There’s this expectation that all Latinas know how to cook. I don’t mean following a recipe to put some barely edible meal together. I mean it is presumed — by Latines and non-Latines — that we are all Michelin-level chefs. Esa no soy yo, and I never really wanted it to be me. As a first-generation Latina who graduated college and entered the workforce virtually amid the Covid-19 pandemic, cooking doesn’t currently fit my lifestyle. Sure, I had the quarantine goal of learning how to bake bread, but among graduating, landing my first corporate full-time job, and adulting, there just wasn’t time. And honestly, que rico es no cocinar.
I come from several generations of women who labored day and night in the kitchen. My mami Maria Elena was raised in a conservative home in the rural areas of Colombia where religion and a culture of machismo merged to teach her that her sole purpose as a woman was to serve — especially plates of home-prepared meals. While my mom had an interest in food early on, it was marianismo that made her feel like it was her duty, even as a kid, to cook.
"Que rico es no cocinar."
ASHLEY GARCIA LEZCANO
Even after she left South America for the U.S., she continued to be the “hostess with the mostest.” For years, I watched as mami happily prepared meals that would be ready the moment my father came home from work. She served him first, her kids second, and herself last. But it wasn’t just us. My mom is the amiguis that throws holiday gatherings and is always invited to the pari because it’s guaranteed that she will have a delectable treat in hand. On the one hand, cooking is how she expresses her love. I feel it in cada cucharada of cazuela de fríjoles (especially her extra-crunchy chicharrones). But on the other hand, it also feels like a troubling gender role that she internalized.
Born and raised in New Jersey by Colombians who refused to assimilate, my roots are strong, but I’ve still been labeled the so-called gringa of the family. One of the biggest markers of my difference: not cooking. Growing up, when chismosas known as my tías wondered why I wasn’t helping my mom in the kitchen, she always defended her “hija perezosa.” She never made me feel bad about not knowing how to cook. In so many ways, she encouraged it. My mom never handed me a cuchara. La cocina was her sanctuary, and I was asked to stay far away as she took full control. Whether it was her love language or her small revolution against the patriarchy, she didn’t tie my girlhood — or later my womanhood — to my ability to put together a meal.
But while mami never shamed me for not cooking, others have. Mostly outsiders: cis straight men who can’t imagine marrying a woman like me and are scared of this “new generation” of women because they expect wives to come with complimentary meals; mothers with sons who depend on them and expect another woman to happily take over; and, well, haters.
"I acknowledge that not cooking is a privilege, but I also want to embrace the little pockets of my life where I actually have room for luxury. This is one of them."
Ashley Garcia Lezcano
I haven’t really let this bother me, though. There are a myriad of reasons why people can’t or don’t cook (note: simply not being interested is a valid one), and there are so many qualities that make us “buenas mujeres” that don’t include adobo or sazón. Honestly, I feel fortunate to live a life where I only serve myself and my chosen family. I acknowledge that not cooking is a privilege, but I also want to embrace the little pockets of my life where I actually have room for luxury. This is one of them.
I’m not alone. I spoke with Latinas who, like me, don’t know how to throw it down like their abuelitas and don’t feel guilty about it.
Lyam Lugo — Dominican-American from New Jersey, 30
Has anyone ever tried to make you feel less than for not cooking?
All the time. Growing up, my mom and grandma would always say things like, “tienes que aprender a cocinar pa’ cuando te cases.” Now that I’m married, they ask, “y tu que le cocinas?” It always makes me laugh.
In Dominican culture, you’re told, “que le sirvan el plato al marido primero,” but my husband doesn’t like it when I serve him. I don’t even serve my own food. I haven’t touched a stove in four years.
Rather than feeling ashamed or embarrassed, I find it funny. Actually, I’m grateful that I can break these cultural beliefs that it always has to be the woman who serves her man. I love seeing people’s reactions when I share this detail about our relationship.
Kevin Ponce — Mexican-American from New York, 27
There is this stereotype that all Latinas can throw it down in the kitchen. Have you internalized shame about not being able to cook as a Latina? If so, did it ever make you want to learn?
I was embarrassed when I began dating and telling men I couldn’t cook. I heard shameful comments like, “what’re you bringing to the table?” But I’m also a successful person. I’m young, bright, ambitious, and educated. I can bring other things to the table. When it comes to food, I can order in.
I was just never interested in cooking. I’m from New York, so I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, but I didn’t find interest in Mexican food. Growing up during the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the media was very whitewashed. I didn’t see my culture, so I didn’t think it was worth caring about. It’s sad, but I think it’s why I preferred chicken nuggets over tacos rellenos.
Lauren Do Nascimento — Brazilian-American from South Florida, 22
Not cooking can be expensive since you often have to eat out a lot. How do you save money while regularly eating out?
Honestly, eating out is expensive, but it’s a necessity with my current lifestyle. For me, it's all about maximizing my time since I’m still in college. I prioritize eating at home since I still live with my parents. Everyone in my household enjoys cooking, so that helps me save time and money because I’m able to pack food for school and work. When I do eat out, I either support small businesses or buy from a convenient fast-food place with meal bundles.
Brenda Barrientos — Peruvian-American from New Jersey, 29
Does it bother you at all that you don’t cook?
It doesn’t bother me because I’m trying to learn now. I’m learning the basics, but eventually I want to learn how to make typical Peruvian dishes. Next year, my goal is to master two Peruvian meals.
That said, there are other ways to keep gastronomic traditions alive outside of cooking. I pride myself in knowing every Peruvian restaurant in my area. I love going around and trying traditional foods from mami-and-papi-owned restaurants. My friends always ask me for recommendations.
Indira Diaz — Cuban-American from Miami, 27
What was your relationship with food growing up?
I grew up with two abuelas who threw feasts every time I’d visit. I remember seeing my one grandma wake up and cook all day. She wasn’t forced; the kitchen was her sanctuary. It was for my mom, too.
Now that I live alone and have my own place, I’ve realized that I’m the complete opposite of the women I grew up with when it comes to cooking.
I never felt forced to learn how to make Cuban food because it was available to me 24/7. I can enjoy these typical dishes made con amor by mami, and when she doesn’t want to cook, we take it as an opportunity to support local Cuban restaurants in our area that also serve meals that feel home-cooked.