The kitchen has belonged to the feminine sphere for centuries. It’s alternately a symbol of female confinement or a place where women wield decision-making power. But that power, in at least one corner of the world, was subverted, and the kitchen is the domain of men. No women allowed.
This unusual reversal happened in a land that calls itself Euskadi, better known as Basque Country, a mountainous and green land, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, lashed by the winds. A land that belongs to Spain, but is not Spain in its soul, in its architecture nor in its language of unknown origin. There, gastronomic societies were born around a century ago and are still today lively centers of Basque community.
The story goes that Basque Country was once a matriarchal society, and domestic life was dominated by women. Men, restricted to a secondary role in their homes, started looking for a realm of their own, a common place to assemble outside the family.
At the same time, there was a large migration from the countryside to the cities. But here, men lacked a space where they could spend unlimited time without spending money.
For these reasons, at the end of the 1800s, the first social clubs were created, the Sociedades Populares. The societies initially centered around card games and cider, but they slowly differentiated and specialized. One of these was the Sociedades Gastronomica, complete with a shared kitchen, owned and operated by the society itself.
Here Basque men gathered around a table, free from restrictions on hours of operation and prices. And they kept their identity alive in kitchens that, unlike their language or political autonomy, couldn’t be banished or denied.
Today, Basque Country has around 3,000 societies, with 200 in the capital Vitoria-Gasteiz alone.
Their longevity is probably because of their highly regulated and democratic organization. The number of members averages around 40 people. When the maximum is reached, new members are not allowed, unless somebody leaves. When that happens, there’s a waiting list, and candidates must be nominated by an existing member. Entrance requires a unanimous vote. If a member dies, his place can be inherited by a son or, as of recently, sometimes by a daughter, depending on the society.
Non-members can only enter the kitchen by invitation. For private events, members can reserve a table or the entire space, which usually includes a professional kitchen and a large dining room. For special occasions, the public may be invited to enter.
Everything is precisely regulated. There is a book for reservations and a cash register to pay for food taken from the common pantry.
One of the biggest innovations now concerns access for women. Until a few years ago, many societies forbid women and prevented their access to the kitchen. Although many women say they’d be just as happy not to have to cook there, the trend today is integration.
In fact, nowadays there are some societies founded by women. Yolanda López De Ipiña is proud to be the first woman who founded a society in Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 2007, she opened the Sociedad Gastronomica Errexala: The members are women and men, and there are no restrictions on who can access the kitchen.
She represents the future of the Basque societies that helped preserve the culinary identity of this region, keeping the traditions alive and strengthening their bond with the land. Today, they want to join the table without discrimination, women and men.