‘Simmering’ is a short story by the Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood (born 1939). Published in Atwood’s 1983 collection Murder in the Dark, the story might be regarded as a piece of flash fiction, micro-fiction, or even an example of prose poetry. ‘Simmering’ posits a society in which men predominantly do the cooking, while women go out and earn a living.
‘Simmering’: plot summary
The third-person narrator of ‘Simmering’ tells us about how, in an alternative universe, men became fond of cooking. They began by taking control of the barbecue in their backyards, but gradually started to do more of the cooking in this imagined society.
Women, meanwhile, grew tired of baking and so relinquished control of this to the men. The women wanted to go out and earn money instead. Initially, the men took charge of the ‘masculine’ areas of food such as meat, while women handled the fruit and vegetable dishes. The women praised the men to keep them interested in cooking, because they had a chance to sneak out and have careers while the men were busy in the kitchen.
Men began to devise machines and contraptions to help them with the cooking, and took to bragging to other men at parties about their culinary exploits. Many of them quit their jobs so they could spend more time in the kitchen.
However, eventually the women – aware that, in the distant past, cooking was the domain of women as well as men – come to miss playing their part in the kitchen. ‘Simmering’ ends with women dreaming of re-establishing their connection with the earth and once again being free to partake in the quasi-religious ritual of preparing and cooking food.
Atwood’s story is an ironic inversion of societal roles and gender stereotypes. Whereas cooking has traditionally been viewed as the woman’s domain and making money the man’s, ‘Simmering’ swaps this around, so that women are the ones entering the world of work and men are the ones staying home to do the cooking and homemaking.
This is a clever idea, for several reasons. First of all, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and more women entering high-profile public roles, men staying at home to be ‘house husbands’ while their wives go out and pursue successful careers has become a more common occurrence.
Second, Atwood’s story begins from a very familiar point, which involves men taking almost possessive pride in cooking the barbecue. This plays into actual existing gender stereotypes, which involve established associations between masculinity and barbecuing (somehow, if cooking is taking place outside and involves smoke and tongs, it’s the domain of the man; if it’s in the kitchen, it’s the woman’s job).
Atwood’s mentioning of aprons donned by the men, containing slogans such as Hot Stuff and The Boss, make the ensuing development in the narrative seem perfectly plausible: it is easy to imagine an alternate world in which men, having taken to the barbecue and associated this with a version of hypermasculinity, decided to take charge of the culinary domain as a whole. Indeed, cooking, under the control of men, becomes a masculine activity, dominated by killing and roasting animals, and using the latest gadget in the kitchen.
But Atwood is also making a political point about the way men’s work (traditionally, work carried out in the public sphere, involving businesses and making money) is privileged while women’s work (traditionally, cooking and other housework) is not. Atwood suggests in ‘Simmering’ that such a hierarchy of value is not a result of any intrinsic qualities within the work per se: rather, it is founded simply on the fact that men did X while women did Y.
Or, to put it another way, Atwood’s story suggests that cooking and other traditionally ‘feminine’ duties would become raised to the status of Very Important Work if they were principally the domain of men rather than women. And, conversely, the business of going out into the workplace to earn a living, being the breadwinner who pays for the food that’s on the table (but doesn’t cook it), would be seen as second-class and second-rate.
There is a quasi-religious flavour (as it were) to cooking in Atwood’s story. She describes how ‘consecrated flour’ is transformed into bread, as if akin to a form of holy communion. At the end of the story, the women dreaming of ‘freedom’ and ‘apples’ is mentioned alongside a dream of ‘the creation of the world’, in a nod to the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis: after the Creation, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (which is often assumed to be an apple) and thus angered God, and had to leave paradise.
Does the ending of Atwood’s story suggest that these women must become second Eves, collectively rising up against their male partners and remaking the world?
In the last analysis, ‘Simmering’ is not merely about presenting an inverted version of our own world for comic and ironic effect: Atwood invites us to note the rather arbitrary basis of our gender stereotypes as a society, and to wonder why things developed in one particular direction rather than another.