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Book Review: Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working class Mexican and Mexic

, Meredith Abarca notes that the kitchen, in the view of most feminist scholars, has been stereotypically constructed as a site of suppression and discrimination for many females throughout the world. However, though I empathize with the fact that many females are relegated to the “static” “place” of the kitchen (and all it’s negative and repressive cultural baggage), there are many of us- including myself- who have transformed our own sense of place, space, and above all, agency, within kitchens. It wasn’t until I read the first twenty pages of Abarca’s book, that I realized how negative the kitchen has been constructed by many people who consider themselves feminists and may have only truly had traumatizing experiences with both the kitchen and food. In the introduction to her book, From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, Avakian recalls how a a feminist scholar was annoyed that Avakian was one of many who have written yet “another book about women in the kitchen.”  The critic later admitted that she had had nothing but bad experiences with cooking and kitchens (Avakian and Haber 2005). Bad experiences or not, Abarca positions the importance of the kitchen and cooking within the lives of her family members and their friends- particularly her mother who “clearly understands the double-gender implications and limitations embedded in the patriarchal, capitalist, and Catholic world in which she had been raised” (Abarca 2006 4). To include this shows me that Abarca understands that gender, patriarchy, economic systems and religion make gender; “gender” does not come from a void. Feminist scholar Virginia Olesen reminds scholars that are doing feminist research that “failure to attend closely to how race, class, and gender are relationally constructed leaves feminists of color distanced from feminist agendas” (Olesen 2005, 236). Though I have had a problem with the trinity of race-class-gender feminist based analysis, it was refreshing to see that Abarca chose to emphasize religion and economic systems as integral to understanding her mother’s (and family) concept of gender. Furthermore, instead of focusing on “women as victim,” Abarca uses the space of the kitchen to convey that the women she is engaging in charlas with, have a certain amount of agency and power through the creative expression of cooking. This agency and power is found in the thirdspace of the kitchen. One of the most interesting statements Abarca writes is when she explains the decolonial methodologies she is using and why:

The kitchen and cooking as decolonizing methodologies create a type of thirdspace feminism where the activity of cooking yields forms of epistemologies that go beyond just knowing how to cook. ‘The maneuvering of paradigms,’ as Emma Pérez defines thirdspace feminism, is in the hands of those actually doing the cooking. (Abarca 2006, 6)

Her inclusion of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s decolonizing methodologies are quite challenging for most people who have been trained in the Western academy. I write this because she notes, throughout her research and charlas, she had to reflect on how she often took academic elitist approach to her family members and they often reminded her that she was being a little offensive or off-puting with her Western academy-trained style. Abarca also reflected on the limitations of the “tools of the Western academy,” such as the questionnaire she first designed for her mother. She writes that she used “proper academic discourse” and explained the academic definition of foodways to her mother, but needless to say, the very structure of the questionnaire limited what my mother could and would share. She would answer my questions with a simple yo no sé hablar’ (I don’t know how to say it)…the very structure of the interview led her to avoid answering my questions, which asked for specific events, dates, poeple’s names, and culinary methodological procedures using a discourse that she did not recognize (Abarca 2006, 7). Upon “failing” at “properly” interviewing her mother, Abarca speaks of how she had to go through conscientizacíon and learn to speak with and not to her mother. Scrapping the initial methods of questionnaires, Abarca decided to employ charlas as a methodology, a style that is vertical thinking and free flowing dialogues. Such dilemmas resonate with Diane L. Wolf’s book chapter, “Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork,” when she speaks of “ethics of research” and the issues of power. Feminists may raise more questions about the ethics of research because they often “are moved by commitments to women” rather than merely pursuing their “own careers and adding knowledge to the world”…These commitments create moral and ethical crises because of the inherent power hierarchies that perpetuate women of color of “Third World” women as “subject” in subordinate positions to “First World” feminist researches, most of whom are white. (Wolf 1996, 2)

What is different about Wolfe’s statement in terms of Abarca’s positionality, is that Abarca was born in Mexico and is a  Global South  woman who has been formally educated in the USA. Abarca’s reflections on her own personal experience expand on Wolf’s statement indicating the women from the Global South, formally educated in the Western academy, are not exempt from the need to decolonize their consciousness when they engage in research- even if it’s with their own family members from the Global South.

While reading Voices in the Kitchen, I was impressed on how much Abarca’s style, methodologies and passion resonated with my own interest in food, agency, females and place/space. I am reminded of how the kitchen can become a site of resistance for many of African diasporic females who are aware of the interlocking systems of power (race, class, gender,  that affect us as females of African descent.

Works Cited Abarca, Meredith E. Voices in the Kitchen : Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. 1st ed. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2006.

Avakian, Arlene Voski, and Barbara Haber. From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies : Critical Perspectives on Women and Food. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Olesen, Virginia. “Early Millennial Feminist Qualitative Research,” in Denzin and Lincoln     (eds), The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 3rd Ed. Thousand Oaks:     Sage,     2005.

Wolf, Diane L. “Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork” in Feminist Dilemmas in     Fieldwork. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

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