Food and Women - The Kitchen
Why talk about gender in connection to food? Isn’t it true that we all eat? Men, women, children, young, old … everybody needs food for nourishment. True, but traditionally the tasks related to everyday domestic food preparation in all its aspects have been in the hands of women. And traditionally these tasks take place in a defined space, the kitchen.
The kitchen, as the space where meals are prepared, and in many cases also consumed, is of particular importance for women, since it is the location where women spend and invest substantial time and energy. The kitchen can be many places and spaces. It can be private, public, or a mixture. It can be empowering and oppressive, or a combination depending on the occasion and the location. Below is a description, and some observations, about several kinds of kitchen I have been invited to see or to be an active participant as part of my research for this project.
The kitchen can be a private, single-home space where a woman makes family meals, or meals for sale “por encargo.” This type of kitchen can be fairly modern in its conception and would be a familiar space to most readers; it is nothing difficult to imagine. There is usually a gas stove, refrigerator, sink and running water; variety of metallic pots and pans; wood and metal utensils; and, depending on the country, particular types of technologies used in food preparation. In México a kitchen would have a metate and a molcajete. In Puerto Rico there is probably a tostonera and a colador de tela para café. But more contemporary utensils like a spice grinder, a blender, or a coffee maker can also be part of the small electrical appliances in urban kitchens. When the small, private kitchen is in a rural area, there are usually fewer modern appliances, but the traditional technologies are still part of what is constantly used for food preparation.
In this private, small kitchen, be it urban or rural, there is endless work because feeding a family takes time and energy, and it is a repeated activity. Every day somebody has to prepare at least three meals. The preparations include thinking about the menu and the people it will serve, purchasing or procuring the necessary ingredients, fixing the ingredients in ways that are appetizing and appropriate-- serving the prepared meal, and of course cleaning and organizing after the meal just so that the kitchen is ready for the next round. The somebody who is in charge of all these activities is in the vast majority of cases a woman. The kitchen, then, is a gendered space, a space designed for women to “do gender,” that is to say to act in gender-appropriate ways, performing gender-suitable activities that, in the vast majority of cases, are taken for granted. Cooking and cleaning become “natural” activities that women perform because they are women. The kitchen is the space reserved for these activities that require a variety of knowledge and skills, are laborious, time-consuming and sometimes even hazardous. But there is little or no recognition for this kind of work. Women are supposed to do it because they are women, and because they are the nurturers of family and tradition.
The kitchen can also be a big open space where several women prepare large amounts of food for special occasions, as in the case of El Día de Muertos in México, or a private wedding celebration that becomes a public affair. In this case, the kitchen is outdoors, the utensils are numerous and substantially bigger than in the family kitchen. There are varieties of pots, pans, wooden spoons, colanders, comales, buckets, and plastic, metal, and wooden utensils. Several sinks are used for washing ingredients and pots. There is either running water or water that has been stored in very large tanks. Gas stoves, wood-generated fires, and charcoal braziers are used in sequence or simultaneously. Sometimes a small charcoal brazier is used for the first part of the preparation of a dish, as in the case of frying one by one the ingredients that are part of the elaborate mole recipe.
Almost all the detailed and laborious preparations that must occur for a feast that will feed hundreds if not thousands is in the hands of women, but some activities do require the male presence. During the preparations for a wedding celebration near Puebla, in México, I witnessed the process in which men slaughtered and butchered several lambs that were to be used to make mixiote. Men were also in charge of the barbacoa, a traditional type of barbecue, which in the first day of the three-day preparation, included cooking the feet and heads of the butchered lambs inside a hole made on the ground, that is to say, pit cooking. Men work alongside each other in these endeavors, and there are assigned tasks for each of them. Some will select the next lamb to slaughter and prepare it by tying up the legs to restrain it. Another man will be in charge of the actual slaughter and will use “his” specific knife. Yet another man or group of men will hang the lamb head-down before another expert will proceed to remove the skin and internal organs. The space where all these activities take place is gendered; it is decidedly a male space, and it is not a kitchen. Although women can come and go as they please in this space, they are not active participants in any part of the process.
But no all the slaughter of the animals was designated as men’s work. During these same wedding preparations, women slaughtered and butchered turkeys (guajolotes). A couple of women would use the same space where the lambs had been slaughtered and would be in charge of the birds. One by one the birds are slaughtered and hung by their feet. The next process is to submerge them in boiling water to soften the feathers so that they can be plucked. There are several stages in the plucking because there are small and close-to-the-skin feathers that require detailed work. Of course, there is also the removal of internal organs, and a very thorough and detailed cleaning of all these parts of the bird. The turkeys were to be used as gifts for certain guests to the wedding, mainly the “padrinos,” who receive a basket with mole, cooked turkey, and other goods in appreciation of their contributions to the celebration.
The difference between the handling of lambs and turkeys is that the role of women in the preparation of the meats does not end with the butchering, it continues with a long list of detailed and time-consuming activities and stages that not only include the preparation of the meat for cooking, but also the final cooking of the dish, including the building of the fire and extending through serving and cleaning.
