Mothers' Day and the Queer Kitchen

One of the few times I've been back to Kentucky in the last zillion years, my mother offered to make lunch if I came over. The menu turned out to be frozen pizza and brownies made from a mix, and for that I was truly grateful. The woman's a rotten cook. Mostly because she hates to. And why not? It's a helluva lotta work and absolutely poisonous in social terms.

You have to wonder why the kitchen was ever women's place at all. It's dangerous and a little brutal. You could even say it's butch. You hack at things with sharpened knives, heave around enormous pots of boiling liquids. I worked as a prep cook one summer during college, and scalded the crap out of myself when the 40-pound pot I was lifting spilled over just a little and the hot water landed on my belly. When I tried to pull my pants away, half the skin came, too. That same summer, a girl I knew lost her eyebrows lighting a stove and was lucky to keep her eyes.

Still, I got pleasure out of learning the craft. Not to mention getting the paycheck. But I'm puzzled by people who idealize any part of cooking, especially the “traditional” kind. Whenever I read about yuppie chicks starting to make their own jam and pickles, I imagine my grandmother or great-grandmother trapped in a kitchen in the middle of August with mounds of fruits and vegetables all around her and no air conditioning in sight. It must've been like a stint in hell. But if she didn't do it, her whole family would starve. And if she screwed up, didn't boil those jars long enough, she'd poison them all by spring. If you want to get back to your roots, what you really need is a little heat stroke or botulism.

Women didn't need feminism's encouragement to flee the kitchen. On the contrary, idealized femininity demanded it of them. White women who could afford it already had black and brown women getting their surrogate hands dirty. That's tradition, too. And part of why my mother embraced middle-class magazine food when she finally left her secretarial job and got married.

It was not only quick, but arranged things so she wouldn't have to break a nail, or even a sweat. It was a sign she'd succeeded, lifted herself out of her working class origins, turned her back on parents who had been factory workers once they left failing farms. They spoke with seriously embarrassing twangs. Said warter instead of water. Warshed their clothes. Yeah, a lot of cans were opened in my house. A lot of tuna and hamburger was helped. Though once a week, when my dad was home from his job on the road, she would roast something. A chicken. A hunk of beef.

On Thanksgiving, too, while she conceded to tradition and made the turkey, the stuffing still came out of a cellophane bag and the pièce de résistance was the casserole of green beans slathered in canned cream of mushroom soup, topped with canned French's onions. It was chic and convenient, with French right there in the title. There were also “salads” consisting largely of Jell-O, canned fruit, and frozen whipped “cream.” Half the meal needed quotes.

I think about her sometimes when I'm making dinner. What an irony it's her dyke daughter who ended up back in the kitchen, cooking from scratch. Though I'm not the only one. In my East Village neighborhood overpopulated with restaurants, when you see gaggles of people in checked pants and white aprons sneaking a quick smoke, there is usually a tattooed dyke among them. I've never seen any girls as prissy as the ones featured on cooking shows. No buxom motherly types. No sex pots. Just wiry white girls who like the pace and the competition.

I was startled to discover my Cuban girlfriend's mom cooks no better than mine. Before blood pressure issues put her on a low-sodium diet, her favorite meal was pretty much anything from the Chinese take-out down the block. She was a grade school teacher. Her husband an accountant. A teenaged girl fresh from the countryside would do most of the cooking.

When Faustina finally approached the kitchen, it had been transformed, not by revolution or scarcity, but by Nitza Villapol whose cookbook, “Cocina Criolla” (“Creole Kitchen”), was aimed at the modern cook in the modern kitchen. It had a few recipes for the traditional dishes like picadillo, arroz con pollo, and beans sped up in a pressure cooker. But it also had Waldorf Salad, the same disgusting concoction of apples and walnuts and mayonnaise that my mother used to make when she bowed to tradition and entered the room she hated.