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Dads Took 40 Years To Go From the Garage to the Kitchen

Just 40 years ago, the idea of a father cooking dinner was treated as a comic premise. Then auto warranties changed and culture followed.

In an unintentionally prophetic scene sandwiched between pratfalls in the 24th episode of The Brady Bunch, Mike Brady enters the family kitchen having made a deal with his wife Carol to switch chores in order to see who has it harder. Mike — with considerable help from his three daughters and the housekeeper — proceeds to make a cake in the messiest, most humiliating way possible, getting batter on his face and shattering dishes left and right. The scene ends with Mike’s face in a mop bucket because, in 1970, it made sense that a perfectly functional architect would implode if allowed near a mixer.

A few decades later, the scene seems ridiculous. And there’s a very specific reason for that according to Paco Underhill, the founder of the behavioral and market research firm Envirosell. Underhill believes that the idea that men are useless in the kitchen, incapable of making a simple meal, began to wither in the early 1980s when auto manufacturers began putting small computers in engines and adjusted their warranties to no longer permit garage tickering. Men had to find a new hobby. It took years, but Underhill, who is also the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, says they did.

“If you could go back 30 or 40 years, you’d find a remarkable number of men playing with their cars,” Underhill says, noting that he hasn’t changed his oil in 40 years, but used to do so regularly. “If I can’t play with my car, maybe I can start figuring out ways to have fun in the kitchen.”

But it would take more than car warranties to reverse the idea that when mom is away for the evening, dad makes Eggo waffles or calls the local chinese restaurant. Women had to go to work. The middle class had to shrink. Domestic helpers had to become rare. Michael Keaton had to make the hacky script for Mr. Mom work.

The slow death of the “dad meal,” the incompetent presentation of a slightly burnt TV food on the heels of some utensil-heavy slapstick, was made inevitable by myriad cultural changes as well as very specific pressures on men’s leisure time. It was also, in a sense, incentivized for men by the advent of new technologies and cooking opportunities that made the kitchen a more attractive space. How did the Gordon Ramsays of the world take over for the Mike Bradys? The answer, unsurprisingly, has everything to do with money and sexual dynamics.

A minority of Americans, according to income data from the Pew Research Center, still belong to the middle class. The contraction of that economic bloc and, more specifically, the decrease in the number of blue collar jobs lucrative enough to cover rising family costs, resulted in the rise of the dual-income households and the dissolution of certain (but not all) gender roles. This started in the eighties but hasn’t slowed. In fact, when the great recession hit in 2007 and men were laid offevidence suggests that more women went back to work and many chores got reallocated. This is all to say that large-scale economic pressure is, at least in part, responsible for fathers getting better at cooking. That said, economics may have simply lit the fuse.

Sociologist Yasemin Besen-Cassino and her political scientist husband Dan Cassino recently tested the hypothesis that more men were increasing their share of housework as more women were taking the place of primary or single-earners. Using the American Time Use Survey, an ongoing U.S. Census dataset that randomly selects people to record how they spent their days, Besen-Cassino analyzed 120,000 peoples’ schedules between 2002 and 2010. They found that when men were outearned by their wives, they did not help with more chores regardless of the recession. What appeared to be happening  was when men felt their masculinity threatened financially, feminine chores felt like salt in a wound, Besen-Cassino explains. Ironically, literal salt was the exception. Men embraced cooking in a unique way. Preparing food didn’t come with the same baggage. It came with knives.

“Most of the time when we talk about chores we lump everything together, but it this case cooking jumped out. Cooking was separated,” Besen-Cassino says. Separating chores might be a more effective way to approach future research, instead of lumping them together, she adds.

For Craig Emerson and Jason Glover, dads from from completely different backgrounds who are the primary cooks in their households, this checks out. Emerson, a father of three and founder of the company Motorcycle Gearology, is the primary earner for his family but he does 90 percent of the cooking. Glover’s spouse is the primary earner for their San Francisco-based family of three, but he cooks, cleans, and most recently produced “Dads that Cook,” a YouTube show and online community of fathers sharing simple recipes for busy parents. Despite differences, neither Emerson nor Glover consider cooking distinctly masculine or feminine. They just know it’s one of many things that needs to get done, and they happen to enjoy it. Cooking was also how Emerson and Glover both wooed the women who’d become their wives.

“When we were dating I used to surprise her with meals I’d whip up for her. She had never had that, and fell in love with it,” Emerson jokes.

Though this may not appear to be atypical for courtship, it represents a side of the gender-equality coin considered less often, Underhill explains. Just as increasing their share of the labor force has allowed women to make more thoughtful choices about picking partners, the reverse seems to be true for men.

“Men are recognizing that acquiring some domestic skills is very much in their interests. You’re able to be more selective, you can make mate choices on a different set of criteria,” he says, making a case for starting sons in the kitchen early.

The increase gadgetry and machinery associated with cooking have also helped make meal prep a bit more manly, Underhill and Besen-Cassino agree. Kitchen designers have caught on to the fact that more men are cooking and offering an industrial aesthetic that appeals. At the same time, television has brought restaurant culture into the homes, and plenty men yelling about ingredients along with it. Emerson and Glover are not likely trying to be the next Emeril and Anthony Bourdain. They’re not intentionally skirting gender norms or registering for culinary school. They’re unconsciously reflecting what’s in front of them in the broader cultural landscape.

Such trends similarly help to explain the trend in grocery shopping. Estimates suggests that nearly half of men do the majority of food shopping for their families. Twenty years ago, men only went to the store when prompted by their wives to pick up milk, Underhill laughs. The overwhelmed grocery dude was a stereotype as well. No more.

The final nail in the dad meal coffin came with recent demise of the TV dinner. Frozen foods were found in 99 percent of households as early as 2012, but frozen meal sales have been on the decline since they peaked in 2008. The flash-freezing food technology developed in the 1920s and popularized in the 1950s, once represented the dominant default dinner option for many families. Many of these icey squares of minimal nutritional value were initially marketed towards fathers, whose busy breadwinning schedules could not be nailed down to accommodate the timing of home cooked meals. And they certainly could not be bothered with more than that if their spouses were not home. Now the frozen meal industry relies almost entirely on generational appeal; frozen meals are primarily consumed by people 45 and older, whereas parents raising young children opt for freshness. When they can’t cook, families tend to order food rather than doing something in between. Combined with the rise of services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, this has decreased demand for heatable food.

Emerson and Glover insist that they would cook regardless of changes in the cultural climate. They may well be telling the truth, but, realistically, it’s hard for them — or any of the millions of men that cook — to really know.

“The way things are going, everyone has to  step up,” Glover says, adding he’s met a dad who’s a heart surgeon who still finds time to cook. “Men just want to be involved. The more that kids see that, the more kids sit around the table and eat with dad, the better.”

The modern dad meal is not a joke. It’s a meal. It’s something good to eat. It is also, in a sense, a way for men to demonstrate their abilities as caretakers while also doing something that feels at least a bit macho and maybe even a touch sexy. It would be going too far to call cooking the new hunting, but it does feel increasingly like a form of providing now that meals are not merely ingredients gathered willy-nilly on a plate.

Ultimately, it was a short walk from the garage to the kitchen. But it took men 40 years to make it all the way there. That seems to have finally happened and its good news for everyone not directly involved in the takeout industrial complex.