It was in the community called Ilé Laroye (pronounced “la-ro-yeh”), led for over thirty years by the diviner and praise-singer Ashabi Mosley, that I became acquainted with everyday religious experience in a Black Atlantic house of worship. I first entered Ashabi’s home on a day of feasting, during a party celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of her initiation into Lucumí, popularly called Santería. She had been initiated in 1986 as a child of Elegguá, deity of communications, master of crossroads, and messenger of the gods. That day in her bungalow on the South Side of Chicago, my eyes returned repeatedly to the greenery of her “birthday” altar, a tropical forest in miniature sprouting from a corner of her living room. I watched intently as visitors unfurled a woven mat before the altar, then saluted the orishas within it with rattles and the ringing of bells—some lying flat on their stomachs, others propped up on their elbows and hips. What met my ears as the sounds of Afro-Cuban religion were the syllables of Yorùbá terms overheard between snatches of English and Spanish. If I went in the kitchen, it was to ask for a cup of water, but I did not think to linger.
I soon learned that the kitchen was the place where I needed to be. With my Cuban American upbringing, I might have expected that studying patterns of religious experience would entail more than gazing at shrines. To the contents of the standard ethnographic toolkit—notepad, pencil, voice recorder—I added a knife and sponge. In Ilé Laroye, practitioners’ wordcraft testified to the vital presence of the gods in their everyday lives. Their fingers, with no little eloquence, precisely described the movements needed to turn the flesh and bone of sacrifice into sacred meals. Watching the process was instructive; to attempt to replicate it, serrated blade in hand, was to be schooled both in the requirements for mastery and in the importance of food preparation as ritual performance. After years of kitchen chores and so-called chitchat, I came to question their relegation to the footnotes of publications on Afro-Diasporic traditions. To insert these activities in the body of a text is to invite a reconsideration not merely of their existence at the edges of “lived religion,” but of religious embodiment itself.
In Caribbean and Latin American religions of African origin, the gods feel. They crave the sight of symbols and gestures; the sounds of oracles and instruments; the scent of breath and cigar smoke. They also want food. Their hunger for it dictates the ceremonial calendar in houses of worship, the division of labor within religious families, and the allocation of monetary funds and other resources. While major rituals such as initiations require banquets for the gods and communal meals for practitioners, even most smaller ceremonies call for an offering of some refreshment for the spirits. Priestly elders and novices alike render service to them by anticipating their culinary desires, differentiating between the dietary preferences of distinct entities and training others to do so. Among those responsible for feeding the deities and ancestors in Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and Cuban Lucumí—among other traditions that crystallized during the transatlantic slave trade—recipes circulate through printed manuals, handwritten notebooks, and word of mouth.
The gods’ hunger is no more a metaphor than their reality, and practitioners tend to conceptualize divine sense perception primarily through the act of eating.
Those who practice these religions talk while they cook. They chat around kitchen tables; over charcoal grills, wood fires, and gas stoves; on temple floors; in bungalow basements and the courtyards of tenements and compounds. They not only speak in divination verses, myths, and proverbs, they use their own words to enact their worlds. They create moral-ethical communities through the informal communication that accompanies food preparation. As they cook, practitioners share the stories of their lives, and tell how they came to serve the gods. They do so with such regularity, in fact, that the swapping of these anecdotes should be regarded as a ritual in its own right. Nourishment of the deities stimulates discussion about practitioners’ nurturance by them, often unfolding at the far threshold of sacred spaces. Transcribed into oral histories by generations of researchers, they are now critical to the study of West and Central African traditions in the Americas.
The gods’ hunger is no more a metaphor than their reality, and practitioners tend to conceptualize divine sense perception primarily through the act of eating. Yet scholars have not appreciated the extent to which cooking is a ceremonial endeavor rife with cosmological significance, inviolable taboos, and reckoning of sacred time. Despite a few exceptions, this scholarly neglect of religious food preparation may be traced back to an ingrained suspicion of gastronomic pleasure and shallow estimation of day-to-day cookery in the Western philosophical tradition. Classical Enlightenment texts vigorously reinforced the negative connotations that Christian moral thought attached to the appetite. Casting the tongue as an organ of indulgence rather than discernment, influential treatises, commentaries, and lectures put taste at the bottom of the sensory hierarchy. They excluded gustatory events from the ranks of experiences able to deliver a morally valuable encounter with beauty, deeming the judgments of the palate too fickle and instantaneous to qualify as universal.
