The feminine hearth as an engine of control

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Symbolism hidden in every day functions can be like ghosts haunting us, whispering in our ears as we go about our lives. We sleep, wake, eat and we cook. As I go about the last of these every day activities, I sense a disturbance in the force. I have an absurd love-hate relationship with cooking. The symbology bound to it masks a focal point that should be called the feminine hearth.

Such a locus in pop culture connotes succour, warmth, love, human connection and associated with it are iconic domestic mother goddesses and hearth matriarchs. But how did the feminine become one with the hearth? We like to think that back in the mythic times of our lithic past, as women attended to and fed their children as they still do, these tasks were extended to the preparation of food. If this sounds deceptively simple, that’s because it is. Mother goddesses seem to be the products of cultures that institutionalise over time, setting gender roles in stone. As conservatism grows, a society seems bent on dualizing the masculine and the feminine. As power structures based on fixed gender roles harden, there is anxiety around any fluidity in gender roles or even gender itself?

In my country, the icon of the mother goddess is used regularly to reinforce patriarchal norms. My mother cooked, my grandmother cooked and then there was me. The only aspect that fascinates me about it is the science. Tinkering with and researching the apparently simple but miraculous structure of cake, I am eternally struck by the marriage of flavours and how a combination of varying proteins, fats, sugars, starches, flavour molecules and the application of heat can lead to a risen edible sculpture.

Once the science and wonder is done, the rest of my relationship with the function of cooking is passive-aggressive. Months ago, I was at a neighbour’s and she was proud of a musically talented daughter-in-law. Modestly she said, you know everybody has their talents, like you and your brownies, she added pointing to me. The brownies in question were made for a little gathering. This is what I was to her and to so many others. I wear the label of cook with discomfiture. Another time my family was visiting and we were all sitting together men, women and children, when my young nephew turned to me, and only me, and said where’s dinner? He was so young, so innocent but already inculcated into gender roles. A competitive friend was once derisive at the sight of my kitchen tools and the associated perception that I might be a good cook. I would have gladly given over the label to her. Recently, I told someone candidly that I dread being asked to cook in family situations, and she mumbled that she wouldn’t fuss that way. Virtue seems to be attached to the thanklessness of the task. In some cultures, the more thankless it is, greater the righteousness. Women complain but they carry on doing it nevertheless. If they don’t, their perceived virtue is at stake. It’s as if female suffering equals the family’s greater good. I have a favourite uncle who likes to tell people that his niece, doesn’t know how to cook, and for reasons I am examining here in this piece, this makes me, the niece in the reference very happy.

IMG_3068I am a writer, this function is intimately tied to my sense of being. I try to explain this to people and strive ineffectually to show them the blog, my published pieces, even the book, but they look right through all that, through me, and their eyes land inevitably on the average to middling cake I insist on passively baking. Then I am annoyed when someone messages me to ask what I am making for lunch. Here in lies the quintessence of passive aggression. Though it seems innocuous, the question asked of me is also in truth a loaded one. Because cooking is so deeply associated with the feminine hearth, there is always an unflattering tonal quality attached to such questions. If the friend had enquired about my reading activity for that day perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the infinitesimal dip in self-esteem. In a Julia Child biography, I came across a description of how Ms Child in her early days in France wasn’t taken seriously as she had to work against the prevailing culture in that country that only men were chefs, while women could only be cooks. ‘Cheffing’ is an imaginative, virtuoso activity, while ‘cooking’ is mundane, even menial. Though this was a long time ago, these notions haven’t disappeared. The feminine hearth is an uneventful place that provides comfort and succour to all except to the woman who is chained to the hearth providing all these things. The feminine hearth is for most women their own goldfish bowl. They can see the world passing outside but are powerless to go through the glass.

Reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond from the late 90’s and 2000’s leaves me writhing at the intense patriarchy on display. The entire show is predicated on the dominance rituals of a manipulative super-cooking mother-in-law against her bad-cook daughter-in-law, left to forever nag the men about her suffocating situation. The daughter-in-law Debra played by Patricia Heaton often challenges the system but always stops short. She is not allowed to cross an invisible line or do anything to remedy the impasse, lest it subverts the very construct of family. In several storylines, she seems to even reinforce her mother-in-law’s oppressive tyranny. The show’s creators are very careful to preserve and cherish this particular notion of family. But what kind of idea of family is this? Where a younger woman is set up against an older one who feels threatened and upholds patriarchy to remain dominant in the family’s power grouping. The watching husbands condescend and find humour in their petty bickering. In India, we have many television shows like this, popularly known as saas-bahu serials or ‘mother-in-law/daughter-in-law’ serials. Television of this sort is voraciously consumed by a predominantly female audience in a patriarchal society, where the watching women look on in vicarious agony, taking sides then feeling a sense of catharsis as the younger women manoeuvre themselves out of their predicaments without inverting the family’s existing authoritarian hierarchy.

I watched a documentary on African San tribesmen going out to hunt, and I see the women have been left behind in the hutments, while the men spend days stalking, tracking prey animals, their brains active and stimulated, having to devise increasingly innovative means to catch their meals. In keeping up with the inventiveness of their prey, their brains have to be ever-more creative. On their return to the camp, the women and children materialise to cheer on the hunters. Hunting, though dangerous, seems to act like an analeptic to the men. The women in comparison appear oddly listless and tranquillised. Cooking when not on MasterChef can become a highly repetitive, mind-numbing, mind-eradicating task.

What emerges from this tableau is the insight that it’s the women who seem to keep the ossifying patriarchal engine running at the centre of camp. The ancient mother goddess was created as an institution at a primordial camp to anchor the idea of the fertile woman or the feminine baby machine. Her fecundity objectified and petrified for eternity. But this also ushers in the idea of an unchanging, stagnant female brain. In this system, the younger women cannot be allowed to become self-aware. Awareness gets in the way of women remaining mechanical-biological units. The mother goddess is actually an engine, an older woman whose function in primitive society is to spellbind and control the fertility and work output of younger women.

IMG_3067This mother goddess is extrapolated when need be, turning her into a warrior goddess that extracts bounty from other tribes, or a fruitful goddess that controls the bounty of the land around her with the coming of agriculture. In many parts of India today childless women are pariahs, and most of the ostracism is meted out to them by other women. As the men begin to give up hunting to stay closer to their homes and agricultural fields, matriarchy seems to give way to patriarchy, the same power structures intact but seguing to men. Coelacanth-like only the useful engine of the mother goddess survives the extinction of matriarchy, still partially and sometimes completely controlling the modern female brain. Are these then the male and female brain archetypes being passed on generation after generation? The human brain is a unique living machine capable of change and growing new pathways. It can evolve because it is alive. An active, stimulated brain can change the course of culture and evolution. And it could be a roused, evolving feminine brain leading this change.

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