Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s post has actually been a long time coming as I’ve been meaning to post it since about August when one of the women over at the blog Blogueiras Negras had read my mind on a particular topic. What sparked to finally commit to this piece was a message I received recently from a baiana (woman from the state of Bahia) who was asking for support in a cooking competition to win a scholarship at a prestigious school. This is the message I saw:
“My name is Lilian De Almeida, I’m a baiana (woman from Bahia) completely passionate about cooking, and now I have the chance of my life, to win a scholarship in the best culinary school in the world, Le Cordon Bleu. I’m in 3rd place and need your vote to achieve this dream and take the name of our Bahia to the world. Vote! Watch the video! Share this post! I appreciate it very much.”
(Lilian’s recipe is for a shortcake made of mandioca and a sauce made tropical fruits. See the short video below)
The best of luck to Lilian in her endeavors as the cooking talents of millions of women (and men) around the world should never go unappreciated. But it is the connection between black women, the kitchen and the place of black women in the Brazilian imagination that is the topic of this piece. To bring this point out, the following article focuses on two black women cooks who are featured on a Globo TV program called Mais Você hosted by Ana Maria Braga, one of the media’s countless white and/or blonde television hosts. The black women on the show are seen during the culinary arts section of the program that shares recipes and helpful cooking tips for the show’s viewers. Braga has been the host of the program since 1999 and lately the Brazilian media has been building her up as “Brazil’s Oprah”.
If you’ve followed this blog for any time, you know that the position and power of the American media mogul Oprah Winfrey is a rarity for women, infinitely rarer for a black woman and even more so for a black Brazilian woman. Winfrey’s success has led to her becoming the first and only African-American female billionaire. Comparing Braga to Winfrey not only attempts to place her on par with an American icon, but the comparison and her whiteness is also another glaring example of a level of success and visibility that black Brazilian women could never attain. And they say the US is the racist country! Braga even has a magazine (which she admits was inspired by the American) called A that looks strikingly similar to Winfrey’s O magazine. Fátima Bernardes is another white Globo TV talk show host who is vying for the title “Oprah Brasileira (Brazilian Oprah)”. Anyway, on with the topic of the day…
Mais você: Maria and Valéria, Ana Maria Braga’s silent helpers in the sight of viewers
by Aline Conde
Every day they always make everything the same. They wake up at 4am and run to Globo TV. They are lightly made up, just to correct imperfections. And go straight to the kitchen. Very close to the glamour of so many actresses, Valéria da Silva and Maria Ribeiro, the two assistants of the cuisine feature of the Mais você TV program, they also shine, even shy, behind the scenes.
“Gastronomy is the flagship of the program and has a lot of people who covet their place,” says the director of Mais você, Vivi De Marco, who knows the success of his girls: “We received many emails about the two.”
Almost tiptoeing, Maria enters the studio and turns the oven on. On the other side, in front of the camera, the host Ana Maria Braga talks about etiquette. Valéria is there, quietly arranging the cookies that will be the ultimate attraction of today’s edition of the program.
“Maria and I think of what Ana Maria and the housewife will need, what utensils and ingredients can make life easier,” explains Valéria, who follows the guidance chef Marcia Barbosa.
A pause for commercial and a new feature about motherhood is presented. Finally, the time comes to act without speaking. But everything does not always turn out as expected.
“I’ve already burned Ana,” Maria admits: “About five years ago, she was being silly and mixed regular olive oil with dendê (palm oil). When I went to put in the mandioca, I moved and the oil splashed. There was a mad dash!”
Experienced, Maria and Valéria underwent a rigorous selection to be at Ana Maria’s side; Maria worked there for 12 years and Valéria three. Enough time to get used to the TV exposure. But such fame is more complicated than a lot of recipes.
“I’m too shy”, admits Valéria.
