My Mother’s Cooking: Balancing Self-Expression and Tradition

BY SONIA MITTAL

My mom cooks for our family. This is a basic fact about my household that I had never thought to question. I always expected to come home to the smells of chili, garlic and spices mingling in the air, the sounds of a pressure cooker whistling or a pot on the stove bubbling, and the sight of my mom trying to find new ways to beautifully present dishes on a platter. Recently, however, I began thinking about the gendered and cultural implications of such a decision. My mom grew up in Meerut, India, a small town outside of Delhi, where she was constantly surrounded by people stating that being able to cook was crucial in making a woman more marriageable. Yet, my grandmother never upheld these same sentiments, leading my mom to take up cooking as an art form that allowed for creative independence. Coming to America after her marriage to my dad, my mom found comfort in taking on the cooking role in the family. However, while she was serving others, she was able to find for herself a satisfaction and sense of empowerment that is not traditionally present within the Indian housewife. Through her roles as a daughter, wife, and mother, my mom has been able to find a balance between fulfilling long-established Indian customs while resisting against the stereotypical associations of an Indian woman in the kitchen.

In many parts of the United States, similarly to places all around the world, people assume that cooking is an essential and even “natural” part of women’s domestic duties.[1] However, Jessamyn Neuhaus articulates that it was the end of World War II and the emergence of new technology in the kitchen that began to blur the distinctions between male and female spheres within the workplace.[2] In the late 1900s, societies all around the world tried to reassert the “tradition” that originally bound women to the kitchen.[3] While Neuhaus highlights that many people confidently believe that men and women are different when it comes to their relationship to cooking, my grandmother never upheld these same sentiments.[4] My mom herself recalled that, “My friends used to talk about how their mothers constantly mentioned that learning to cook would make them better wives. However, I never heard those words leave my mom’s mouth.”

In fact, growing up my mom found my grandmother to be her biggest inspiration in her desire to cook. “She inspired me to cook because it wasn’t a chore for her,” my mom said. “We had servants, as do most families in India, so I knew it was never a burden that she had to accomplish.” My mom smiled as she remembered standing in the kitchen as a little girl, listening as my grandmother talked about different flavors, balancing colors, and the importance of trying new ingredients. Unlike her friends, my mom chose to enter the kitchen in order to try and mimic the artistic way in which my grandmother cut vegetables, presented dishes, and tried new recipes. Over time, my mom grew up to be one of the few people in her neighborhood who genuinely found cooking enjoyable and to be a form of expression. She was able to resist the customary notions of the reasons an Indian girl should be in the kitchen. She learned to cook not to please a future husband, but because it brought her happiness.

This resistance is similar to the way Kathleen LeBesco describes white, middle class women fighting against the socially established notions of how an American wife and mother should be acting in the kitchen. In the mid-1900s, women were expected to prepare and serve their family food that represented the ample time they were assumed to have spent cooking. However, the introduction of Jell-O transformed the domestic lifestyle by serving as a tool for women to withstand the labor intensive ways they were told showed care for their families.[5] In the same way that my mom resisted the definition of an Indian daughter by turning to creativity, Jell-O also became an innovative outlet by being used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. According to LeBesco, it became a way in which women were able to eat a satisfying, nostalgia-inducing dessert  while maintaining the body ideals associated with the American housewife.[6] Jell-O helped fight against many gendered stereotypes by empowering women to not only be creative within the kitchen, but also make meals that tasted good for their own satisfaction. Similarly, my mom passionately asserted, “Never cook to feed your husband. Cook to sustain yourself.” It is through having this mindset when my mom was younger that she too, like the American housewives, was able to experience pleasure in the kitchen.

