Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Power of the Kitchen

This is the third Thanksgiving in a row (and the fifth in total) I've spent outside the US (and won't be the last). It's by far and away my favourite American holiday, but not because of what it historically represents (as John Oliver reminded us) or the endless Black Friday sales fueling our consumer habits. But rather because it is a perfect opportunity for reflection and taking stock of the good fortunes in one's life. But it's also a really conducive time for social critiques - like on income disparities in That Slice of Pie last year or the refugee and terrorism hysteria plaguing the media now. This year, I've been spending some time in communities experiencing food poverty, and have only fully begun to realize the power of having a kitchen.

Oxford is a strange place, though not unique in this respect. Amidst the elevated intellect and apparent wealth, there is considerable poverty and even homelessness. Where Oxford University colleges host lavish formal dinners, there are people on the fringes of the city who struggle to access food at all. In fact, it's estimated that nearly one quarter of children in Oxford live below the poverty line! But, what surprised me in chatting with people at food surplus distribution points (e.g. food banks) is that obtaining basic ingredients is not always the problem, rather a place to store and cook it is. Fuel costs - electric, gas, or even coal/wood on boats - or lack of facilities are major issues.

So now we come to appreciation of kitchens. Thanksgiving was just two days ago, and on that holiday food happens to be a cental fixture, a force that draws families together. And while a solid 10% of Americans will go for something other than a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner, gathering in the kitchen is still an important piece of the pie for many of us. In my observations, the kitchen is where the best socializing happens, where people flock to during parties and get-togethers despite more open space elsewhere. It just goes to show the power of a kitchen, and how it can also be an agent not just for eating fresh and healthy foods but also building community and social cohesion.

One of the men I spoke with during this project couldn't afford fuel to cook or a friedge to store perishables, or even food at times. And yet, his eyes lit up at the prospect of using a communal kitchen to prepare meals for anyone who needed. Generosity in the kitchen, from someone who has so little, is very telling. Sharing food fulfills a hunger that eating along won't ever satiate. I probably take a home-cooked meal for granted, and perhaps don't fully grasp the great fortune of having shared meals among friends on a regular basis. It is especially important to remember on days like Thanksgiving that this is not the case for everyone, and the absence of a kitchen has more resounding consequences than merely the loss of hot food.

There's some food for thought. Now go appreciate your kitchen and make some pumpkin pie!

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