By Caroline Gonzalez
Feature photo by joymz
A few years ago I read Rosario Castellanos’ short story “Cooking Lesson” for the first time. What most struck a chord with me was the newlywed narrator’s troublesome inner-dialogue during her first, and perhaps even last, experience cooking dinner for her husband. As an educated, liberal woman, the narrator struggles in unfamiliar territory — her new kitchen — to understand the foreign language of the alien cookbook at her hands. In between dejected flashbacks and recollections of the less-than-enthralling consummation of her marriage and her sad attempt at cooking, she attempts to create meaning out of her unwelcome role as a housewife.
“My place is here. From the beginning of time it has been here.…I wandered lost in classrooms, in streets, in offices, in cafes; wasting my time in skills that I now need to forget in order to acquire others,” she thinks, understanding her place in the kitchen to be binary, a role in which she must either surrender her strength and intelligence or be chastised by her inability to fulfill her duties. Her scattered thoughts and stabs at a solution are woven throughout the story, but her inner-battle between preconceived notions of gender norms and feminist ideals fails to come to a resolution.
Growing up, I, too, understood cooking as something that would one day be expected of me as a Mexican woman; it would one day be my obligation as a wife and mother. This idea was most notably inculcated into me when I was nineteen and my old school abuelo warned me to start preparing for marriage, even though I was single. His gray eyes, a stark contrast to the darkness of mine, fixated on me and, in his characteristic deep voice, the following instructions fell like a ton of bricks out of his mouth: “Tienes que aprender a cocinar, a lavar los trastes, a planchar porque pronto te vas a casar.” Afterall, these are the things all “good” Mexican wives know how to do, no? And if I were to become a good Mexican wife, I needed to learn to cook the dishes that my mother dutifully cooks with grace. I needed to learn how to maneuver myself in the kitchen with the prowess of a María Félix-esque screen siren and the love and patience of la virgen, to cook, as la Santa Sandra Cisneros might say, the only way a Mexican woman knows how.
For centuries, this machista mentality has banished women to the kitchen and led to a protest and rebellion against such obligations. Several of my Latina friends, feminists much like me, refuse to cook or serve their boyfriends, fiancés or husbands. There were many times when I, too, felt that same streak of rebellion. Now, however, I know there to be a vast difference between obligation and conscious choice. I see a feminist act not in the refusal to cook, but rather in the act of choosing to cook, highlighting the difference between obligation and freedom of choice.
I understand cooking to be a pleasurable and rewarding experience in which a woman can express herself artistically. To cook is not a renunciation of intellect, strength, or individualism, as the narrator in Castellanos’ story thought. Rather, cooking is a gateway through which a cook can provide nourishment and delight to others by way of stomach, heart and senses. The enjoyment one takes both in cooking and in eating what has been cooked negates all history of it once being a female expectation. And the very moment we make the conscious decision to cook for happiness, cooking becomes an act of rebellion and liberation.
There is a profound satisfaction to be found in cooking and eating the product of your hands’ and heart’s labor that need not be denied in the name of feminism. Feminism does not require us to assent nor to stop participating in that which brings us joy simply because our society may or may not require it of us. Our foremothers have not fought solely for our right to deny men a meal; they have fought so that we may take our rightful place in society as individuals capable of making our own decisions.
No longer should woman have to view cooking for our loved ones as a sacrifice or a demeaning surrender of mind and spirit. Unlike Castellanos, I have reached a resolution that recognizes cooking to be a reaffirmation of feminist beliefs.