It appears that Himeji is a bad cook.
On the surface, this looks like a subversion to the obento trope where girls always make absolutely delicious lunch boxes for the objects of their affections. Even though Himeji’s lunch tasted bad, however — so bad that it poisons — her immaculately constructed obento actually subverts nothing:
…the potential to aestheticize a certain social order, a social order that is coded (in cultural and culinary terms) as Japanese. Not only is a mother making food more palatable to her nursery school child, she is creating food as a more aesthetic and pleasing social structure. The obento’s message, then, is that the world is constructed very precisely and the role of any single Japanese is that world must be carried out with the same degree of precision. Production is demanding; and the producer must both keep within the borders of her or his role and work hard. — Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan, page 102
Perhaps it tastes bad only because Himeji is not yet a mother; she has time to perfect the craft. Her attention to detail, however, reflects more than just her “A-level” aptitude. Look across every other anime, manga or dramas and you’ll often find that most obento are immaculately designed as if it is a requirement.
Of course it is pleasing to the eye and we all like that which is pleasing, but the message here is that a woman is an inferior mother if the obento isn’t up to par aesthetically:
Presentation is critical not to the extent that taste and nutrition are displaced, as has been sometimes argued, but to the degree that how food looks is at least as important as how it tastes and how good and sustaining it is for one’s body. — page 84
But what if a woman doesn’t have time to aesthetically design an obento? What if she has a career? Can’t it be enough that the meal is nutritious and tasty?
Few mothers at the school my son attended could afford to work even part-time or temporary jobs. Those women who did tended either to keep their outside work a secret or to be reprimanded by a teacher for insufficient devotion to their child. Motherhood, in other words, is institutionalized through the child’s school and such routines such as making the obento as a full-time, stay-at-home job. — page 96
The end result is that women becomes a cheap source of labor for menial jobs. Women rarely have the time to do much else if they wish to portray themselves as good mothers (103). This is an unfortunate reality for an industrialized country where (ironically) the more educated a woman is, the less likely she’ll be to enter full-time employment (xviii).
Minami tells us in this same episode that it just so happens that she made too much food. As a result, she conveniently has two obento. She obviously has a crush on Akihisa (God knows why), but is unwilling to admit to the world this very fact. It appears natural that she should make Akihisa an obento. We rarely ask ourselves, however, why the male almost never makes an obento for the object of his affections.
No Japanese man I spoke with had or desired the experience of making a nursery school obento even once… The male is assigned a position in the outside world where he laborsat a job for money and is expected to be primarily identified by and committed to his place of work. — page 102
Yes, Kyon has to buy everyone drinks as a result of losing some card game, but the function remains entirely the same. Girls usually make things for guys and guys usually buy things for girls. In last week’s episode of Baka to Test to Shokanju, we saw Akihisa being forced to take both Minami and Himeji to the theaters. We also saw him being forced to buy them crepes. Although he had little money and was practically starving because he can’t afford anything to eat, he nevertheless didn’t complain nor object. His gendered expectation is to provide for his women regardless of his circumstances or he would be deemed a failure as a man. As a result, we have a gendered division of labor. Men are identified by their purchasing power while women are identified by things such as making obento.
Ever so rarely, however, we see this trope subverted.
In Persona 4, not only are the girls typically bad at cooking (hilariously bad at it too), but the player has the choice to cook for his friends. It is in fact encouraged as friendships are important to both the story and gameplay. As a video game, this implies an interesting message: since we are in control of the player, we don’t have to obey the status quo; we can transcend the limitations. Anime, on the other hand, as a narrative on rails — a story that we as the audience (typically) cannot influence — may perhaps only reflect the culture that produced it.