lost. (although I am a little nicer about it, usually just gritting my teeth.) Cooking for one, of course, is a solution to the problem, but does have its drawbacks.

Posted by Michael Webb on 7 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Maybe my idea of "foodie" is different. I love food, love to prepare it & love to go out to eat it. What I hate is pretentiousness & vanity. There's a fancy French place in Quebec we go to on special occasions where the food is great & the service / presentation is formal but focused on the food: I don't want to go there all the time, but for certain occasions it seems perfect. On the other hand, one of my favorite places in Hanoi is a little banh cuon stall where you sit on low plastic stools, drink Tiger beer & fill yourself up for about US$2. Context is everything. But the very best meals I've had in the last couple of years are when our frinds Angie & Andy come over & bring something & we provide whatever else is needed & several bottle of wine get opened . . . Oh, it's just as good when we reverse the process & go to their place. We cook some pretty fancy food, but the key to this all is friendship, which is just a form of authenticity. So, am I a foodie? Jonathon, I'd love to take you to that place on Php Bap Khanh in Hanoi sometime.

Posted by Joseph on 8 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

You're absolutely right, Michael. The drawbacks of cooking for oneself overwhelm any advantages.

You don't sound like a "foodie" to me, Joe, just someone who enjoys sharing food and wine with friends. Though I've traveled all over Asia, I haven't yet visited Vietnam (or Cambodia, Burma, Laos, and the Phillipines either). I'd love to be your guest at Php Bap Khanh in Hanoi. I'll repay the favor by inviting you and Carole to Baba Umanosuke's in Kichijoji (in western Tokyo). After we've eaten our fill, we can take the train (or a cab) to Chieko-san's bar in Mitaka and drink late into the night.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 8 November 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour