Widowers who cook bust stereotypes

"There's been a long-held assumption that older men are challenged in the kitchen, practically speaking, when living on their own. But, that's not what I see," says Sidse Schoubye Andersen. (Credit: Getty Images)

Widowers take to the kitchen after the loss of a partner, whereas widows appear less interested in cooking, a study in Denmark finds.

The new findings, based on in-depth interviews with 31 widowed men and women ages 67 to 86, could be useful for municipal elder care and suggest that changing gender roles don’t just apply to younger generations.

“There’s been a long-held assumption that older men are challenged in the kitchen, practically speaking, when living on their own. But, that’s not what I see. While there are single men from older generations who are challenged, there are also those who are adept in the kitchen and who have taken up the challenge of cooking once alone. And perhaps, even after a wife has fallen ill or upon their own retirement,” says assistant professor Sidse Schoubye Andersen of the University of Copenhagen’s department of food and resource economics.

Schoubye Andersen asserts that this behavior regarding cooking accords with the times, as men increasingly take part in household responsibilities, but also contradicts the well-known and somewhat gloomy narrative of the single man.

Widowers cook meat

Many of the widowers in the study experience cooking as a new hobby. Asking them, for example, what they ate the day prior to the interview, revealed an interest in meat dishes.

“The men recounted in detail how they had prepared a pork roast or made sausage and liver pâté from scratch. While the dishes they prepared were often quite elaborate, they reported making them because they thought it was fun to do so and because it was important for them to have a hot meal,” says Schoubye Andersen.

“The men were worried about being considered helpless or dependent upon others when it came to cooking. It was important for them to demonstrate that they could take care of themselves and be distanced from the man who ‘goes to the dogs’ upon the passing of his spouse.”

Widows are free from a chore

A different picture emerged among widowed women. Here, Schoubye Andersen explains, the trend was that cooking ought not take longer than the time required to eat, and that cooking was considered more of a chore.

“The women told me that they weren’t interested in spending too much time on cooking for themselves, and could often settle for some bread and cheese. One of them said that despite being terribly sorry to have lost her husband, the fact that she no longer had to cook was perfectly okay and somewhat of a relief,” Schoubye Andersen says.

According to the researcher, the results are in part an indication that men and women perceive cooking differently, probably due to differing divisions of labor throughout life; men consider cooking a hobby, women see it as daily work. But these divergent narratives also express the gendered expectations of older men, women, and their food habits.

“When an older woman describes skipping meals or eating bread and cheese, we interpret it as an expression of a priority. She needn’t defend or explain it. Conversely, when older men make a big deal about not skipping a meal and detail their elaborate concoctions, it is partly because they seek to distance themselves from the image of a helpless widower,” explains Schoubye Andersen.

We tend assume that seniors live according to traditional patterns and, as such, don’t reflect modern trends.

“The results of this study reflect that some of the changes apparent in the gender roles of modern families are also at play among seniors. But we often forget to carry out research into changes in old age—because we assume that change and development are primarily a matter of youth,” says Schoubye Andersen.

The Velux Foundation supported the work, which appears in the journal Ageing and Society.

Source: University of Copenhagen