#3 | how to cook a woman
on rights, duties, obligations, and hope
FIRST THINGS FIRST
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I write about food, cuisine, and gastronomy, and every issue is available for free on flaviaschiochet.substack.com. I intend to publish exclusive content for paying subscribers in 2022, but until then, I have short-term plans:
Between the 10th and the 15th days, an interview in Portuguese;
Between the 25th and 31st days, an essay, just like these in English.
If you have suggestions on people I could interview, please tell me! 📩 email@example.com
SETTING THE MOOD
In the original version of this post, I added two songs in Portuguese to set the mood. You can search for the lyrics or just let yourself be carried away by the voices and rhythm. The first one is from Chico César, a multitalented musician from Paraíba, northeast Brazil, sung by Caio Prado and Johnny Hooker. It talks about stepping on a woman's heart and it's a sorrowful and somehow a soft song.
HOW TO COOK A WOMAN
on rights, duties, obligations, and hope
Motherhood is an unknown land for me. I don't know anything about the process of recognizing your offspring and building love, but I do notice the changes it causes: tiredness, fear, tenderness. I can easily see a future with children but not sharing a house with a partner again. Maybe I'll never be a mother. But taking care of those who don't know how to take care of themselves seems inescapable for a woman in this world, where we girls are encouraged to take care and have responsibility for others even before we learn how to take care of ourselves.
As I was writing the draft for this piece, on August 16th, a few milliliters of tears dried on my cheeks. I had a silent crying attack during yoga nidra. Lying on the floor for the corpse pose, I was assaulted by an unprecedented scene. Actually, it seemed more like memory (maybe a vision?), and from which I was not able to dodge. In this scene, I was arriving at my best friend's apartment and was about to pick up her newly born daughter in my arms.
I have only seen the baby pictures, of course, and it has been almost two years since I had visited my friend. This unexpected sight in the middle of the relaxation process made me collapse. It was a cry of happiness because I understood that our love, a love of almost two decades, had become exponentially greater. As I cried, I felt like the universe had allowed me to feel the love of an entire century condensed in few minutes. And this sudden and foreign love was due to a new person in the world (!) – a little person who still has a soft spot on the top of her head.
I immediately loved this little human being ever since her gestation. A little human being whose personality we don't know yet and whom I'm already so afraid to fail. Feeling this love made me cry to the point where two tears ran out of the corner of my eye into my right ear as I tried to remain still in savasana. As we sat down to finish our meditation, the salty puddles that balanced over my eyes felt onto the rubber mat. Returning to the real world, 700 km away from my friend, the crying went from completeness bliss to the terror of living in ugly reality. To teach hope for this little girl will be our way of shielding her against a world that is not kind to women.
To be a woman – to feel like a woman, to perform femininity, to identify with the gender – is to be a target. Nobody chooses to be a target: people make us one. A physical, psychic, emotional, social, economic target.
Food plays a different role in women's lives. We learn cooking sooner than developing our preferences and taste. We are socialized to eat for nourishment, not enjoyment. We feel responsible for the satiety of others, even if the party is not ours. We automatically put ourselves in the role of serving and not being served. It's common to meet women who say they like to cook, but don't like to do it just for themselves.
The kitchen is where many of us experience some kind of freedom – mastering a recipe encourages us to try out the combination of different ingredients and change processes. It is also the place where happens the Sisyphian task of preparing the main meal every day. Baking cake can be a hobby; preparing the family's main meal every day is not. It's something women get used to, whether they like it or not. Women who love to cook don't love to keep their family members fed – at least not only that.
––– This paragraph could lead to a discussion about how the period of slavery in Brazil contributed to black women being seen as natural nurturers, nannies, and someone who must always keep the table set... at other people's homes, while their children historically grew up without having quality time with their mother. It could also lead to a paragraph about how women are seen as belonging to the home kitchen rather than the restaurant's one. It even could bring a scene that compares the behavior of a woman and a man when serving a meal to someone else. While women would ask if they liked it, if it was salty, if it's well baked, men would probably just react with a rhetorical question – "it is really good, huh?" –, with their smiling faces, so proud and assured of their abilities. But there wouldn't be enough space for that, so I'm gonna start the next paragraph with a generalization. –––
For most of the time that humankind has mastered fire on Earth, women have been obligated to cook. As a millennial, I grew up used to watching television presenters cooking, lunching in restaurants that emulate someone's grandmother's house, reading about new chefs who stand out for their work in contemporary restaurants, who receive a separate prominence in haute cuisine awards, such as the award for the best female chef at the 50 Best Restaurants. Women at the top, all this bla bla bla that can easily sound like liberal white feminism.
Decades pass slowly for women, who can still smell the ink of the decrees that allowed them to vote, open bank accounts in their names, and get divorced. If we narrow our eyes a little, we will be able to recognize many of us still estranged from these achievements across the street or across the ocean.
They keep measuring us by how many pounds we can lift – considering the casseroles in a restaurant and not the kids in our bellies or laps. They assume that we are weak and undetermined, although these same people like to repeat that their moms are the best, that they are really outstanding women.
Men who think and talk about food can be geniuses – I grant them that. But cooking is not something they created and mastered over the centuries. Men do not know what it is to overcome the feeling of obligation linked to everyday activity and transform it (at least partially) into a moment of pleasure and self-knowledge.
