I have just finished reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth with some of my students. This is a bloody, violent story of ambition and death. Early in the play, Lady Macbeth asks the spirits to make her as tough as a man, so she and her husband can kill the king. She implies that women are weak, meek and soft.
But they are not. And I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton. I’m talking about everyday women who operate in that room which historically has belonged to women — the kitchen. The kitchen is not a place for the weak in body or mind.
The kitchen is a place for the strong. Ask any woman who has carried a pot full of boiling water to the sink to drain cooked spaghetti. Any number of tragedies can occur. A woman must be strong enough to lift the heavy pot. She must avoid being burned by the steam that rises from the pot as she drains the spaghetti, not to mention avoiding the 212-degree water as it splashes into the sink from the pot. A woman must be as precise as a chemist, too — boiling the spaghetti for too short a time results in a tough, inedible product, and boiling it too long results in a mushy mess.
And if that isn’t enough, ask a woman who has peeled several pounds of potatoes, or grated several pounds of carrots. Knives, graters and peelers are sharp objects, and skin, as well as vegetables, can be easily sliced.
Battle wounds? Absolutely. Knife wounds, burns, scars — not from the battlefield of war, but from the battlefield of the kitchen.
You laugh? You scoff? Talk to a woman who has beaten eggs. It takes muscles to beat eggs with a fork to the point that they are well-blended. And kneading dough? That takes muscles, too. Yes, we have electric beaters and kneading machines now — but some still do it by hand, the way it has been done for centuries — with very strong arms. And what about opening cans that don’t want to open? It takes muscles.
Nerves of steel are required, too — ask any woman who has mastered the art of separating an egg yolk from an egg white.
“Can’t stand the heat? Get out of the kitchen.” That’s a famous expression, but how true. A kitchen can be a very hot place, not for the weak or easily discouraged. The oven gives off heat, as does the stove. In the summer, preparing a meal means working up a sweat.
Lest you think working in the kitchen requires muscles only, think again. Brain power is equally important. One must know what a recipe means when it says “cook until the eggs are set.” How do you know when eggs are “set?” It takes experience, and knowledge of the kitchen’s vocabulary.
Or how do you know when a cake in the oven is done? One must deal with instructions like “bake until the cake bounces back when touched in the center.” How does a cake “bounce back?” Or “bake until a toothpick placed in the center comes out almost clean.” What is “almost” clean? How much batter can be sticking to it?
A woman in the kitchen must multitask easily, boiling one thing while sautéing another, keeping track of both while comforting a crying child and answering the telephone at the same time. Nothing must be overcooked or undercooked, and the crying child must be comforted. The kitchen is not a place for the easily frazzled.
And cleverness? Absolutely. Ask a woman who is following a recipe and finds she is missing an ingredient. There’s the art of persuasion … persuading a teenager or reluctant husband to venture out to buy the missing substance, or calling a neighbor, or figuring out what to substitute and still have dinner ready on time.
So, Lady Macbeth, think again! Don’t ask the spirits to make you as tough as a man. Look around you — women are plenty tough. Especially in the kitchen.