Women and Food

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WOMEN AND FOOD. Although the subject of women and food is of vast importance, it is difficult to document. Unfortunately for women's history in general, early historians customarily focused on public events (usually male), and most women's records have been discarded or lost. Further, the material we have in greatest abundance is that of the wealthy, who were literate, had large properties and kitchens to manage, and kept records. If one generalization can be made from this uneven data, it would probably be the concept that family cooking was universally associated with women and was shaped by location, period, culture, and class. Because most changes in women's relationship to food are found in the middle status range, it will be the focus of this essay.

Women's Early Association with Food and Agriculture

From the earliest days of prehistory, women have not only nurtured society with their own kinds of cookery but also figured predominantly in the agricultural innovation that, to this day, feeds much of the world. Women's place in a pervasive gender food dichotomy has defined their power and status for millennia. In the earliest nomadic societies that subsisted on foraging and hunting, the foragers were almost always females. Men's contribution was through the hunt. Recent archaeological findings suggest that the diet was largely vegetative (female) and was not nearly as meat-centered (male) as surviving bone remains once seemed to indicate. Nevertheless, this diet sustained extremely healthy people. The extent of women's knowledge must have been vast, as they knew where, in their wanderings, specific plants were to be found at different times of the year and which parts of the plants were edible in different stages of their life cycle. This early gender-based pattern still exists, and survives in such nomadic cultures as the African Bushmen.

It has been suggested that the division of food responsibility was a consequence of women's limited mobility, resulting from childbearing and extended periods of childcare. In any case, their familiarity with plants and their own identification with creating new life (the male role having been as yet unrecognized) were undoubtedly factors in their monumental innovation, the formation of the first organized agriculture (c. 8000 b.c.e.).

Evidence of the high regard women earned is reflected cross culturally in the stories of universal origin even up to and including subsequent patriarchal systems. For example, in ancient Greco-Roman mythology, the story of Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her daughter Persephone (Proserpina) acknowledge women's responsibility for developing agriculture, the origin of growing seasons, and the agrarian skills that they taught people. In distant Mexico people worshipped Ceres' counterpart, the pre-Aztec Great Corn Mother known as Chicomecoatl; variants of her story abound in tribes and nations throughout the hemisphere.

The new agriculture did more than feed peopleit changed basic human society. Food could now be produced in one place and stored there for year-round availability, and it enabled the formation of permanent settlements that preceded the growth of civilizations.

Women's agricultural revolution was followed by men's parallel development of domesticated herds and large animal husbandry, today practiced by nomadic Masai of East Africa and the sheepherders of Central Asia. Their herds supplied not only food but also a reservoir of a different commoditywealth and status.

During this time, women continued their long-established custom of cooking privately indoors to strengthen family ties and health. When men cooked, it was usually outdoors for other men, serving the religious, political, and social needs of the community. Each gender had its own kind of pots and specific areas of cuisine. Women slow-cooked moist dishes of grain and vegetable (sometimes flavored with small amounts of meat) in clay stewpots. Men tended to roast or grill meats with iron equipment. A vestige of this remains today in women's daily cooking and men's backyard barbecues. This simple division of food tasks by gender has changed very little with the centuries; the distinctive roles have blurred only as society itself has undergone major changes.

Women in Ancient Greece and Rome

One of these changes happened with the appearance of patriarchal societies. Gender food divisions among the ancient civilizations indicate not only women cooking at home, but also some men forming a professional class of chefs that cooked for the most privileged. In Greece and Rome, for example, these chefs were noted for their elaborate presentations for upper-class banquets and epicurean occasions. At the same time, the taverns and street vendors that provided a substantial amount of food to all levels of urban society were staffed by both men and women of lower status, but with unclear gender divisions. Women of all classes were considered by men to be inferior and were restricted to "lesser" domestic duties and family service at home, but they were still credited for their cookery. Women's place in the middle-class kitchens sometimes became more supervisory, as slaves were easily available, but their earlier place of power and honor was gone. Under ongoing patriarchal control, such gender divisions continued to be established and enforced for centuries.

The Middle Ages through the Early Modern Centuries

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the gender divisions were increasingly reinforced by a growing system of secular and religious laws. Upper-and middle-class women remained relatively powerless at home under the rule and protection of male relatives and had no possibility of developing their own careers. There were, as always, a different set of culinary standards for male cooks, who sometimes achieved the prestigious positions denied to women. Manuscripts of their compiled recipes were written for other chefs and ultimately became the first cookbooks. Women who cooked in the urban marketplace were still working at lower-status work and may have filled a variety of positions, depending on fortune or skill. At one end of the gamut, they may have been hired as cooks in modest homes, and at the other as scullery maids. Like men, they also worked in taverns or as street vendors, perhaps as the ubiquitous and fanciful "Gingerbread Women" who sold spicy goodies at local fairs and festivals.

