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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Rice as a Measure of Womanhood

Rice is one of the world’s most popular grains. It is a mainstay in diets from Latin America to Africa and Asia. It is consumed on every inhabited continent, in some form, in every country. It is perhaps then little wonder that rice preparation can serve as a ruthless metric of womanhood. I was reminded of this today. My husband and I have been in the habit of sharing some of the food we make with the other families in our Ghanaian compound. Last night we made Caribbean chicken with rice. This morning I was thanked, and informed that my rice was too soft (my husband had made the rice, and in a ricecooker). This reminded me powerfully of my first experience learning to cook rice outside of the US.

The first time I lived outside of the U.S. I lived in a small plantation village “finca” in the Pacific side of Costa Rica. My friend and I shared a small, sparse cement home. The only source of food was the single village store and what grew outside in the yard. Like the many Costa Ricans around us, we subsisted largely on rice and beans. Both were sold in unmarked plastic bags by weight. And so for the first time I confronted the vast system of guidance that I had long taken for granted: printed instructions. The deep knowledge of traditional cooking as practiced by thousands of women around the world exists beyond standardized volumetric distinction. There are not cups or tablespoons except the casual use of actual coffee-cups or literal spoons from the table. Recipes, at best, consist of inherited knowledge of a combination of ingredients with an artist’s feel for the relative proportions. I was twenty years old and I had never before made rice without precise directions for the volume of rice to water, without indication of the temperature or time to cook. To the women of my village, where even the smallest girl can make rice, this was absurd. Rice made me a sort of un-woman.

But at least now I knew the measure of the game. Through rice I could also win my redemption. My friend and housemate, Nick, and I began assuming more traditional gender roles. I watched and observed this phenomenon as though it were beyond my power to change it, and for the first time had the proto-sociologist’s inkling of the power of small, closed social systems to influence individual behavior. I would cook rice in the kitchen, with some furtive assistance from him. He would take the machete out back to bring down coconuts or papaya.

Learning to cook rice like a Costa Rican woman was simultaneously a journey of selfhood. If you stir it too often you will make a soggy indistinct mess, because rice, like people, cannot suffer too many corrections without ill effect. On the other hand, if you do not stir it enough, or at the crucial time, it will burn. Rice without the well-timed intervention will scald, remain stuck in place and become bitter. Perfect rice is also a matter of the flame. It must start high, but not too high, to provide the ideal crucible for fine grains. It must be reduced to a low simmer at the right moment, so that it may steam. The proportion of water to rice is only the first and most obvious player in the development of rice. While rice in the US (I know now) instructs two parts of water for every part of rice, the rice of my village required a complex quadratic relationship that was somehow made perfect only if you used the knuckles of one finger to estimate the relationship.

I burned one batch of rice so badly onto the bottom of our only small pot that it took the next two months to dutifully scrub it back into shape. But after a month I could prepare rice reliably well. Perhaps for this reason I stubbornly resisted rice cookers for so long. Well-made rice was a matter of crafts-womanship. As I repeated the process I had learned through so much labor and love, I connected to those past experiences. Memory was embodied so that each turn of wrist as I washed the grains was intimately connected to every woman in my village who washed her grains the same way.

My husband eventually won out over my luddite ways, and our home in the US has a rice cooker. I still view this alien technology with suspicion.

But then again, once I had mastered rice making my neighbors began disparaging me because I could not crack an egg one-handed.


Unknown said...

cool blog! i know about rice, my adoptive father is a sushi chef from Japan...the rice has to be perfect! wow, you've gotten around on this planet, girl, where even is ghana?

Erin said...

You'd be surprised how many folks I run into who have heard of Ghana but don't know where it is. Ghana is on the coast of West Africa, right where the continent "bends." It is bordered on the east by Togo and on the west by Ivory Coast. If you know where Nigeria is, Ghana is just two countries to the west along the coast.

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