Whether it is considered a woman’s place, a women’s space, or a completely oppressive location, the kitchen often serves a center of conversation for women. I’ve found this in my own household, even though the men in my family all cook as well. This especially happens when we hold parties and all the women gather in the kitchen while the men stay in the living room or by the grill.
I also found this in my semester in Peru. I lived with a host family and everyone would come home for siesta around 1 in the afternoon. My host mom and sister would always be in the kitchen when I came home, with lunch almost ready. They would always be leaning over boiling potatoes and corn, rice, and some form of soup. There was always soup. I would always ask if I could help with anything and they, as always, asked me to set the table and then wouldn’t let me do anything else.
My host dad and brothers would arrive soon after and they would sit down at the table and wait. Then my host mom and sister would serve me and the men. My host dad and I almost always sat at opposite heads of the table. Sometimes the women would sit down with us as well, but often there wasn’t enough room for them to sit so they ate in a second shift. I always stuck around for them to eat as well.
All of the talking between my host family and me happened in the kitchen. We never ever went into the living room and I always felt strange going into their rooms where they watched TV. Between my Spanish, my Americaness, and my newness, it took a while for me to be able to have conversations with my family, and for these conversations to turn into meaningful, personal conversations. When it did, I felt so proud of my Spanish and so close and trusted by my family.
Late in my Peruvian semester, I was hanging around after lunch and just my host mom was around. We were sharing some tea and bread, the thing we ate every day after our stuffing lunches mostly consisting of heaps of rice. I don’t remember how it came up – I think we were talking about my boyfriend – but she started complaining about her husband. It was clear this was not a typical thing for her to talk about. Her eyes were wide and they seemed to dart around in nervousness. I had a feeling what we were discussing was a pretty taboo subject – to complain about one’s husband.
She explained how they don’t get along well anymore. He’s a ‘silly’ man and only cares about his chickens and his school. She confessed how she doesn’t feel anything for him anymore. She doesn’t love him and she isn’t attracted to him. She hasn’t had sex with him in years. In fact, she let him keep the master bedroom with the large bed, and she sleeps in a second bed in her eleven-year-old son’s room. It doesn’t help that he snores. Meanwhile, her daughter shares her own small room with her fiancé and their two-year-old son. The three of them sleep in the same twin bed. I asked why my host dad couldn’t give his daughter and her family the bigger room and bed and my host mom said he simply refused.
I asked my host mom if she is sad that the relationship turned out this way. She said she’s not surprised. She’s pretty happy with her life. She doesn’t need him. She has her beautiful sons, daughter, and grandson. But she’s sad constantly missing her oldest son who lives in Lima. She hadn’t seen him in over a year.
What I learned a different time while sitting in the all-women kitchen was that there was an affair that complicated the entire dilemma. When my host mom was younger she became involved with a man and had a child (her oldest son) with him. Soon after that, she married my host dad and they took care of her son, Eric, together. But apparently the ‘illegitimate’ son was always a contentious issue between her and my host dad.
It’s funny how all of the important conversations seem to happen in the kitchen over food. That’s how it was in Peru, my family, the co-op, and even the times I spent around round tables with my friends in my underclassmen years. There’s something about food that seems to open people up to the idea about talking about typically taboo subjects.