Reclaiming the Kitchen

Adalmiina Erkkola is an advocacy writer with an interest in gender, ethics, and global politics. She is starting her master’s degree in Gender, Peace and Security this autumn.

[Featured Image: Shows Martha Rossler holder a knife staring into the camera.]

30 December 2011: ‘Men say a woman’s place is in the kitchen. Just remember that’s where the knives are…(;’. 

I’m sure these phrases can be found somewhere, somehow proudly printed on a kitchen magnet, but I can’t quite remember what compelled me to post them as my status update nearly a decade ago. 

At the time, my capacity for cooking extended to making pancakes on the weekends and trying muffin recipes with varying degrees of success. I boiled pasta for the first time by myself the year before and managed to flood the kitchen counter with water. Evidently, I hadn’t quite grasped that ‘Place the pasta in boiling water’ didn’t mean keep the hob at maximum temperature and hope for the best for 8 to 12 minutes. 

While my cooking and feminist aspirations have since moved beyond kitchen-knife-wielding visions for emancipation, I still think about what it means to be a woman who enjoys spending time in the kitchen.

Deep-rooted inequalities relating to cooking are firmly present, not least the gendered and heteronormative expectations of women as selfless providers of subsistence.1 In many cultural contexts, the ability to cook continues to be a benchmark for a woman’s eligibility for marriage (to men), and girls – much more than their male peers – are taught from an early age to help prepare food and take part in the washing up.

Where women are pushed to perform this work at home, men are the ones getting paid for it in the public realm. According to an ONS study from 2018, only 17% of chef positions in the UK are held by women.2 Comparatively, migrant women of colour are over-represented and underpaid as domestic workers, responsible for such tasks as cooking, cleaning and caregiving. Many white middle-class women evade gendered kitchen labour only by exploiting and undervaluing migrant women in the process.3

Everyone wants to eat, yet gender roles – together with other structures of oppression – socialise certain bodies more than others into preparing what to eat. How can we, then, re-envision kitchen spaces with meanings we all define for ourselves?  

Evidently, there’s nothing inherent about being a woman that ties one to a kitchen stove. Cooking and food embody universal themes of life – those of identity, community and culture.

On a personal level, gathering around and preparing food together has always felt like an intimate embodiment of care. Shared food is a shared sensory experience and provides an oft-needed point of connection where words might otherwise be lacking. 

My – thankfully positive – relationship with food owes, in large part, to having been raised by a mother who researches and teaches about nutrition and dietary habits for a living. I recognise this as an immense privilege, together with financial security which meant there was always food to eat in my home. My mother was able to teach me Finnish culinary traditions with simple yet fresh ingredients and encourage my exploration of flavours and textures beyond them.

While the joy of food in the present is so often tied to our pasts, history has not played out fairly.

Various systems of oppression, particularly colonial legacies and ecological destruction largely enacted by the global north, are reflected in food practices. Forest food researcher Aparna Pallavi, for instance, speaks on Western influences and industrialised agriculture leading to the disappearance of indigenous food cultures in India.4 Mahua, a highly nutritious forest food, was for centuries part of the diet of many Indian indigenous communities.5 Yet Pallavi found that external influences led mahua to be shamed as a “poverty food” and younger generations have internalised this harmful perception. 

In such contexts, cooking with ingredients and recipes of tradition becomes a medium for the survival of cultures and communities under threat. 

Many community-led initiatives have been born from this understanding. One of these is the Portland-based collective Tender Table.They host story-telling events centred around bringing food and the experiences of women, trans men and non-binary BIPOC to the table. Reclaiming the kitchen here means reclaiming stories of history and identity, valuing them beyond the narrow confines of patriarchy, racism and all other forms of bigotry.

One of the event speakers, Victoria Huynh, describes fittingly: ‘I like that we don’t try to forget our hardships. We swallow them instead.’6  

Our diverse backgrounds and values mean that reclamation will inherently look different for everyone. Racism and capitalist imperialism have led to the disproportionate systemic economic exploitation of women of colour across the agri-food sector. A recent Oxfam report suggests, ‘It would take a woman processing shrimp at a typical plant in Indonesia or Thailand more than 4000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns on average, in a year’.Advocates of the Slow Food movement, then, make the argument that the kitchen is reclaimed only when we eat locally sourced foods and ensure justice all the way down the food supply chain

But making ethical decisions around food isn’t equally afforded to everyone – the reality being that kitchens and supermarkets are still far from accessible spaces. They require time, energy and money to navigate. It isn’t hard to imagine how living with a physical disability, for instance, can leave a tight budget for food purchases and make food preparation itself extremely laborious and frustrating. Rachel Laudan points out in her essay ‘In Praise of Fast Food’ that the industrialisation of food means an incredible freeing up of time for many women.8 Reclaiming the kitchen, then, can mean leaving it altogether when it no longer serves you, and getting take-out instead. 

There is still a long way to go in recognising all of the work that goes into food preparation (including mental labour) and undoing the socialisation of women and girls into domestic work, especially cooking. There is also an array of structural inequalities which we cannot ignore in the fight for preserving food cultures and pursuing food justice. 

Only by addressing these realities together are we able to redefine kitchen work and spaces through structures of care, not oppression. 

Sources Cited:

1 Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning and Power. 1999. Carole Counihan.

2 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-45486646

3 ‘You still don’t understand: why trouble engagements continue between feminists and (critical) IPE’. Review of International Studies 32 (1): 145-164. 2006. Georgina Waylen.

4 https://youtu.be/0wVUIPjPhl8

5 http://www.expressfoodie.com/main-course/rekindling-food-memories-of-mahua/

6 https://ediblerhody.ediblecommunities.com/about-us/tender-table

7‘Ripe for Change: Ending human suffering in supermarket supply chains.’ 2018. Oxfam International.

8 https://www.utne.com/environment/fast-food-culinary-ethos

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