Until she divorced, when I was already in my 20s, my mother was a homemaker. Being the disgruntled teenager that I was, I criticized her to martyrdom for her choice not to work, as I saw it, and spend her time cooking two meals a day, shuttling my sister and I all over town and, the worst offense of all in my book, waiting on my father hand and foot.
The truth is, because of personal circumstances and societal norms, she didn’t really have a choice but her tangible example, not to mention her loving prodding, made a solid education non-negotiable for me, and the choice of a career early in life the only path I could envisage. It wasn’t until much later that I came to recognize her role in holding the family together, the love she poured in every meal and every act of selflessness and how much she actually worked. Unpaid.
I began to cook because I wanted to eat well. I wanted the taste of my childhood on the plate when I found myself far away from home. I learnt to cook – I can see now – to give my new bearings, my new life, a center. Another career developed from it but it wasn’t my primary objective. I wanted to cook to show love to my family and to myself, because I knew that the ritual of sitting around a table every night is the glue that cements a family, or a couple, or a friendship.
I still meet many women who profess not to cook. Some say it with regret, followed by a series of reasons why they don’t: lack of time; ingrained inability; lack of interest. Some seem even proud of not having to slave at the stove.
But, at least in the Western world, cooking is viewed as a choice, or a pastime, a chore but not a necessity. There is always take-out, frozen meals, restaurants or a bowl of cereals on the nights we don’t want to. Or we can’t. Most women look at cooking as something they choose to do. Or not. Even in poorer communities, a woman might need to draw a salary, feed her children but, for better or worse, she will not be criticized if the food she puts on the table is not prepared with her own hands.
Is this such a feminist accomplishment? In a way it is, even if the implications for our health and our communities can be grim, and, especially where poverty is concerned, they also speak to the lack of help available to women who would like to provide better meals for their families but cannot.
I wish every woman could carve her place in the kitchen – for many reasons. Preparing food can be meditative work, and healing to the soul; it channels all those who came before us, who might not have had a choice in the matter, but still did it with care and would be proud to know their lessons have been learnt; above all, because feeding a child, a partner, a friend or a stranger is the ultimate act of love.
Today it’s International Women’s Day. On this day, I would like to honor the work of those women who still don’t have a choice. Those who start their day by gathering wood and grinding cornmeal and fetching water, sometimes with a baby on their backs, and who cook for their family or community. Without their strength, their knowledge and their backbone, their societies would be so much worse off. May they, or their girls, have the choices women like me were afforded, sooner rather than later.
Wednesday is the day when you typically find a recipe, here at C&S. On this day, I invite you, instead, to think about your role in the kitchen and how your approach food has changed over time. Wherever you are, cherish it.
Also today, in the United States, is a Day without Women. Those of us who took to the streets last January are encouraged to abstain from paid or unpaid work, to show how invaluable our work is, at every level. And if not working is not an option, we can choose to wear red, the color that symbolizes courage – something that women everywhere have never lacked.