Note from BW of Brazil: To be sure, the writers of this blog are not fans of the Mais Você program or most programming on the Globo TV network, which is the fourth largest television network in the world. But Globo, like other Brazilian TV channels offer an important peak inside the country’s ideologies as well as the idea of race and place. And if you spend enough time watching Brazilian television it won’t be hard to see the “place” of black Brazilians: they are usually in the background (as domestics, drivers or other menial positions), when visible at all, the criminal element or sexually stereotyped (see here and here). Many black Brazilians activists have long argued how black characters often don’t have families and sometimes hardly even utter words when they make forgettable appearances (Note that the article above itself refers to the women as “silent helpers”, “silenciosas ajudantes” in the original Portuguese) The Mais Você program is but one good example of this (but not the only one. See photo below of the Record TV program Hoje em Dia)
The “foot in the kitchen” that is not on TV
by Bia Cardoso
I have been watching many cooking shows lately. And, a text that I consider a in this relationship between black women and the kitchen is “A Tia Nastácia e o pé na cozinha (Aunt Nastácia and the foot in the kitchen)” (1) by Larissa Januário:
“To say ‘pé na cozinha (have a foot in the kitchen) playfully dresses up social-racial prejudice that puts all of us, black women, in the area of service. Not by choice but by condemnation. It is only through the cursed legacy of slavery.
And, it is in that same playful way, that we are all born with the stigma of Tias Nastácias (2). The quituteira (sweets vendor) with her hands full on the Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo (3) TV program that make bolinha de chuva (Dutch doughnuts), fish and roasted chicken…But the one who signs and has always been featured on the covers of all the cookbooks is the sinhá, Dona Benta, a friendly and white grandmother.”
Historically, the kitchen is the space destined to the black woman, whether she is the mucama (mammy or wet-nurse), the maid, the cook, the diarista or the nanny. It’s always near the kitchen that the dependência de empregada (maid’s sleeping quarters) advertised in real estate ventures. However, as indicated in Larissa’s text, they can even earn some praise, but by no means receive recognition for this work.
In the television space it’s hard to see black women as protagonists. Presenting television news or entertainment programs, novela heroines or experts invited to express their views on a matter are mostly white women, with rare exceptions of women of color that we all know to cite: Glória Maria, Zileide Silva, Camila Pitanga and Taís Araújo. There are other texts on this blog about the relationship of black women with television, so in this essay I want to focus on cooking shows.
Currently, the cooking shows are not so popular. There are more white men cooking on television than women. However, just taking a look at the program Mais Você hosted by Ana Maria Braga to see in the kitchen area negra and mestiça (black and mixed race) women assisting in the preparation of the dishes. Always silent only shyly smiling at times; almost invisible if the camera doesn’t insist on shooting them in the same frame as the blonde host, who rarely mentions their names. There’s no interest in showing the audience who these women are.
It is a fact that black women were always hidden in the kitchens. They should not leave their place, they should not appear in public nor speak. And, they should always be grateful to receive food and shelter. A situation experienced every day in our country where the service elevators often lead to the kitchen door. Luiza Bairros, in the text “Nossos feminismos revisitados (Our revisited feminisms)”, describes the role of a black woman in a classic culinary program and how some of these relationships are marked with racism and submission:
“Once in Salvador, Bahia, I saw on television a feature about culinary arts. It was a morning show directed at the female audience where they demonstrated how to prepare a dish of which I don’t even remember. At that time, what held my attention was behind the image immediately visible on the TV screen. The scenario was a kitchen and the main character was a host who kept giving instructions and advice. In contrast, a young black woman participated in the scene in complete silence.
In that program, the stereotype that associates us to the good cook was redefined by the reduction of the black woman in the supporting role, even in the limited space imposed by racism. For me, however, as powerful as the silence was our other discourse, transmitted by the black skin and braided hairstyle of the assistant. An image brought about in our own terms, disconnected from the representations of submission assigned to us, black men and women. If, on the one hand, TV producers think they do not possess the authority and necessary security to teach – even in what we the supposedly do best – on the other, it is already clear that racism cannot be practiced without contestation, without some counter discourse emerging that we (re) created in the last two decades.
