On Belonging in the Kitchen

Someone recently told me that I belong in the kitchen.

This saying – “you belong in the kitchen” – is now used in one of two ways:

1. Seriously: Women are lesser than men, and thus they “belong in the kitchen.”
2. Jokingly: LOL. Women and men are obviously equal, so neither “belong in the kitchen” but it’s kind of funny to mock misogyny.

(I was jokingly told that I “belong in the kitchen”).

Even when women come out on top/equal, this saying doesn’t regard kitchens very highly. So now I’m wondering why it is demeaning to tell someone that they “belong in the kitchen.” What’s so bad about kitchens?

For the vast majority of human history, people have been extremely occupied with their food, spending hours gathering, preserving, and preparing it. Cultures (a term derived from “agriculture”) began to develop only after humans figured out how to plant and irrigate food, and societies were built around rich soil. We measure history by looking at old dishware and mark human achievements around food-related technologies. But at some point very recently, it became really easy to procure, store, and prepare food. I guess when that happened, our society started to think of the activities related to food as simple and even demeaning. It was work given to people who couldn’t be responsible for stuff outside of the home and kitchen (minorities, mostly, but that’s another issue altogether). That’s probably when “belonging in the kitchen” became a derogatory concept.

But before there was Wall Street or the White House, there were kitchens. And in order for there to be a Wall Street or a White House, people need to eat.

In his massive text A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander calls for a more dignified view of cooking and the kitchen, and suggests an architectural model that reflects this. He says that

The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered as an efficient but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants; and from the more recent days when women willingly took over the servants’ role…(but historically) even when cooking was entirely in the hands of women, the work of cooking was still thought of as a primal, communal function; and the “hearth,” the place where food was made and eaten, was the heart of family life. (662)

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Christopher Alexander’s blueprint for the ideal kitchen, which includes “a comfortable old chair in the corner where someone could sleep.”

He goes on to suggest that architects use not the contemporary open-floor plan, which opens the kitchen to the living space, but the old-school farmhouse floor plan, where the kitchen is the living space. (He even includes a little hand drawn diagram of what this looks like).

The point of this design and the mentality behind it is to acknowledge that cooking is as exceptionally human as eating, and as such it should be incorporated into the rhythm of daily life. Even if we can’t redesign our kitchens, we can change our attitudes toward them, first and foremost by banishing all use of the degrading or jokingly degrading phrase “you belong in the kitchen.”

Our society is starting to think more about our food – where it comes from and what it’s made of. This is a really good thing because hopefully it means that we’ll start having fewer heart attacks. It’s also good because even though it’s still really easy to obtain food, we’re becoming more conscious of the process that leads up to it entering our bellies. At some point, I suspect that we’ll subconsciously begin to see the kitchen not as a chamber for the least of these, but as the essential part of the household and society that it always has been. Someday, I hope an old person jokingly tells my future child that she belongs in the kitchen, and I hope that she’s extremely confused by the saying.

And by the way, I do belong in the kitchen. Two or three times a day. I am a woman and a productive member of society, and in order for me to be both of these things (or anything else), I need to eat.

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2 Comments

  1. Interestingly, in the village I grew up in Russia, the kitchen was a part of the common room. That is to say, the kitchen didn’t exist, per se. Food was mixed up and rolled out next to the stove (usually on the ground) on one side of the room, while everyone else lounged around or sat at a low table. Hadn’t thought about how cool that system was though. American kitchens definitely do have a “servants quarters” feel to them.

    Reply

    1. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the kitchen model that Alexander talks about actually used in an American home. I think the immensely popular open floor plan is a huge step in the right direction, but it would definitely be cool to see how a joint kitchen-common area looks and functions as well.

      Reply

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