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The man’s man’s kitchen

Appliances and the kitchens they fill have evolved around the men who now inhabit them—even if appliance brands would prefer not to talk about it

Corbis via Getty Images

I was 22 when my mother handed me the first kitchen appliance that was ever my very own: her old Crock-Pot, a ceramic white oval that had long since yellowed, with a delicate blue floral pattern, probably purchased around 1980. It had belonged to her mother, my mom told me when I moved into my first apartment. Its lid was long gone but aluminum foil would do just fine, and someday, when I finally got interested in cooking, maybe it would come in handy.

As mothers often are, she was right; after six months of frozen Healthy Choice dinners, I started cooking variation after variation of chicken breast in the aging Crock-Pot, surprised and delighted at how little effort could produce something so thoroughly resembling an actual homemade meal. Lemon garlic chicken, barbecue beer chicken, eight-hour coq au vin; soon, considering myself something of a Crock-Pot maestro, I decided to upgrade to a new one. But in late 2012, when I began exploring the market for Crock-Pots, now generally known by the trendier generic term “slow cooker,” none of the best-selling varieties even remotely resembled my rotund electric Mrs. Potts. Instead, I found a vast selection of chrome and matte-black products that looked like they’d just rolled off the assembly line at the Axe body spray factory.

What we now know is that kitchen appliances were in a state of flux because the average American cook was undergoing a transformation. Though just over a quarter of American men cooked in the mid-1960s, by the late 2000s over 40 percent of men ranging from low to high income brackets and between the ages of 19 and 60 cooked. And according to a Nutrition Journal study published in 2013, the percentage of women who cooked over the same time period had dropped from 92 percent to less than 70. A 2012 report from a University of Michigan longitudinal study of Gen Xers found that men born between 1961 and 1981, both married and single, from suburban, urban, and nonmetropolitan locales, cooked more and shopped for food more than their dads did, preparing eight meals per week on average. The new American man, in other words, is more likely than ever before to be a capable home cook; maybe you’ve even read about him, in Jessica Pressler’s memorable 2015 introduction to the sous vide-loving dude foodie—the “doodie”—or perhaps in stories about how men’s increasing interest in cooking is making the kitchen the new man cave.

As men discover kitchens, kitchens have been quietly discovering men. Take a look at any roundup of the kitchenwares every man should own—the kitchen “tools” and “gadgets,” that is, or “essentials,” a favorite man-brand euphemism for “accessories.” For one thing, you’ll notice a lot of kitchenwares now have the stark, clean, neutral-masculine palette of brushed chrome and matte black as a default. (If there’s a dudely analog to “shrink it and pink it,” it’s something like “steel it, matte-black it, and make it heavier.”) Both appliances and the kitchens they fill have evolved around the men who now inhabit them—even if appliance brands often would prefer not to talk about it.

When the Crock-Pot brand of slow cookers arrived in U.S. markets in 1971, it branded itself, mega-successfully, as a miracle cure-all for the harried woman juggling a family and a career. Because the Crock-Pot could slowly cook a meal throughout the day, the logic went, a working mom could simply toss some meat and vegetables in before dropping the kids off at school, then return home at dinnertime to a fragrant, nutritious meal simmering in the kitchen, ready to be served to her family. As the Washington Post pointed out in a 2015 story, ominously titled “The unfulfilled promise of the Crock-Pot, an unlikely symbol of women’s equality,” 1975 was the same year Mable Hoffman published the cookbook Crockery Cookery, which taught Crock-Pot owners how to prepare entrees like “Busy Woman’s Roast Chicken.” It sold close to a half million copies in its first four months on sale.

Crock Pot.
Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Crock-Pots of the 1970s and 1980s also had a distinctly feminine aesthetic. Many, like my grandmother’s Crock-Pot, had floral patterns; one popular model, the classic “harvest gold,” featured gently cartoonish illustrations of ripe fruits and vegetables, simmering soups, and even a friendly, juicy-looking lobster.

