Food and the city. Cooking and gender in Pop Culture representations.


One of my favorite writers, Bee Wilson, has analyzed the topic with wits and humor. She argues that SATC is not about shoes, but about brunch. Furthermore, she looks into changes that intervened throughout the seasons, as far as food is concerned. In the early days, the girls were often pictured eating green salads and cups of fruit or yogurt. As the story developed, the food- just like the fashion- got heavier and more sophisticated. Yet, there was always a constant: from beginning to end, the protagonists always gathered around food. Sharing a meal together is done among close friends, it makes people open up and share their stories. Be it brunch on a sunny terrace, expensive burgers in the Meat Packing district, vegan or BDSM flavored, sharing food is always a means of getting emotionally closer.
In this article I will shift the focus and look at attitudes towards cooking and the underlining messaging. I will review the way both genders engage in cooking and how they position themselves towards it. And there are quite a few interesting elements that emerged from the analysis. I’ve chosen this series because I believe it represents a major pop culture landmark, but also because I probably know it by heart. I confess: I watched many times over.

Sex and the Kitchen? Not quite.

In the early episodes the girls sometimes have drinks or dine at home. True, it is mostly take-out or crackers, still, this happens within the home, as a nudge towards us, the mere mortals. There are a few moments when the protagonists eat at home in the later seasons, but these moments are usually positioned as special events. A sort of inversion from what us, the above-mentioned mere mortals, would consider as a special event: a dinner out on the town. Enjoying a meal at home is not the only “special food event”. The girls eat a variety of foods, from American cafeteria food, to Chinese, to all the food fads of the early 2000s, to the classic NY steak, to McDonald’s. In a cosmopolitan city like New York, this is somewhat the norm, one can imagine. Yet, there is something they almost never try: home cooked food. And, to cite Carrie, I can’t help but wonder why? The screenwriters go to great extents to insert moments of verisimilitude and to make the characters relatable, but they very rarely show them in the kitchen, performing the act that no “independent, modern” woman should consider: cooking. Not only do the girls not cook, but cooking is constantly belittled throughout the show and completely dissociated from the idea or better said, the stereotype of the modern woman.


In one episode, the girls come together to help Charlotte make the first Sabbath dinner after her conversion to Judaism. Charlotte has ambitious plans and the set is ready. This is, no doubt, one of the very few scenes that actually takes place in the kitchen and involves cooking. What caught my eye was the fact the whole act of cooking was regarded as a big event, completed with a ritualistic performance: the aprons become fashion statements (Carrie has hers tied in a quirky way), the handwritten recipe book, the reading of the recipe, the line-up of ingredients. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is a big deal. We don’t actually get to see much of the actual cooking taking place, as more pressing problems intervene. Later that evening, the whole dinner ends up disastrous, as Harry cannot fully acknowledge and appreciate the blood, sweat and tears Charlotte put into making the food.
Furthermore, Charlotte is the only one out of the four friends that is sometimes busy in the kitchen. We’ve seen her throwing quite a few dinners at home, leading us to believe she might have actually cooked the food herself. She is also the only one obsessed about kids, the only one who quits her job to be a stay-at-home mom and wife (and stands judged and misunderstood by the others), the only one that craves romanticism and seems rather naive at times. Cooking fits in with the character’s persona and image, which is not always a flattering one.

tumblr_ol7yi3TIQS1tfqlfqo2_400Carrie proudly states she keeps sweaters in her oven, and not once, but several times. She doesn’t have any matching plates or cooking pots; not knowing how to cook has become some kind of a virtue. With Big she does, indeed, cook something to her best abilities: a fairly gross fondue with small pieces of bread. True, this dish was miles away from what fondue should be, still Carrie and Big’s reaction when tasting the masterpiece screams disgust. Now, melted cheese is melted cheese and there’s not a lot one can do to screw it up. And bread is bread. So I am wondering if this scene is nothing more than an enhancement of Carrie’s persona, underlining once more the lack of skills preparing food. In the end, they abandon the sad fondue and go out for dinner.
Another episode where Carrie attempts cooking- baking actually- is when she goes, against her will, to the country side with Aidan. She is baffled and excited she was able to make pie crust from scratch, but then all hell breaks loose when she burns her legs. Clearly, she is a stranger to the kitchen. The episode ends with Carrie and Samantha back in NYC, eating McDonald’s apple pies. You know, the oily, rectangular kind, filled with a sweet and sour viscous stuff. They are both delighted that apple pies can be bought and marvel at the wonders of the glaring city. Anyone who’s turned on the oven few times in their life will happily testify that even the shittiest home-made pie is likely to be (much) better than the McDonald’s cardboardy one. McDonald’s does pop up in the series a few largetimes as the symbol of American food, or in a larger sense, of being American. When Big comes back from an extended stay in Paris- the city of high gastronomic achievement- Carrie welcomes him with Big Macs and Fish burgers. Likewise, she takes her Russian lover to McDonald’s, as an antidote to his quaint, old world romantism.
Speaking of buying pies, there is another episode that, in my opinion, best summarizes the series’ message and views on women cooking. The scene features Miranda complaining to Carrie that her housekeeper shamed her for not having a rolling pin in the house. For making pies. Not owing a rolling pin is not a drama -I don’t have one either, I content myself with using an empty wine bottle. However, Miranda’s comeback says it all: “I am practically a partner in a major lawfirm. I don’t need to make pie! If want pie, I can buy it!” As if partners in law firms are not allowed to bake pies! And as if lower status workers wouldn’t be able to buy pie, if they wanted to!miranda.png
Yet, the subtext is even more disheartening! Obviously, Miranda can afford pie without being a partner in the firm, still she prefers to state it clearly and make an explicit connection between the two concepts. Once a woman reaches the top of the career ladder, she is – and should be- free from cooking. There is no shame in knowing how to cook, enjoying it and actually doing it when it feels right. Status jobs and cooking are not mutually exclusive. I will not dive into a discussion about home-made vs. store-bought here. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages and there’s a right time for everything. But this is not the point; the point -or at least the one I want to bring forward- is that this type of messaging dissociates the image of the successful career woman from the act of cooking, sending out- in my opinion- wrong cues.

