Today’s neighbourhood kitchens: a historical digression between consumption and production, by Carmen Dreysse

Today’s neighbourhood kitchens: a historical digression between consumption and production (1)


Georgia is a regular: she comes every Thursday. She’s retired, cooking isn’t her passion and she doesn’t consider herself a particularly competent cook, but she feels at home in this 80 square meter community space, which opens directly onto the street. She cooks between 9.30am and 12.30pm with 4 to 10 other people and then shares a meal with her co-cooks and guests. At the end of the meal, she gives 10 euros to the only employee in the community kitchen. The choice is hers: it’s a pay-as-you-go system. A sign explains the principle to visitors and indicates that the break-even price is 13 euros. Georgia says she gives a little less because she cooks.
This brief description highlights a tension that interests me in the context of my doctoral research (2): Georgia is both a producer and a consumer in this space. She cooks, eats and gives money for the meal. The meal is shared both with other producers (the other volunteers who are referred to as the “cooks of the day”) and consumers (the “guests”). The notion of production is not central to the self-definition of the kitchens, which emphasize instead the creation of social relationships.
My doctoral research aims to understand the development of these community kitchens: spaces, belonging either to the public or non-profit sector, where everyone is invited to cook and eat. While working on these kitchens, I came to realize that there is no clear definition of what community kitchens are, especially in the French context, where different names are used: shared kitchens, public kitchens, volunteer-run canteens. In the city of Lille and its immediate surroundings, I have identified nearly 50 institutions whose declared main (and often sole) is to create spaces where people can cook and eat together. A striking feature of some of these community kitchens is that they are not limited to low-income groups, as it may be the case with cooking workshops in social centers, and that they are not (only) directed at the unemployed, to improve their occupational skills but they rather aim to bridge social differences between residents of the same neighbourhood. An initial typology that I have drawn up groups the different volunteer kitchens according to their target audience: some aim to awaken children’s curiosity about food, others aim to reintegrate people into the labour market, and still others fight against the stigmatisation of homeless people. A number of kitchens did not fit into this typology, as they do not target a single audience but rather “everyone”, with a desire for greater social diversity. To understand better these neighbourhood kitchens, I’ll be looking at the way they are organized and in particular how they blur the boundaries between producers and consumers. To do this, I will draw up an initial rough definition, then construct a binary typology based on two radically different historical examples, Melusina Fay Peirce’s cooperative kitchens and the Diggers’ Street canteens.

I. Community kitchens: a set of practices and a variety of “political imaginations”

Community kitchens are, at first sight, fairly equivalent. As part of my research, I identified a set of practices that characterize them. Community kitchens can be broadly defined as kitchens run solely or partly by unpaid members, non-professional cooks. In many examples, an employee is responsible for organizing the involvement of the cooks and ensuring the supply of food. Employees see their role as one of support: they are not cookery instructors and prefer to provide help only when it is needed, letting people choose how they want to make a recipe. As a result, although the recipes and foodstuffs are sometimes chosen in advance by the employee, it is the volunteer cooks who are responsible for preparing the meals.
Another feature of my observation is that cooks and eaters, producers and consumers, are both welcome. The kitchens are organized on a sign-up system: people can sign up to cook in the morning or just for lunch. This system enables the employee and the cooks to make the right amount of food and the kitchen to operate smoothly. As a result, regular visitors occupy various positions depending on days: they are sometimes cooks and sometimes guests.
Moreover, the notion of consumer itself tends to dissolve as everyone is invited to participate in different ways. Participation can take many forms: washing dishes, setting tables, cleaning the room, serving food… Someone who comes only to eat will receive a meal but not a service as they would in a restaurant. The food is produced but is not integrated into the social interactions characteristic of the gastronomic industry, which does not only provide a meal but a set of attentions, a priori absent from community kitchens. The notion of consumer is criticized because it is seen as a passive subject, whereas many community kitchens favor active members who take responsibility, who become involved in the life of the kitchen.
A common characteristic is a consideration of the way prices can be barriers. There is a large variety of systems to overcome this barrier. Some kitchens offer “pay-as-you-want” meals, other choose to rely upon fixed prices but low or different according to self-estimated income level. There is a general consideration of accessibility and affordability. This goes hand-in-hand with the will to welcome a various audience and to bridge social differences.