The rural world has always lived by its own code of gender rules. Like working-class women, farm women often participated in the workplace. In much of urban middle-class Europe, only men were permitted to function in public, where they represented their families' interests and worked to keep the community strong. Married middle-class urban women lived more privately under the umbrella of male authority and representation. However, women commonly functioned more independently within the rural corporate family, where they traditionally contributed to family decision-making and income. Their labors, beyond the customary cooking, kitchen gardening, preserving, caring for barnyard animals, etc., included the local sale of their own products, among them butter, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables, poultry, and perhaps cooked wares in season. They secured much-needed funds, as farm capital is usually tied up in buildings, stock, equipment, and cash is invariably scarce. Thus, farm women, even those of means, were early food entrepreneurs in the public market.

It should also be mentioned, in the interest of thoroughness, that women with high positions were rarely in the kitchen, apart from supervising menus or preparing occasional delicacies in honor of a special guest or occasion.

One of the few sources of material about women in this period is the world of art. Although such works are too sparse to provide a conclusive picture, they nevertheless suggest some parameters of gender roles. Many paintings from the sixteenth century show women cooking, but rarely in positions of authority. In a German print of 1507, a male chef adjusts flavorings, while a lower-status scullery maid washes (or peels) food. A Dutch image from 1510 shows important-looking men conducting business in the hall in the foreground while a woman cooks in the kitchen in the background. In eighteenth-century France, Chardin painted a series of female kitchen servants in low circumstances, depicting their fatigue and perhaps boredom. However, in the same period we see evidence of change: a Spanish painting shows two authoritative women in an elaborate Valencian kitchen, cooking and handing their platters to liveried butlers, presumably for an important feast. Likewise, the frontispiece of Eliza Smith's cookbook (London, 1727) shows in the foreground three women in charge of the kitchen, while in the background one sees the suggestion of a butler carrying a tray into the dining room beyond. This is consistent with an event in the American colony of Virginia, in which the English Governor Bottetourt hired a woman (unnamed in the records) to replace his retiring steward William Marshman. Over a century later, Isak Dinesen's short story "Babette's Feast" centered on a French female chef who embodied Dinesen's youthful professional dreams, perhaps indicating that such careers for women were becoming more conceivable. These isolated examples in themselves give suggestions of possible circumstances but obviously wield more clout when combined with sources such as cookbooks.

Women and Cookbooks

The printing press and other incipient technologies made a new genre of cookbooks possible, this time for a widening audience of middle-class urban women. They had begun to work with this audience by the late 1500s. In a field dominated by men, the first published works, under male noms de plume, guided affluent and literate women who presided over privileged estates and well-appointed home kitchens. Cookbook writing was essentially done in private; anonymity hid its entrepreneurial aspect and circumvented the social code. More often, male writers, such as Gervase Markham (The English Housewife, 1615) and Richard Bradley (The Country Housewife and Lady's Director, 1732), writing for this female audience used recipes from women's manuscripts without noting their sources.

By the eighteenth century, middle-class women driven by economic need began publishing cookbooks for other women under their own names. They often incorporated the knowledge and experience of their own kitchens with more complex hospitality food. In a few cases they were the work of the more privileged, who wrote as a social service. These cookbooks appeared in differing numbers throughout European cultures: England's strong middle class produced many, while France, with a different social and economic system, produced relatively few. Women of other established traditions, among them German, Polish, Dutch, Spanish, and Scandinavian, were also represented.

Many of these early cookbooks were carried around the world by emigrating colonists. For example, Eliza Smith's The Compleat Housewife (London, 1727) and Hannah Glasse's Art of Cookery (London, 1747) were used extensively in North American settlements. Amelia Simmons, author of American Cookery, the first American cookbook (1796), followed their lead with her commonly used English-American cuisine. Those who followed her were, interestingly enough, women of stature who were justly famous for their works on women's affairs and social and political reform. These culinary pioneers of the new American democracy presented a new public female image of independence, competence, and enterprise. By the mid-nineteenth century, growing literacy and lowering book prices made cooking manuals available in increasing numbers and by the century's end, they were owned in large numbers throughout the nation. Noted authors such as Marion Harland, Maria Parloa, Sarah Tyson Rorer, and Fannie Farmer also ran cooking schools, wrote newspaper and magazine columns, and lent their names and reputations to new product endorsements and advertisements. Their influence helped to mold a unified national American cuisine, and sometimes they used their culinary forum to support women's social or religious issues.

The changing nature and proliferation of women's cookbooks unwittingly documented a shift in women's general social and economic position. Many cookbooks were prefaced with dedications to brides and young matrons of the urban middle class, with the comment that young women were no longer learning housekeeping at home and were unprepared to run their own homes. The early years that girls had traditionally spent learning these tasks were now dedicated to education in public school, perhaps followed by finishing school or college, and then by jobs that lasted until marriage. Women were nevertheless expected to acquire domestic skills and to aspire to the idealized Victorian separation of gender responsibilities, the "Doctrine of Separate Spheres," under which women avoided involvement in the public world of work. One of their sanctioned spheres, that of service to the community, revealed indications of the changes to come.

