The Shame of the Kitchen: A Short History of a Woman’s Place

Recently I was visiting my mother, who lives in another state. I gain an average of five pounds every time I stay at her house because she makes the best sourdough bread on earth.  As I demolished a warm slice, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Mom, you make the absolute best bread!” Rather than accepting my compliment, she seemed a bit annoyed and said sarcastically, “Oh yeah, I’m really changing the world, one peice of bread at a time!” I chuckled and moved on.  However, I thought about this reaction for awhile. My mother has many and varied talents and accomplishments, but for some reason she almost seemed ashamed of this particular skill- baking bread. This task seemed to her so menial that its mention was almost a reproach.  

The Shame of the Kitchen
It struck me how common this sentiment is.  The go-to response from women seeking independence or influence is, “I am not going to be just be a mom stuck in some kitchen!”  “I can do more than bake bread!” Hillary Clinton said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but  I decided to fulfill my profession.” Miley Cyrus declared, “I don’t fit into the stereotypical wife role, I don’t even like that word…do people really think I’m at home in an apron cooking dinner?!”  

Why rip on the kitchen?  Why shame bread? Why the constant degrading of food preparation?.  We Americans are fat after all. Considering our obsession with food, you would think we would view the cooks as next to the gods.  When memes pop up in our culture, it is often illuminating to examine them and seek their origins.

Woman Baking Bread, Jean-Francois Millet

Back to the Dark Ages
If we look back in time, visiting the Middle Age of human history, we see men and women playing  vastly different roles. Women, tied down by children and menstruation, stayed near the home. They tended the chickens, cleaned the house, and prepared the food.  Their empathetic and nurturing natures aided them in raising young children. Women were Nourishers –  body and soul. The men went out into the world, unburdened by breastfeeding or physical limitation. Their strength and less emotional natures enabled them to do the harsh and dangerous work of hunting. They brought this food home to to be prepared by women. 

We see that in ancient times a man’s role as “provider” was not any more prestigious than a woman’s role as “nourisher”. They both made sacrifices and worked hard to survive in a harsh world.  Many men died in the hunt or in war. Many women died in childbirth. Roles kept the family stable. It meant everyone had a place. It meant boys and girls knew their future path.

Today, however, we don’t see “provider” and “nourisher” as equal.  No, as my mother’s shame for bread-making suggests, the pre-industrial woman’s place in the kitchen is disgraceful to modern-feminism and, progressively, society at large. However the historic male equivalent – a male hunter providing for his family, doesn’t affect disgust. 

The Hunter and his Dogs, Winslow Homer

Why?  Both are acts driven by biology to protect and nourish the family. Both are self-sacrificing.  The man wasn’t excited about potentially being eaten by wolves and the woman wasn’t eager to work over a hot fire.  But what has now made the woman’s role seem inferior? I believe it is the symbol of the hunter we now crave – access to the outside world, to the freedom and prestige it provides.    What mis-colors our view of the past? What do we now have that would influence our new perspective: Money. As the Bible says, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Money as Motivation
The industrial revolution changed things dramatically.  Men began to have opportunities that were not there before.  There were new ways to provide for the family. Men transformed the hunting act into tradable labor, and money.  This money could exceed the amount needed for simple survival. Money was not made by Nourishers, but by Providers.  Women began to feel restrained by their home kitchen. Women were kept from this advantage – held back by their bodies, children, and social mores.

As men began to accumulate excess wealth and power, they gained freedoms women lacked. Survival and family stability were no longer their sole motivators. Women, as Nourishers of the family, decreased in influence as the family’s importance decreased, crowded out by commerce.  Local bakers could now supply our bread. The spiritual center, the home, had to compete with a material culture, capable of satisfying needs the home once met, and of creating new needs as well.

Plate with Bread, Van Gogh

The Bread of Life

Somewhere along the way, women, in seeing their lack, forgot their abundance. What’s interesting about my mom’s embarrassment at her bread-making is that she was blind to the true influence she has.  When I ask my children what they miss most about Grandpa and Grandma they always mention her baking. The smell of Grandma’s freshly baked bread brings warmth and comfort.

But bread is more than a physical nourishment. Bread has spiritual power. Christ called himself, The Bread of Life.  

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

John 6:35

He did not use hunting analogies in describing his role. Many were disappointed by his chosen title as they had hoped for a Warrior Messiah, a man to overthrow Roman rule. But he made clear he had not come as a material provider. His mission was to the soul. He used bread – the domain of the feminine – to define His influence. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Mothers can live out this symbolism in our own homes. Our love and sacrifice brings abundance to others. A mother’s influence exceeds any power that originates in a boardroom or on a battlefield. If we honestly look back on our lives and ask who has been the most influential, we think of our mother. This influence may be for good or evil. Olympic gold-medalists praise their mothers while others sit on psychologists couches expounding their mommy issues. The difference is in the bread. We all yearn for bread baked in love and kindness. We feel unsatisfied and neglected with Wonderbread. (Warning: this is symbolic, my own children often eat Wonderbread – but only because my mother lives a thousand miles away).