While the practices seem quite identical, I follow Markus Lundström (2022) in identifying that behind similar practices exist very different ideological approaches, that he calls “political imaginations”. Two main examples Lundström gives of this divergence are church-run community kitchens (soup kitchens) and anarchist collective kitchens. In both cases, people can come freely to eat at low cost, but in one case the structure is based on the notion of charity and in the other, the activists reject this principle of almsgiving and see their action as part of a larger movement to counter capitalist structures. In my fieldwork I identified these two types of political and religious movements but the most numerous kitchens do not identify themselves in this way, and instead promote a form of civic engagement. These kitchens are neither close to the churches nor involved in a radical, anarchist critique of society.

What these ideologically various kitchens have in common is the blurred lines between production and consumption.

II. Cooking and eating: building a space of between household and market

Field observations raised several questions: do these collective kitchens tend to replace domestic production, i.e. cooking at home? Or do they replace market consumption, such as eating out? What is the nature of this consumption, which is characterized by the fact that the eater also participates in and produces the meal?
The second important point concerns the political nature of this consumption: in what way is getting together to cook and eat in a space that is neither the domestic sphere nor the commercial sphere considered political by the participants? What’s interesting about collective kitchens is that they are situated between the private sphere of the home and the public sphere of the market. They are located in a space that is partly public without necessarily being commercial.
I have chosen two historical examples that are, in a way, the two extremes of the type of consumption that takes place in collective kitchens, even if most of the kitchens I study fall somewhere in between.

The first example is the model of the household cooperative championed by Melusina Fay Peirce in the late 1860s in Massachusetts. Concerned about women’s rights, she criticized their confinement to the domestic sphere and called for economic compensation for their unpaid domestic work. She saw the pooling of domestic work through collective kitchens as a way of breaking the solitude and exploitation of women. Thanks to economies of scale, women would have more time to devote to other activities. She imagines collective kitchens run by a dozen to fifty women who would centralize their domestic work by preparing meals that would then be billed to their husbands. She also deplores the fact that women tend to become passive consumers in modern societies, and calls for greater production on their part.
But the whole class of women who keep servants […] has sunk from its former rank of manufacturing producers into that of unproductive consumers, i.e. of persons who do not pay back in mental or manual labor an equivalent for the necessaries they use or the luxuries they enjoy (Hayden, 1982)
Dolores Hayden noted that the material feminists, as she called them, “challenged two characteristics of industrial capitalism: the physical separation of household space from public space, and the economic separation of the domestic economy from the political economy” (ibid).

The Diggers giving out free food © Jim Marshall Photography LLC

  The other pole of this model dates back to the free street meals organized by the Diggers.   Part of the American counterculture, the Diggers were a small group of activists in the late   1960s in San Francisco’s hippie neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury. They criticized the   commodification of the hippie movement, believing that it had become a market   phenomenon and had lost its political radicalism. Since most of the members were theater   actors, they organized a large number of street shows where free meals made from scavenged  ingredients    were distributed to the crowd. The food was handed out for free in parks and on the streets, often with various slogans such as “It’s free because it’s yours » (Lovell, 2018).

These two examples allow us to structure a number of things. Firstly, the emphasis is on food production in the case of the socialisation of domestic work imagined by Peirce, where wives meet during the day in a communal kitchen to work together and then return home to dine with their husbands. The climax of the Diggers’ action was the meal itself, which brought many people together, occupied the streets and allowed political messages to be spread. The feminist utopia of collective kitchens for wives had nothing, or less, to do with reinventing commensality and the way people eat in their privacy, but was a reflection on domestic work, the way it alienates women and can be rationalized. Looking at today’s kitchens, one has to wonder whether the neighbourhood kitchen focuses more on cooking time, i.e. on production, or on meal time, i.e. on consumption.

