Religion in the Kitchen

Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions

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Elizabeth Pérez
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , February
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479839551 .
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by Yvonne Chireau. 

With Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions, Elizabeth Pérez offers a richly detailed ethnography of a community of black Chicagoans who as adults embraced Lucumí, an adaptation of West African Yoruba created under Spanish rule in Cuba. Focusing on a single home temple (Ilé Loroye) led by the diviner Ashabi Mosley, Pérez makes a valuable contribution of ethnographic description and analysis of an understudied aspect of African American religion: African Americans who, raised in the United States within Christian traditions, embrace Afro-Caribbean traditions that can provide them with “the opportunity to worship gods whose faces resembled theirs, venerate their ancestors, and foster Black solidarity by broadening kinship ties” (33). Pérez’s central thesis draws on this valuable ethnographic data to offer a corrective to Black Atlantic scholarship, whose characteristic “emphasis on elevated modes of religious conduct and discourse has overshadowed the less lofty aspects of religious experiences” (4). Pérez argues that these “less lofty aspects,” or micropractices, “hold the chief ingredients for the survival of Black Atlantic religions because they develop the faculties, sentiments, and expertise indispensable for their viability and spread” (11). Focusing on the daily preparation of food for the gods (orisha) in Ashabi’s kitchen, Pérez finds that in the food preparation and the casual conversations that accompany it, “being prepared for the orishas in the kitchen are not only sacrificial animals but also the people cooking” (107).

Pérez makes her central argument through detailed description and analysis of the practices of food preparation as well as the informal speech constantly taking place among the cooks, showing how both “material and discursive acts get under the skin of practitioners, equipping them with the repertoire of skills, dispositions, and habits necessary for religious norms to be internalized, then reproduced” (9). For example, in an account of the preparation of ashés (food for orisha cooked from the blood, organs, and extremities of chickens), Pérez describes how cooks “prevent contact between the ashés of hierarchically, spatially, and temperamentally divergent orishas” through practices like deep-cleaning pots between each successive use and using color-coated utensils for each orisha’s ashé (90). In cooking ashés, practitioners make a deeply embodied entry into a religious world full of orishas with individual preferences and abilities, demanding particularized relationships with their devotees. Both cooking and talking help create a specific subjectivity and embodiment appropriate to the religious world of Lucumí.

Though effective for her goal of shining light on the importance of micropractices, Pérez’s emphasis on fine grain detail can at times come at the expense of important connections between the community of Ilé Laroye and African American religion writ large. Pérez deftly summarizes the religious geography of Black Chicago from the Great Migration to the present in the first chapter, citing similar counter-hegemonic religious identities formed by Black Hebrew Israelites, Black Spiritualists, and members of the Moorish Science Temple. Even so, the heart of the book leaves these connections unexplored. What, for example, might we learn from comparison with other urban, black new religious movements that cultivated communities around new, non-Protestant religious identities befitting their post-Great Migration environments? What does Ashabi and her followers’ rejection of Christianity in favor of Lucumí in the 1980s tell us about the impact of Civil Rights and Black Power on African American religion?

Instead, Pérez chooses to marshal her evidence to intervene in the theoretical approach of Black Atlantic scholarship. In that agenda, she largely succeeds. Her insights, though framed as a corrective to Black Atlantic scholarship specifically, should be of value to all readers interested in understanding religion in terms of the forms of embodiment and subjectivity that constitute the daily lives of practitioners. Further, her careful analysis and description of specific events in the kitchen, such as the preparation of ashés, will provide a helpful model to scholars interested in the study of religious foodways. As Pérez clearly shows, such practices are never merely metaphorical or symbolic. Rather, they are deeply, even viscerally, embodied, shaping the identities of practitioners and structuring their relationship to the gods at the site of the body. In the final analysis, though the text leaves certain key connections to the wider story of African American religion unexplored, it is perhaps a testament to her deep fieldwork and rich description that other potentially rewarding lines of inquiry repeatedly appear, consistently leaving the reader wanting more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
March 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Pérez is assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College. She has contributed to numerous journals as well as to the volume Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in the Latina/o and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas.

Keywords: 

Comments

Elizabeth Peréz

As a reader of Reading Religion, I am honored to find this generous appraisal of Religion in the Kitchen, reviewed with such close attention to the nuances of its arguments. I was invited to give a response, and would only briefly clarify my approach to the material vis-à-vis the study of African American religion.

I write in the book, "Most of the elders of Ilé Laroye are the children and grandchildren of those propelled north during the Great Migration, and the religious culture to which it gave rise went to condition potential members’ receptivity to Lucumí" (31). Mr. Rose points out that Religion in the Kitchen does not pursue at length the relationships between Lucumí and "similar counter-hegemonic religious identities formed by Black Hebrew Israelites, Black Spiritualists, and members of the Moorish Science Temple." I would prefer to re-frame "connections unexplored" as loose threads, woven together in the chapter of Stephen C. Finley, Margarita Simon Guillory, and Hugh R. Page's 2014 anthology Esotericism, Gnosticism, and Mysticism in African American Religious Experience (Leiden: Brill) entitled, "Working Roots and Conjuring Traditions: Relocating ‘Cults and Sects’ in African American Religious History” (40-61). It is there that I theorize participation in "urban, black new religious movements" comparable to Lucumí in terms of "religious ambiguation" and expand on the dynamics of what Rami Nashashibi has called "ghetto cosmopolitanism."

I would also add that academic scholarship on Black Lucumí practitioners in the United States has heretofore focused precisely on "what [their] rejection of Christianity in favor of Lucumí in the 1980s tell us about the impact of Civil Rights and Black Power on African American religion." The adoption of Lucumí by African-Americans has been extensively chronicled. Among the most notable contributions are Steven Gregory, Santería in New York City: A Study in Cultural Resistance (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989); Mary Cuthrell Curry, Making the Gods in New York: The Yoruba Religion in the African American Community (New York: Garland, 1997); Stefania Capone, Les Yoruba du Nouveau Monde. Religion, ethnicité et nationalisme noir aux États-Unis (Paris: Karthala, 2005); and Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012). In a conscious departure from these excellent volumes, Religion in the Kitchen does not focus on locating the growth of Afro-Atlantic initiatory traditions within sociocultural macro-trends, but on scouring the unglamorous spaces of ritual micropractice for the makings of Black Atlantic religious subjectivity.

This methodological decision notwithstanding, to broach the question of how the Civil Rights and Black Power movements shaped African American religious formations raises larger issues about whose religious lives matter, and how we might recognize them as materializing in our inquiries. Historic struggles for Black liberation have always been felt viscerally by women, LGBTQ, and nonbinary people at the level of intimate body politics that remain outside the archives consulted in the fashioning of dominant narrative accounts. In chapter 4, "Gendering the Kitchen," I tell the story of the main cook in Ilé Laroye, whose estrangement from the Black Spiritual Church in the 1960s resulted from her insistence on wearing her hair in a "natural" Afro style antithetical to the "respectable" class-inflected aesthetic upheld by her congregation's female leaders, including her own grandmother. This discussion follows on an analysis of her burgeoning consciousness concerning race and gender/sexuality that led her to embrace Lucumí's sartorial and other disciplines as "Black figurations of dignity, prestige, and nobility in a religious idiom." I trust readers to connect the ethnographic dots in order to grasp the larger historical picture.

In the end, one writes the book that can fill in the greatest number of blanks--or, in this case, the one that stirs the most pots. I am grateful to Mr. Rose for allowing my work to spur his own reflections and graciously inviting a wider readership among my fellow AAR members.

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