Smashing, Smooshing, and Juicing: How a YouTuber Uses Her Limb Difference in the Kitchen
Name: Alexis Hillyard
Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
How many people eat together in your home? 3 (Alexis; her partner, Alison; and their child, Jovan, 7 months)
Avoidances: Animal products, gluten
I first learned about Alexis Hillyard and her wacky-wonderful YouTube channel, Stump Kitchen, a few years ago when I was trying to find people with my limb deficiency online. I was born without my left forearm, and in the last few years I have decided to stop wearing my cosmetic prosthesis. I’ve found this is not uncommon for people my age who grew up with parents who encouraged them to wear one, but then learned later in life to embrace our bodies rather than hide them. I wanted to find other limb-different young people out there navigating their relationships with their bodies, and that’s when I found Alexis and her stump; smashing, smooshing, and juicing in her home kitchen along with other limb-different guests.
In her cooking videos, Alexis and her stump (named “Bebe”) concoct gluten-free and vegan meals that both highlight Alexis’ “stump-tastic” talents and her knack for making herself laugh. The channel got its start around six years ago when Alexis was struggling with depression, and her partner encouraged her to showcase the ways she accomplishes kitchen tasks with her stump online. As her audience grew (she has a little under 5,000 subscribers), the project became a way for Alexis to rediscover joy in her life and develop herself as a cook.
Alexis’ channel celebrates bodily difference and bodily ability. She asks each of her guests to show her how they would ordinarily do a kitchen task, and then she attempts to lovingly replicate it — just to explore the many ways bodies can look and function in this world. With her little kid guests, she shows them that being limb different can be fun and a way to be creative in the kitchen. I wish I had a time machine so I could be a 7-year-old guest on her channel, just so I could experience at a young age the kind of body positivity Alexis exudes.
What has Stump Kitchen meant for you?
Around the time I started the channel I was in one of my lowest lows. I got diagnosed with major depressive disorder and started medication. When I was editing that very first episode, I realized that filming myself while I cooked let me access a window to joy. I was having so much fun in the kitchen with my body, with the ingredients, getting the food all over my limbs, the smells, and really zoning out and being with the food. Capturing that on camera and watching it later cheered me up and made me realize I hadn’t forgotten how to be happy. But I had to record myself having fun cooking to make myself believe it again. So honestly I kept making videos — yes, because people like them — but also for me because it was like this beautiful tool to pull myself out of this really dark time.
So much of what I wanted to do with Stump Kitchen is create my own joy and celebrate my body again. As an adult with a limb difference you kind of forget how cool your body is sometimes — like you might have thought as a kid. So [through Stump Kitchen] I have really fallen in love with this cool body that I have. It also connects me to kids all over the world with limb differences — and I get to encourage them to explore their bodies and try stuff in the kitchen that maybe they hadn’t before. I can also relate to these kids, like, “Oh, can openers suck.”
I hate can openers.
Yeah, you can totally relate.
Why do you cook vegan and gluten-free on your channel?
Six years ago I became vegan after being vegetarian for a long time because my partner, Alison, is vegan. I realized around the same time I also had a gluten intolerance. I really had to learn how to cook for myself because it’s harder to find vegan and gluten-free stuff on the fly. I really wasn’t that much of a cook before at all. I used to be so nervous — I would watch the Food Network and it looked so fancy and inaccessible, but I eventually followed some pretty simple recipes and found my competence and flow in the kitchen.
Besides yourself, who are you creating these YouTube videos for? Who is your intended audience?
As the channel progressed, my audience formed: Sometimes it’s kids with limb differences, but honestly it’s the general public, [including] folks who don’t have a lot of experience with folks with disabilities or disabled bodies or whatever. I want to “disarm” them, and break down some of those initial assumptions or blockages they might have around disability — I want to get to them through the back door in a humorous way. I want to not just teach them something, but also let them experience my arm and disability and cooking in a fun way that will then help them think a bit more widely in the future.
How do you handle people who arrive at your channel without an interest in cooking or without an interest in disability activism, and they just want to gawk at a body that’s different?
I welcome that. I’m not involved personally, and they’re less likely to stare at me in a public line for the washroom because I’ve put my body out there for them to do that on YouTube. And I know that when you [exhibit your different body] on YouTube, you’re going to get lots of people watching you — to which I say, “Bring it on!” Better to stare online than in real life.
