Out of the Ovenmitts, Into the Streets!

20

August 14, 2012 by Kate Savage

Casserole Rebellions

I was raised to be a Mormon housewife. Accordingly, the ultimate tool of my sociability is the casserole. We speak in casseroles, the language of care. You are hurt, you are weary, we bring this thing to you. An exuberance of cheeses, meats, starches, veggies. It is both inexpensive and rich, diverse and homey, complex and profoundly unsophisticated. It is a relic of the gadget-hawking cooking that reigned in a father-knows-best suburbia, and also a promise of a future where we will thriftily use our leftovers, and give to food our time and care.

The casserole is a meal, but it is also the vessel that holds that meal. Especially in Quebec, where the ‘casserole’–a large pot–has become the demonstration tool of choice. People on the streets and on their balconies, banging pots and pans: the casserole rebellion.

(See a video of what I’m talking about, in its loveliest form, here)

Homey like the dish itself, and nothing new. In Oaxaca, 2006, women, banging casseroles, took over a radio station to break government control of media. In 2009, when Iceland demonstrators brought down the right-wing government, they called it “The Kitchenware Revolution” for all the pots and pans.

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When I was twelve and we moved to the rich suburbs, my mother, who was raised on a truck-driver’s sporadic salary, made a gauche social mistake. The neighbor was sick, and Mom brought her a casserole. The parents accepted it politely enough, but the kids didn’t hide their disgust. “We don’t eat casseroles,” one of them told me on the bus the next morning.

Of course I was ashamed. My family, fish-outta-water here, even with dad’s money. We ate casseroles instead of dining at the country club. We ourselves grew corn and cantaloupe instead of hiring someone to grow a lawn. We clumsily groped for a suburbia that mixed the best of urban and rural existence, instead of simply space to escape from poor, brown people; we raised sheep and chickens instead of sports cars, and were slow to see the joke was on us.

But a shame like that, a shame of your mother’s casseroles, is a useful shame. A sharp pride hid in the work of my mother’s hands (and yes, maybe a box of hamburger helper, maybe a can of cream of mushroom soup). When I told my family what I had heard, they helped me hone this pride: if you were too good for casseroles, you were no good at all.

Cacerolazo

While institutions protest with banners and flags and chants, the casserole demonstration can crop up in history bare of organization. Empty-potted housewives: not always with a water-tight political analysis, but with the thrill of the spontaneous.

Like populism itself, the pot-banging tactic can’t be corralled into political ideology. It breaks barriers, in a way that leaves all of us uneasy. Its big debut was by middle-class Chileans protesting Allende. Later it was used against Pinochet. It has been used both for and against Chavez.

And yet in its roughness the tactic hits me, hard. The sheer promise of it: public, political space can’t be taken from you. Even if they take the streets from you, as they tried to do in Quebec, even if they kettle and arrest you, you can’t be pushed out of the public. Noise travels. Sound waves can’t be kettled. Many of the images coming from Quebec show people on front porches, balconies, even inside, still in a neighborly clang of resistance.

The boom of the empty casserole is a bark against precarity. By precarity, I mean the stress that lodges deep in your stomach pit when you think of your student debt or the cost of an ambulance ride, the bile in your throat when you try to pray away a lay-off, or when your tally tells you that retirement, ever, is financially impossible. Precarity bludgeons us. We are told we are more affluent and better off than anyone in the history of the world, but we walk about in a buzz of pre-traumatic stress.

Worse, precarity tries to strip us of our most important resource, which is our generosity with each other; it creates a culture where anyone, at any moment, could be stripped of her ability to care for herself and others. What we have we are forced to hoard, because your kid might get sick one day, or want to go to college to escape a dead-end job–if you haven’t been hiding away whatever you can, and don’t have a hefty bank account at the ready, you’re outta luck.

And so the group percussion of a casserole demonstration is the first timid movement of asserting generosity, of knitting a rough-and-tumble community. A letter to the editor in Quebec’s paper gushes:

Now people greet and talk.  Now neighborhood meetings, discussions, vigils start up casually among neighbours on the steps and balconies of Montreal.  The neighborhood will be less and less alien.  This is a true political victory!

We should repeat this friendly beating [the evocation of tapage doesn’t quite work as well in English] possibly in other forms, until the land is occupied by neighbors who recognize one another, encounter one another each day by chance, and have known one another over the years.  That is how we live in a place, that is how we become citizens.

My heart swells with joy.

(I took the English translation from here)

———————————————————————————————

I was radicalized with a group of Mormons, and when we come home from the long meetings and demonstrations and occupations, we confess to each other our need for casseroles. We confess that what we would prefer–what would be far more comfortable than chanting anti-capitalist slogans and being chased by riot cops–would be to build a casserole and send it steaming to a sick neighbor. Out of time, we ache after this kind of apolitical, care-oriented interaction.

To sustain ourselves and to concede to our conscience, we do what we can to meld the two. We work in the kitchens at occupations and learn the skills of street medics for major demonstrations. We feed protesters and later flush pepper spray from their eyes. We soothe our own inflamed need for one-on-one care in the middle of a jaw-clenched agitation for systemic change. We remind ourselves that the toppling of bullies is also a kind of neighborliness.

Now our neighbors to the north have sent us these new casseroles, and we know what to do with them. We know that some of the animation in the Quebecois casserole-clanging was itself fed by the zeal of Occupy Wall Street, which in turn caught hope from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the Indignados of Spain, and so on, down and up and around all the world’s movements.

In the book Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton Lynd says solidarity is a relay race, where the torch has to be passed continually from one living runner to another. For us, solidarity is a ladies’ auxiliary of disobedience, a sign-up sheet for mutual aid as members of The Revolt Society.

