For female politicians, talking about cooking can be fraught; Kamala Harris is breaking that mold, too

In the thick of the presidential primary race last year, Sen. Kamala Harris was on an MSNBC set, waiting to appear as a remote guest on “PoliticsNation.” Sixty seconds before airtime, a producer told her via earpiece. Which was just enough time for the California Democrat to offer her opinion on another pressing topic: turkey brining.

A dry brine is easiest, she instructed, in a video filmed by my Washington Post colleague Jonathan Capehart (Harris was answering Capehart’s husband’s pre-Thanksgiving queries as the two waited for their respective cable-news hits). “Lather that baby up – like, in the cavity,” she said, demonstrating the technique with her hands. She was just finishing her instructions about basting the bird with butter and a “cheap bottle of white wine” when it was go time – and Harris smoothly pivoted away from turkey tutorial to sharp political talking points.

The exchange was illuminating. Harris, more than anyone before her in national politics, has made her love of cooking part of her public persona, talking in interviews about her favorite cookbooks by California farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters, schooling her colleague Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., via Instagram video on the finer points of crafting a tuna-melt sandwich (her secrets include a bit of fresh parsley and a dash of lemon juice), and cooking masala dosas in a video she filmed with actress and writer Mindy Kaling.

Performance of domestic arts has always been a fraught dance for women in politics. First ladies have long been expected to offer cookie recipes, while female politicians have historically distanced themselves from the homemaking roles they struggled so long to shed. But Harris is refreshingly modern evidence that women in the public eye now can bake a gourmet cake and eat it, too.

Harris proves what many women already know: They can have strong opinions about turkey brining and criminal justice reform, and they can toggle from one to the other without missing a beat.

Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, notes that the old cookie-cutter template for women in politics – a helmet haircut, a perfect family, a career they put on hold to raise children (who were older when they ran for office) – has crumbled since the 1990s.

Now there are women with backgrounds and family dynamics as varied as their congressional districts. “There are so many more women in these roles that we have become familiar with various styles and even hobbies,” Lawless says. “It’s not one-size-fits-all because there are just more of them.”

Views of cooking, too, have changed. Cooking shows and magazines, celebrity chefs and food-centric social media feeds have taught us that it’s a legitimate pursuit requiring knowledge and skill.

For years, women in politics didn’t typically bring their domestic pursuits to work. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might frequently discuss her chocolate addiction, but she’s not whipping up her own sea-salt-dusted confections. In her 2008 memoir “Know Your Power,” she described a scene from before she got into politics, when the mayor of San Francisco called to offer her the first public post she would hold, on the city’s library commission. The mayor opened the call by asking her if she was making a big batch of pasta e fagioli, a query Pelosi regarded with chagrin, bristling at the idea that “the only thing I would be doing at five o’clock in the afternoon was cooking,” she wrote.

No, she wasn’t at the stove, she informed the mayor: “I’m reading the newspaper.”

And in 1992, during her husband’s presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton defended her legal career with a derisive reference to the alternative path she could have taken. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she told a reporter.

Clinton spent weeks trying to walk back those words and apologizing to women who chose to be housewives, but decades later, she came to own them. In her own 2016 presidential run, that quote appeared on a giant screen during a performance by Beyoncé at a get-out-the-vote concert for Clinton. And among her campaign swag was a needlepoint pillow featuring a rejection of the dated dictum: “A woman’s place is in the White House,” it read.

Harris, though, clearly feels that cooking is worth her time. In videos posted on social media, she wields chefs knives with confidence and rhapsodizes in interviews about pots of Bolognese and cardamom-scented swordfish. During an Instagram live session with restaurateur and “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio, she described her tradition of a weekly Sunday dinner with her family, where she makes dinner for family and friends. “That’s my favorite thing all week,” she told Colicchio before expertly dicing an onion.

Harris’s experience in the kitchen does not appear to be one of drudgery. Though she described in the video with Colicchio the tedium of coming up with three meals a day during the novel coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that wasn’t her norm.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, at the Iowa State Fair. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

At 49, Harris married attorney Doug Emhoff, whose two children were teens at the time. As Kimberly Nettles-Barcelon, a professor at the University of California at Davis who studies cultural representations of Black women and food, points out, Harris has never been cast in the fraught role of the harried mother expected to feed young children while balancing her career.

“There’s a lot that allows her to escape food provisioning as a burden,” Nettles-Barcelon says. “She can jump outside those boxes of food preparation and consumption as negative and be able to rise above that as many of us do, and have food as something enjoyable – we watch cooking shows, we cook with others, we cook with women in our peer groups.”

