Keeping Up with Traditions
“Caterina vieni qui!” You knew it was Friday when you found yourself at Lele’s and heard these words. This seemed to be Lele’s favorite phrase for the first few cooking lessons we had. Although Lele seems to be accepting of contemporary ways, her traditional instincts make appearances through the distinction in her actions towards MC (Caterina) and her husband Josh. During the beginning of the program, Josh became a student during these cooking lessons when he sat beside us and watched the food preparation of the day. Despite his clear interest for the kitchen, every now and then Lele would call MC, who was in the other room preparing the next philosophy lesson with Pr. Borghini, so that she can come over and prepare her own meal clear of any gluten. At this point, I don’t believe Lele had realized that the couple she had before her isn’t her “traditional” married couple, in which the woman takes her place in the kitchen as the man makes the money for the family. Instead MC and Josh are the perfect example of a couple that defy gender roles and make it work. For many generations before us, society has constructed expectations tied to genders, one being the one mentioned above. These expectations minimize the importance or value of a women within the world of food but women play an important role in maintaining identity and culture within this field.
Undervalued Women in Food Industries
The societal expectation of women’s position solely belonging in the kitchen, harms the progression for women’s position and respect in the world of food. Heather Paxson brings up the significance of gender roles within the production of cheese, “Initially a farm chore for which pioneer wives were responsible, making cheese by hand in the United States was transformed into a blue-collar job and then, post-industrial, into a vocation,” (Paxton, 41). Even though women introduced the production of cheese, they don’t seem to be getting much credit for the complex and lucrative industry that it has become. It isn’t ironic that when there was a shift in class from simple farmers to college graduates, there was also a shift in gender domination. Not only do these shifts reflect lack of opportunity for women in the past (since the people with higher education tended to be men) but also the undervalue of women in industries related to food. This lack of value is clearly seen when you compare the attention and progression that was present in cheesemaking while it was a female-dominated field and after it became male-dominated.
This lack of value for women in the world of food is also evident when you think about famous chefs. Amongst the top we have, Guy Fieri, Bobby Fla, and of course we can’t forget the infamous Gordon Ramsey! How many famous chefs can you name that are women? Probably very little and even if you do think of one it may take you a while to land that answer. This conversation hits closer to Panzano when you compare the fame of Dario Cecchini to Mamma Lele. Dario is known worldwide for his butcher shop and restaurants to the level that people fly from all over the world to visit him in Panzano. On the other hand, we have Lele, the sweetest woman you can ever meet who has great recipes to teach and culture enriching stories that relate to those recipes. The biggest difference between them both is their gender. As a woman, specially in Italy, Lele is expected to know many recipes and to be able to cook great dishes but since men don’t carry that same weight to care and feed their family, it is more valued and admirable when men are able to do the jobs that are “meant” to be performed by women. In this way, Dario may be more valued than Lele.
This issue of lacked value for women and sense of glorification of men in the world of food relates to the sociological term, the glass escalator. The glass escalator represents the way in which men are able to ease to the top when working in a female-dominated field, while women in a male-dominated field have a lot more difficulty rising to the top (2014). This glass escalator is present within the world of food when one thinks of the burden or responsibilities of food being held by women (thanks to our “traditional” ways, in which a women’s place is in the kitchen). So the men in this world of food, such as Dario, swiftly climb the
glass escalator and rise to become these master chefs that are known worldwide, while women are expected to be cooking and maintain that place and identity in the kitchen. In other words, when women cook great meals it is simply expected of them, while men who cook great meals hold a golden medal.
Culture Lives through Women and Kitchen
One of the best dishes we have made at Lele’s was the arista pillottata, a pork loin. Cooking it was so easy, I can even count all the ingredients used on one hand; arista (pork loin), garlic, rosemary, coarse salt and olive oil. All it takes is to first massage the arista with olive oil – chop the salt, rosemary, and garlic altogether – massage one more time with the chopped ingredients – and the oven will do the rest. Aside from the great food that Lele cooks for us, she also demonstrates that although traditions flaw in limiting the progression of the woman’s place in society, the traditions of women in the kitchen continue a sense of identity and culture.
Even if a tradition is no longer be present, women are able to maintain and share at least the significance of old cultural values through the kitchen. Lele has great stories to tell as she and her friends teach us how to cook their dishes. There is one about the tradition of the mezzaluna, a crescent knife that is normally used with a wooden cutting board. The old Italian tradition was that a new bride would get a gift of a mezzaluna and the cutting board. After the marriage, the mother-in-law would occasionally check if her son’s wife is cooking for him by observing the cutting board. If she has been cooking as she should, the mezzaluna will have worn down the middle of the cutting board. Although this tradition is no longer performed, it is important for the culture in Tuscany. This relationship between tool and culture connects to Wendell Berry’s idea of cultural amnesia. He argues that we loose a part of our culture when we don’t know what we are eating. In this case, if a person from Tuscany is oblivious to what goes into or the process of making arista, s/he is likely to also be oblivious to the story behind the mezzaluna and the tradition it represents. This story not only tells the history and traditions that the females in his/her family had embraced and also the value behind using fresh ingredients to make meals that are both delicious and healthy. In becoming oblivious to the use of the mezzaluna this person is loosing the pride that Tuscans place in their fresh produce, which is a very important aspect their cultural identity. Cultural amnesia is an important problem that we must face because we have a bad habit of not caring for what goes into our foods. In doing so, we not only distance ourselves from the identity of our culture.
Women are valuable tools for maintaining the identity of a culture. Paxson wrote, “A gendered class difference between blue-and-white collar labor may also obscure today’s connoisseur’s and artisan’s ability to recognize the “tradition of the cheese maker’s art” in early American artisan factors,” (Paxton, 41). The lack of women in these fields now have lead to the loss of the traditions that existed in cheese making once before. It may be true that the shift in gender had also shifted the main focus of cheesemaking. In the past women made cheese to provide food for family and it was an opportunity to make a little money. Although back then it wasn’t considered an art, the artisanal method women used in the past is now being used more. so it was more of an art. While now it is easy to fall in to cultural amnesia in regards to becoming a mainstream factory and valuing capitalism before everything else. When women were dominant in the field of cheesemaking, the cheese was made through an artisanal method, which created a sense of identity and culture amongst cheesemaking. Nowadays, the culture and identity has been lost amongst the many variations of cheesemaking and focus. In the end, the fact that women are no longer dominating the cheesemaking industry has let a piece of the culture and identity die.
Women are important in the world of food and not just in their home kitchen. Historically they’ve demonstrated an authentic way of maintaining pieces of cultural identity within the world of food. Therefore, we need to appreciate the role of women within the world of food because society as a whole has the tendency to minimize her position in the world of food since it is an expectation of gender role in the home.
-Leyda Frías, 2018
Berry, Wendell. The Pleasures of Eating.
Paxson, Heather. Cheese Cultures, 2010.
WGST Course, 2014