But slow-cooker use declined in the 1990s. And when the slow-cooker renaissance of the mid-2000s came around, the female-coded designs of yesteryear were nowhere to be found. As the Wall Street Journal noted in 2004:

slow cookers didn’t keep up with the evolution of kitchenware, as appliances got high-tech improvements and stainless-steel coatings. When Holmes Group bought Rival in 1999, the Crock-Pots were still covered with ivy patterns; sales were sluggish. The cookbook that came with them included a recipe for a dish called Beanie Weenies.

”We felt the consumer has become a tad more sophisticated in their cooking,” says Bart Plaumann, senior vice president and general manager of the kitchen business unit of Holmes Group. The Milford, Mass., company replaced the ivy with stainless steel and added an electronic list of 200 recipes to its high-end model.

Sales of slow cookers, now that they were “black-and-silver cookers ... stylish enough to put on the table at a dinner party,” increased 30 percent in the first three years of the new millennium. In 2017, the three best-selling slow cookers of the year on Amazon were all made by Crock-Pot, plain stainless steel and matte-black models.

All told, it certainly looks as though Crock-Pot anticipated a change in its typical customer demographics and responded wisely. But that’s not the story Crock-Pot itself will tell you.

“Men taking on a larger role in the home kitchen ... isn’t something that has had a direct impact on the Crock-Pot brand’s product design or marketing,” a representative for Crock-Pot told me.

In 2012, Crock-Pot introduced its line of NFL-licensed team-logo Crock-Pots; a year later, models emblazoned with NCAA team logos hit the market. The landing page of Crock-Pot’s website, as of December, greeted visitors with an Omaha Steaks promotion and a guide to its four top-selling items and its four most-viewed items—all eight of which are, again, simple in design and steely silver or matte-black in color. Floral patterns and quirky prints are still available; just, you know, further back, in the deeper recesses of the website.

Crock-Pot, of course, is far from the only kitchen-appliance brand with a history of overtly courting women. Starting around World War I, when electrical appliances began filling in for human hands on domestic chores, “they all did,” explained historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan, author of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Westinghouse, for example, boasted in 1924 that “thousands of women are choosing Westinghouse appliances.” Sunbeam products used to tell consumers in the 1950s that “Every woman dreams of owning a Sunbeam Mixmaster,” and that “You give Mother all these advantages only if it’s a genuine Sunbeam Mixmaster.” A 1959 Toastmaster ad described its coffee maker, toaster, and electric fry pan as “marvelous for Mother.” (In January, a cute ad touting “Baking Memories With Mom!” featured prominently on Sunbeam’s website, depicting a boy playing sous chef to his mother, and Dad cooking right alongside Mom. Visit the Toastmaster website now and you’ll be greeted by a nigh-obscene close-up shot of a glistening rack of ribs, superimposed under a tantalizing description of Toastmaster’s version of the meat smoker, arguably among the cooking-enlightened man’s trendiest accessories du jour.)

Sunbeam Mixmaster.
UIG via Getty Images

For most of the 20th century, the only time appliance ads directly targeted men, Cowan said, was at Christmastime, “when small appliances were marketed as gifts men could give their wives.” One famous 1966 ad for Dormeyer kitchenwares instructed women—that is, “WIVES”—to circle what they wanted for Christmas from an assortment below (toasters, coffee pots, skillets, can openers, and the like), show it to their husbands, and “cry a little” if he didn’t go to the store immediately. It instructed husbands, in turn, to “Go buy it. Before she starts to cry.”

Not only was the ad copy for kitchen appliances historically directed at women, but it was also strategically placed to be seen by women’s eyes only. “There were huge numbers of magazines directed to housewives, and that’s where they would advertise,” Cowan said. Cowan would know—over her years of research on housework, she’s read issues from every year in the history of Ladies’ Home Journal, from 1885 to the mid-1970s. You’d never see ads for cooking appliances in Time magazine, she added; daytime television was also a primo spot for kitchenware advertising.