The kitchen can be a public kiosk where women prepare “comida al paso,” or “comida para llevar” during special occasions, as in the case of the multiple stands available in NYC during the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Festival. In some of these public kitchens, most of the work has been done in advance, probably at home, and the big trays containing arroz con gandule and pernil are giant serving dishes. In other cases, the cooking occurs on-site and the kitchen is a reduced space where the intense heat of the fire, the bubbling oil for frying, and the griddle surface are all in close proximity and in constant use. This intensely busy and public space is an extension of an already normalized domestic space where women do the same kind of work but on a smaller scale. Most of the stands are staffed and managed by women, but men do participate in these public commercial endeavors in various roles, that in most cases include the responsibility for the meat, the pernil. Gender is again at work in these stands, as men and women perform according to normalized roles. The food available at these stands is usually abundant and relatively inexpensive. There is no place to sit down and eat, and people usually pick up a plastic dish and a drink and either eat around the stand or walk and eat as they enjoy other aspects of the celebration. The dishes prepared in this kitchen have the allure of a home-cooked meal, and as such they have the symbolic value of that which is familiar and comforting, but the economic value is a variable of the celebration, not of the work of women or of the recognition of the knowledge and skills that cooking require.
The kitchen can be a stand in a market, where women cook on a daily basis for a variety of customers. This is a public kitchen where all activities are done on site.
In this space there are usually stoves with multiple burners, pots, pans and kitchen utensils that are very similar to the ones a private home kitchen would have. There is usually one or two refrigerators--one for food, the other for drinks. Because the market stand functions as an eating place, there is appropriate tableware that might be plastic, ceramic, or metallic. In the market stand, many of the dishes that require long and elaborate preparations, as in the case of soups, sauces, and meats, have been prepared in advance of the meal time and are ready for consumption. Other dishes that can be compared to snacks, as in the case of alcapurrias, bacalaitos, memelas, chalupas, require a mixed process, that is to say, same of the ingredients are ready but not fully assembled, so the final preparation takes place as the client in waiting and watching. This market kitchen is an extension of the home kitchen, with a sitting area and personalized attention. It can also be conceived as type of restaurant, but because it is inside a market, and mostly run and staffed by women, it lacks the prestige and economic value that a restaurant enjoys. There are many mother-daughter teams in these stands because kitchen knowledge is gendered and embodied knowledge that is passed from generation to generation. But the wisdom, knowledge, and skills necessary to cook are supposed to be part of women’s natural self, that is to say, according to established notions about women’s roles in life. Hence, the perception can be that there is nothing special or remarkable about cooking; it is just women’s work. Because of this established perception about cooking, even if clients do shop around for the best food in the market, and even when the nutritional and symbolic value of the meal is important, the monetary value, or how much people will consider the meal is worth, is low. Market food is inexpensive and abundant, as it is supposed to be at home.
The kitchen is the heart of a restaurant where women provide the sazón-- cooking by knowing --to the ideas that chefs in turn present as their own recipes and menus. It would be problematic to think that all restaurant kitchens function in the same way, so this section will describe and comment on the role of mayoras in Mexican restaurant kitchens. Mayoras are women cooks with the expertise of Mexican dishes. They are respected and valued members of the restaurant business and in the vast majority of cases are subordinate to chefs.
In the restaurant kitchen the equipment is of industrial caliber, the amount and quality of ingredients are supervised by a person who holds that job/responsibility, and the work is distributed according to perceived or proven skill level, and gender. Mayoras, as most kitchen workers, put in long hours in conditions that most people would not tolerate. The intense heat from fire, from boiling, broiling, frying, baking, roasting…the constant chopping, slicing, dicing, and the responsibility for the sazón, of traditional Mexican dishes is literally in their hands.
The public, popular perception is that work done with the hands, by hand, is of lesser value than work done with the intellect. In Spanish there is even the comparison between “trabajo intellectual y trabajo manual.” In this duality/dichotomy, the manual work is devalued because supposedly anybody can do it. And when we are talking about kitchen work, we only want to conceive that work as a product of the hands that are making the preparations. With the mayoras, the dichotomy/difference/division is even more acute because the perception is that there is always a chef who can think and organize the meals/dishes/menus, and the mayoras are just there to follow orders; hence there is no intellectual, thinking work. What we seem to forget is that, even if it were true, mayoras have to have the knowledge to produce the dishes, to create the sazón that they are supposed to produce and recreate for the delight of all. Mayoras are supposed to be the embodiment of traditional Mexican dishes, but the embodiment seems to be something that just happens; is just acquired by….???
It is high time we stopped thinking about the role of women in the kitchen as a taken for granted, a naturalized process that does not require anything but the fact of just being a woman. We MUST think of the kitchen as a space where women create and recreate food, family and tradition.
The kitchen in a restaurant is also the professional location where new and established generations of women chefs and entrepreneurs are creating a change in the perception of what it means to run a restaurant. Just to name a few of these women, in México, Patricia Quintana, Mónica Patiño, Martha Ortiz, Carmen Titita Degollado, Liz Galicia, in Puerto Rico Carmen González, Marisol Murano, in New York City Zarella Martínez, Julieta Ballesteros. These women, among others, are the visible, public, professional faces that have carved a space of value and prestige for the role of women in the kitchen. But unfortunately, the few women I have mentioned are exemplary cases of hard work and success in an industry and a profession that is still male dominated in the sense that chefs are males and cooks are female.
The kitchen, in all the different forms it can take, is a place of joy and of tears. It can be intoxicating in many senses of the word. The heat of the fire and of the spices can be invigorating and debilitating. The kitchen is a place of multiple activities, thoughts, and circumstances. It is imbued, soaked up in/by history and at the same time stubbornly present and fleeting in its materiality and concreteness because of what gets prepared in it. The kitchen is a place and a space that resists a simple, homogeneous, unambiguous definition. Maybe because, or maybe in spite of all these multiplicity of concepts the kitchen contains and encompasses, it remains a gendered space. For the Mexican, Puerto Rican, and immigrant women who have shared their time and cooking experience with me, the kitchen is still in the 21 century the place where gender is “done,” where family is constituted, where tradition lives and gets reenacted.