Discover more from From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
Of Recipes & Resistance
Thinking through the question of "what is a leftist recipe?"
A light-hearted TikTok about something called “girl dinner” became a subject of discourse over the last couple of weeks. The originator of this seemingly simple idea posted about eating an array of snacks in lieu of preparing a full dinner because her male partner wasn’t around. Thus, she was able to graze rather than commit to the work of a full meal. The recognizability of this to me was groan-inducing, though my own version would be that I graze in order to keep working and it’s ultimately probably more healthy that I stop to make a proper meal. My girl meals have more to do with being a writer than being married.
The phrase “girl dinner” has the same nervous tenor (and corny echo) as referring to the Sisyphean tasks of life upkeep as “adulting.” At the end of the day, it was a TikTok, and my perspective on that app is that it has its own internal logic. Dragging its memes into the bright sunlight of mainstream media requires discernment.
Yet it got at some kind of truth: Why is the bulk of domestic labor still split unevenly in partnerships, often by gender lines? Why don’t we tell our partners to fuck off more, because we just wanna eat a tray of olives and pickles and potato chips? Wouldn’t our partners join us in snack dinners? I certainly have evidence that mine will—though, for sure, his palate leans less briny than mine. (Is “girl dinner” just about men not liking olives as much as women do? Is the gender binary of it all making you a bit queasy too?)
At the same time that we’ve been considering why women prefer snacking, I’ve been perplexed by ideas making the rounds about Barbie’s feminist stature. I had the dolls as a kid—and my favorite GameBoy game was this 1991 Barbie one, and it remains the only video game I’ve ever won—but I never saw her as a paragon of girl power. It’s been posited that what has made her such was that she never got married, had kids, or indeed even had a kitchen in the Dream House. This latter note is the most telling to me, of course: no unpaid social reproduction labor for Barbie. Luckily, as a doll, she wouldn’t have had to eat. Humans aren’t so lucky.
All this discourse was the background to my research on the makings of a leftist recipe, and somehow it dovetailed in nicely. That’s because regardless of the overarching national conditions, most questions about the political nature of cooking and recipes come down to what women should be doing, are doing, or would like to do when it comes to their labor—both out of the home and within it: Do they open a feminist restaurant or coffeehouse? Do they share jams, in what has been termed “the economy of jars”? Do they serve their family industrially produced food after their shift at the factory? Do they provide vegan chili and cornbread for the band coming through the punk house? Do they feed their many babies breastmilk, produced through feeding themselves only locally produced ingredients? Do they cook to feed protestors or soldiers? Do they cultivate and maintain the black market connections necessary to ensure access to specific ingredients?
The peak of liberation for women has long been the idea that we will be free from domestic labor, specifically the tyranny of the kitchen—but then who is doing it? What if we enjoy it, or aspects of it? What is the role of cultural food traditions and pleasure in a liberated world?
Just as the right to bear or not bear a child is politically determined, the right to refuse or take on domestic labor tends to be governed if not by overt politics, then by economics (do you have to go to work? can you afford to outsource the work? how much is that person getting paid?) and patriarchal cultural norms we just can’t seem to shake away. As I’ve been reading and talking about what makes a leftist recipe, I keep coming back to this point. And I think what would make a leftist recipe, a revolutionary recipe, would be—first and foremost—the creation of conditions where a person’s gender doesn’t explicitly or implicitly undergird their relationship to food and its cooking.
It’s not new, any of this, and it becomes quite obvious—infuriatingly obvious!—when you try to dig into what food and eating have looked like in the last 150 years or so under different types of capitalism and socialism and, on smaller scales, anarchism: the gender shit doesn’t get solved just by saying you’d like it solved. Over and over, domestic labor is women’s work, and it is unpaid and undervalued. As Claudia von Werlhof wrote in 1984, “If we have understood housework, then we have understood the economy.”
I’ve been considering this question, “Is there such a thing as a leftist recipe?” because I’ve been considering it for as long as I’ve been taking food seriously. I was convinced, 12 years ago when I stopped eating meat, that it was a wildly reasonable action to take against various exploitations—planet, worker, animal. It was—and is, I still believe—the least I can do on a daily basis to say that these exploitations won’t be done for the sake of my sustenance. I was convinced—a conviction that was very U.S. of me and not rooted at all in history or even contemporary global politics—that not eating meat was always a radical choice in favor of social justice and progression toward an equitable future. I’ve been disabused of this notion over time, again and again, in favor of having to acknowledge that my politics and the politics of others who share my beliefs around food do not always align. It’s a lesson and an exercise in the kind of difficult conversation that is required of coalition-building: Can you talk to people who eat differently but believe in the world you want to build? Can you talk to people who eat the same but believe differently?