Today, however, kitchen brands much more actively seek out ways to connect with male consumers. For example: Retailers often send product samples to magazine offices unsolicited, in hopes that some staffer might test them out and love them enough to write about them. When I worked at GQ, items I adopted from the free table included a pair of red and black tactical-looking kitchen shears; a small, buzzing, brushed-chrome gadget billing itself as an electric wine aerator; and a pair of black silicone “Men’s Barbecue Gloves” (made by a brand that, curiously, carries Women’s Oven Gloves but appears to carry neither Women’s Barbecue Gloves nor Men’s Oven Gloves). And among GQ’s recent roundup of the Best Stuff of 2017 is a $1,000 limited-edition “Black Tie” KitchenAid stand mixer, whose “matte-black finish makes baking cookies seem like an even darker art than usual.”

Still, not every prominent kitchen brand has a troubling history of gendered sales to reckon with; some started out courting a wide market and still do. OXO products, for example, lightweight with signature black non-slip thermoplastic rubber Good Grips handles—found on a host of cooking utensils, like peelers, garlic presses, can openers, whisks, and more—certainly look like the platonic ideal of minimalist, gender-neutral cookware. The company often advertises in foodie- (and “doodie-”) friendly spaces like Serious Eats and The Kitchn and in partnerships with celebrity chefs like Dominique Ansel and Jacques Pepin. But to hear OXO tell it, it’s always been gender-blind; the only time its engineers have ever imagined any of their clientele’s body parts is when they picture their hands.

OXO was founded 28 years ago by kitchenware heir Sam Farber when he noticed his wife’s arthritic hands had trouble working with traditional kitchen tools. He wanted to make cooking more efficient and ergonomic for all types of hands and bodies. In 1990, it probably did not go unnoticed that more male hands and bodies were showing up in the kitchen to cook. Nevertheless, “We are so gender-neutral that we’ve actually never even thought of ourselves that way,” said Karen Schnelwar, VP of global brand strategy and marketing. OXO’s headquarters in New York house a mural made of thousands of gloves to remind them of their mission to make cookware that fits every kind of hand; small hands, big hands, arthritic hands, children’s hands, hands with disabilities. And yes, “I’d say at least half of them are men’s gloves,” Schnelwar said.

And then there are the rare kitchen brands that are, and have always been, specifically targeted to men. Older ones can capitalize on their histories of providing men with the big, sturdy, no-fuss tools they need to make the big, sturdy, no-fuss meals they want to eat. Lodge, the 122-year-old Tennessee manufacturing company known for its heavy-duty cast iron skillets, puts rugged, outdoorsy, frontiersman imagery at its forefront; a prominent image on its website welcome page, for example, is an old-timey photograph of three denim and flannel-clad men at a campsite, one drinking coffee from a tin mug, another setting up the night’s camp, and the third cooking over a fire on a Lodge cast-iron skillet. Men’s Health named the Lodge cast-iron skillet a kitchen must on four separate occasions in the last five years; GQ and Esquire both declared it to be a tool every guy or man should own. First sold in 1896, the Lodge skillet is the original matte black manly cooking implement.

Glove mural at OXO.
Courtesy of OXO

Lodge also capitalizes on an unspoken rule of gender and cooking: that, historically speaking, outdoor cooking is men’s cooking. Grilling, barbecuing, campfire cooking, roasting pigs in dug-out holes in the ground—the correlation between “manliness” and “amount of open flame involved” seems to be a positive one. Which is something Eric Halberg, founder and general manager of Man Law Premium BBQ Tools, knew well when he started selling high-end grill products “designed with the everyday American Man in mind.”

In 2007, Halberg said, he noticed the demand for high-end grills like Viking and Big Green Egg was increasing, but there was a hole in the market where the accompanying high-end grill tools should have been. “The price point kept going up on grills, but they were offering the same $9.99 stuff at Walmart and Home Depot and Lowe’s,” Halberg said. So Halberg’s company began designing grill tools—2.5-millimeter-thick, heavy-gauge stainless steel tools, to be exact—that were bigger and sturdier than the competition.