This brings us to the never-forgiven class of mothers: the ones who don't cook.
Perhaps a mother who doesn't know how to make rice has something to tell us about love. The mother who kept her children alive, fed, happy, but who didn't learn to cook amazingly – this mother was enough. She doesn't know how to prepare her children's favorite dessert, but she provided a home. Food is not always home, but personal sacrifices and parents trying to get it right sure are.
While we all recognize the affection and care that a hot meal contains, the idea that food is a vehicle of unmistakable maternal love is questionable. Most of the time, cooking is an activity that women have to repeat daily for years, so they will master it sooner than other family and relationship dynamics. We'd like to think that food is a source of pleasure, that food means home because we always think of it nostalgically. Nostalgia is a prison. A very comfortable one, but still prison.
Inspired by Dianne Jacob's book Will Write for Food, I offered a 12-hour workshop called How to Write About Food. I gathered 80 people in two classes, that took place within two months. Of the total number of entries, 76 of them were women. Maybe half of them have kids – either pregnant, or with little toddlers, or even teenagers and young adults. Some of them appeared on camera with their babies on their laps.
This small sample of women, with or without children, were looking for very similar things. They wanted to work their feelings through food writing, perpetuate in words what food means for their families through generations, unfold in paragraphs the intangible and the abstract that involves cooking – the eternal and mistreated feelings, such as love, caring, and affection. They wanted to teach other people (read: women) to cook, to understand themselves through the culinary process, to feed their children healthily. They were writing to communicate with others. With other women.
Men, on the other hand, wanted to improve their technical skills when writing about restaurants.
When I crafted the content for the workshop, I thought this is what everyone wanted to learn. I'm a woman, but sometimes I feel like a middle-class white man may feel: free to think about my career, to decide what to do in my spare time, to investigate my desires. And I have my freezer stocked every one or two months by my mom.
My mom had turned 21 years old when I was born; she was a fierce pregnant girl. Her story tells us about how women can't let fear knock them down because they know the overwhelming loneliness that comes when you fall. She specializes in being determined, even when frightened because if you can choose between the social penalties aimed at women considered weak and at those considered inflexible, she prefers to be judged by the latter.
With that description, it almost looks like my mother is a sergeant. However, the stereotype that best fits her is the mother who loves to cook for her children. There would be Wednesdays when she has manioc and butter for lunch because she doesn't want to think about what to cook. However, a day before she and my father come to visit us, she will spend the day in the kitchen preparing meat casserole, pudding, portions of frozen béchamel (“it helps a lot”, she says), lasagna, chicken soup. Insomniac, she will try to sleep at 1 AM to hit the road less than six hours later. She will say, dramatically and comically, that she did all of this only for us, and that she hopes this is enough. A week later she will call to find out – using a serious voice – if there is any food left.
Women, in short, want to talk about food, not just cook. They want to take care of their children and talk about them. They sacrifice communication, often, to take care of the dishes, to organize the room. They give up the time they would have for themselves because, even tired, they feel greater pleasure in staying by the bedside to watch their children fall asleep. Women have been exhausted for centuries, but they go on, learning, repeating, and teaching. And succeeding, despite men.
I intended to write an article showing data and studies, but turns out I couldn't do it. I consider this space a sort of a kitchen, where I can experiment freely, without recipes. And I really needed to get this idea out of my brainy freezer. Are you served?
Some days before I finished this article, a (there is no other way to say it) shitshow happened. Marcius Melhem, accused of sexual harassment by eight women, blocked the piauí magazine from publishing a new report on the subject; a friend who denounced her abuser in 2019 and who is prohibited by the courts from even mentioning the case publicly has now had her bank account blocked; a stupid man drew a gun amid a group of protesting women who were shouting against domestic violence. There was more, of course, but there was also this photo:
This photo made me think again about the catharsis of tears I had a few weeks ago.
Hours before having that tearful epiphany during a yoga class, I quickly read the testimony of Afghan women about the Taliban taking over their government. I have been devoted little time to read the news, otherwise, I can't be a functioning adult. Friends mentioned people hanging from a plane, and I got sick imagining the scene.
This photo of Johanna Geron, however, gave me hope again, even though I know the world continues to be cruel to women – they won't forgive us for standing up to so much.
TO MY ENGLISH-SPEAKER READERS
I’m trying to write in English with the same complexity I do in my Portuguese articles, but the way we Brazilians narrate things is on a different structure. I simplify some of my sentences to make them more powerful in English and – fun fact! – the essay you just read was written half in Portuguese and half in English. Then I translated both parts and edited them thinking about how would sound better in each language. That was a nice exercise.
I feel I can sculpture complex and poetic things in Portuguese, adding nuance and details so easily as to mold clay, but sometimes I feel all the poetry being washed away when I translate to English. Also, I don't rely on every noun, verb, and adjective Google Translate shows me; I prefer to use the ones I know are more common – I want my text to sound natural and authorial in English, not odd and pedantic (do you Americans use this word? hahaha). Grammarly is helping a lot too. It's been such a hard rock to work on, this English one! But I'll get there.
I appreciate your replies to my two first articles! To see that you understood clearly what I wrote made me very happy. 😊
Thanks for reading this issue through! See you in October! 📆