Men at work

The men in the series, on the other hand, do cook. While the kitchen has always been portrayed and perceived as a feminized space and cooking is undoubtedly a woman’s task, there are different paradigms that explain men’s cooking habits. All are aimed at preserving men’s masculinity, even though they cross the gender’s boundaries by engaging in a feminine act. The first one is about men preparing the barbecue. Making the fire is (onthologically) a man’s job and meat- usually red meat- often translates into a masculine food. Pop culture (almost?) never pictures women tending to the barbecue, it is always the men that do it. The second approach is the one that the series brings forward, men embracing cooking as “leisurely entertainment”, as a hobby (1). All Carrie’s lovers seem to have a secret life as professional chefs. Big cooks big-veal.pngveal, pasta, sauces and does so with much aplomb. Aidan makes fajitas. Petrovsky whips up pancakes, makes risotto and puts together an very fancy dinner for Carrie’s friends. All these men are accomplished professionals, own businesses, create wonderful art and all are extremely financially comfortable. Though, they all cook and seem to enjoy it. Not an ounce of shame or grudge transpires as they sauté, grill or fry stuff. They do enjoy cooking, yet there is a clear distinction between “festal” and “ferial” cooking. Festal cooking is linked to a special event, like Sunday dinner, a birthday or a meal to entertain one’s girlfriend. Ferial cooking is the everyday cooking, making a large pot of soup that lasts for a few days or packing the lunchbox. Looking at the food SATC men prepare, we’ll see that in most cases these are elaborate dishes that require attention, skill and know-how. We are definitely not talking about whipping a simple Tuesday night dinner or making a humble potato salad. When men create wonder in the kitchen, the audience admires in awe. One more element aimed at protecting men’s masculinity is the way they position themselves as experts. Rebecca Swenson has analyzed the topic through and through (1) and noticed that male cooking TV hosts overwhelmingly position themselves as fine experts, oozing professional authority. They wear the crisp, white chef’s jacket, educate the public, share bits of history or anecdotes. They seem overall knowledgeable and in control. This cannot be said about female TV hosts, but I’ll let you read Ms. Swenson’s full article for that. In a similar way, the cooking men in the SATC series come across as knowledgeable experts: they season the food, stir it, taste, think deeply, taste again and readjust the seasoning. They have educated taste and know what they are doing. Cooking comes to complete the image of the “man of the world”, who has seen and done a lot and who feels just as comfortable in a sleek, fancy office in the Financial District as he does in the kitchen.
In the end, if we draw the line this is what we get: women can’t cook to save their life (and couldn’t care less) and men cook fancy stuff just for fun. The only one that cooks for sustenance, with the end purpose of feeding people is Magda, the cleaning lady. Cooking becomes either a leisurely activity for men to boast their skill or a house-chore, handled by hired help.

Final thoughts

I do realize SATC is a television show, created for the sole purpose of entertaining, amusing and making us dream. It does not claim to have an educational objective, even though as a major milestone of pop culture, it surely does. The show first aired in the late nineties and it was refreshing to see women taking charge of their lives, running businesses, being sexually adventurous and wearing fabulous fashion. I just wished a more sane and realistic image of the modern woman was brought forward. Being a modern woman (whatever that should mean) does not imply we are not able to put together a proper meal, if we feel like it.

I have been watching the series on and off since I was in high-school. I still watch it sometimes and I do love it. I believe it became a strong pop culture reference and for good reason: it reflects the dreamy image of the modern woman of the early 2000s and it did set up- for better or worse- aspirational standards for young girls around the world.

(1) Rebacca Swanson (2009). Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food. (in Food and Culture. A Reader| Third Edition. 2013, Routledge.)

All images are print screens from the series (1998-2004)

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