Women in the Kitchen or The Commodification of Basic Equality
I was raised by 20-something skater bros in the late 90’s of Southern California. I’ll attribute this to my equally pragmatic and idealistic view of the world. And so, I do not exist in some elevated delusion that the rest of my life will resemble my New York liberal arts classrooms, however, I suppose I do have high expectations of something resembling justice. I want to talk about what it means to have “women” cooking professionally, to have people of color, and queer people, and poor people getting paid properly to do labor that only became exalted into an actual profession when it became a domain of men. Mostly, cis straight white men. Chefs.
Lately, I find people are very excited that I am a woman who is running a kitchen. On this point, I have mixed feelings. My woman-ness is not exempt from the conversation, but it is also not constitutive of it. I am disinterested in a compartmentalized iteration of existence. So yes, I am a woman, and yes I am making a conscious decision to fill my kitchen with people who are not white men with five years of line cooking experience. In fact I am making a point of hiring people who don’t have much experience at all. This has its ups and downs. I’ll admit it is driven by two main impetuses. For one, I am a fan of helping people who aren’t formally trained get their foot in the door, because as a person who is also not formally trained, I have been very lucky in this regard. Certainly, there are aspects of one’s identity that make this harder or easier. For two, it is a matter of taste and self-preservation. Often, boys who have spent too much time in aggressive kitchen atmospheres rub me the wrong way.
I know, I know. Things are changing! Look at all this progress! We are constantly being fed new models of emancipation that help us to sleep at night. Period advertisements on the subway feature models of all shapes/colors/sizes. We talk openly about women’s menstruation! Noma posts an instagram photo of three women from their administrative team on Women’s Day. Look! Women at NOMA!
...Which, brings me to a quote by Heather Love (2007), in her introduction to Feeling Backward. She states: “Although many queer critics take exception to the idea of a linear triumphalist view of history, we are in practice deeply committed to the notion of progress; despite our reservations we just cannot stop dreaming of a better life for queer people” (p. 3). In truth, we are currently still living in an era of extraordinary structural violence shoddily disguised by neoliberal narratives of inclusion, and the promise of “progress” for oppressed groups acts only as yet another conditional alliance poised to further the same social, political, and economic structures of domination that preceded it.
The good intentions I can glean from examples like these mentioned are not un-appreciated. To some extent I recognize the benefits of social-justice being oriented into mainstream discourse and aesthetic. That is to say, made hip. Do I however find it fascinating? Revolutionary? Anywhere near a horizon of completion? Absolutely not. In general, the commodification of basic equality takes turns completely horrifying and then utterly boring me. Giving jobs/money/recognition/access etc. etc. to people who are not straight white men is not radical. It’s fucking baseline. Acting like it isn’t is actually dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong, I love femininity, I celebrate it in myself and others. I am excited about women taking up space/having control etc. Both in the food world and the world at large. One of the sweetest things anyone’s said to me this year was when a new hire said one of the reasons she was so excited to work in my kitchen when she started was because at her old job they made fun of her for wearing makeup to a pizza kitchen. Of course, I laughed, I plan to be wearing red lipstick while cleaning the fryer ‘till the day I die. I also very much identify with a dining culture that harkens from a history of women in their own kitchens. A history wraught in its own right, but that certainly pre-exists “chef” as a profession. I draw from this stylistically in many respects.
Often, words like “generous” and “simple” are used to describe my food. They aren’t wrong. It is the lineage of home-cooking that intrigues me. The lineage of women. The practical use of good ingredients. The prettiest elements of the functional (think jam). This sensibility undoubtedly does in part stem from a culturally gendered “tradition”. However, there are lots of different cooks with lots of different identities that embrace lots of different styles. I cook food that isn’t fussy also because that’s the kind of food I like to eat. I don’t talk much about innovation and my plating does not look like modern art because it simply does not appeal to me.
I appreciate how stoked people have been that I’m a young woman doing food stuff. I’m stoked too! But, like my identity, this conversation is only a fraction of everything else that’s happening and still needs to happen. I am a white woman under the age of 30 with just enough understanding of biopolitic to make me exciting and modern, as well as just enough adherence to normative beauty standards to make me not-scary to the powers that be. I am also a good cook. A responsible, organized, slightly manic, and driven worker. I like what I do. I like it very much. None of this though, I can report as groundbreaking. And quite honestly, if I could, that would be rather depressing.
I am not against a feeling of optimism about the future. Nor do I reject a celebration of our achievements thus far. However I do, in turn, caution against a pacifying rhetoric of progress. A frequently inappropriate use of the “self” as emblematic of said progress. And the “Subversive” as being merely the Next Big Thing. Of course we have to keep talking about it, keep seeking out new models of existence, keep being excited when something gets a little better. It’s just that “better” is an ongoing, alive thing. Its nuance and room for error is vast. I can only hope that eventually the allowance of my presence in the professional world (and the presence of those represented even less) ceases to illicit gold stickers and pats on the back. Until then, we are only applauding the errant good choices of those who make all the choices to begin with.