The meanings embedded in the scene don’t stop there. The highlighted role of the host – a white woman – was superior just in appearance, because it was restricted to the generally devalued space of domestic activity. Soon, her authority would become evident when contrasted to the secondary role of her black assistant.”
It is evident that this image of the black woman as a helper, never protagonist, has not changed in decades. So it was a surprise to find on cable programming the English chef Lorraine Pascal. Among the programs I watched, Lorraine doesn’t make a link between food and African heritages or even between the food of the English black community – that I imagine, as in so many places, must have their own characteristics, because it is very common that minorities develop parallel cultures to that that is largely white. Lorraine loves to prepare desserts, cakes and pies.
Unfortunately, in my research, Lorraine Pascal was the only black woman, hosting a culinary program that I found: Another exception of color to cite. Interesting to note that unlike the Brazilian culinary programs, programs for foreign cuisine do not usually have helpers. Chefs and foreign hosts often appear alone, doing everything from chopping vegetables to keeping an eye on the cooking time. Even having little time for food preparation, Brazilian cooking programs seem to insist on the historical representation of the relationship between kitchen and black helper.
To modify the representation of the black woman on television, portraying her with plurality and positively, is an important step in the construction of identity of black women in society. Especially when removing her from the stereotypes of cook and housekeeper, as present in the broadcast media. Re-framing the relation of black women to the kitchen, from the redemption of African-rooted cuisine, through the appreciation of the work of popular cooks, to the promotion of the work of black chefs like Lorraine Pascal, are also actions that contribute to combat of our invisible and daily racism.
1. A “pé na cozinha”, meaning a “foot in the kitchen” is a common Brazilian phrase that is associated with racial origins. The vast majority of Brazilians, many of whom consider themselves to be brancos, or white people, have African ancestry. A person is said to have a “foot in the kitchen” when their physical appearance shows mostly European ancestry but one can still note traces of African ancestry in their features. As the kitchen is connected to cooking and domestic work, which in turn is associated with black people; it is a way of saying that someone is not completely white as African traces are still salient enough to note. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso once famously uttered that he had a “foot in the kitchen”.
2. Tia Nastácia, meaning Aunt Nastácia, is a character from the work of author Monteiro Lobato. Lobato once told journalist Silveira Peixoto in an interview that the character of his books was inspired by a woman named Anastácia, who worked as a cook and nanny of his children in his home. The “real Anastácia” is described as a tall, thin, black woman with thin shins and fists, a character with characteristics closer to the reality of black workers but that is nonetheless an unfortunate condition of her condition in society. Source
3. Sítio do Picapau amarelo is a creation of Brazilian writer Monteiro Lobato. The work has crossed generations and is one of the most beloved of Brazilian children’s literature (Source). While it is important to note the influence of the work of Lobato in Brazilian culture and history, it must also be recognized that in recent years, the author’s works have been endlessly debated in black and academic circles and both he and his works have been labeled deeply racist. Lobato was a member of the Sociedade Eugênica de São Paulo (São Paulo Eugenics Society), a personal friend of Eugenics exponents in Brazil and a defender of the racist American white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. In a 1928 letter written by the author to eugenicist Renato Kehl, Lobato wrote: “A country of mestiços (mixed race people) where the white man doesn’t have the force to organize a Kux-Klan (sic), is a lost country for high destinies. André Siegfried summed up in one phrase the two attitudes. ‘We defend the front of the white race – says the South – and it’s thanks to us that the United States did not become a second Brazil. One day there will be justice for the Klux Klan (…) keeping the negro in his place.'”(Source) One could argue that while there may never have been a KKK in Brazil, the country’s desire to “keep blacks in their place” has been just as successful.