The question has been on my mind as of late, inspiring this whole series on the phrase “food is political,” because it was asked by Dr. Anny Gaul to our dinner table in Bloomington, Indiana, in late April, after the “Stealing Recipes?” symposium. When I got on Zoom with her recently to discuss the question further, she told me that it was originally posed to her by Mezna Qato in a 2018 workshop at the University of Cambridge called “Towards an Arab Left Reader: Key Documents in Translation and Context.”
“The document that I brought to that workshop was a piece of feminist writing,” Gaul tells me. “I couldn't find something that was explicitly a recipe, even though I work on food history. But I brought something that I thought was fairly close or the closest I could find, which was from a feminist journal in the ’70s in Morocco. Part of it was women basically rejecting their confinement to the home and rejecting norms that had characterized a lot of the feminist involvement in the Moroccan independence movement as still based on separate spheres and the idea that women were important to the nation and important to the resistance, but through enacting these domestic, maternal, nurturing acts.”
For some, acts of care have been acts of resistance: M.E. O’Brien, in the new book Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care, calls domestic acts brought to the front lines of rebellion “insurgent social reproduction.” O’Brien writes about women of the Oaxaca Commune, who “rebelled against a system of private households, male-dominated kinship arrangements, and a gendered division of labor. All these are dimensions of the family form that characterize most people’s lives under racial capitalism.” Her vision around food includes “replacing private family kitchens or takeout from local restaurants, people may gather around protest kitchens, canteens and group meals.”
But what would be cooked in the protest kitchens and canteens? What would be served at group meals? How could cooking and care stop being wrapped up in notions of maternal acts and nurture, without sliding into becoming an act of transaction or mastery, as in the case of a restaurant? What do we want cooking to be and mean, essentially, if we can start from scratch? And what is the role of the recipe in providing a foundation for how that would look and taste?
Gaul provides more important tools for thinking through this, for figuring out how recipes as a form can enact political goals, saying, “There are two ways to answer the question of, is there such a thing as a leftist recipe? What does it look like? One of them—apologies for sounding academic—it’s, what do we mean by leftist? and what do we mean by a recipe? And so basically I've decided, if you start with, what does leftist mean? You can generate some concrete examples, like the example of a resistance cell or revolutionary conditions. And then if you talk about, what do we mean by recipe? Then maybe we can actually perhaps move beyond this question of context and think about the recipe as form.”
Moving beyond context was the thing I’ve been wondering how to do as I’ve been exploring the question of what it means to say “food is political,” and Gaul provided some ways of thinking this through: Are the ingredients on a boycott list? Who owns the land and means of production and processing? Are workers striking? What kind of knowledge is being presented in a recipe, and for whose benefit? Whose knowledge has been credited? And, of course, who is doing the culinary labor, which so often includes the mental load of knowing what ingredients are available in the pantry and where all the pans are kept?
A recipe can’t create new political conditions but it is why it’s so important to me to write recipes for the world I hope to see, encouraging at the very least use of fair-trade chocolate and sugar, seasonal ingredients, and not including animal products. Many other recipe writers do, as well, and while I had lost a bit of hope in their power, I’m reinvigorated in believing that they can provide the basis for how to imagine a new world. My own recipes are the practice part of the essays I write about the food system, enacting a philosophy of simplicity that nonetheless yields abundance. Or that’s my hope.
I’ve done so much more reading and thinking that this will need a second part, to talk explicitly about how women’s domestic labor has looked under capitalism, fascism, and socialism.
For the prior entries in this series, see:
“What Could ‘Food Is Political’ Mean?”
“Foundations of Food Politics”
“On U.S. Cuisine”
“On Mixing the Personal and Political in Food Writing”
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be the From the Kitchen Essential #2, about my favorite spatulas—a defense of my many spatulas! See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers. $30 per year.
My small capsule jewelry collection with By Ren, whose designs are handmade to order in Philadelphia, is live through the end of 2023. I wear the peas in a pod ring daily and the perla choker to go out.
Backslash asked me to write the foreword to their report, “The Future of Food.” I focused on the necessity of people with disparate views having better, deeper conversations and working together—with historically marginalized folks always in the front, leading those conversations. I’m historically quite bad at talking to folks I disagree with about food issues—it was a learning exercise for me!
I’ve honestly been such a bundle of anxiety because of the imminent book release, plus overwhelmed by doing a lot of interviews for it (a good thing!) on top of trying to keep work going. I was a bit out of my mind thinking I could keep working at my normal rate while preparing for its release, but I was also steeling myself for having no interviews and wanting to stay busy instead of be sad. Honestly, it’s the best-case scenario that I’m exhausted and a sack of nerves!
Unfortunately, this means I’ve not been reading much that isn’t related to the labor at hand: a reading list for the politics of women’s food work, coming next week.
See last Friday’s From the Kitchen: Hot Weather Cooking.