Written by Natsuki Noguchi
“The Kitchen Crisis” is an article written in 1970 by Verta Mae Smart-Grosvenor, an American culinary anthropologist and griot; self-described as a “rap, that must be rapped aloud” [Grosvenor, 1970: 149], hence, there are no capital letters within sentences, is composed entirely with colloquial language, and is rich in punctuation marks. This short piece claims the historical discrimination hidden within people’s culinary cultures, specifically calling out how such “exotic” foodstuffs and recipes are re-discovered, claimed, and then overwritten by the white population. She also brings out the significance of food as a representation of culture, and how many seem to disregard the long processes performed behind the dishes. Although the theme of “gender” is not the main point discussed – as the focus is more on “culture” and “race” – it plays a prominent role in reflecting upon the traditional, cooking experiences Grosvenor had gathered through many fellow black women working in kitchens.
“… instant milk, instant coffee, instant tea, instant potatoes, instant old fashioned oatmeal, everything is prepared for the unprepared woman in the kitchen. … just goes to show you white folks will do anything for their women. they had to invent instant food because the servant problem got so bad that their women had to get into the kitchen herself with her two little lily white hands” [Grosvenor, 1970: 150]. Here is a quote of her ranting against instant goods, sarcastically depicting the difference in treatment between women of two races – white ladies were prioritised by the men, and their cooking jobs were made easier for them. Whereas, black women who were specifically and historically speaking, slaves and servants, were not, and were enforced to serve through the standard recipe. She then follows to mention how black cooks (regardless of gender) have been participating in the discoveries of many fine foods for centuries, however, are not referred to nor credited behind such culinary arts.
Although the mistreatment of black people leaves a stronger impression, it evidently shows how women are already “expected to be in the kitchen” – the white men strive in inventing easier cooking methods but are not illustrated here to volunteer to cook themselves. Furthermore, apart from the unrecognised black men who had contributed to the “whitewashed recipes,” there is no explained portrayal of any men cooking in this reading, not serving others nor themselves (unless the well-dressed man eating his “Instant Lunch Pills” is included). The stereotypes and hierarchies based on race and gender authority are evident and reflects upon the historical injustice of coloured female servants – how they are enforced to follow the traditional, stricter procedures yet their African narratives and traditional menus are unpreserved, in comparison to the white “discoveries” (such as Christopher “Chris” Columbus’s), that are prioritised and acknowledged as the pioneer instead.
One notable inclination of this text, however, is that this text focuses more on the racial identity of Grosvenor’s beliefs than her gender, as previously mentioned. Hence, references to gender specifically are very few. Even so, how the pair of traits is brought up entwined is very understandable, as it reinforces the perspective of double discrimination – there is gender bigotry on top of their racial one. Both are major elements in establishing an individual’s identity, and are often the reasons behind stereotypical hatred; discriminations against African-American women can consist of either elements or both.
Nevertheless, the validity and relevance of this short text are still non-dismissible today. Following the massive international attention received for cultural discrimination problems prevalent in the United States (e.g. the Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, an African-American killed by a Caucasian cop), social demand for racial and gender equality, and cultural respect for ethnic minorities is indeed a matter yet brought up. To either praise her progressive, intellectual beliefs from the past, or to lament the lack of advancement the US has made on this issue ever since is debatable; despite that, keeping in mind how “Society perpetually ignores the stories told by and about black women, resulting in a continuous need for projects of reclamation” [Psyche Williams-Forson, foreword from Vibration Cooking: 2009], nonetheless this successful “cookbook-lookalike” is a worthy story to regard. As Grosvenor states, “food is universal” [Grosvenor, 1970: 151], disregarding what you eat may mean to not just disrespect the food’s backgrounds, but the entire culture itself, as it ignores all efforts put in to invent and maintain the menu.
Even through food, someone’s story can be told.
- Reading: BW, The Kitchen Crisis, Verta Mae Smart-Grosvenor
- Sen, Mayukh. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor Is the Unsung Godmother of American Food Writing, VICE, 21 Feb. 2018, 2:20am, http://www.vice.com/en/article/evmbwj/vertamae-smart-grosvenor-vibration-cooking-profile.
This book review was originally written as an assignment for the course DCUL423: Gender in Global Context, offered by Dr. Haruna Miyagawa.
Image courtesy: The Los Angeles Times.