With my beloved far away in rural Texas, I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions, a delightfully written memoir of food and family in the South. It makes me wish even more I was there with her.
West’s personal observations about gender in the kitchens of her Tennessee childhood illustrate how much has changed in our expectations around food and yet how much is still the same. This is so not just in West’s small corner of the world, but in places I know more intimately.
In the second chapter, West muses on the place of frying in the Southern kitchen and, more significantly, on the place of cooking in feminine self-assessments of role and worth.
The power of food is daunting to ponder. Cooks of any region are bearers of a culture and a tradition; they are oral historians, not to mention sustainers of humanity. When it came to kitchens, my Mimi believed that larger issues were at risk; if a woman didn’t fry, then perhaps she was failing in some crucial way. This made an impression on my tender brain. If I failed as a chicken fryer, then I might fail as a wife and a mother. I might end up alone, rebuffed, unloved.
In chapter three West picks up on the theme, observing the roles played not only in the kitchen but in the adjoining dining room where the food is consumed. She describes the Sunday gatherings of the extended clan, men, women and children congregated separately: the children ‘corralled in the kitchen,’ the men seated at the dining room table and the women moving from kitchen to table and back again as male needs dictate.
Seated in the kitchen with the other children, West remembers:
We all looked up when one of the aunts came through the door, carrying the ham on a blue willow platter. She set it before Great-Uncle Charlie, Estelle’s firstborn son. Carving was an inheritance, passed from father to son, from brother to brother. Women, including Estelle herself, were excluded from this ritual, as if we couldn’t be trusted with knives—at least not outside the kitchen.
The male role was to pay appropriate compliments, flirtatiously perhaps. The female role was to serve, one embraced with great seriousness:
In the days before microwave ovens and antidepressants, it was a challenge to serve a hot meal, much less a feast, but these women were specialists. And they had a mission. It was imperative that the men be fed, as if more was at stake than the filling of stomachs, the soothing of appetites, the quenching of all thirsts. As soon as the last amen was uttered, the men began passing bowls, ignoring the ladies, who glided around the table, anticipating needs before they were felt.
Lee observes without comment or postscript the constant movement of the women, their care of both children and men, and the disdain of the older cousins who watched on from the kitchen table.
‘Look at them in their aprons,’ said Cousin Jeannie, eyeing the aunts. ‘Just like Harriet Nelson.’ ‘And June Cleaver,’ said Nena Grace. Jeannie shuddered. From the dining room, one of the fellows called out, ‘We need some more butter here!’ A second later one of the aunts ran into the kitchen, her head disappearing into the icebox. She sped back to the dining room and was greeted by shouts: ‘Over here, sugar. That’s my good girl.’ ‘Am I going to be like this?’ Jeannie’s eyes blinked open wide. ‘Good girl? Is that the same as good dog?’ That cousin now lives an exotic life, designing intricate jewelry that she carries from Las Vegas to Paris to Greece to Hong Kong. She speaks fluent French. And she changed her name from Jeannie to Beverly.