Religion in the Kitchen
Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions
- ISBN: 9781479839551
- Published By: NYU Press
- Published: February 2016
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.
Kevin Stewart Rose is a doctoral student in American Religious History at the University of Virginia.Kevin Stewart RoseDate Of Review:March 2, 2018