Getty Images

Ten years later, Man Law sells about $3 million worth of cast-iron and stainless steel product per year, to customers Halberg imagines as grunting Home Improvement-era Tim Allens, guys who are serious about their tools. (An excerpt from its tongue-in-cheek “Manifesto”: “The French saute, braise, poach. They do not grill. Men grill.”)

“We knew there should be some giftability to it. Because Dad is the hardest to buy for,” Halberg added. Man Law customers’ buying habits are a flip of the classic “kitchen appliance as a Christmas gift for Mother” scheme: “What we found,” Halberg said, “is that in a lot of cases she’s buying it for him, and he becomes somewhat addicted to it. Or he’s out with his buddies, and his buddies are like, ‘Wow, where did you get that? That’s awesome.’”

Halberg told me, though, that Man Law has long discussed an expansion into the kitchen proper. It’s not lost on him that there’s been an uptick, even in the last 10 years, in men cooking in kitchens. “We’ve started to develop some product,” he said.

When Dan Statsick, 54, and his partner Nora divide up cooking duties at home, they end up at about an 80-to-20 ratio: The occasional Mediterranean fish and chicken Nora cooks are “over the moon,” he told me, but Statsick, president of the Minnesota-based investment advisory firm Nichols Capital, does the bulk of their daily food prep.

Statsick describes himself as a “steak guy” and a “breakfast guy” who also loves making sauces and veggie pastas—like “zoodles,” the trendy zucchini noodle made with a countertop spiralizer. So when the pair built a house together in Greenwood, Minnesota, in 2016, Statsick had a few particular requests when it came to the kitchen.

“What we were looking for was a statement,” Statsick explained to me. Broadly speaking, he wanted a sprawling space where friends could gather for weekend breakfasts and even help cook; more specifically, he wanted a high-BTU burner, a stove that would let him control the simmer of his sauces precisely, a big farmer’s sink, a steam convection oven, an ample island, and a Wolf rangetop with a center griddle.

In other words, Statsick wanted the grand, inviting, state-of-the-art cooking space Alice T. Friedman, author of Women and the Making of the Modern House, calls the “HGTV chef’s kitchen.” In other other words, he wanted what’s quickly becoming the platonic ideal of the Man’s Man’s Kitchen.

Men who build their own kitchens to cook in, said New Jersey-based kitchen and bathroom designer Holly Rickert, who studied psychology and sociology before turning to interior design, have some very strong opinions on layout. “Men tend to be a little more analytical about the function and how it’s going to work,” she said. For example, Rickert’s male clients who are serious about cooking tend to opt for fridge drawers, to maximize space in the fridge and minimize foot traffic in the kitchen. And they’re much more likely than the female cooks she works with to own a bunch of gadgets—like pull-out spice racks to the left or right of the stove, which free up drawer space and work a little more ergonomically for a person (especially a taller person) who’s standing at the stove.

The men she’s worked with also love big metal hoods over their stovetops or rangetops, “as opposed to a mantle hood, one that looks like a piece of furniture in your cabinetry,” Rickert said. “I think they like to see it as a more industrial or functional element in the kitchen, as opposed to trying to disguise it.”

There’s a pervasive notion that when women cook, it’s a chore, and when men cook, it’s an art. Like child-rearing abilities, cooking skills seem to some people to come standard in anyone hoping to ever be a capable wife or mom, but they are perceived as a special extra feature in men—a notion no doubt reinforced by a celebrity-chef culture dominated on one end by high-strung male food auteurs and on the other by friendly female cooking coaches determined to turn you into the most efficient and people-pleasing cook you can be.

Friedman, professor of American art history at Wellesley, has often asked her students to talk in class about the gendered spaces in their homes. And when they do, she said, “There’s a very big difference between the way in which kids say, “My dad really loves to cook and so we have a big kitchen’ and how they say, ‘Well my mom really loves to cook.’

“I think there’s much more of an honorific quality,” she said. “It’s more of a hobby, a leisure activity. The mom has to cook. The dad does not have to cook, according to traditional roles. ‘She has to cook. I’m glad she loves to cook because she has to do it anyway.’

