Tiger Mothers as Cultural Historians: A Response to Nigella Lawson’s “Home Cooking Can Be a Feminist Act”

Recently, I came across this post by Kilt in the Kitchen investigating a conversation about home cooking, respect, and feminism in response to Nigella Lawson’s post for Lenny Letter.

In “Home Cooking Can Be a Feminist Act,” television personality and cookbook writer Nigella Lawson laments how home cooking receives sentimental value, not respect, due to a gendered conception of it being “women’s work.” Individuals treasure childhood meals and the pleasant decorum of a dinner party, yet modern entities have distanced themselves from home cooking and deemed the responsibility dated and restrictive.

However, Lawson prizes home cooking’s comfort, creativity, and aesthetic pleasure in contrast to professional kitchens exemplifying theater and conformity. To Lawson, knife skills and dedicated practice are unimportant. Instead, the physical appreciation of an onion’s sizzle or a lemon’s aromatic zest uplifts home cooking.

The image from Nigella Lawson’s article. The article concludes with a Chicken-and-Pea Traybake exemplifying simple and comforting home cooking. Illustration: Chiara Lanzieri for lennyletter.com

Food historian Rachel Laudan agrees with Lawson but challenges the TV personality’s relaxed definition of creativity. To Laudan, creativity stems from developing skills through attentive practice. She explains, “home cooking has to be treated as… a demanding and honorable job that demands thought, learning, time, and attention, and that, only then, can be profoundly creative.” A dismissal of technique and challenge restricts home cooking to a sentimental sphere. In order to demand respect, one must define the skills and achievements behind home cooking.

Laudan briefly touches upon a framework for valorizing home cooking. Laudan lists expertise including, “learning as the ages of the family change, as new implements and ingredients become available… as you experiment with new techniques or foreign cuisines, as you move to a new town or country.” Mastery of home cooking encompasses both culinary proficiency like understanding the importance of browning onions and adaptation to societal or personal changes. Laudan then leaves this plan open for other writers to complete it.

This post expands on redeeming home cooking and exploring the skills home cooks develop. Personally, Laudan’s mentions of adopting to new cuisines and countries evoke an idea of a home cook as historian, guardian of culture, and immigrant inhabiting multiple cultural identities.

When I imagine this persona, I do not think of my own family. Instead, I recall a representation of this multi-faceted cook and matriarch in the pilot episode of Fresh off the Boat, Nahnatchka Khan’s ABC sitcom loosely based on celebrity chef, writer, and television host Eddie Huang’s memoir.

The pilot focuses on Eddie’s lunch box moment. After Eddie’s Tupperware filled with noodles evokes the comment “Ying Ming is eating worms!” Jessica, Eddie’s mother, grapples with his request for “white people lunch.” At 1:09 in the video below, this conflict leads to the neon-lit mega market Food4All!!!! where Jessica’s flyaway hair conveys her discomfort. In this fluorescent temple manned by sample-hawking smiling faces, Jessica reminisces about the serenity she felt in Taiwanese markets filled with screaming voices and weaponized bitter melons. Viewers confront how the everyday and mundane in America unsettles Jessica while the foreign and loud market conveys home.

Khan encourages viewers to empathize with Jessica, making the shaky cam, gray-toned flashback’s color palette feel natural and organic compared to the the artificially colored tortilla chips and bulging eyes of the overexcited supermarket employee. When Eddie excitedly exclaims how everything in a Lunchable fits in a box, Jessica complains that he is being “so American.” One understands Jessica’s discomfort with the surrounding homogeneity.

Screenshot 2018-04-17 14.40.46.png
The allure of Lunchables in ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. My favorite one is pepperoni pizza.

