Vilma is in charge of the kitchen and the coffee and gives me my daily inspection when I arrive to fill up my mug. Within five minutes, I know if I have made the right clothing choices or not. When I cut my own bangs, Wilma was clear that it had not been a good idea, but grudgingly informed me that I do have some style. She humphs at my vegetable heavy lunch and I in turn sometimes hurt her feelings by bringing coffee from home. In other words, we are good friends.
When I brought banana bread to work to share, Vilma declared the right to taste it first. I braced myself for suggestions for improvement. I was surprised, therefore, when she declared her love for the banana bread without hesitation, and shocked when she told me that she made a batch over the weekend using my recipe, but adjusted for 16 pounds of bananas.
One of my coworkers often proudly proclaims that she cannot even fry an egg. In a land where one way to meaure a woman’s worth is the quality of her rice and her ability to cut vegetables into equally sized, unimaginably tiny pieces, this is a courageous admission. I admire her willingness to go deliberately against stereotypes and choose her own way to define her worth as a person. For her, independence, a master’s degree and an analytic mind are far more worthy of celebration than any sort of cooking prowess.
During my time spent in Colombian kitchens, I sometimes ask women where they learnt to cook. The response is generally a look of bewilderment, and then an explanation of never “learning to cook”, but of always cooking. Grinding corn, shaping arepas, frying dough: these are skills that are learnt through practice and observation, from a very young age. In the majority of small rural communities there are no recipes books but the everyday dishes are complex and time consuming to prepare. Tiny vegetables are chopped even smaller. Coconuts are grated and the flesh wrung out and blended to create coconut milk. Rice is rinsed and roots are peeled and chopped. The chicken is chased, caught, slaughtered, plucked, cleaned and finally cooked.
Even though the style and foods were different, I also learnt how to cook at an early age, under the watchful tutoring of my mother. While the expectations where not quite as strong, I always choose kitchen tasks over outside chores and would curl up on the couch to read recipe books like novels while my brother built things outside.
Expectations aside, I love cooking. As a teenager, I baked loaves of bread to sell at the local farmer’s market. I was a vegetarian for years and a meat free lifestyle forced me to be more creative with food preparation.To relax, and for inspiration, I watch cooking shows and read food blogs. Alton Brown, the Great British Bake Off: I make angel food cake and passion-fruit curd in my spare time.
Cooking, and especially home baking, carries with them a very specific gendered set of stereotypes that cross borders and nationalities. The expectations that all foreign women are good at baking, and have a secret supply of chocolate chips, is especially strong in my office, based on previous workers and experiences. (Sometimes, More with Less can be damaging.)
I don’t want to fall into the patterns left by my predecessors and replicate gender stereotypes by being a woman baker. Cooking is a beautiful skill that should be celebrated, but not all women belong in a kitchen.
A stronger part of me, however, craves approval. Despite living in Colombia for almost four years, I am still trying to figure out how to fit in. By baking, I am proving to the women in my office that I can fulfill at least part of the role expected of me, whether as a Canadian or as Colombian woman. I am trying to create a niche for myself, even if it does end up being made of flour, sugar and eggs.
As the doughnut day proved, coming together as women to prepare food can also bridge cultural gaps, even when those spaces end up being highly gendered. Standing in kitchens and asking questions affirms that even if there was no structured learning, the cook’s knowledge is not something to ever be taken for granted; not everyone, including me, knows how to make sancocho or pluck a chicken.
Yet this talented work is not recognized, in Colombia or Canada, as a contributing factor to the economic well-being of our countries.
Part of me wants to deny my excellent egg poaching skills and focus on showing off the power of my mind. Another part of me want to bake all the cake in the world to become closer to some of the women I work with. Food does have an incredible power to bring people together, but if the same people are always doing the cooking, on what foundation is that togetherness based?