When people learn my doctorate is in Conflict Resolution, many understandably ask something like,
“Do you mean the conflicts between couples, within organizations, or the more like the conflict in Israel?”
In a sense, they are asking do people hire me to work with individuals, groups and/or contested spaces. It turns out, all three.
Curiously, over the holidays, one of the most contested spaces I studied was the Kitchen!
Yes, the Kitchen. Capital "K."
You’ll find many wonderful books and trainings about dealing with difficult people and having difficult conversations with loved ones, but you will find fewer about contested spaces, unless – of course – you’re reading about Israel.
There are certain places in our daily lives where issues of power, domination, recognition, security, belonging, dignity, and even competition show up more than others. It’s important to know where these spaces are so that when you’re in them, you’re thinking more carefully about the games afoot -- I wouldn't want you to caught in any crossfire.
Think for a second about any kitchen near you during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Chanukah. Hopefully it was filled with laughter, creativity, wonderful smells, tasty treats strewn about...and, perhaps some crazy weird tensions over, say, whether canned cranberry sauce is selling out?
Who Runs the Kitchen?
Usually, one person – often the host or hostess is the kitchen’s King or Queen. When visitors accidentally upset the hierarchy, or break invisible rules, tensions can soar. When loving folks arrive with half-baked recipes and need ovens, spoons, and dishes, their presence – welcomed a first—can also cause a bit of a kerfuffle for the hosts.
Kitchen tensions are not always spoken. Yet, what you feel and witness often tells you about power dynamics in family. Social order is often negotiated here. I heard from a colleague about his mom and his aunt having a battle two weeks before Thanksgiving about the kitchen. After a recent divorce, the Aunt, he suspected, was feeling insecure about her place in the family and tried to claim the kitchen (via her recipes) to reassert her place.
Sometimes a younger family member will want to demonstrate adulthood by cooking a new dish or a family favorite. This can cause upsets in the ranks. Elders may become afraid of the “children” cooking – even if said children are 50. Older ranks may also feel they are being replaced. Younger folks may judge the elders for their “rules.” Rank and social position is constantly negotiated – what makes holidays fun for an anthropologist is watching that negotiation play out over pecan pie and oven temperatures for turkey.
Who Avoids the Kitchen?
Some folks skillfully avoid the kitchen. It’s like they intuitively know that they should stay away. Of course, during extended stays this is hard. But even during short stays figuring out kitchen etiquette isn’t always clear. Trying to help with the dishes, for example, is usually a double-bind (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).
Learning About Your Family by Studying Kitchen Subtleties
Many of the family’s patterns and tensions will become more visible in this space. Because kitchens store our food our brain might be anchored to register as a site of primal importance. It represents security and often, comfort.
For this reason, the kitchen can be a site of vulnerability. We are mortal, we can live without sharing our political opinions over the holidays, but panic without food we are often at the mercy of others during this time.
Then there is the common equation of food with love or comfort. You may come to the kitchen looking for love in the form of a sugar cookie and find yourself caught between two folks quibbling over whether to run the dishwasher.
Couples and Kitchens
Couples know about kitchens. Just ask them. All kinds of dynamics play out – I think three boyfriends have left me over kitchen issues; one over how I cut avocados, another other because I didn’t cut the individual sections of the grapefruit for him and the third because my pot cleaning did not show significant respect for his mother’s home.
In each case, the kitchen felony I committed symbolized something much greater to them.
So, I trust no kitchen.
What happened in your holiday kitchens this past year and what’s happening in your home now?
Now I say, have fun, play anthropologist and study the domestic dynamic.
You may find the bedroom a less contested space than the kitchen.