In another scene, Khan mocks the alien nature of the neon-clad rollerblading stay-at-home suburban mothers. The group approaches with a cheery rapid-fire introduction of “Hi I’m Deirdre! This is Amanda! This is Samantha! This is Lisa! This is Carol Joan!” Then, the leader Deirdre expresses her surprise at the non-exotic name Jessica and compliments Eddie’s English even after his explanation that he was born in Washington D.C. With this reversal, Khan normalizes the Asian-American mother while criticizing the aloofness, homogeneity, and ignorance of her white neighbors.

Through these subversions, Khan asserts that achieving the American Dream transcends assimilation. Jessica’s discomfort holds value in the face of conformity and a monotone suburban Orlando.

Returning to the conversation around Lawson, Jessica resists assimilation through the device of food. The humorous scenes convey a serious theme–the importance of home cooking in immigrant households. Jessica’s insistence on packing Eddie a Chinese lunch transforms her from a domestic providing sustenance to a historian preserving her heritage.

Even when language, religion, and media from one’s ancestral country fade across generations, food carries culture. As I wrote in this site’s introduction, many markers of my identity stem from growing up around Chinese restaurants. I loved Lunchables (1. Pepperoni Pizza, 2. Nachos, 3. Cheese and Dessert Pizza), but dim sum cemented my Chinese cultural identity and empowered me to embrace my difference.

Empathizing with Jessica’s conceptions of the Washington D.C. Taiwanese market, viewers realize that the unruly behavior conveys a devotion to home cooking rather than greed and a lack of respect. This shocking tenacity is summarized by Amy Chua in her controversial piece on parenting. Chua explains, “there are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven… many Chinese secretly believe that they care more about their children.” The street market’s screams and shoves convey ferocious battles for the best ingredients for one’s family. Unabashedly cooking Chinese food represents an attempt to instill children with confidence and pride in diversity (or just an attitude to give no fucks about what the aloof Americans say).

This pride rejects assimilation in favor of acceptance. Describing this struggle, journalist Helen Zia explains, “the question is not about the mechanics of becoming American… involving ourselves in our communities… nor is it about getting acculturated… what we’ve really been wanting to know is how to become accepted as Americans. For if baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet were enough…there would be… no persistent bewilderment toward us as ‘strange’ and ‘exotic’ characters…”[1] To Jessica, assimilation is available but undesirable. Like watching baseball or rollerblading, buying Lunchables is easy enough. However, reminders of exoticism like Deirdre’s comments about Jessica and Eddie persist despite assimilation. Therefore, Jessica responds by demanding acceptance. She stubbornly deems her home-cooked, traditional food superior to the uniform and corporate-designed dishes packed by white mothers.

This persistence instills the value of culture within the family. The real life Eddie Huang explains how Taiwanese food eventually served as an ideal vehicle form of self-expression when starting Baohaus. Huang explains, “The bao became a vehicle for me to speak about everything from Brianna Love to Long Duk Dong.”[2] Whether discussing a porn star or an effeminate movie character, Huang expresses himself through food. He combines a traditional element of his Taiwanese culture, the bao, with boldness and anger at ostracization he adopted from African-American culture.

An effort to adapt to Italian culture when living in Rome in 2015

In conclusion, valuable skills in home cooking might exist outside of the culinary realm. Perhaps emotional labor is inherent to home cooking’s value, an act of preserving tradition and navigating new landscapes. This preservation requires culinary skill as well, including the ability to adapt to new ingredients and kitchen styles. This space of the domestic kitchen represents courage and grit, not passivity and submission.

The home cook that Lawson and especially Laudan seemingly refer to, a family matriarch, provides more than sentimental sustenance. Home cooking can be an act of cultural preservation that demands acceptance in the face of pressure to assimilate. The tenacity and culinary skill behind this undertaking deserve serious respect.

This article does not touch on the aspects of class. The USDA defined about 1/8th of America to be food insecure  in 2016. Home cooking includes being the family nutritionist and finding ways to reinvent the same ingredients distributed each week.

[1] Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, 1st edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), ix–x.

[2] Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2013), 273.


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