I have this memory where I’m five and it’s Thanksgiving, or I’m 12 and it’s Chanukah or I’m 15 and in AP World History. They’re all the same memory, and there are more. In almost every year of my public-school education, there has been some kind of school celebration of cultural and ethnic diversity. The common factor in these celebrations is food because what better way to bring a diverse (and generally uninterested) group of students together?
There’s a point in each celebration when the student stands up, presents their contribution, and says, “my mom helped me make…” or “I made…with my mom.” While these celebrations are about diversity, this is a clear commonality, which sheds light on the problematic phenomenon of women with families being primarily responsible for kitchen duties. These events celebrate the different cultures these women feed – so how do we go about honoring women and their contributions, while also recognizing that, for many women, the goal is, and has been, to break free from this traditional role?
These events celebrate the different cultures these women feed – so how do we go about honoring women and their contributions, while also recognizing that, for many women, the goal is, and has been, to break free from this traditional role?
Granted, I’ve grown up as a “good Jewish girl,” so it’s highly likely that the concept of “kitchen culture” seems more apparent and relevant to me than to others. I should explain – I’ve spent hours in my synagogue’s kitchen with women (and those couple of men with culinary training), making latkes or chicken soup for unwell temple members, and listening to the score sheet of whose son got into which college. There I learned a separate set of Jewish customs, these pertaining to how to prepare food. Some of these, such as the imperative of cracking of eggs into separate bowls before mixing them in, come from Kashrut. Others clearly evolved from hours spent in the kitchen by generations of women like us; for example, one must never prepare food for friends and family without some kind of music playing.
This culture, however, seems to play out very differently in the diverse cultures represented in school heritage events. For example, one of my classmates from a Mexican family that recently immigrated to the US, had his mother make tamales for my AP World History class. I’m not talking about sample-sized pieces, either. No, her intent was clearly to feed the entire class of hungry high school students. The thing is, making tamales is an all-day process. When my classmate was asked if his mother minded spending so much time on this, he rolled his eyes and replied that she’d insisted and that she wouldn’t hear of not doing it. She was proud to share her culture, and to feed hungry people.
By contrast, my longtime classmate of English and Italian descent made pizzelles with her father, but not without noting to the class that her mom, “doesn’t really bake.” I happen to know her mother, however, and I know that she is quite a good cook – so why would my classmate feel the need to justify her father’s participation by downplaying her mother’s skill? Was it somehow shameful to her that her mom, capable of cooking, had chosen not to participate in the kitchen activity? Isn’t that very choice the goal that feminists have been working for?
These types of events have made me realize how much my view of food was centered around women being in the kitchen. This shocked me, initially, since I’ve always considered myself and my family to be completely egalitarian in terms of division of labor. But when I thought about it more, thought about that time spent in the synagogue kitchen with so many women, I came to the conclusion that it comes down to choice.
See, most of the women in my synagogue community are pretty darn high-powered. At least two of them run their own businesses, and at least another two are at the top of the hierarchy in their companies. They choose to congregate in the kitchen because of the culture and companionship that exists there. Maybe that grew out of the expectation that women are the ones who do this work, but it’s a rich and beautiful culture of its own all the same.
In the end, this controversy also comes down to a problem I’ve faced a lot: fighting against the confinement of women in traditionally feminine activities, while actually preferring those “feminine” activities myself. Again, it’s about choice. If like me, you enjoy cooking and being in the kitchen, your gender shouldn’t determine whether or not you should engage in those activities. On the flip side, gender shouldn’t be used to force anyone in or out of the kitchen.
So let’s keep celebrating the women who continue to practice and pass on kitchen culture – but let’s also work on increasing the respect shown to kitchen culture, and on expanding who gets to participate in it. Women shouldn’t be forced in and men shouldn’t be forced out, and perhaps most importantly, those of us who are feminists, shouldn’t shame women who want to be in the kitchen. By engaging in these practices, we’ll bring gender equality not only outside of the domestic sphere but inside as well.
Tamar Cohen is a senior at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif.
Editor’s Note: This content was produced in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.