August 14, 2012 by Kate Savage
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.
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.
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.