Kitchen Work

Tomatoes for the Table

It is strange how, in the past and perhaps even today, certain kinds of work are regarded as menial and the people who do them as inferior. I remember some sort of gathering at which a Swedish nun and I were introduced to someone as the monastery’s cooks. The person to whom we were introduced couldn’t move away quickly enough but seemed to think better of it once she learned more about our backgrounds. It was then our turn to be a little reserved.

St Benedict in his chapter on the monastery’s kitcheners (RB 35), which we begin re-reading today, not only assumes everyone who can will take their turn at cooking and serving but also that such service increases charity in a community and secures a richer reward for the individual. Our competence is secondary, though that can be difficult to accept. Even culinary disasters (I’ve perpetrated a few myself) can be an occasion of grace, not just Gaviscon.

Why do we think of some work as important and other work as inconsequential? I don’t know, but I have a hunch it has to do with our endless status-seeking. The boss of an organisation probably has the most expensive computer, even if he/she uses it least. It tells other people how important they are to the organization and reassures them that their status is assured. We all have to eat, so unless we are a celebrity cook, work in the kitchen attracts no kudos. Forgive me for being boring and predictable, but how many people are we relying on today to do work we couldn’t or wouldn’t do for ourselves? Let us be grateful for them.


19 thoughts on “Kitchen Work”

  1. I shall remember that wonderful quote ‘a little reserved’! If I say I’m retired there are certain people who always want to know what I retired from, relevant or not, and base their interaction accordingly.

    As for cooking, there are few other activities which improve the lives of those we cook for as much. And gardening.

    This blog is a salutary lesson in not making judgements. A friend who is a local politician never says so because of the instant assumptions it creates.

    It’s bin day today and I am eternally grateful to those who cope with the mess that we all create.

    Slightly tangentially, I remember many years ago a parishioner who was one of the school cleaners was also a Eucharistic Minister, the school gleamed and she was an example to all, but she used to remark on the change of attitude when some realised that she ‘wasn’t just a cleaner’.

    • Trouble is, wedo all tend to make instant judgements, don’t we?’Just a cleaner’ is one of the phrases that ignites my fuse. Look how the death rates in the Crimea dropped when Florence Nightingale instituted a proper cleaning regime!

      • So true. And the tone comes from the top. When I had my children many years ago, the wards also gleamed. Matron inspected everything and I used to watch her congratulating the cleaning staff every day. It raised their status. And others copied.

  2. Well said: one of the miracles of modern life is our sewage and water system. Imagine living in a world where we had to make our own arrangements…..society as we know it would break down within days. All hail our unseen heroes.

  3. I remember going to an old school reunion, and speaking to the retired head. She asked what I did. I was “just a mum” at the time, and she lost interest. When I was ordained, however, she came to the service with delight, wrote about me in the parish magazine of my home town. I think being a priest is wonderful, and an important role. Bringing up my children to be loving, caring, responsible human beings seems somehow the most important and difficult thing I have ever tackled. “just retired” now….(ha ha!) I try to spot the “just”s in conversations… makes for some fascinating twists!

  4. I felt the same when the phrase ‘key worker’ was first coined. It suggested that some jobs were more important than others. Yet restaurants are now struggling to open because they can’t get staff. Whilst eating out may not be a necessity, it contributes hugely to our national economy and to those who rely on them to pay their rent or mortgage.

  5. A friend and her husband visited Northern Ireland a few years ago, and she was amazed that no one asked her or her husband what they did for a living. They had lively conversations with lots of people, none of it involving their work lives. Here in the US, it’s one of the very first things people ask each other.

  6. I have been told off, for saying when asked my work position as I was replying, the lower class work, I’m happiest with my head good and hard down the toilets cleaning them! and then saying, what position do you rich & famous people hold? Blessings.

  7. The difference between a person and a function gets overlooked again and again. It is a stark reality that women particularly suffer from this..being Just a Mum being the most blatant. I remember an unpleasant atmosphere in the staff room in a school where I taught because the cleaners sat there for a few minutes when they had finished their work at 8 a.m. and teachers arriving early felt they had no right to, altho the alternative was the broom cupboard.

  8. My mother taught me that the only task to be ashamed of was one that was badly done, and house work went better if you sang a rousing hymn while you did it.

  9. When I was a curate I was asked to take a couple of services in a neighbouring parish whose congregation had never encountered a woman priest. I was asked to introduce myself in the Parish Magazine – fair enough- but with the proviso that I stressed my Oxford history degree as it would make me more acceptable. I refused and being a tad stroppy didn’t mention it at all. The Vicar who had asked me was not happy and I suspect would have asked someone else to cover his services if I hadn’t already been the bottom of the barrel.

  10. For various complicated reasons when I was first ordained I was also working as a post office clerk. After several quite awkward put downs because I wasn’t engaged in professional work I moaned rather a bit to God, to get, in as clear a reply as I have ever had, “So what’s wrong with being a carpenter!”. “Oops, sorry Lord, point taken..”

  11. There is no way to win with this one. I’m an engineer, I manage a team, I supposedly have some influence and status at work. It’s about as professional a job as you can get.

    I encounter lines like ‘Oh well, I suppose you young women do jobs like that these days’ (Um, yes, and so did many women older than you in the second world war…), or the hurtful withdrawal as people respond like I’ve intimidated them, or with the assumption I will think less of them in some way.

    I quite look forward to being able to introduce myself as a mum, or wife, and get treated like I’m normal!

    And do like cooking and gardening.

    • The things other people assume about us!!! You are clearly intimidating, and I am clearly holy/saintly! I know one of those assumptions isn’t true, and suspect the other isn’t either! It often seemed to surprise/shock people that I have a sense of humour! I think Sr Catherine gets similar reactions when she allows her very healthy humour to show! I was happy to learn that others’ reactions say so much more about them than us…. Flip side of that of course, is that my reactions say more about me that I often comprehend! Have a good weekend. In the garden???

  12. I live and learn: Michael Barnes SJ points out that what Jesus says to Martha in Luke 10. 42 is not that Mary has chosen *a* better part or *the* optimum (optimam partem) but that what Mary has chosen is good also. Μαριὰμ γὰρ τὴν ἀγαθὴν μερίδα ἐξελέξατο There’s no comparative involved. Jesus isn’t setting up a hierarchy of activities, and says that Martha shouldn’t implicitly do that either. MB points out also that this story follows on directly from the Good Samaritan parable.

    • Exaactly. I think that’s why St Bernard insists they are sisters, therefore equal in dignity and importance. Do you know Giles Constable. Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha, The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ, The Orders of Society. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1995. ?

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