Deeper into the family files; recipes and gendered histories

One picture of my mom really captures me. It is of my parents at a political event, greeting George Will. My mother was heavily involved in politics, and she had likely been one of the event’s organizers, partially responsible for bringing George Will to town. She has a huge smile, and her eyes are sparkling. She is focused on George Will. But George Will is not even looking in her direction. He’s greeting my father, who likely had nothing to do with the event.

The deeper I look into the family files, the deeper my understanding of my mother’s particular brand of feminism grows.

As I grew into a woman, she was proud of me for many reasons, but she never came to grips with my love of cooking. She hated cooking with a passion, and she treated kitchens like they held hostages, like they had latch stations at their gates that clicked into place around unsuspecting ankles as they crossed the threshold. She was a great cook. She created souffles with ease. But she hated the kitchen and hated to see me cook. In fact, I learned to cook against her will, once I’d left home for college. In our lives together we shared many activities, but we never cooked together. She never shared a recipe with me. Granted, I didn’t push. I am a vegetarian, bent on healthy cooking and vegan substitutions, and she was a part of a sour cream generation.

Her kitchen history came alive in a wholly different way as I sorted through her papers. I found boxes, books, clippings and handwritten recipes. I’d seen all of these often in my youth, but I’d never looked through them. As I looked through them now, a new kind of culture began to take shape. These recipes weren’t the anonymous instructions that I find on the internet when I search. They had histories. They belonged to the women that created them. They gave credit to any creative twist on the old standards. They seemed as unique as footprints. And they were clearly passed around quite a bit. I imagined my mom tasting something delicious at a friend’s house and asking for the recipe, and I imagined the pride that the cook had felt in that moment. I can imagine moments like these, but they seem incongruous, deeply out of character for all involved.

Cooking is not simply about our need to fuel our bodies. And it’s a different process for my husband to cook (he loves to cook and has a professional cooking background) than it is for me. My time in the kitchen is part of a deeply gendered history. It is heavy with expectations, ideals and predefined roles. Maybe this is why I avoid recipes? Following a recipe seems to be about creating an ideal and trying to embody it. It’s about believing in your potential to make some fantasy a reality for your family. It’s about embodying a role that has been laid before you. It’s about achieving an unrealistic standard. A successful dish isn’t just food for the belly or a pleasant taste. It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, a sense of achievement. It’s about the success of the cook and the nurturing of those around the cook. It connects a woman to a greater tradition of women in the kitchen.

In our histories, people are pegged into traditional societal roles that they may or may not fit into easily. One one hand, they are held back from other roles and relegated to these. But on the other hand, they embody these roles in a way that rises above the call of duty.

These traditions embody uniqueness, a common respect and understanding, a kind of sisterhood, and a common striving. My mom hated the kitchen. But she was a part of a sisterhood that I’m discovering as more of a historian than a participant. Would I trade my professional or academic success for that sisterhood? Absolutely not. But as a woman in the kitchen, I want to understand what these traditions meant to the women who came before me. I want to understand how they redefined them and rose above them. I want to understand how they fit themselves and the women around them into these roles.

I will pass these recipes on to my daughters- not as instructions for cooking or instructions for life, but as a way of carrying on a sisterhood forged by the women who came before us.

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

For further (& really interesting) reading: http://www.presenttensejournal.org/vol1/cooking-codes-cookbook-discourses-as-womens-rhetorical-practices/

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