By Sasha Nasir
Elizabeth Pérez, assistant professor in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara, has won a top honor for her first book, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. Pérez was awarded the Clifford Geertz Prize in the anthropology of religion at the 2017 American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington, D.C.
The book takes us into Afro-Caribbean kitchens, where Pérez explores small-scale rituals that are sometimes overlooked in the study of religions. As she was doing her research, Pérez worked behind the scenes and found that cooking was like a choreography, with people becoming “servants of the spirits” through small yet meaningful religious practices. She discovered “songs of praise” and matching dance movements related to the traditions of Lucumí, Santeria, Haitian Vodou, Candomblé and Shango.
In her book, she recounts conversations late at night when a feast is being prepared, or while women worked together slicing vegetables or frying plantains. The book focuses on these intimate moments in the kitchen as rituals that are meaningful for the religious practices of locals — as well as for Pérez herself. She recently sat down for an interview with HFA about the book, the award and her area of expertise.
Q. You are a historian of Afro-Diasporic and Latin American religions. How did your interest
A. I was raised Cuban in a household that was bilingual, and so part of my upbringing was learning about the music of Cuba, the sayings, a little bit of folklore, etc. My mother would bring out the explanations of what were certain spirits that were being mentioned, and so it was a curiosity that arose in me to find out more of the religious and spiritual citations that were being made all along. When I got to college, I was interested in gender. I realized that it was in Afro-Caribbean religions where women and people in the LGBTQ spectrum have a voice and power, and where some degree of gender fluidity can be seen as a valuable factor in one’s relationship with the divine. So that is kind of how I came to my subject.
Q. Did you always want to teach? If so, did you always want to teach religious studies?
A. I think I did. I had a really positive experience in parochial school. I went to Roman Catholic school and I had amazing teachers who were nuns and Christian brothers. I was inspired by their passion. They were religious people who had gone off and done humanitarian work, and so I thought these are the people whose footsteps want to follow in. It was also important for me as a Latina to be able to show underrepresented minority students that their educator can come from a background like theirs.
Q. Your book, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic
Traditions, is about micro-practices and rituals in the kitchen. Can you tell us a bit more
about why you chose this angle?
A. When I was a PhD student and waiting to talk to people about larger-scale rituals, I was put to work in the kitchen: slicing vegetables, frying plantains for Platanos Fritos, or rolling little dumplings or balls of different kinds of flour. I found that it wasn't just the glamorous rituals with the splendid altars and the exciting music that were important, but that what I was doing had a place in the tradition, especially in the formation of religious subjects. People really became servants of the spirits by doing this kind of work, which is behind the scenes and is completely marginalized in the discourse of the religions themselves.
Q. What do you think was something that really stood out to the selection committee of the
Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s Clifford Geertz Prize?
A. There were 50 other phenomenal submissions, and I can’t put my finger on one thing. However, I know that Clifford Geertz was the main promoter- not the coiner- but promoter of the term “thick description,” a method of anthropological analysis involving detailed descriptions of what people do in a given cultural context. I really consciously was thinking about what I could mobilize as far as the different theorists that I had been inspired by in the book. I didn’t take his really famous definition of religion, but I did take the “thick description.”
Sasha Nasir is a third year UC Santa Barbara student majoring in Feminist Studies.