The New York Times has reignited the flames of an absolutely ridiculous “feud” by publishing a tidy bit of clickbait perfectly engineered to raise the hackles of a disparate group of individuals, including chefs, feminists, and men.
The “bite-size culture war” the Times points to in this piece is as follows: in 2009, Slow Food doyenne Alice Waters sat down for an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes and talked at length about her egg spoon—a hand-forged iron spoon with a long handle, so that you can stick it in a roaring fire and cook one beautiful egg to perfection. The spoon was lampooned by Anthony Bourdain, who reportedly called Waters “Pol Pot in a muumuu,” a comment that caused David Chang of Momofuku to “call bullshit on San Francisco.” Nearly ten years after the egg spoon rose to prominence, it is now back in the spotlight, and, according to the Times, it’s emblematic of the conversations swirling around the #MeToo movement about sexism, gender parity, equality, and feminism.
The hand-forged egg spoon made another appearance in New York Magazine’s Grub Street Diet in January thanks to Tamar Adler, a food writer and veteran of Waters’s Chez Panisse—a restaurant that is arguably the center of the Slow Food movement, and the reason why, when you walk into a Sweetgreen to retrieve a salad in a compostable bowl, you are greeted with a chalkboard that lists ingredients and where those ingredients came from. In her food diary, Adler waxed rhapsodic about her egg spoon, which she used to cook one egg—“frizzled on the bottom, just cooked on top”—served with some broccoli rabe and eaten in her home in upstate New York, heated by the very wood stove used to fancily cook said egg.
With the stroke of a pen, Alice Waters’s egg spoon was back, baby! Breakfast-news website Extra Crispy addressed the necessity of an egg spoon in a piece by writer Kat Kinsman, called, appropriately, “Do You Need To Own an Egg Spoon?” The answer, for those curious, is no, but Kinsman notes that the backlash to Waters’s initial admission that she used an egg spoon is the direct result of the insidious sexism that has been a part of the modern condition since the dawn of civilization. Speaking of chef (and man) Francis Mallmann’s turn on the Netflix show Mind of a Chef, Kinsman writes “At no point does he whip out an egg spoon, but I just know in the depths of my soul that if he had, no one would have made a peep about how pretentious that was. They’d just be crowing about how he’s very goddamned baller.”
The Times chose to stretch the boundaries of this debate to a limit that, in my mind, is a little much.
But social context is everything. This is the post-Harvey Weinstein era, when gender imbalance, assault and harassment in professional kitchens have been laid bare. The egg spoon has caught a ride on a new wave of kitchen feminism. Egg-spoon haters now find themselves under attack.
The argument presented by those in favor of the egg spoon is: the criticism of Waters’s peculiar choice is sexist. If a man had invented a spoon that cost $250 and was handmade by a woman blacksmith named Shawn Lovell in Alameda, California, everyone would clamor for the spoon. We’d need the spoon to survive. Eggs, made in a pan on the stove, or microwaved in a mug if you’re nasty, would fall to the wayside. As a society, we’d bend over backwards to accommodate this perfect method of cooking an egg, setting homes on fire as children coddle eggs over an open flame without the proper training or skills required to do so. The egg spoon would be a necessity, not an affectation of the Slow Food movement. But because the person wielding the spoon in question is Alice Waters, a woman, she is not praised for her ingenuity, but decried for pioneering a pretentious and fussy way to cook eggs.
Casual sexism aside, the framing of this non-drama as a #MeToo-adjacent phenomenon is quite the stretch. The #MeToo era has taken down some of the culinary world’s most lauded figures in recent months, from Mario Batali to John Besh; the macho swagger that runs through a kitchen of male chefs is bolstered by the lavish praise heaped upon them for daring to step into a role women have traditionally performed for free. Being a male chef and daring to subvert gender norms by caring about how a dish of shakshuka looks before it leaves the pass often manifests in over-compensation—adjusting behavior to counteract criticism, or just believing so strongly that your ideas as a man who dares to cook food for money are better and more important than anyone else’s. In short, many men who work as chefs seem like they’re real assholes. But there’s a difference between being sexist and being an asshole, and it is this difference that the Times is missing in this not-entirely-necessary relitigation of the issue of the egg spoon.