when kitchens are anchors- 8.2.17
When I was a little girl in the tiny, equatorially hot country of my birth, celebrations of birthdays and holidays brought with them a host of preparations that, looking back now, fell squarely on the shoulders of women — at least, as far as my memory serves.
Some of those memories are of me hovering silently around the edges of the hub of preparations, the kitchen, where aunts came and went to aid in the hot and seemingly unending process of peeling, grating, kneading, beating, stirring, frying, and baking. To my very young ears, their conversations were oracles of insight and wisdom. In my memory, these conversations consisted almost entirely of talk about children, spouses, parents, and siblings. I was transfixed; as long as I remained silent, my presence non-intrusive, I could imagine myself a future part of this cabal, which had formed itself around the routine of creating delicacies, savory and sweet, in this anchoring place, the kitchen, for the celebration ahead.
There were many gatherings of which I was a part during these early, formative years. There were Sundays by a man-made lake where, under the benign gaze of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, we got together to swim, and eat, and chat. There were the almost daily check-ins before evening supper, where the women caught up on their days, while we, children, played barefoot in the dust around them. But none of these gatherings drew me in as much as those times, in my aunts’ kitchens, when the women prepared for a feast. No hands were ever idle, and to me, the seeming ease with which they created their delicacies was nothing short of magical, and I could not wait to be initiated into this craft that was the purview of women only. I was entranced by this power to convene groups of happy party-goers with the promise of a meal well-cooked.
It should come as no surprise then that, even though I was thousands of miles away from these aunts, I stood for the first time, in my own kitchen, and tried to become a cook. A real cook, in the vein of these women, who produce food, the enjoyment of which is directly correlated to the time and care it took to prepare. I have fed family, friends, and my children’s college friends with enthusiasm, a healthy dose of creativity, and, most of all, love.
This past month, I spent almost three weeks in Suriname to visit my mother and my extended family. Traditions change over time, and the food for celebrations is now most often provided by a caterer or ordered from a restaurant. However, getting together is still a major pastime in my family, and my aunts are still baking and cooking. Perhaps it was because I was around longer than I usually am, but at some point during my sojourn, I asked various members of the family for recipes of flavors never forgotten. Before I knew it, I learned how to clean dozens of hot peppers efficiently so as to make delicious green papaya hot sauce. I deep-fried the Surinamese take on an Indian snack that involves yellow lentils, cumin, garlic, and hot oil, and I baked a deliciously smooth and moist breakfast cake. Under the tutelage of aunts (and a cousin), I made chutneys, copied down recipes, and listened to insider advice on how you take your dish from good to great.
I know that I am describing scenarios that may appear to reinforce gender stereotypes. The reality is that the ascribed gender roles of my youth were most definitely traditional. For example, my mother worked outside of the home, along with my father, but in our house, it was she who shouldered the responsibilities of the household. The work of women like my aunts and my mother should not be dismissed because of their traditional nature. What these women did (and continue to do) is the work of nurture, of celebration, and of love.
It has also struck me that while the setting I describe is a traditional one — the kitchen — what lies beneath these culinary gatherings is the strength of women’s relationships. This relational nature provided the backdrop for the collaborative and creative spirit that infused these special days, during which I found myself mesmerized by my aunts’ skill and wisdom. Women’s relational strength is evident, I would argue, in all spaces created for girls and women, in which shared purpose and values drive outcomes that are good for all.
There was a moment, this past month, while wiping beads of sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand, that all the old memories came flooding back. My aunt was regaling my mom with stories, while keeping an eagle eye on my hot pepper progress. She was, in that moment, as I always remembered; a master in the kitchen, but this time, she was passing along her skill to me, who had finally, in middle age, become part of the cabal.
Wednesday August, 2, 2017 at 11:44AM