Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico

Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico

Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico

Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico

Synopsis

Throughout the world, the kitchen is the heart of family and community life. Yet, while everyone has a story to tell about their grandmother's kitchen, the myriad activities that go on in this usually female world are often devalued, and little scholarly attention has been paid to this crucial space in which family, gender, and community relations are forged and maintained. To give the kitchen the prominence and respect it merits, Maria Elisa Christie here offers a pioneering ethnography of kitchenspace in three central Mexican communities, Xochimilco, Ocotepec, and Tetecala. Christie coined the term "kitchenspace" to encompass both the inside kitchen area in which everyday meals for the family are made and the larger outside cooking area in which elaborate meals for community fiestas are prepared by many women working together. She explores how both kinds of meal preparation create bonds among family and community members. In particular, she shows how women's work in preparing food for fiestas gives women status in their communities and creates social networks of reciprocal obligation. In a culture rigidly stratified by gender, Christie concludes, kitchenspace gives women a source of power and a place in which to transmit the traditions and beliefs of older generations through quasi-sacramental food rites.

Excerpt

“As I interview her from my seat at the kitchen table …” So begins a typical paragraph in Maria Elisa Christie’s warm and engaging ethnography, Kitchenspace: Women, Fiestas, and Everyday Life in Central Mexico. That conjuncture of “interview” and “kitchen table” in the same sentence captures this book’s dual qualities: it is one of those rare works that manages to be both serious social science, and a warm and intimate look at everyday life in a very particular place and time.

Dr. Christie did indeed spend many hours sitting at kitchen tables, and she invites us to do the same. But not just so that we can learn how to make bean tamales “with a navel”—one of the many wonderful glimpses of central Mexican cuisine that she provides. In addition to being an enjoyable read, this is an academic study, not a cookbook, nor a memoir of a year spent in an exotic locale. It is the result of serious anthropological research on a serious topic: kitchenspace, a neglected but critically important “site of gendered social and cultural reproduction.”

Much of the book’s appeal comes from the author’s deft and comfortable placement of herself in the text. Her approach is personal and reflexive, in keeping with recent trends in ethnographic writing, especially among women of color—but not obsessively so. She is not anguished about her role, as some authors have been; she does not share her racial or class-based guilt with us, or write long paragraphs about the inherent power inequalities in the researcher’s role. Instead, she speaks frankly and easily about her difficulties conducting this study as a single mother, and about her own background as a Spaniard in Mexico—a background that gave her the linguistic tools to do her work, but also marked her as a racial and ethnic outsider.

“Güera,” “güerita” they called her at first, especially the men—“blondie,” a Mexican slang word that can have unpleasant racial connotations, though sometimes it is also used fondly. In response, she referred to the women and men she worked with politely and appropriately. In the text, she calls the older women “doña” and the younger ones by their first names; and when . . .

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