“Men who cook [get seen as] chefs, and then it becomes very performative,” Friedman said. “The ‘chef’s kitchen’ is being ushered in not by somebody who’s slinging hash to get food on the table for her family, but somebody for whom the cooking is a hobby and a virtuoso performance.” And, it’s worth noting, the “chef’s kitchen” is being ushered in by those who can afford to build a chef’s kitchen. Think of the working-class and poor residents of food deserts, Friedman said, “and ask them if they want some kind of performance of being a chef.”

Kichen Aid Food mixer.

For most of the 20th century, “Household cooking was popularly regarded as an unpleasant chore,” explained Ruth Schwartz Cowan—“just watch old sitcoms for a while, and you’ll see it.” And the architecture of the single-family home generally reflected that, too: For the first half of the 20th century, for example, middle-class family-home kitchens were generally small workspaces offset from larger gathering areas like dining rooms and living rooms, where food could be prepared efficiently and in privacy and then served to guests.

As Architectural Digest’s Hadley Keller wrote in 2016, it’s only in the last few decades that “open-concept homes—and their center islands with seating—have turned the space into a multipurpose room (think homework station) as much as a place for cooking, combining dining room, lounge, and living room in one.” So what happened in the ’80s and ’90s that precipitated the rise of the kitchen as a welcoming, comfortable hangout space where everyone can watch the cook at work? Well, here’s one theory: As Cowan explained to me, “The idea of household cooking as an art form was not a thing until the ’80s or the ’90s.” Coincidentally (or not), it was the ’80s when survey data on how Americans were spending their time began to show men taking on more domestic duties, likely thanks to an uptick in dual-career households.

When Dan Statsick built his kitchen, he made one other special request: taller countertops, raised two inches above the standard 36-inch counter height. It meant he had to put a platform under his stove unit to keep the counter in line with the cooktop, but for Statsick, who’s 6 feet 4 inches, it’s been worth it. “With all the chopping that happens,” he said, “I’m just standing up straighter. It’s more ergonomic.”

As Ruth Schwartz Cowan explained, the height of countertops is yet another standard that calcified around the assumption that women were the primary stewards of the kitchen. It was first standardized after World War I, when larger implements for the kitchen, like stoves and dishwashers, began being mass-produced, and then it was standardized again after World War II. Both times, the height was calibrated to what was then the average height of an American woman. That standard persists today, though as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last year, raised countertops are a popular request among cooking men who get to design their own kitchens.

Of course, as Cowan noted, it’s not just men who raise their countertops—Cowan herself did it when she and her late husband built their house together in 1980. Cowan, now 76, wanted countertops that would allow her to stand up straighter and not strain her back, and they both wanted a kitchen they could cook in as a team. They ended up expanding the space to accommodate two cooks, with a large center island “so somebody could sit on a stool and chop, or roll out dough or something, while somebody else was working on the other side with something on the stove.”

Cowan, you could say, has watched the kitchen gender revolution happen in her own kitchen. “My husband cooked a fair amount, and especially early on, nobody else that we knew did,” she added. “His own father thought it was a big mistake and totally bizarre.” Decades later, Cowan said with amusement, all three of her daughters married men who loved to cook. “I take recipes from my sons-in-law. It’s astounding,” she said.

“My guess is that my girls just expected it,” she added. “They expected that their husbands or their fiances or their boyfriends were going to be like their father, and that’s what they wanted.”

Today, I cook my chicken (and salmon and pork, sometimes even bread) in an All-Clad slow cooker, a sleek black ceramic bowl inside a gleaming silver landing module. I think my grandma would be proud to know her daughter and her granddaughter were busy, ambitious women who cooked set-it-and-forget-it dinners in her old Crock-Pot until the thing just wore out. Cowan’s family kitchenware heirloom scheme, though, will look a little different: She recently bought a deep-fryer and a ticket of admission to an Italian cooking class at the request of her 14-year-old grandsons, as gifts for their birthday and bar mitzvah.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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