Pérez , Elizabeth. (2016). Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. New York University Press. 320 pp. ISBN #9781479839551
Kristina Wirtz (Western Michigan University)
Does it surprise you that an ethnographic study of a religious community would be centered on the kitchen? In Religion in the Kitchen, Elizabeth Pérez makes a compelling case that religious communities are molded and religious sensibilities are seasoned in the kitchen. Her chosen site of the Black Atlantic is a religious household in the Chicago orisha community: its head is Ashabi Mosley, who was initiated into Cuban Santería by a Chicago-based Cuban-American priest, and whose home is an active “house-temple,” where ritual activities and sacred space-time infuse the domestic space with the spiritual imperatives of deities, ancestors, elders, and those who serve them.
In detailing the ethnographic particulars of this site, Pérez argues that the religious significance of the kitchen—the physical spaces and practices of food preparation, and what people talk about while so engaged—has been overlooked, and not just in Black Atlantic traditions. I hope that her book will stimulate much-needed corrective ethnographic attention—not just to special religious foods and the rules for their consumption in religious contexts, but to the often-marginalized work of food preparation for its moral and world-making contributions. Food preparation—and in particular the routes of live animals and raw ingredients that arrive at the house to become ritual offerings and spiritually-nourishing “food of the saint” connect the different spaces of the house-temple to produce a sacralization of private homes and a materialization of religious family.
As the book emphasizes from its first page, the sensuous engagement of orishas—African deities—in the world and their demands for savory and substantial offerings to provide the sacred energy—aché—that activates their worldly interventions, makes the kitchen especially significant in ritual work. But religion is not only in the kitchen. To venture into the kitchen and the realm of “ordinary home cooking” (the title of Part I) is to witness the confrontation between the time-space affordances of domesticity and the demands of religious observance in the house-temple. The name of Ashabi Mosley’s house-temple, Ilé Laroye, or House of Laroye (a reference to the orisha Eleggua) is also the name of the religious family of which she is matriarch. Domestic life is family life, and so Pérez closely attends to how bonds of kinship are forged and tested through religious practices. The religious lineage and family encompass vectors of religious authority and mutual obligation binding deities to the devotees whose “heads” they rule and devotees to one another. And the house-temple is the physical space that materializes this ideal of the religious lineage, in an ongoing cycle of ceremonies cementing and expanding the familial network based on reciprocity. Deities demand offerings and discipline from those who serve them, and in turn offer tangible blessings of healing and resolved problems.
Pérez examines the physical layout of the house itself and how its spaces are used. Notably, Iyalocha Ashabi bought the house in large part because of its generous kitchen. The house’s location in a Southside Chicago neighborhood also matters, in relations with neighbors and in instantiating a history of race relations and membership in an embattled Black community. The orishas point to a Black Atlantic context more rooted in the Caribbean and less understood amid the Baptist congregations and mosques of African American communities. But the labor—the servitude and sacrifice—that the orishas demand resonates with all-too familiar racialized and gendered regimes of Black life in America and their roots in transatlantic slavery. Serving the orishas and ancestors resignifies such regimes as spiritually charged, with the power to remake diasporic identities. Pérez seizes on evocative moments in which Ashabi and others in Ilé Laroye point out rhizomatic connections to other African diasporic experiences, from depictions of “conjure” in African American popular culture to “gangsta-code” moments of protecting the community from police interference. The food cooked up in the kitchen of Ilé Laroye, too, is a fusion of African American, Latinx-Caribbean, and West African cuisines diverging from common “roots” and remixed in the kitchen.
Pérez argues that the routes of religious activity through the house-temple, and especially turning the raw and live ingredients of offerings into cooked food, also fashion the trajectories of people into deeper engagements with the religion. Most centrally, talk accompanies food preparation tasks: instructions, reminders, and coaching in techniques, along with explanations, corrections, praise, complaints, and admonitions, but also chitchat that passes the time with humor and stories that all together serve to deepen social bonds and religious knowledge. The religious person is “seasoned” and cooked along with the food they help prepare, in a blending of talk and other embodied kitchen practice. This is the topic of parts two and three of the book, on “kitchen work” and “kitchen talk,” although the implied distinction between talk and other practice cannot be so clearly delineated.
If the cooking up of communal, religious sensibilities sounds idealized, in practice it is hard, unglamorous work that tests the self-discipline and religious dedication of those conscripted into it. Those entering the religious domain of Ilé Laroye quickly find themselves put to work with the labor-intensive, menial tasks of chopping, carrying, cleaning, stirring, and sorting, under the watchful eye of those with specialized religious knowledge. This knowledge is gained primarily through practical instruction, working alongside others. During major ceremonies, the hours are long, extending all day and even all night, people’s nerves fray as they work into exhaustion, and the stakes of errors are high, lest an orisha be offended. Each orisha’s offerings must be kept separate from as many as a dozen others at a time. The work of draining blood, plucking feathers, butchering carcasses, and separating viscera is arduous and messy. This time in the kitchen is utterly essential to successful ceremonies, and yet the kitchen and other food preparation areas are separate from and peripheral to the dedicated ritual spaces. Some of the marginality of the kitchen is gendered, but gender dynamics are crosscut with other measures of religious authority, such as lineage seniority.
In slicing, plucking, and cooking her way through her fieldwork, Pérez garners important insights. For example, she comes to realize how the initial steps of butchering a chicken highlight exactly the parts of the body—head, nape of neck, shoulders, feet—that are the focus of the basic rogation or purification ceremony performed on a devotee’s body. She contemplates not just taste but disgust, which she considers with sensitivity and insight. She suggests that overcoming one’s disgust, especially of the blood, guts, and gore of butchering sacrificed animals, plays a key role in socializing religious newcomers to new regimes of self-discipline that will be necessary to their religious development. Her central metaphor of seasoning materializes historicizing, engendering, incorporative kin-making work through which “strangers” join the ever-expanding religious family. The talk that accompanies all of this activity also is a seasoning and socializing mechanism. In the kitchen, talk moves between topics of food preparation, ritual activity, questions and explanations, personal stories, joking and teasing, gossip, pop culture references, and more overt efforts to teach through the sacred stories about the orishas, where these topics are braided together in the flowing conversations that produce lasting relationships and shape spiritual subjectivities. In the seeming banality of this “chitchat,” Pérez identifies a speech genre, the initiation story, as proper to peri-ritual activity, in contradistinction to the many genres of properly ritual speech. Akin to Black Christian “testifying,” initiation stories emphasize the paths of suffering and salvation through which orishas claim devotees. Whatever those drawn to Ilé Laroye might want or expect, their time laboring and listening in the kitchen teaches them to recast religious commitment as submission to the will of the orishas.
In this accessible ethnography of an often unrecognized and marginalized religious community in the U.S., Pérez develops novel perspectives on a variety of themes at the nexus of food and religion. Through detailed, situated descriptions of her participation in a religious household, she emphasizes the importance of the embedded, embodied, sensory, and social involvement in kitchen-work and how it resonates with other aspects of diasporic religious participation. The book could readily be assigned to undergraduates as well as graduate students to highlight the importance of food and food preparation in classes in religious studies, the anthropology of religion, and African Diaspora Studies, and to draw out productive connections between food, spirituality, and community in classes on the anthropology of food.