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Rebecca Sharpless' Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 discusses the lives of resilient African American domestics who worked as cooks and claimed ownership of their labor through their proprietary recipes and inventive techniques. While domestic workers' labor in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been well documented, Sharpless' task is to present cooks as household workers with unique workplace challenges and triumphs. Through the practice of cooking, women displayed their distinctive skills even though employers often disregarded their talents. Furthermore, employers viewed cooks as unintelligent, menial workers who were born with inherent cooking abilities. However, using rich sources such as recipes, narratives, letters, and cookbooks, Sharpless demonstrates that cooking required immense skill, practice, apprenticeship, and the ability to measure, calculate, and endure physically demanding labor.
The first chapters of the book introduce the reader to the unique lives of cooks. Sharpless begins her discussion by describing the ways cooking involved creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Cooking also required resourcefulness, such as figuring out how to prepare unfamiliar dishes. What made cooking especially difficult was that cooks had to please their employers' tastes and integrate their cultural and religious specifications into their meal planning. Moreover, since domestic work was unstable employment, cooks changed employers often and had to quickly assimilate many employers' culinary preferences. [End Page 256]
The other challenges that were commonplace to cooks included accusations of criminality, embarrassment caused by serving employers, and the labor-intensive aspects of cooking. Buying the ingredients needed to prepare meals often caused suspicion and claims of monetary and food theft. In addition, serving guests could be humiliating, because it marked defining moments when cooks were keenly aware that they were "servants" and not part of the employer's family. Other more physical challenges of cooking included the labor of making difficult food items, such as breads and fruitcakes, as well as the arduous task of cleaning up after cooking for a large group or elaborate event.
Some of the most interesting passages in the book occur when the reader gains insight into not just the adversity cooks faced but how their close relationship with food allowed them special privileges. For instance, they had access to cooking tools that they destroyed purposely and could surreptitiously take home the food they prepared. These portions of the monograph underscore Sharpless' purpose in describing the ways cooks coped with oppressive working conditions. Unfortunately, these fruitful discussions on the distinctiveness of cooks begin to fade in the latter half of the book. Sharpless argues that in terms of work responsibilities, "Cooking differs from cleaning, laundry, and childcare" (p. xii). Indeed, the act of cooking requires a different skill set than cleaning toilets, but Sharpless struggles to make this distinction in the last chapters in which she moves away from discussing the exceptional work of cooks, and focuses on the experiences of domestic workers as a whole. Moreover, the latter chapters also generate questions about the special nature of cooks' working conditions that Sharpless only briefly addresses. How did cooks deal with suspicions of disease, especially since they handled food? In what ways did food operate as a medium for retribution (such as the cook who was forced to "eat large quantities of inedible food" because of her culinary mistake [p.137]). Finally, how did the kitchen function as a space of simultaneous power, control, scrutiny, and alienation?
Nonetheless, these unanswered questions do not detract from [End Page 257] the value of Cooking in other Women's Kitchens. The robust descriptions of cooks' day-to-day tasks, their relationships with employers, and personal lives enriches the literature on domestic workers by drawing attention to specializations within the domestic-work labor market.
Ava Purkiss is a doctoral student in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.