Enlightenment thinkers associated food with women from the European “laboring classes” and enslaved Africans whose prowess was counted on to turn raw ingredients into edible fare. Not coincidentally, their texts laid the foundation for modern definitions of religion, and dismissed people of African descent as having none. They depicted both continental Africans and Black folk in the Americas as prisoners of primitive instincts and passions, trifling in sentiment as well as intellect, with neither culture nor past. It is no wonder, then, that many scholars in the 20th century attempted to confer validity on maligned Caribbean and Latin American traditions by accentuating their similarities with those esteemed as “world religions.” They tried to make these traditions resemble monotheistic religions with their imposing edifices, universalizing scriptures, and literate male clerics. However, many Black Atlantic religions defy Eurocentric classificatory schemes by not only valorizing spirit possession and sacrifice, but also in prizing food preparation. Even so, it should not come as any shock that explaining the culinary ingenuity involved in feeding the gods—and the moral-ethical imperative to do so—has historically received much lower priority than tackling the bleakest of stereotypes.
The gods have been obliged to adhere to the same politics of respectability that have constrained people of African descent throughout the Americas. Since the late nineteenth century, when social scientists “discovered” African-derived traditions in the New World, Black Atlantic spirits have had to uphold bourgeois standards of propriety, decorum, and restraint in order to count as religious, rather than as criminal remnants of fetishism or idolatry. Their travails have resembled those of Black men and women compelled to surpass their white detractors in education, refinement, and Christian piety in order to achieve some measure of professional advancement and legal protection. Even as people of African descent have aspired to middle-class ideals of masculine industry and feminine virtue in a strategic bid for the rights of citizenship, the gods of various Caribbean and Latin American traditions have had to verify the authenticity of their Africanity, their capacity for cultural and political resistance, and their usefulness for a range of nationalist movements. These deities have been policed by states as well as by ideologues and elites, leading their worshippers to partner repeatedly with scholars in hopes of securing accurate, or at least advantageous, representation.
To be accepted as rational actors and rehabilitate their gods, practitioners of Black Atlantic traditions have tended to highlight those aspects of their traditions that resemble “world religions”: i.e. theologies, cosmologies, genealogies, and mythologies. Similarly, scholars have focused on the logos of these traditions and emphasized the beliefs and observances in them that correlate with reason, logic, terrestrial order, and heavenly law, particularly as laid down by men. Although I am hesitant about this approach, because it understands religion only as an issue of personal faith and private conscience—heart and mind rather than body and community, creed as opposed to ritual—it has corrected some long-standing misconceptions about Black Atlantic religions. It has also allowed for the study of them to reach an extraordinarily high level of theoretical and analytical complexity. Yet an emphasis on elevated modes of religious conduct has overshadowed the less lofty aspects of religious experience. Fleeting, humble acts such as those involved in food preparation may not be enshrined within the “world religions” paradigm, yet they have historically determined the texture and density of everyday life for practitioners of Black Atlantic religions.
Black Atlantic traditions foster ways of talking and acting that are uniquely rooted in the enterprise of feeding the spirits.
Similarly, casual conversation—the lifeblood of social relations—has not tended to figure prominently in the analysis of religious utterances. Light banter and storytelling pale in grandeur when set against prayers, songs, oracular signs, folklore, and spirit possession trance speech, especially as recorded in Black Atlantic sacred registers: Vodou’s langaj, Santería’s Lucumí, and Candomblé Ketu’s Nagô, to name a few. The assumption that everyday verbal interaction lacks meaning and purpose runs deep. Idioms in American English commonly allude to talk as “hot air”: long-winded, breezy, empty, frivolous, small, loose, and cheap. To be “all talk” is to be without action; fast-talk, big-talk, sweet-talk, and double-talk skirt the truth. Consonant expressions in other lexicons invite gendered comparisons between the vapor of womanish words and the substance of manly deeds. Ritual “speech acts” have only escape dismissal as feminine by the fact that they are associated with learned men and can be analyzed in the context of national struggles over sovereignty and identity.
