The Kitchen Has Always Been a Battleground

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#86this: Main Menu

By Ariel Knoebel

I love the instant camaraderie created among people working in a kitchen together, the ballet of bodies and hot plates, the negotiation of speed and style and knife skills. As a home cook, I’ve always peered into restaurant kitchens like a small child sneaking peeks at her heroes. The grit, the stamina, the trust in your team that it must take to power through hours of service, all for the sake of feeding others.

I never would have guessed, as a skinned-knee girl raised by a single mother knocking hard on the glass ceiling, that my favorite room in my home would be the kitchen. In my crowded city apartment, the pre-war charm of crown molding and subway tile ends at the entrance to my galley kitchen, where an awkward wall creates a steamy, crowded, too-hot workspace completely disconnected from the otherwise open layout. Despite the bowed confetti-patterned laminate countertop and the poor lighting, even with the crunched counter space and saucepans jostling for room on the shrunken stove, I feel most at home there.

Recently, we’ve all seen how easy it is for the safety of that space to be taken away.

The kitchen, as I know it, is a place to nurture others, share stories, and create community. It is a space to break down boundaries between people, not a space for the chef to simply make his own rules.

The kitchen is a place that I have always turned to in order to feel safe and in control, but recent reports bringing to light the open secret of sexual violence in the food industry have left me feeling unsure of where to go from here.

Architects began incorporating kitchens into the design of the home in the 1920s and ‘30s. This was a huge change from the dim, disorderly kitchens built for the drudgery of servants, usually hidden away in the basement or far corner of the house. These were designed for efficiency; they were created to enhance the quality of life and minimize labor for the modern housewife, a newly emerging role in post-industrial Europe and America. As the 20th century progressed through the rise and fall of the home economics movement, the second World War, and women’s liberation, the role of the kitchen in women’s lives evolved and grew ever more complicated.

A kitchen can be a prison or a place of power. The professional kitchen differs so greatly from the kitchen spaces I’ve always known, where cooking and eating food together allows women a chance to connect with each other and gain control in a world that fights to control them. It’s a place we can discover and examine our hungers, our bodies, our souls; the basal things that make us human. The public kitchen space has been used—alongside food in general—to limit women’s bodies, criticize our worth, question our place in society, and tear us down. The professional kitchen still feels a lot like those old basement kitchens, hiding the scarred hands and burnt forearms of the people making the food from the people with white-napkined laps at the dinner table. Walls of steam and stacks of plates separate class, gender, and race, but I think food can bring us back together.

I have a friend in North Carolina, and she is a brilliant baker. She builds wedding cakes for friends, stacking sponge and piping flowers into edible art. She bakes bread for church every Sunday. She used to set her alarm for 3 a.m. and walk into her restaurant’s kitchen in pre-dawn light to set bread rising and pastries to bake. After being threatened for reporting sexual harassment she witnessed on the line, she says, “I walked out of the kitchen and haven’t gone back into a restaurant kitchen since.” She bakes from home now, where she doesn’t hear calls of “in your behind” as cooks pass her station.

Nicole, a chef in West Palm Beach, Florida, has always been the only woman in her kitchens. Even when she is in charge, “there is constant chatter” on the line. She says, “You’re constantly surrounded by men commenting on the servers, talking about what they want to do to to them, making comments to you. They refer to me as sweetheart, cutie, baby, every pet name you can think of.” She has seen sexual harassment in every kitchen she’s been a part of in her seven-year career.

The boys’ club dynamic of these spaces means nothing is taboo, and she is cast as the crazy girl who can’t handle the heat if she ever tries to speak up. She weathers the burn of harsh words in order to stay in the kitchen, the only place she wants to work.

There are women who don’t feel threatened, don’t get bothered by harsh language, heavy petting, or near constant sexualization. There are women who care more that their opinion is worth less, their palates untrusted, their butchering skills untested because of their gender, or color, or presentation of self. “Nothing you ever do is going to make you seem as good as the men you’re working with,” says Nicole.

Ariana, who is now pursuing a master’s in food studies, quit her marketing position at a growing restaurant chain in New England after spending a few weeks training on the line. “I felt really ignored, deliberately excluded,” she says. She feels lucky enough not to have encountered physical or verbal harassment on the job, but walked away from the kitchen because there seemed to be a tone-deafness to the entire organization, a refusal to acknowledge what any customer could plainly see in the open kitchen: primarily white women took the orders, and primarily men of color cooked the food.

As I am watching formerly great men fall on swords of their own creation, I can’t help but see this “post-Weinstein” era as a reckoning. It is our chance, as women, to wrestle with old demons and reclaim once and for all the space that’s always been ours. The kitchen has always been a battleground, this is simply our present battle.

I will never understand how people can devote their lives to setting their table for others to enjoy, but spend their days harassing the people who help fill it with food to share. Whether saving someone on the line during a busy night of service or welcoming friends into your home with a hot meal, the work of cooking should bring people together because a shared meal is one of life's most powerful problem solvers. No matter what differences divide us; when we are consuming the same thing, in some small way, we are becoming more alike in that moment.

Every day, as I shimmy around my saucepans and shuffle aside to open my oven door completely, I dream about tearing down the wall closing off my kitchen. What a difference it would make to open up this space to others, to bring them in to where I feel most at home. It is time for a revival of hospitality; the word is so often used in restaurants, but not always practiced. Hospitality calls for a generous reception of visitors and strangers. It means warmly welcoming everyone as they walk through the door, and clearing a space at the table. It means breaking bread and toasting to good health for all. It means tearing down the walls of secrecy around sexual violence in kitchens so that this shit can’t happen anymore. Invite everybody into the space, and ensure they feel safe to stay there. We must, first and foremost, listen to each other. Feed our souls with stories, bitter and sweet, to take with us on our way out the door. The kitchen, at its core, is a space to bring people together, experience different narratives, and walk away better nourished, more whole than before.

 

Ariel Knoebel is a Boston-based writer interested in food as a community builder, gender in the kitchen, and the never-ending quest for the perfect grilled cheese. She writes about her life in food at sipandspoonful.com and records her adventures on Instagram at @sipandspoonful.

 

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