Modern Times: The Reason Shifts
With the invention of birth control, women gained some choice.  They no longer had to be “stuck” in the kitchen. They could limit the number of children they had.  They had personal hygiene products to allow them to work outside the home. The kitchen became a symbol of the past.  Independent-minded women did not have to be slaves to food prep – they could make money and gain power like men. Many women would have rather stayed in the kitchen, but shifting economies and weakening extended family structure forced many women into the workplace.  What initially began as an economic necessity, became the norm.

With new monetary opportunities came new sacrifices. The ultimate sacrifice was that of the feminine purpose. Rather than focusing on the spiritual benefits of a present-mother and warm kitchen, many, out of necessity or preference, prioritized material gain. Women had a new and paradigm-shifting question to answer, Are children a blessing or a burden? 

Sweet Dreams, Firmin Baes

“I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”

Charles Dickens

If a woman wanted to be successful materially, she would need to give up a large family. If she was truly ambitious, she could decide against children altogether.  Children, before seen as motivation for the sacrifice and work, now became, for many, an impediment to material and personal success. A woman’s kitchen, absent of her children, is a inglourious place indeed, with no nourishment or encouragement to be given and no bonds to be formed.  Single young women with no dreams of marriage or family have every reason to shun bread-baking. Who would it be for?

The materialistic and independent world taught to our young daughters leaves no place for the nourishing feminine traits of the kitchen. The modern hunting-ground of commerce requires neither nurture or compassion. Women drop their feminine strengths and trade them in for a cold heart and a modern bow and arrow.

What Happened in the Kitchen
But what did we leave behind? Perhaps the things left behind, through choice or necessity, are the same ones that prevented the now skyrocketing mental health issues, promiscuity, addiction, and general unhappiness and meaninglessness.  If we actually consider it – the neglected kitchen may be vastly more influential in the success of a society than any gains women have made in employment.  

So what really happened in that stifling kitchen? Well, some stifling. As I stated previously, I do not personally enjoy cooking. I can see myself frustrated, wanting to go out and explore the world but restrained by my place and expectations. I have compassion for the generations of women that did not have a choice. Women’s lot was certainly hard. But in the modern interpretation of history, the reason given is shallow and simplistic – men subjugated women. The fact is that life was horrific for both sexes – and often horrific in different ways. Men and women had to collaborate to survive. The little joy that was found in this life of hardship was often found in the family kitchen and in the bonds formed therein.

“Family not only need to consist of merely those whom we share blood, but also for those whom we’d give blood.”

Charles Dickens

The Soul of the Home

Considering that there is “nothing new under the sun”, we can assume that the same dynamics we see in our modern world, occured in the past. What happens in our own kitchens, happened in theirs, minus the electricity and basic hygiene. A mother is feeding her baby her first bite of mush. Children are playing with dough on the kitchen table. A teen-age daughter is crying over her first breakup. A father is expounding the meaning in a passage of scripture. The kitchen is where life happens, where love is given, where ideas are discussed, where bonds are formed. Kitchens are factories of childhood resilience. If we scorn the kitchen – if we ridicule the mother baking bread – we shame the soul out of families. Families without strong bonds, without a spiritual center, will fail. If our society loses the foundation of loving families, we are doomed to a purely material fate. The lack that is felt from a cold kitchen is shown in the psychology and self-worth of the populace.

The mother has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career.

C.S. Lewis
Mother’s Little Helper, Eugene De Blass

Do I Need to Bake?

Does this mean that we can’t work outside the home, that we must handcuff ourselves to the kitchen counter and revert back to all the traditions of the past? Do I need to figure out how to bake bread to be a good Mom? Absolutely not. It means that we respect the kitchen, we glory in the symbol and the meaning of bread – familial engagement and nurture. We harness the nourishing power of this bread where we can provide it. A working mother can give encouragement to her children on the car ride to school. The bread of empathy can be given after our son’s hard day at school. It can be found in the warmth of embrace to our returning husband.

The next time you hear a woman denigrate the “kitchen” or unsung work such as “baking bread”, remember that generations of women poured their love and sacrifice into that bread.  That bread was a masterpiece of love and creation; it still can be. Our modern world could do with more bread-makers, more women who glory in their feminine strengths. As we go off to work, let’s refuse to pick up a bow and arrow and instead bring bread.  We need women who, before pursuing material gain or social prestige, seek ways to bring love and comfort to others. We have the power to bring the comfort of the kitchen to a dreary workplace, or to a sick neighbor. As women increase in responsibility and influence, let’s not shut the door on the kitchen.

