Book Review: Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, Written by Elizabeth Perez
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Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, written by Elizabeth Perez is an extensive dive into the complexities involved in practicing Lucumí, the Afro-Cuban religion practiced by the people of the Chicago-based community called Ilé Laroye. Lucumí emerged in Havana as devotees of the orishas began to pass on their believes to anyone willing to assume the rigors of the unique religion. Perez draws from years of ethnographic studying in this community among practitioners of Lucumí; She focuses on the behind-the-scenes work of the primarily women and gay men responsible for feeding the gods. She reveals how the simplest of practices, food preparation and conversation at the kitchen table, assist in the religious abstracts produced as well as how they play a vital role in socialization.
These practices are referred to as “micropractices”. Generally in modern western culture, speaking in the kitchen as well as preparing food do not stand out as vital pieces holding together an entire religion. In Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, Perez asserts how both of the micropractices reinforce the unity of the religion and highlights how they acquire these sacred meanings. She is able to powerfully discuss the Lucumí religion and the people of Ilé Laroye by utilizing her own experiences as well as her vast knowledge of religions from around the world. With a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and experience teaching classes such as ‘Religion and American Culture,’ ‘Gender and Religion in the African Diaspora,’ and ‘African Religions of the Americas’, as well as gaining experience from her current job as a teacher at UC-Berkeley, Perez was able to provide some incredible insight into the fascinating traditions of Lucumí. In Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, Elizabeth Perez explains that although not normally found in western culture, simple “micropractices” in the Lucumí religion of the people of Ilé Laroye such as speaking at the table and cooking food creates connections between the people and gods as well as provides the foundation for the religion to not only survive, but also thrive and spread.
Speaking at the kitchen table in the Lucumí religion provides the people of Ilé Laroye with a feeling of connectitude with each other as well as provides a strong basis for the religion to thrive in society. Talking in different religions often carries different meanings depending on where one goes. Perez explains in her work that, “The assumption that everyday verbal interaction lacks meaning and purpose runs deep. Idioms in American English commonly allude to talk as ‘hot air’” (5). While this may be true in some cultures, she quickly explains that in Ilé Laroye, the people’s wordcraft, or, way with words, is imperative to bringing the gods to life for the people as well as keeps their namesake traditions alive for future generations. After years of “participant observation” in the rituals of the Ilé Laroye people, Perez explains that practitioners discuss the stories of their lives and why they came to serve the gods. She first began her observations after entering the home of leader of Ilé Laroye, Ashabi Mosley and it was in Ashabi’s bungalow where Perez truly began to understand the roots of the religion. She explains that while she expected more alters and gazing at shrines, it was the act of completing the tasks that the practitioners speak of that truly connected people under the Lucumí religion. The explanations of there ritual experiences is what brings the Orishas, or the manifestations of God, alive to the people and how the people can then base their religious practices on them.
Preparing food in the Lucumí religion creates a connection between the people of the religion and their gods as they cook for them as well as assists in the spread of Lucumí to others and through generations. The scene is set at the religious Lucumí feast led by the leader Ashabi Mosley. The sounds of compliments towards the chef, the earthenware plates knocking together on the countertop and the sizzle of red snapper frying on the stove fill the kitchen, as well as the smells of the delicious full meal including sides of corn on the cob, sour balls of yam flour, beans savory with hambone stock, and many other traditional dishes. Twenty one plates in total will fill the table for the dinner. While this seems like an absurd amount of food, the Lucumí people understand that they are not the only ones it satisfies. Perez explains, “Practitioners conversant with the gods’ tastes already know that they respond to requests only if and when their hungers are satisfied. Accordingly, this book investigates food preparation for the relationships it structures and the types of bodies—both divine and human—that it produces”.
The chefs preparing the enormous amounts of food absolutely know that while it is to be enjoyed under the connection felt between the religious humans at the table, it also serves as a connection to the divine deities. The goal of each dinner is to please the god’s taste. They crave the sight of symbols, sights, and scents of each gathering as the people connect with each other in order to please the gods. Perez explains that the point of her ethnography is to assure the point that cooking not only acts as a tradition, it also is what brings the deities to life in the religion to others practicing. The micropractice of cooking may seem trivial, but the people of Ilé Laroye, under the Lacumi religion, give it so much more meaning.
Perez wrote this ethnography with hopes it would reach not just religion scholars, but also the general public who perhaps think the micropractices involved in the black Atlantic culture can be compared to other cultures, where they might seem ordinary or seemingly meaningless. While there have been multiple pieces of literature ranging from ethnographies to professional essays, it truly seems that very few of them focus on the specifics that Perez dives into about the micropractices. The depth that Perez goes into educates the readers on more than just the history of the religion or the opression they have faced, like some literature focuses on. She ensures that while those aspects are important, it is truly the two micropractices she mentions that gives the religion its character. With that, this book could absolutely place itself somewhere in the syllabus.
This black Atlantic culture present in Ilé Laroye has strong connections based on their ethnicity and religion. Lucumí brings together a group of people practicing seemingly ordinary tasks and makes unites them under the power of religion, a structure of power discussed in anthropology discussion. However, just because it could fit into the curriculum, does not mean it necessarily should. Discussing the structures of power in discussion and lecture through the activities and readings presented provides a concise way of learning rather than reading a long ethnography. This ethnography, however, could provide a fantastic example of ethnicity and religion connecting a group of people while also discussing the importance of understanding the differences in cultures around the world.