People with disabilities are very underrepresented in food media. You were recently featured on Wall of Chefs on Food Network Canada. I also recall one limb-different woman on a season of British Bake Off, Briony May Williams. But I cannot think of anyone else. Why do you think that is?
Kitchens and cooking shows are unfortunately built for the “typical” body. They’re quite inaccessible. When you think about the nature of cooking, as it is now, it is built to center the ABLE body — the tools, and even just how high countertops and cabinets are in the kitchen. [As a society we tend] not to think about disabled bodies and disabled folks automatically — it’s not a lens that capitalist ideologies think of first because the common disability narrative is “Oh, poor you.” I think we’re slowly starting to pick away at that narrative, which is good. But I’d love to see chair users, more blind folks, and deaf folks [be accommodated on cooking shows] to make those spaces accessible and less scary.
I have an ex-boyfriend whose family was convinced I couldn’t possibly cook because of my disability. Have you ever encountered this kind of discrimination, and does being a great cook empower you?
I don’t make perfect food. It tastes good and it’s nourishing for my partner, my family, and my friends. That’s what’s empowering. I f****** love being able to take care of people with food, like, “Here’s a great lasagna.” I also love being able to create food that is more accessible and kind — I think about allergies, intolerances, and religion when I cook for others. So, all of our cooking is very intentional.
And yes, [I’ve experienced] a bunch of different examples [of discrimination]. Last year, a man came up to the café counter where I was working and said, “Oh, you’re so beautiful, except your arm.” I started to kind of shake with rage and I had to say like, “Yeah, no, no, you can’t say that.” And I posted about that on Instagram and it started, I guess, a movement — #calltoarms. I think it’s helpful to put that stuff on social media because you never know who it is going to affect. Everyone else started telling their stories about how other people have done similar things to them and you’re like, whoa.
I noticed that one of your videos talks about the struggles of getting a prosthesis that works properly. What is your attitude toward using a prosthetic in the kitchen?
I think my attitude is that I would love to try anything. But I don’t think I would be necessarily using something consistently. I can’t [imagine having a prosthesis that would] hold a can while I open it; I think I’m so used to using my arm as a tool as it is — I wouldn’t be searching for any kind of replacement tool. But I would love to have a sweet prosthetic base with an adapter that I could put a blowtorch in, or a knife sharpener.
What are some of your unexpected kitchen tools?
I love a good rolling pin, but when I don’t have one I use my stump and I put little nubbin prints into the dough.
Are you afraid of cutting off a nubbin? Because I am …
No, I’m not afraid. It hasn’t happened yet. Once when I was in college, I was using a very dull knife to cut a bagel and it slipped and I almost cut off my thumb [one of the nubbins]. But it was a minor cut. Since then I have really sharp and safe knives — the sharper they are, the safer they are.
Does the rolling pin moment feel like a time when your stump shines?
Absolutely — I think the citrus juicing, the mashed potatoes, and the dough rolling are all big shining moments. My stump has a little personality; he’s quite shy and other times he likes being the center of attention doing all these fun things in the kitchen. My stump has always been a personality because I used to put on puppet shows for my baby sister and she named him “Bebe” because she was trying to say “baby hand.” She helped me develop a beautiful sense of body awareness and body love because she never questioned it or cared — she always accepted it and loved it. And it was an asset to her, like, yes, this is a fun toy.
Do you like to invite a mess into the kitchen?
Absolutely, if you invite it in, it doesn’t stress you out when it happens. I hear from countless parents who ask me how I cook with kids in the kitchen because of the mess they make. Kids are kids; they are gonna make a mess because they aren’t as coordinated yet. Because kids need freedom to move and find their bodies and boundaries and they cannot be boxed in trying to be clean. That’s why in my kitchen making a mess is encouraged. Sometimes we have food fights! I’m a staunch mess supporter.
How does it feel to cook for your family, and how has cooking changed being a new mom?
Cooking for my family is one of my absolute joys in life. To watch them feel nourished by my food is so good. Plus, I’m constantly cooking up breastmilk for Jovan. That’s a whole new level of cooking that is so magical — that I can feed them just with my body!
With being a new mom, I am often wearing Jovan on me in a baby wrap. When I’m cooking with him in the baby wrap, I cannot reach [with my stump] anymore, so it is now one-armed cooking.
So, truly one-armed cooking.
Yes, literally one-armed cooking — it takes a lot longer.
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