Forgive the poor quality but this was too perfect not to share

The Glory of the Kitchen

My own mother, despite her own belittling, did have a place in her kitchen. Her glory was not found in the praise of men, but the love of her family. Her kitchen was a spiritual and emotional refuge from the material cares of the world. As a child, my own insecurities and anxiety were always left behind as I smeared butter on my warm, freshly-cut slice. In the end, education, financial gains, and the “glory of men” are insignificant contributors to my current health, perspective, and contentment. My happiness was baked in my childhood, in my mother’s bread.

-Ally

….and just in case…
Here’s a great receipt for Whole Wheat Bread https://www.melskitchencafe.com/whole-wheat-bread-step-by-step/

I love this site, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, for simple and healthy recipes!  

Resources:

Fascinating perspective of Camille Paglia- reasons for, and potential advantages of, the historic roles of men and women. Start Minute 40:15

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15 thoughts on “The Shame of the Kitchen: A Short History of a Woman’s Place

  1. Hey Ally,

    Thank you for your blog posts, amazing as always. Even from a thousand miles north, I am deeply touched by your reflections, as they sound closer to me than anything I hear as a “modern woman” in my “modern world”.

    Being pregnant with my 2nd and 3rd children (yes, at the same time!), your thoughts give me strength. I can (kind of) let go of the fear of the upcoming difficulties of the birth, of the first months, and see the potential of the happy home I will participate in building in the next years. (Sorry if my English sounds weird, not my native language.)

    I already look forward to your next blog post! Have a great day!

    Like

  2. Yes! That was worth the months of effort! The bread symbol is terribly powerful. …burial of the seed, resurrection into sheaf of new life, symbol of transformation through Christ as nourishment, on and on!

    I didnt grow up taking communion weekly, but now I do and I am so humbled every time. …and this bleeds into the kitchen at home too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. … choppy communication… my hands are more full than they should be if Im writing. my last message is in complete sympathy with your post… it got me thinking of the communion symbol of bread as body of Christ, Mary as womb of Christ, ergo mothers as administers of Logos/Christ through spiritual nourishment. Awesome.

    Thanks.

    >

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  4. I agree completely with your article about women’s role in bringing love and comfort to others. I just don’t believe this comes from a mother cooking food though. I grew up in a household where my mom being a great cook always had a warm meal ready for us. Maybe this was her way of showing affection but I rarely got praised for my accomplishments, got hugs or was told that I was loved. I did grow up in another country so one could chalk the lack of physical affection to culture and that is what I exactly did until I had my own child. Culture or not, I couldn’t resist what came naturally to love and hug and kiss this child a million times a day and tell her how much she is loved. This gush of emotions and feelings I felt for my child magnified the lack I felt with my own mother. I was well nourished by my mother with home cooked food but lacked any substantial emotional food, which left me feeling unloved and uncared for even though I never went hungry and to this day sit at her Thanksgiving table with the best dishes one could ever expect. I don’t believe that love a mom shows her child comes so much from the quality of food cooked in her kitchen as much as it does from mirroring to the child their own worth and value through physical affection and verbal encouragement. Always love your posts. Keep up the wonderful work and the valuable ideas you share with us.

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    1. Well put Irene. Spiritual bread is much more crucial than physical bread in a child’s emotional development. Spending all day slaving for a meal while neglecting your children’s need for nurture, is not nourishment. The trick is to combine physical service – whatever form that may take, and emotional support and love. Thanks for reading and for sharing your insights.

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  5. Once again Ally you see deep into our subconscious, with tremendous and moving insight. You venture down into the belly of the whale and rescue the dead mother (with apologies to JBP). I agree that the soul of the society is to be found in its homes. A vivid and vibrant mini stage for all the transcendent beauty of the world, if ever there was one. Much of what we have lost has been lost there. But let’s be positive. With any luck, your piercing insights will be one factor that helps us get it back – more power to you.
    Mark K

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  6. Thank you for another great post. You never fail to put in to beautiful words exactly the things I have been pondering lately yet don’t have time to write. I have been working for a few years now. But I yearn for the days when I can be home all day again in my kitchen with my family. It took working to make me appreciate those times. I’d love your mom’s sourdough recipe. I’ve tried so so hard to get sourdough right over the years! Also, this scripture may have a completely different meaning, but I like where it says in 1st Corinthians “And if any man hunger, let him eat at home;”

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  7. Not everything is a social construct but the “shame of the kitchen” sure is, one completely foreign to me. Both of my parents love cooking itself and love providing a delicious meal for others, a custom I adopted at a young age. My wife felt the same way. After we got married she went through culinary school, spending years as a chef, now teaching culinary herself. After coming home from a day of work in the kitchen, guess where we’re hanging out having fun…there’s no shame in the kitchen game. That’s modern industrial society for you that instead of celebrating and finding joy in the means of life and sources of culture: food, clothes and shelter, disparages them as nothing more than oppressive drudgery.

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