Politicians have traditionally had a short list of hobbies and interests they presented to the public. Joe Biden has a fondness for sports cars and ice cream. President Donald Trump golfs. President Barack Obama played pickup basketball. Also on the list of acceptable interests: running, reading (provided it’s mostly nonfiction and heavy on the biographies of Great Men), hunting (depending on where a candidate is from), maybe even guitar playing.

Historically, many presidents have been known to enjoy fine foods and wines – Thomas Jefferson was a famous epicurean – but they have been connoisseurs, not producers, of the cuisine they appreciated.

And in modern politics, there is an aversion to appearing to be too much of a “foodie”: See the uproar over John Kerry’s choice of Swiss cheese over the canned stuff in a Philadelphia cheesesteak and Obama’s mere mention of arugula.

Harris, though, has managed to skirt these old minefields.

Democratic communications consultant Tracy Sefl says it’s a matter of authenticity, which is the coin of the realm of brand-building in the social media era. “The question used to be, ‘Who do you want to have a beer with?’ ” Sefl says. “Kamala Harris is someone I would want to sit down and have a dinner party with – where she was cooking, of course – because it feels legitimate and a part of who she is.”

Harris expresses her cultural heritage – her mother is Indian and her father Jamaican – in her dishes. In the video she made with Kaling, the two compared the foods they ate as children: “Dal – lots of dal,” Harris said. “Idli.” The mention of the rice cake prompted Kaling to reply admiringly, “That’s a deep cut.”

Harris has used cooking to connect with voters, preparing dinner with an Iowa family during the primary race (she wore a “Kamala Harris for President” apron the host children made her), and making cookies with a 17-year-old fan. And she’s ever-mindful of the optics: For her tuna-melt video with Warner, she wore a Howard University apron to represent her historically black alma mater.

For Minda Harts, the author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table,” Harris, with her low-top Converse sneakers and unabashed enthusiasm for a perfectly roasted chicken, is more evidence that successful women can be true to themselves, no matter what the old rules dictated.

“I like that Kamala is saying that we are multidimensional,” Harts says. “For so long, we’ve been put in boxes, where it’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that; yes, you can do that.’ She’s saying, ‘Yes, and …’ ”

To Harts, it’s not so much that Harris is breaking rules, but rather that she is redefining them. Harts sees Harris’s domesticity as part of a new way that women in politics, particularly younger women of color, are unafraid to present themselves authentically. She sees it just as she sees Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., appearing publicly without the wig she had long worn to hide the effects of alopecia. Or in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who represents her Bronx roots in hoop earrings and red lipstick, or completely makeup-less and in sweats in live videos filmed on her sofa.

“The more we lean into our courage and push aside caution, the more we get to show up and be ourselves and no longer allow the dominant majority to say what that should be,” says Harts, who has felt this pull in her own professional life, where she often uses rap lyrics in presentations and recently wore Air Jordans while giving a successful speech at a corporate event. “The more we see the Kamalas and the AOCs and the Ayannas, the more we feel we can do that.”

Critics, of course, are always ready to pounce, and Harris’s kitchen exploits have sometimes been fodder. Last Mother’s Day, she became the focus of conspiracy theorists who dissected a photo that Emhoff posted. “My wonderful wife @KamalaHarris rushing home between LA events to prepare Jerk Chicken marinade for our Mothers Day feast Tmw,” he wrote, captioning it with a heart emoji. The snapshot showed Harris in the kitchen, stirring a bowl, a white apron tied over a work outfit.

With Zapruder-worthy scrutiny, some zeroed in on a crease in the apron, insinuating that the moment was nothing more than a carefully staged photo op. Another line of critique quickly cropped up: “What kind of monster makes his wife cook her own Mother’s Day meal?” the conservative site Twitchy wondered.

Nettles-Barcelon notes that Harris has insulated herself from more serious criticism – that her hobby seems elitist or even frivolous – by having chops when it comes to the policy issues that underpin the food that shows up on her pantry shelves.

Harris has marched with McDonald’s workers seeking better pay, supported legislation boosting SNAP benefits and increasing wages for farmworkers, and she recently wrote an op-ed pushing grocery chains to maintain hazard pay for workers during the pandemic.

“Her political work with food is a necessary component to understanding her enjoyment of food,” Nettles-Barcelon says. “We should all be able to play with food, but in fact, we can’t all do that and there are structural reasons why, and her political work addresses that.”

Sefl sees no downside to Harris playing up her passion for cooking even more, particularly during a campaign season that has curtailed opportunities for candidates to mingle with voters in person. She predicts that putting Harris in her happy place – a kitchen – and bringing voters in (virtually) would be a success for the campaign.

“It would be a missed opportunity if they didn’t take advantage of that, because you can talk about what’s happening in the world,” she says. “Cooking is not just about ingredients and mixing.”

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