While listening to the NPR story “Former White House Chef on Oval Office Tastes,” I was taken aback by what seemed a sexist comment by former executive chef Walter Scheib. When he claimed that it is Michelle Obama’s duty to choose the new chef and determine who will cook the best meals for her family, What century is this man living in?, I asked myself. How can he assume it is HER duty to make this kitchen-based (read:feminine) choice?!?
However, when I got home and did a read-a-around, I discovered that it is tradition for the First Lady to select the White House Chef. According to Hugging the Coast, this has been customary since JFK’s presidency.
Once the First Lady has chosen said chef, s/he (usually he, up until the first woman executive chef was chosen by Laura Bush in 2005) works with the First lady to plan daily menus, reception menus, event menus, and state dinner menus. Wow, all those degrees will certainly come in handy for this task, Michelle!
Further, once Michelle Obama officially becomes First Lady, she will inherit many duties such as the above that are socially constructed as feminine. As Lauren Stiller Riklen writes in her article, “First lady: a job worth a paycheck”:
Since George Washington’s time, the one widely accepted function of the role has been that of hostess, presiding over the considerable social and ceremonial events that take place at the White House.
While many First Ladies have taken strong political stances and served in ways far beyond that of “hostess,” this “wifely support” concept of the First Lady’s role still reigns. Much attention is paid to how she looks, dresses, acts, smiles, walks, etc, etc. Much criticism reigns down when she is seen as too strong, too political, too opinionated, too outspoken. Much better that she serve as presidential arm candy and meal planner! (For more in this vein, see my earlier post here.)
I wonder, if Hilary Clinton had won the nomination and was now president elect, would there be talk of who Bill would choose as head chef? Or, would this ‘womanly’ task be given to Hilary, Chelsea, or another female member of staff?
On a related note, why the hell when a man cooks is he a “chef” but when a woman does, she’s a “cook”? Granted, this is changing, but still most celebrated chefs are male – and so are the three top contenders for the next executive chef!