by Jaspreet Kaur
The kitchen is the heart of my family’s house. From 5 a.m. when my parents start making tea, to the late hours of the night when the last of the kids is done snacking, it is in constant commotion. It is where my family eats, thinks, fights, laughs, and makes major life decisions. Every other room in the house is secondary to the loving, worn out, and high trafficked kitchen. I find myself spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen these days. I can’t cook to save my life but I love baking, having friends over, and eating. When I am in the kitchen all other anxieties fall away. I know I can be there for my over-worked mom, I know I can help out my dad and I am always in ear shot of my grandparents.
My mother is the queen of this space. My dad and I have labelled her the head chef and we are the bus-boy and sous chef respectively. When we first moved into this house over twenty-four years ago, my family dynamic was very different from what it is today. My mom stayed at home with us and my dad went looking for a new house on his own. My mom tells me that although she wasn’t there to pick the house, she had two demands: that the house be near a school and that the kitchen be to her specifications.
During my formative years growing up in this house my dad worked late into most evenings. He would come home and have his dinner served to him in front of the television. We kids were usually on our way to bed by this time and the dust of the day had settled. For better or worse, all the drama of this house was shielded from my dad as he ate his evening meal in peace.
As I grew up my dad changed jobs and started staying home sporadically throughout the day. Somewhere along the line my mom also started working full time. This coincided with my dad’s parents, my grandparents, aging into disabilities and my leaving the house for university. For the first time in a long time, my dad was home to see the inner workings of the house. He slowly found his way into the kitchen. He started to become my mom’s assistant; he took over cleaning the house, making breakfast, and feeding the grandparents.
Now that I am back home, and back in the kitchen, my dad and I have found an interesting rhythm. If someone were to watch my dad and I feed the grandparents, it would seem like a well-rehearsed dance. We co-ordinate bringing them to the table, cutting fruit, washing dishes, heating up food and clearing the table. Spending this time in the kitchen with my dad has allowed me to reflect on how having him in this space has affected my world view.
There are a lot of patriarchal customs in my Punjabi-Canadian life that I find challenging; I spend a lot of time criticising and fighting these. However, I also acknowledge and honor the men in my life that uplift me. When I see my dad in the kitchen, I see Sikhi come to life. It is one thing to have a political feminist stance in a public forum; to preach the egalitarian ideals of Sikhi from a stage, in an article or a presentation is valuable and necessary but it is another thing altogether to see these ideals in the home. In the moments where no one is watching, when there is no validation, I have seen my dad understand the kitchen to be his space and the work of the kitchen to be his responsibility. He has done the thankless, often invisible work, traditionally meant for women and thought it his duty.
I have also seen this in the space of the Toronto Sikh Retreat (TSR). Over the years, as I have participated in and eventually started organizing the retreat, I have found my place in the kitchen. I have been mentored by both men and women on how to run a kitchen for over seventy people. Men are involved in designing the menu, shopping for the supplies, peeling, chopping and serving. One of our main kitchen helpers last year was an uncle and yet another uncle drove in for the day with a fresh baked cake for campers. TSR is a space I am honored to be a part of and one of the few places in this world where I have seen men and women interchangeably run divan, present workshops and bake apple crumble.
Men in the kitchen at TSR and my dad in the kitchen at home have allowed me to feel comfortable in a space that I may have otherwise felt obliged to reject as a means of fighting gender norms. One of the most valuable things I have learned from my dad is that people can learn, grow and change. To me, this is the epitome of being a Sikh. In this moment, he has established himself in the kitchen. In doing so, he has given me the security to say I belong there too without feeling like I am falling into a prescribed gender role. The same way that I can say I belong in a Muay Thai gym or at the front of the room leading a TSR workshop, I can say I belong in the kitchen because most of the time I am in the kitchen, my dad is there with me.