Mind the gender gap

Men and women do cook differently, but it's all down to how you learn

It is a good idea, if you do not want assumption to degenerate into prejudice, to test statements about fundamental differences between men and women. I am wary of the notion, for example, that there are "men's" and "women's" novels. Don't we read in order to broaden our imaginative sympathies, rather than simply to "identify" with the author's characters? Still, I have to concede that the evidence of the book market suggests that such categories do exist.

So might we be able to say whether the food on our plate has been cooked by a man or by a woman? It seems unlikely; although William Skidelsky, my predecessor in this space, wrote a persuasive piece about the contrasting approaches of the sexes in the kitchen, and the Times recently ran a feature arguing that men's food differed from women's in style.

I doubt very much whether it is possible to put, side by side, a dish cooked by Gordon Ramsay - than whom you cannot get more masculine - and one cooked by his protégée Angela Hartnett, and say which one is the work of a man. Contrasts may be more apparent in people's homes. Watch out for the man who has been on a cookery course: he is likely to overwhelm you with jus, foam, artfully arranged garnishes and other elaborate effects. The food will call attention to itself, saying: "Aren't you astonished at the hitherto unrevealed talent of the man who made this?" While a woman who has been on a course will also wish to impress, she will be less blatant about it. But these approaches are surely not genetically determined.

As Skidelsky argued, nerdiness may be a particular characteristic of certain males. Just as we are much more likely to be interested in the technical specifications of our computers and our cameras, so we are also more likely to conduct fascinating experiments into whether we should salt the water in which we cook pulses. Most women find the technical stuff boring. If it works, it works.

Again, I am not sure that nerdiness is entirely a symptom of hard-wiring. It must have something to do with when you learn to cook. I learned as a student, and I was not a natural. I was so clueless that I did not realise why sauces thickened when I left the pan uncovered. But I liked food, and was interested in trying to cook well, so I relied on reading and experience.

People who learn when young, perhaps because the skills are passed on within a family, often find the theories behind those skills boring. They know what they need to know. My elder daughter, who is 14, is a very competent cook; but although she has watched me cooking, she sticks her fingers in her ears when I try to explain any techniques. That is not a girl thing; it's an offspring thing.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.