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When the kitchen feels oppressive even to women who love cooking

In the current “foodie” culture, we can’t avoid thorny questions about labour in the kitchen

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
Updated: February 7, 2021 7:48:44 am
cooking, kitchen, Indian kitchen, women in kitchen, cooking as a passion, cooking as necessity, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsDo women who find expression through cooking genuinely love it or did they choose it by default, because other avenues of self-expression were closed to them?

For the first month after she got married, Vernika Awal, 28, hated the idea of entering the kitchen. This was a new sensation for someone who had, until then, always thought of the kitchen as a space in which she could unwind and find a creative outlet. “Cooking would centre me because I never thought of it as a place where I had to be, but a place where I choose to be,” says the Noida-based food writer. She owes that mindset to her parents who were both equally at ease in the kitchen. “They never taught me that the kitchen is a woman’s domain.”

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This was in sharp contrast to how her husband was brought up, who had never been taught the basics of cooking. “When I got married, I felt this pressure from my mother-in-law that the kitchen was my responsibility alone. So, initially, I was repulsed by this space that I had always loved,” she recalls.

The question that bothered Awal — why should I, the woman, have to bear sole responsibility for the kitchen — is what animates the recent Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen, which released last month. The “kitchen” in the film is shorthand for the domestic space which, according to one character, is the arena in which a woman performs her most important duties. The film, directed by Jeo Baby, is a sharp criticism of the patriarchal attitude which, while valuing women only as long as they confine themselves to the home and hearth, refuses to appreciate or even acknowledge the actual labour that they perform. “This is how it’s done in this family,” the father-in-law tells the new bride, as she is forced to cook rice in a pot instead of a pressure cooker, and make fresh coconut chammanthi (chutney) every day using an ammikallu (silbatta or stone hand grinder). Through the repetitive depiction of domestic drudgery — cleaning, chopping, cooking — The Great Indian Kitchen, gives a uniquely Indian perspective on “the problem that has no name”, which was first articulated by Betty Friedan in her electrifying 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique. More subtly, it investigates the very thin line that separates externally-imposed duty and internally-motivated choice, particularly in activities that have historically always been gendered — such as domestic cooking.

cooking, kitchen, Indian kitchen, women in kitchen, cooking as a passion, cooking as necessity, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Vernika Awal

In the current “foodie” culture, with its thriving network of home chefs, photographers, writers and bloggers — many of whom are women — such an investigation can open the door to some thorny questions. Do women who find expression through cooking genuinely love it or did they choose it by default, because other avenues of self-expression were closed to them? Does it really matter how they arrived at cooking as long as they feel happy doing it? How does a modern woman, who just happens to enjoy cooking, avoid the trap of obligation in order to continue enjoying it? Is it even possible to do so, when domestic cooking remains as gendered as ever?

Mumbai-based food entrepreneur Rhea Mitra Dalal, who runs the popular Parsi catering service Katy’s Kitchen along with husband Kurush Dalal, says that domestic cooking needs to first be identified as a skill. “I think this became very clear during the lockdown, when there was a huge demand for food cooked by home chefs. A majority of these home chefs are women who have always cooked for their families, but thanklessly. Then suddenly, the earning members of the family, mostly men, started getting laid off or facing pay cuts and these women, with their skills in the kitchen, started making money,” she says.

The lockdown also had the effect of making all the work that goes into cooking visible. “There’s more to cooking than just chopping and putting food in a bartan (utensil). It also involves cleaning up, figuring out what to do with leftovers, always remembering what is there in the fridge. There’s a lot of data that women are always carrying in their heads,” says Dalal, 49. This “data” is part of the “mental load” of the household, which typically falls on women, and which was memorably depicted in the 2017 viral web comic Fallait Demander (You Should’ve Asked) by French comic artist Emma. The Great Indian Kitchen captures this failure to account for all the work that goes into cooking in one memorable sequence, in which a man announces that the women can take the night off because he is going to cook an elaborate meal. To him, that means leaving the women to deal with the resulting messy counter, dirty dishes and overflowing sink.

cooking, kitchen, Indian kitchen, women in kitchen, cooking as a passion, cooking as necessity, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Rhea Mitra Dalal

“Once you take everyday cooking out of the context of the heterosexual, patriarchal household, you will see that while it is labour, it is also a craft,” says Chris Mary Kurian, a Sonipat-based home cook and caterer. Kurian points to the opening shots of The Great Indian Kitchen to explain why context is crucial. “In the beginning, you have shots of her (Nimisha Sajayan) dancing, juxtaposed with beautiful shots of food being cooked. These (cooking and dancing) are both very sensual, pleasurable activities and they both involve creativity. In the film, her labour in the kitchen is owned by the patriarchal family. But when she dances, it is for herself and she enjoys its creative aspect and gains financial independence through it. Of course, unlike dance, cooking, is necessary, everyday labour. And who does the kind of necessary  everyday labour, which takes time away from cerebral activities? It’s either the women or Bahujans.” The villain in this scenario, as Kurian, 44, points out, is patriarchy itself. “Many urban women’s financial independence and time for creative work hinges on the housework being done by someone else, usually domestic help, from low caste locations who don’t have the option of not doing that work.” In the film, for example, the domestic help says that she can’t afford to take even a day off from work, because that would mean losing one day’s pay.

cooking, kitchen, Indian kitchen, women in kitchen, cooking as a passion, cooking as necessity, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Chris Mary Kurian

The dichotomy between cooking as a passion and cooking as necessary domestic labour is also at the heart of the decades-long feminist frustration that professional restaurant cooking, which comes with a lot of money and prestige, remains a male bastion. Men, apparently, are chefs (who have subordinates to do the prep work and clean up), while women are cooks. Kurian points to the upper and middle-class discomfort with labour within the home which is perceived as being less important than labour outside it. In our society, women, too, fail to accord dignity to domestic labour. She says, “Even in liberal circles, while things have changed from a decade ago, there continues to be judgement around educated women who are very invested in the kitchen or housework. When I was in my 20s, it was not easy to talk about how much I enjoyed cooking. The need for middle class women at that time was to break out of the kitchen and leave home. One of my own battles was to reconcile these ideas — being feminist with my love for the kitchen. Are we ‘someone’ only when we get out of the home and run on the treadmill of the capitalist system where there is little room for creativity, respect or equal pay for equal work, not to mention abusive bosses? My idea of liberation is to have the space to think, to own my time and decide what to do with it in a way that does not compromise my financial independence. How many working women have that? Easy equations conflating housework with slavery and working outside the home with emancipation are no longer tenable. What we need to talk of is space for ourselves with financial independence.”

Awal says she tackled the transformation of cooking from a choice to an obligation by finally teaching her husband to cook. “I told him that as much as I enjoy cooking, it’s not something I can do all the time. When I’m unable to cook, because I’m sick or something, he couldn’t tell me that we’ll eat from outside. He would have to be able to cook as well. So I made the space available to him, telling him that it’s ours, and not just mine,” she says.

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