Moving to the United States after being married to my dad, my mom found comfort in being the person in the family who assumed the position of the cook. She said, “I wanted to cook because I saw women in India being the ones who would make sure there was food on the table for the family. It was kind of their role so somehow I knew I had to do that too.” However, she never viewed this job of hers as a negative. She boldly asserted that while she had not felt pressure to be a good cook from her family in India, taking on the role simply made her feel more connected to the expectations of her culture. As the one in charge of preparing meals for my dad, my mom’s viewpoint has similarities to that of Christopher Carrington in his article “Feeding Lesbigay Families.” While my mom and dad are in a heteronormative relationship, coming to the United States from India for the first time through an arranged marriage made my mom feel as though the start of her family was anything but what American society expected. Carrington was able to find that the entire process of cooking a meal (planning, buying, preparing, feeding, and cleaning) brought normalcy and tradition from a societal standpoint into the lives of gay and lesbian couples. As he states, “sharing meals is constitutive of family.”[7] My mother also felt as though taking on the role of the cook connected her to traditional customs and helped her create a true sense of family within a new country.

Carrington also recognized planning meals to be a job of “emotional work or management” in caring for yourself and others.[8] Often times, this would not be equal among both members of the relationship as evident by the planner knowing an overwhelming amount about his or her partner’s taste preferences while this does not extend the other way around.[9] However, while my mom felt these same experiences, she never found this demeaning. She stated, “If I had been a working mother, things would maybe have been different and even more balanced. But since my husband was taking care of things outside of the house as a doctor, I felt like managing the home was my job and I greatly enjoyed it.” My mom resisted against many of the misogynistic ideals engrained within a lot of Indian traditions such as feeding a husband before you feed yourself or never letting a husband even wash the dishes because that was the woman’s duty. However, she did find empowerment and a sense of importance in fulfilling part of the traditionally expected role.

After my sister and I were born, my mom became exponentially busier with both parenting duties and her decision to begin working as a real estate agent. While cooking continued to be a form of enjoyment, my mom felt the need to turn towards nutritional convenience foods while also cooking healthier than she did when just a wife. “I used to bake desserts all the time,” she said, “but now I balance all my oils and salts, and look for organic fruits and vegetables.” She also continues to find food to be a form of creative expression. She discovered the joy of exploring a mass variety of cuisines and combining the spices and tastes of different areas of India with other styles of cooking. “Indian food is the oldest and richest food culture in the world and each state of India has a different type of food so I have tried foods from all different states in the country. But I also love fusion food and try to combine ingredients and spices which most people do not take the time to explore.” She uses this creativity to serve the foods expected to be prepared by an Indian housewife, while pushing the boundaries of the dishes she is able to make by mixing flavors from around the world.

As a daughter, wife, and now mother, my mom has always upheld her opinions on cooking and finding a balance between tradition and empowerment within the kitchen. My sister and I have also never been told by my mom to learn to cook to feed our future partners, even when my extended family (especially on my dad’s side), continues to do so. When asked what she thinks my role in the kitchen should be, she stated,

I see you as a foodie, and as a foodie myself I know how fun it is to come up with my own recipes and get creative in the kitchen. You should learn to cook for yourself, your own happiness, and so that you can live independently. It can also allow for a healthier lifestyle. However, I’ll never tell you to try and start cooking for your future partner.

The advice that she has given me has changed the way I view food and cooking. Even today, I am faced with praise from my extended family when I help cook because it means that I will be able to provide for my future husband. Yet, when I do cook I know that it is not for this reason, but because I have an enjoyment for food and a desire to provide for myself after college. I also find cooking Indian food specifically to be a way to remain connected to my culture, which will be even more important as I get older. To my mom, cooking has always been and continues to be a choice. It is having this choice that has allowed my mom to achieve true happiness within the kitchen through finding a unique balance between self-expression and tradition. I hope to continue following in her footsteps.

Photo Credit: Google

Notes

[1] Jessamyn Neuhaus, Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 76.

[2] Ibid., 75.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 76.

[5] Kathleen LeBesco, “There’s Always Room for Resistance: Jell-O, Gender, and Social Class” in Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food, ed. Sherrie A. Inness (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers., Inc., 2001), 136.

[6] Ibid., 135.

[7] Christopher Carrington, “Feeding Lesbigay Families” in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan et al. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 208.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Ibid., 190.