Everyday talking and the mundane work of cooking occupy similar positions on the periphery of religious scholarship. However, the literature on Black Atlantic traditions abounds with allusions to the importance of making food for gods and ancestors, for instance, in Belizean and Honduran Garifuna; Afro-Surinamese Creole Winti; Grenadian Shango; and Big Drum dance in Carriacou, Trinidad, Tobago, and elsewhere. Trinidadian Spiritual Baptists hold Kabala banquets; Guyanese Comfa practitioners put on English and Chinese Dinners; Jamaican Kumina and Revival Zion both have “tables.” Unfortunately, references to food preparation itself in this religious scholarship seldom go beyond the cursory. We can infer from recent studies on women’s domestic “kitchenspaces” that religious cooking provides opportunities to enforce and oppose gender roles as well as the chance to create collective memories. There are many anthropologists who now study religion in sites that are not avowedly “sacred,” and these trailblazing ethnographies point toward the ways that religions could be rethought to prioritize what religious practitioners actually spend much of their time doing—whether or not it has appeared sufficiently religious to outsiders—and what they say when they talk about it. Black Atlantic traditions foster ways of talking and acting that are uniquely rooted in the enterprise of feeding the spirits. They require research that focuses on mundane ritual behaviors within specific houses of worship.
This is easier said than done. Only after prolonged scrutiny do the little things—the micropractices—that simultaneously feed the gods and foster fellow feeling between practitioners come into sharp focus. The word “feeling” is key here. Practitioners gradually learn to master these micropractices through intensely sensory apprenticeships to authoritative members of their communities. Micropractices habituate or “season” them into the social relations and signifying systems of Black Atlantic religions bit by bit, plate by plate, as they serve not only their divine patrons but also their human elders. Over time, micropractices instill a palpable sense of the spirits’ reality—including the unapologetic urgency of their desires—while inculcating obedience to the religious leadership of a tradition. Since micropractices are woven throughout the everyday routines of local institutions, they can become difficult, if not impossible, to discern as anything other than unremarkable background noise, or grunt work incidental to more serious ritual business taking place elsewhere.
What we stand to gain from an investigation of cooking and talking in a Black Atlantic religion is more than the satisfaction of curiosity about underestimated forms of embodied perception. It has the potential to provide a more accurate understanding of women and gay men—particularly those deemed effeminate—as social actors within Afro-Diasporic houses of worship. As the literary scholar Meredith Gadsby writes, “Black feminist theorists such as Barbara Smith have already reclaimed the kitchen as a space of women’s power and creativity.” To shed light on both the gendered and racialized landscape of everyday religious experience, I locate the kitchen on the “Diasporic horizon” of Lucumí. This is the field of possibilities for action envisioned as practitioners clock the distance of current ritual protocols from those of the remembered Afro-Cuban past, and yearn for a collective future in greater alignment with the dictates of tradition. While cooking, practitioners speculate on the legitimacy of the sacred world their aesthetic decisions have created, in effect setting the limits of ethical practice. The role played by women and homosexual men in demarcating these boundaries has yet to be fully realized. In order to understand their place at the table, we need to get in the kitchen.
Elizabeth Pérez is Assistant Professor of religion at Dartmouth College, specializing in Afro-Diasporic traditions. She has contributed to numerous journals and volumes including Esotericism in African American Religious Experience: “There is a Mystery”, Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, and Yemoja: Gender, Sexuality, and Creativity in the Latina/o and Afro-Atlantic Diasporas. Her most recent research project examines the experiences of transgender and transsexual people as religious actors in the contemporary United States.
This piece is an excerpt adapted from Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions (2016), reprinted here with permission from New York University Press. Religion in the Kitchen argues that cooking sacred food and talking casually around the kitchen table have played vital socializing roles in Black Atlantic religions. Drawing on years of ethnographic research in Chicago among practitioners of Lucumí, the transnational tradition also known as Santería, Pérez focuses on the behind-the-scenes work of the women and gay men responsible for feeding the gods. This richly textured portrait of a predominantly African-American Lucumí community reconceptualizes race, gender, sexuality, and affect in the formation of religious identity.
Image from flickr via Michael T.
 I have changed the names of all of my interlocutors and of the ilé, for reasons of confidentiality. Readers should note that ilés are often named after the orishas’ praise names, and there is more than one actual Ilé Laroye in the United States; in fact, one of these is a prominent, long-standing, well-respected house of worship in Miami that officially uses this name. In what follows, however, Ilé Laroye refers only to Ashabi Mosley’s casa-templo in Chicago.