It’s the first time you spooned chocolate chip cookie batter onto a cookie sheet. It’s the smell of enchiladas in the oven. It’s your mom teaching you how to slice onions for dinner. For many of us, the kitchen is a source of laughter and connection, intimacy, and abundance.
For most of the women at the Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, the kitchen is the opposite: a trigger point. The kitchen reminds them of restricted diets, of empty pantries and bare fridges, of where they were physically abused, of when their lives or the lives of their children were threatened. So, it was only natural that at Emerge!, the largest provider of domestic abuse prevention services and programs in southern Arizona, the kitchen was a constant source of tension. Meals were mostly made of processed, convenience foods. The space became perfunctory. Women mostly stayed away.
But leadership at Emerge! saw a chance to transform the kitchen into a space for healing. “In many houses, everything naturally gravitates to center around the kitchen,” says Melissa Gant, the case coordinator for life skills and nutrition at Emerge! “So many women come in feeling terribly about themselves because they’ve been told that they’re terrible for a long time. And this time is about reconnecting with themselves. And I see that happen so much in the kitchen.”
Emerge! is based on an empowerment model. Most activities are voluntary and survivors of domestic violence, both women and their children, can stay at the center for up to four months. All participants take part in sessions with their caseworkers, weekly community meetings, and a different community contribution each week. One community contribution is working to prepare the daily meal: dinner for up to 50 people.
Gant shops at the Community Food Bank’s agency market and supplements with a weekly delivery of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products. However, she doesn’t plan menus in advance. Instead, she asks the participants in charge of cooking what they want to prepare.
They are gathered around the table because they are survivors of domestic violence. Now, they are trying to cultivate a new relationship to home.
The kitchen becomes not only a place for discussing ingredients and recipes, practicing techniques, and preparing meals but also getting to know one another, building trust, and restoring belief in themselves. “A huge part of it is building self-confidence,” she says. “If they can do this thing they’ve never done before—cook for 50 people—and they can make something they can share with their community, they’re going to feel good about themselves and gradually they can work to try something else.”
“A lot of women, when they come in, it’s the first time they have had to breathe in so long,” Gant says. “You have to do that before you can get engaged with looking for housing, and work, and daycare.”
Because of privacy and safety concerns, Gant relayed details of the women’s stories using pseudonyms.
Before arriving at Emerge!, Kate had been in and out of prison and involved in multiple abusive relationships. The first time Kate worked in the kitchen, Gant asked what her favorite food was. “I don’t know,” Kate answered. “Well, if you went to a restaurant and could order anything you wanted what would you order?” Gant asked. She still couldn’t say. After years of abuse, many women have lost touch with their own needs and desires and have to get to know themselves again. Kate and Gant worked in the kitchen together; a couple of weeks later, every time Gant went into the kitchen, Kate was there. Making biscuits and gravy, potato salad, tacos, for herself and her roommates.
One night this summer, Gant made homemade pizza with Sofia and Aracely and their three children. Gant took the kids—4, 6, and 8—to the garden to harvest basil and tomatoes. The kids chopped vegetables with butter knives while the women kneaded and rolled out the dough. Sofia, a skilled cook, often volunteers even when it’s not her turn. Gant believes cooking gives her an opportunity to show love for her daughters and to maintain consistency in their lives, even though they’re in shelter.
When Shayna first came to Emerge!, she was pregnant and kept to herself, seemingly defeated. One day, she approached Gant and said, “Melissa, I’m about to have this baby, and I’m trying to get back custody of my other daughter and I don’t know how to make anything. If I’m going to have two kids, I really should know how to cook. Will you teach me?” Gant guided her through the process of making chili and lasagna, meals she could make in advance and freeze so that she would have food when the baby was born. Meals that are also her daughter’s favorites.
The women who gather around the table every night come from different backgrounds. Some were born and raised in the United States. Others are from Mexico, from Africa, from China, Turkey, Colombia. Some of them have children. Some don’t. Some come from wealth but most come from poverty. They are gathered around the table because they are survivors of domestic violence. Now, they are trying to cultivate a new relationship to home.
Working together has challenges. Trauma’s effects are long lasting and participants’ behavior sometimes reflects their pain and distrust. But in the kitchen, no one is asking them to sit down and talk about their most painful experiences. “Instead, it’s: Let’s sit and chop vegetables for a half hour and make something that you can feed to your children and share with your community,” says Gant. “Something that will fortify you. The food is not just nutritious because it has vitamins. This can nourish you.” ✜
Lisa O’Neill is from New Orleans but has made her home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her gumbo is not as good as her mama’s, but she’s working on it.
Home Made is a column looking at the ways people are creating community in the garden, in the kitchen, and at the table.