Widowers’ culinary skills flourish after their bereavement, study suggests

Widowers are far from useless in the kitchen – in fact, their culinary skills flourish after losing their loved one, a new study suggests. 

Despite the stereotype of the elderly man being rubbish in the kitchen, male seniors do cook and blossom in the kitchen once alone, Danish researchers found. 

Meanwhile, widows – recently bereaved women – were found to be less interested in cooking than men, the experts found. 

The results are based on-depth interviews with 31 men and women between the ages 67 and 86 who lost their partner within the previous five years

The new findings, which could help inform elderly care, suggest that an era of evolving gender roles doesn’t just apply to younger generations. 

The new study suggests men flourish in the kitchen and cook elaborate meals as a hobby after their spouse has passed away

‘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,’ said study author Professor Sidse Schoubye Andersen at the University of Copenhagen. 

‘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.’  

The study participants came from urban and rural areas in Jutland, Funen and Zealand in Denmark and were interviewed in 2018 and 2019.

Men ‘recounted in detail’ how they prepared pork roasts and made pâtés and sausages from scratch, while women settled for simple food like cheese sandwiches. 

Men particularly wanted something substantial at mealtimes, embraced cooking as a hobby and flourished cooking meat-based meals.

‘While the dishes men 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,’ said Professor Schoubye Andersen 

The men recounted in detail how they had prepared a pork roast or made sausage and liver pâté from scratch

The men recounted in detail how they had prepared a pork roast or made sausage and liver pâté from scratch

‘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.’

A different picture emerged among widowed women, who tended to think that cooking ought not take longer than the time required to eat. 

Generally, women considered cooking to be 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,’ the researcher said

‘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.’ 

According to the researcher, men and women perceive cooking differently, probably due to differing divisions of labour throughout life.

While the recently bereaved women were more likely to prepare themselves modest meals, such as bread with cheese

While the recently bereaved women were more likely to prepare themselves modest meals, such as bread with cheese

Men of this particular age group perhaps consider cooking a hobby that contrasts  with what they did earlier in life as a profession, while women just see it as work.     

‘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,’ said Professor Schoubye Andersen.

‘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.      

The study is one of few conducted in this area, which is partly due to the fact society forgets to include older generations when appreciating changed gender roles, according to the researcher, who focuses on the social and cultural aspects of food.

For example, we assume that seniors live according to traditional patterns and therefore 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,’ said Schoubye Andersen.

‘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.’

Schoubye Andersen also said men do take part in household chores, contradicting ‘the well-known and somewhat gloomy narrative of the single man’. 

The study has been published in the journal Ageing and Society

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