Women in the Public Sphere

The growing female philanthropic movement used home-cooking skills to produce fund-raising cookbooks, church suppers, food festivals, and bake sales. Women's Exchanges supported middle-class women in straitened circumstances by selling their home-cooked foods, often in special lunchrooms. These educational and charitable activities taught basic business skills, which had hitherto been held only by men. By the early 1920s, their example (and the new automobile) inspired female tearooms and luncheonettes, run by and geared to women, and serving a feminine "dainty" cuisine. It is entirely likely that this major step in women's progress toward economic equality succeeded because it utilized the familiar, accepted, and integral bonds between women, food, and community service.

Cookbook writing was only one activity related to the growth of cities in the early nineteenth century. Yeoman farm women had spent much of their time in food work, but once transplanted to the city they found alternative opportunities in the emerging middle class, the cash economy, and entrepreneurism. For example, Pearl Rivers (whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Poitevent Nicholson), the first woman publisher of a major newspaper (The Picayune, New Orleans), used her position to organize field research, collect local home-based recipes, and preserve the disappearing but cherished Creole cuisine in The Picayune Creole Cookbook, 1900.

The amalgam of cultures in the United States allowed for differing women's roles. New England's separate spheres doctrine, promoted in women's writings nationally, kept middle-class urban women out of the marketplace, while New Orleans's internationally based culture encouraged them. For example, Madame Begue, an accomplished Bavarian chef relocated in New Orleans, earned an impressive reputation with her Creole food as both restaurateur and cookbook author (1900). She was, in many ways, like the skillful French matriarchs drawing on their own home cooking and running bistros. Some women ran boardinghouses and competed on the merits of their kitchens. They are credited with molding a generation of young farm men relocating in growing cities, and in many ways directing the course of the emerging middle class. Other work opportunities opened in higher education with the establishment of federally mandated land grant colleges (1862) and the developing schools of home economics at which food study was elevated to a more academic level. They trained middle class women for significant food careers in nutrition, social work, and education.

The Late Twentieth Century

The Great Depression, the World Wars, and the postwar return to normalcy did relatively little to change basic American cuisine or women's home responsibility for it. However, in the 1970s the women's movement began to weaken traditional gender divisions, and women at home were exposed to a new wave of highly visible professional female cooks and authors. Julia Child and Alice Waters familiarized homemakers with innovative food, and incidentally offered a model of the professional female. Inspired by such luminaries, a succession of TV cooking shows, and the growing feminist emphasis on business careers, numbers of capable young women began to operate their own restaurants, bakeries, and publications. Female journalists such as Mimi Sheraton, Gael Greene, and Ruth Reichl found a niche as food essayists, critics, and restaurant reviewers. In academia food became a more acceptable subject for professional attention as the social sciences began the study of women as food-givers through the perspectives of history, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and folklore.

The Twenty-first Century

While a good part of the undeveloped and developing world still identifies women with traditional home cooking, the food role of women in developed nations is in a period of change, a logical response to shifting economic opportunities and family structure. As women increasingly work away from home, they have, of necessity, reduced their customary domestic food preparations. Many men have accepted some of the responsibility for daily cooking (a new role for them), perhaps continuing to cook a special (often gourmet) menu for weekend guests.

As traditional domesticity becomes more scarce, Martha Stewart's style of home cookery has vindicated the ancient female role for those at home, assuring her female audience of renewed status and satisfaction. Many women know far less about cookery than their mothers did and have asserted their perceived liberation from household drudgery with the proud statement, "I don't cook." Fortunately or not, their daughters often lack basic skills and culinary understanding. Having experienced neither instruction nor the memory of food cooked from natural ingredients, they tend to associate good dining with the elusive processes of restaurants. As women establish a respected place in the professional work force and prepare the food that had been associated with men since antiquity, the old dichotomy of men's food and women's food has begun to slip. At the same time, fast food, convenience, and "take-out" foods, which are, in a sense, the traditional male cuisine, are replacing the comfort foods associated with women's home cooking. It would seem that economic progress has weakened associations between gender and cuisine and the link between women and food, leaving us to ponder the consequences.

See also Anthropology and Food ; Apicius ; Child, Julia ; Cookbooks ; Fisher, M. F. K. ; Food and Gender ; Home Economics .


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Alice Ross

The Corn Goddess

Nearly all New World tribes had a Corn Goddess or Corn Maiden, an Earth Goddess who taught them how to grow food from her body. Often her body was sacrificed, as she demanded, so that her children could grow food on it. This became a constant reminder to her descendants to treat the land as their Mother. One of the most famous Corn Mothers was Central American Chicomecoatl, who also guarded women who had died in childbirth.

The Right to Cook

In 1677, Beatrice Plummer found herself in the Salem, Massachusetts, courthouse. She complained that her husband had denied her not only food provisions but also the right to perform her household responsibilities by cooking properly for the household. The court fined her husband for his "abusive carriages and speeches." The unequal division of spheres sometimes had its ironic side.Cited in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives (1982).

Activist Cooks

Capable women who wrote cookbooks were often noted for their other public activities. Lydia Maria Child, author of The Frugal Housewife (1832) also wrote widely on social and political issues; Sarah Josepha Hale (1849) edited Godey's Lady's Book the preeminent women's periodical of the time; and Catharine Beecher, who published Domestic Receipt in 1846, also campaigned widely for strong women's professions in education and the home.

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