Women and Cooking: A Cultural Connection
14 Aug, 2012 | Benjamin Fagan
Walking through the many barrios of La Paz, any passerby is bound to be taken aback by the multitude of smells that fi ll the air. Familiar odors of exhaust from minibuses and cabs and the smells of the flowers lining the Prado are commonplace, yet perhaps the most exotic and captivating smells waft from the food stalls lining the streets throughout the city. La Paz has a seemingly inexhaustible offering of delicious foods available on the streets, from Western offerings such as hamburgers and hotdogs to the more traditional Bolivian delicacies of anticucho, salteñas and choripan. And the people cooking these traditional foodstuffs are frequently women. A señora who sells her salteñas during the week in Sopocachi says, ‘In Bolivia, women and food are closely related. Within the household, a woman cooks, and on the streets we cook as well.’ With child in tow, she talks about the benefits of working her own schedule and providing for her family, preparing her salteñas and empanadas at home and selling them morning and afternoon from her bright-yellow cart.
From early morning to late at night, the rotation of food stands provides passersby a plethora of food options to satisfy hunger. In the mornings, salteñas are served, and from Thursday to Saturday, after night falls, anticuchos are available for the drinking crowd. A skewer of marinated beef heart with potatoes, the anticucho is the city’s favorite nighttime snack. Women vendors skillfully juggle the tender meat and potatoes and count change in front of throngs of hungry paceños readying themselves for a night of partying. Near Plaza Avaroa, a woman selling choripan praises her job as a way of promoting Bolivian culture through food. She says that in addition to the financial autonomy the job provides, she’s also a caretaker of Bolivian cuisine. The importance of women in the world of street food demonstrates a Bolivian pride in dishes that not only provides tasty treats to the general public but also gives a glimpse into the heritage of food in this Andean country.
While street food is a unique part of the paceño culinary scene, women have a larger part in the food industry. Females have risen to important positions within restaurants and culinary schools in La Paz. Chef Vanessa Marca Rios says that cooking can serve as a way to empower women in the workplace and provide strong moral values. Marca teaches at the CEFIM Institute, where young women learn practical skills such as hotel management and cooking. As a professor of cooking at CEFIM, she wants to instill important lessons in women who come to study and further their career opportunities. Marca views food as a way to bring people together to share experiences, and she believes that cleaning, preparation and service can teach the necessary educational background to succeed in the job market. She notes a larger presence of women in restaurants, and sees a trend in which the belief that men are more effective in the kitchen is being phased out. ‘Cooking is giving love’, she states as a reason for women being a fundamental part in the way humans interact with food from a young age in the household. Women are not only making strides as chefs in the food industry. At one of the most respected restaurants in La Paz, the Chalet La Suisse, service manager Gema Rada deals with day-to-day staff functions and assures quality of service. Maintaining a high level of excellence is the key to creating a name such as the Chalet la Suisse, Rada says, and she employs older women on her wait staff in order to assure a first-class level of professionalism. Rada reveals that only women have held her position at the Chalet La Suisse, and she believes it is because they are effective at managing and administering the staff while giving the necessary attention to patrons. Rada says that women can create a positive atmosphere for the owner, staff and patrons of the restaurant, and she believes that human relations are the cornerstone to making a meal into something more than just sustenance.
Women can be found in many different positions within the food industry, but there are common ideas shared amongst these workers. Rada notes that human interaction and the instinctual quality to create a positive experience are what give women an edge in the food service industry and allow them to create a unique and fun experience for the customer. The sense of providing a service through food is a common thought amongst these women, and they enjoy catering to the needs of their clients. ‘We can gain respect and fight on’ through cooking, says Marco, reflecting the clear sentiment that food serves as a pillar for women to care for others and advance their personal goals both in the household and through their careers.