You cover today, and we’ll take tomorrow.

20 thoughts on “Out of the Ovenmitts, Into the Streets!

  1. nat kelly says:

    Revolt Society! Ah! That is a class I will attend every Sunday!

  2. nat kelly says:

    This really does hit home for me, because even as I’ve become more radicalized and less “Mormonized”, I still live in this limbo between two worlds. I prefer the company of folks engaged in good work to restructure our society, but I long for the company of people who understand that understand “my need for casseroles”–that homey, comfort, familiarity that I don’t want to have to abandon in the course of my organizing, or even as I feel different strands of belief slipping away from me.

    You can take the girl out of the Mormonism, but you can’t take the casserole out of the girl. Or something like that.

  3. Kate says:

    Katy! Sososossoososo good! Revolt Society where parity never faileth!

    This reminds me of my mission where, ironically, my first radical inklings were germinated.

    In the spring of 2003 I was living in a small city a few hours outside of Barcelona. The timing brought me there just after the war in Iraq had been initiated. Every night my ears would ring with the pots and pans banging against war outside my apartment. Spanish people were so furious with my government (and the acquiescence of their own) that they gathered in the town square in scalding protest against injustice and a new war of aggression. They circled the city endlessly into the night to gather and bang pots with fury.

    I returned to the US before the election cycle of 2004, and I felt not merely the growing discontent of many with a particular candidate, party or even war. I was tired of a world-view that no longer seemed rational or defensible. The clanging of those pots jarred my comfortable conservative paradigm right out of alignment, never to return!

    Thanks so much for being so awesome & sharing this with us.

  4. Ron Madson says:

    Katy, I am so thankful to be associated with you in our “Mormon Worker community.” You work on the front lines and words are an inspiration for all of us. This post is a gem. If only we could meld “Revolt Society with casseroles…” Thanks again

  5. ashsanders says:

    Katy, this is so lovely. Just last night I was up late into the night talking with friends about what our Mormon heritage had done to forever change our activism. I said that it made me always want to have one eye on the system and one eye on the individual, that it made me want not just justice, but beauty and creativity and personal care. Compared to this, so many of the activist attempts at changing the world can seem sterile. I want a revolution where I will want to hang out with the revolutionaries after the revolution’s over. Is this possible? Thank you for articulating the possibility of a world where we are not divided between systemic justice and individual care.

    Oh, and your post title is like playing through Chopsticks on the piano but not hitting the resolving chord. The whole day I have been chanting “Out of the oven mitts into the streets!” and then “Join us, join us!” under my breath.

  6. missy. says:

    YES. Yes, yes. I have struggled myself with this sometimes-feels-like-adichotomy between, as ash put it in the above comment, systemic justice and individual care. I love that you point to spontaneous mother-activism as a potential model for how to meld these kinds of actions… On days when it seems impossible to be political/activist and nurture two small kids at the same time, I take courage from mother-activists who are political BECAUSE they have learned it from nurturing. I like to envision coming to a place where public and private nurturings are interwoven.

    I especially love these lines of your essay:

    “Precarity bludgeons us. We are told we are more affluent and better off than anyone in the history of the world, but we walk about in a buzz of pre-traumatic stress. Worse, precarity tries to strip us of our most important resource, which is our generosity with each other; it creates a culture where anyone, at any moment, could be stripped of her ability to care for herself and others.”

  7. Some how after reading your blog and getting a craving for a casserole, I have an image I can’t shake. Of a group of Mormon women protesting not sure what, but they are feeding the police into submission with their casseroles. Talk about a healthy revolution

  8. Grumpa Joe says:

    My problem with a casserole is that I can’t stop eating iy once I get started.

  9. Sarah says:

    What a wonderful post this is. I feel nourished having read it. As a non-Mormon, I’m very happy to see this other face of Mormonism that speaks to my own values and struggles — and love of casseroles and a politics of care. I will keep your phrase “pre-traumatic stress”; wow, is that ever apt!

    Glad to see you Freshly Pressed.

  10. Katherine says:

    I love casseroles! They are fairly simple to make (a few moments of prep, then throw it in the oven to finish while you relax in front of the television, or whip up some cookies) and they are super filling and satisfying. They are great for leftovers, and can be recycled from so many other dinners!

  11. Loved this! My own mother was a child during the Depression and she learned how to feed a family with casseroles made with love.

  12. GG says:

    Story reminds me of myself. I like your post.

  13. yessss! i live in montreal, and the casseroles manifs just started up again with gusto last night! i live in a residential neighbourhodd so often kids and their parents will sit out on their porches at sunset banging pots and pans, it’s really odd. people also gather around the church square make noise for about an hour every night (when the manifs were in full swing before the summer).

    pre-traumatic stress…spot on. very well done.

  14. Even though I am not Mormon, this blog is making crave the dish🙂 I really enjoyed your blog – keep up the good work. I will make sure to visit your page more often. Please visit http://www.mynutritioninsight.com for information and disease prevention and healthy food and drink recipes.

  15. Ana: says:

    There was a huge cacerolazo in Argentina in 2001 which led to the President resigning and flying away on a helicopter from the government house.

    A powerful tool, indeed.

  16. mg says:

    beautiful. i can’t help but imagine there might have pot and pan noise-making all the way back during the french revolution, or at least the paris commune. a dreamer of historical continuity i am.

  17. mattchristy says:

    I forgot all about this one, Kate. Glad I stumbled on to it. Thanks for this sentence: “Out of time, we ache after this kind of apolitical, care-oriented interaction.”

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