The emphasis placed on food production or consumption determines the type of space in the community kitchen. Peirce was accused of destroying the integrity of the couple, even though her project had nothing to do with the private nature of the evening meal, and only the kitchen as a work space was to be shared between the bourgeois women of the neighbourhood. The project was fundamentally centripetal, focused on a small number of members who knew each other very well and cooperated on a daily basis. Their private spaces were in a sense enlarged, consisting of their homes and a shared kitchen. The Diggers’ movement aimed to reclaim the city, and confrontations with the police were not uncommon. It seems to me that we should be looking at today’s community kitchens through the same lens: who are the actors involved, and what kinds of spaces are the kitchens constructing?

Some community kitchens – observed in my fieldwork – achieve a form of mutualisation of domestic work, thus resembling Melusina Fay Peirce’s utopian cooperative kitchen. Volunteers from these kitchens often come, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. These kitchens are managed, organized and run by a small number of people, even though they are theoretically open to everyone. For the most committed of these members, meals eaten in collective kitchens tend to replace those eaten at home. This is akin to home production. In these neighbourhood kitchens, the small number of cooks (between 5 and 15) and diners (up to 40) gives a feeling of home. The morning begins with a round of introductions, everyone is asked to give a quick answer to the question of the day, such as “If you were a kitchen utensil, what would it be?“, “what was your last culinary surprise?”. The regular cooks get to know each other on a personal level, and this mutual acquaintance allows them to offer each other mutual support, even though this is not one of the explicit aims of the founders of the community kitchens.

At the same time, eating together is a central project of the neighbourhood kitchen, echoing the Diggers’ large public meals. There’s a desire to use commensality – the act of sharing a meal – to build relationships, to create trust and familiarity within the neighbourhood, bridging social divides.
So the tension in neighbourhood kitchens is often that they want to remain open to as many people as possible, but at the same time they want to create a sense of community among the regulars.

Finally, neighbourhood kitchens differ from these two historical examples in one respect: they have features in common with restaurants (they offer lunch at the usual times for a fee) and thus contribute to the commodification of food. Some customers go to the neighbourhood kitchen as if it were a restaurant, enjoying the food and the relatively cheaper prices, maintaining a distance from other users. They interact with people while respecting the conventions of the public space. The members of the neighbourhood kitchens sometimes regret that these people behave like “customers”, maintaining the coldness of commercial relations and not taking the time to participate (by clearing the table, washing up). The uses to which the community kitchen is put vary according to the individuals involved, who construct a space that is partly domesticated and partly commodified.

Within the community kitchens there is the coexistence of production and consumption and that shapes the space, which lies between the household and the market.


(1) This blog article is based on the following talk: Carmen Dreysse. “Community kitchens in France and Germany: a new form of alternative consumption between the private household and the market sector”. ESA RN5 – Midterm Meeting of the Research Network of Sociology of Consumption – Consumption, justice and futures: Where do we go from here?, ESA RN5, Aug 2022, Oslo, Norway. ⟨hal-04008544⟩, see
(2) « Mutualising food work: ethnography of participatory kitchens », ongoing thesis at the University of Lille under the supervision of Philippe Cardon (CeRIES, University of Lille) and Anne Lhuissier (CMH, INRAE). I am affiliated to the CeRIES (University of Lille) and the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (ENS, EHESS).


Hayden, Dolores. The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs For American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities. New e. édition. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1982.
Lundström, Markus. « Political Imaginations of Community Kitchens in Sweden ». Critical Sociology 0, no 0 (2022): 1‑14.
Lovell, Kera. « Free Food, Free Space: People’s Stews and the Spatial Identity Politics of People’s Parks ». American Studies 57, no 3 (2018): 103‑19.
To go further
Dreysse, Carmen. « Libérer les femmes de l’asservissement domestique par les coopératives de cuisine : deux utopistes au tournant du 20e siècle ». Nouvelles Questions Féministes 42, no 2 (2023): 12‑30.
Martin, Bradford D. The Theater Is in the Street: Politics and Performance in Sixties America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Terlinden, Ulla, et Susanna von Oertzen. Die Wohnungsfrage ist Frauensache!: Frauenbewegung und Wohnreform 1870 bis 1933. Berlin: Reimer, 2006.

Citer ce billet
cdreysse (2024, 8 février). Today’s neighbourhood kitchens: a historical digression between consumption and production, by Carmen Dreysse. SOLAL. Consulté le 14 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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