Category Archives: Food & Gender

A woman’s place?

“The dinner in its turn was highly admired; And Mr. Collins begged to know which of his fair cousins the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen. He begged pardon for having displeased her. In a softened tone she declared herself not at all offended; but he continued to apologise for about a quarter of an hour.” 

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Food as biography

whatsheate_cover3Laura Shapiro’s book What She Ate demonstrates a fact: food provides a window into life. Indeed, food can open the way into some of the most deeply held issues of identity, longing, fear, and need. While biography may traditionally treat what’s on the plate as incidental, Shapiro’s work does not. “Food happens every day,” she argues. “It’s intimately associated with all our appetites and thoroughly entangled with the myriad social and economic conditions that press upon a life. Whether or not we spend time in a kitchen, whether or not we even care what’s on the plate, we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die.”

With this in mind, Shapiro introduces us to six women, each from a different time and place: Dorothy Wordsworth, devoted sister to William, the celebrated poet of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England; Rosa Lewis, celebrity caterer to the upper echelons of London society at the turn of the twentieth century; Eleanor Roosevelt, wife to the American president of the 1930 and 40s; Eva Braun, mistress to Adolf Hitler in the same era; Barbara Pym, the English novelist of the mid twentieth century; and the American publisher Helen Gurley Brown who shot to fame in 1960s New York. While their stories have been told before, Shapiro’s lens of food provides insights that are as fascinating as they are revealing. “It turns out that our food stories don’t always honor what’s smartest and most dignified about us,” she concludes, “more often they go straight to what’s neediest.” These accounts prove that to be the case.

Dorothy Wordsworth is best known to us through the journal she kept for three of the years she spent in devoted, live-in service to her brother. Though today she is a cherished figure in the history of Romantic poetry, Dorothy surrendered personal ambition to the domesticity of household management. Indeed, as she pressed into this role, especially in the kitchen, she found purpose. Through close attention to the meals they shared day after day and writing about them, Dorothy affirmed that life mattered — her life mattered in all its mundanity. Tragically, once deprived of what mattered most to her, usurped by William’s bride, food became her obsession and a significant factor in her psychological decline.

Rosa Lewis was a working-class woman who used food as a passport into the upper echelons of British society. By infiltrating the dining rooms of the rich and pedigreed as a celebrity caterer, Rosa learned the “secret handshake” that gave her entree into the world she longed for. The truth is, celebrity is a fickle thing as are the fashions of the table. As culinary tastes changed, so Rosa learned that her cherished sense of belonging was a fragile as lettuce wilting on a plate. In reality, the demarcations of class would never give way for such as her.

Eleanor Roosevelt, resident of the White House for eight years and one of the most formidable and capable First Ladies that nation has known, had a relationship with food that mirrored her conflicted roles of wife and mother. Notorious for the provision of food that was as sparing and bland as it was frugal, she appeared to care little for bodily appetites. Her later confession that she was, during these years, “lost somewhere deep down inside myself,” is a telling revelation of her thirst for love, a thirst that had to hidden or redirected for most of her life.

It was in April of 1945 as the Russians invaded Berlin, Hitler’s devoted mistress Eva Braun took her own life by biting down on a cyanide capsule in the bunker of the Reich Chancellory. By her side, her beloved Adolf shot himself. Eva lived her entire adult life in a fantasy world fuelled by champagne, romantic longing and vanity. Day after day, with a great sea of humanity struggling for survival on her doorstep, Eva feasted and fasted her way to the most ignorant and tragic end.

As a novelist, Barbara Pym made an art form of observation in the most immediate details of life. In Shapiro’s words, “she used the food she knew to tell the stories she knew.” Her spare but evocative descriptions of food amidst the domesticity of rural English life was a reminder that life’s richness was not reserved for the gourmets sitting in French cafes, but was present in the simplicity of every meal and every life no matter how ordinary.

As a publisher and socialite, Helen Gurley Brown carefully curated a 1960s persona infatuated with sex, food and herself. Through her bestselling autobiography Sex and the Single Girl, her phenomenally successful editorship of Cosmopolitan and her much publicised foray into recipe books, Helen betrayed a relationship with food that was as publicly celebrated as it was personally loaded. A life-long obsession with dieting underlay it all. Indeed, Shapiro writes, “For Helen, dieting was a mission that went well beyond weight loss. It was a crusade against every enemy she had ever imagined in her future, from poverty to spinsterhood to a pitiable old age.”

There is so much more to these stories than this. Shapiro’s book is a delightful and fascinating read beginning to end. Her gift to readers is to illustrate the layered, complex and telling relationships we all have to food and the worth of allowing those relationships to be explored.

Laura Shapiro, What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, New York, Viking, 2017.

Sex in the Kitchen

Sex in the kitchen is not what it used to be.

For men of my father’s generation, the kitchen stove was a woman’s place and home cooking an almost entirely feminine task. Men did other things. Granted, the kitchen sink was sometimes less gendered territory, but the distance between the tasks of cooking and washing up was vast. Today that distance is considerably shorter.

I am one of six sons. At least four of us are seasoned home cooks. No longer limited to washing up, men have moved from sink to stove in considerable numbers. Indeed, things have changed, but perhaps not as much as we imagine. Research still points to women carrying the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. That’s certainly so in the kitchen. While men are cooking at home more than they ever have, generally the nature of the cooking they do is different.

As social researcher Rebecca Huntley observes, men are more motivated by cooking as performance and place a higher value on the development of technical skill over the nurturing of those they cook for. It’s true: while the male cook is lauded as the ‘kitchen hero’ on weekends, it is still women who keep the family fed and watered during the week: ‘the deeply gendered distinction between cooking as a vocation—as technical skill—and cooking as a domestic chore—as caring work—holds fast.’

So, while sex in the kitchen may be different to what it once was, it is, according to Huntley, ‘still in the missionary position.’

UnknownRebecca Huntley, Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia, Melbourne: Black Inc, 2008, 80.


Southern Fare

Southern Fare III


With my beloved far away in rural Texas, I’ve been re-reading Michael Lee West’s Consuming Passions, a delightfully written memoir of food and family in the South. It makes me wish even more I was there with her.

West’s personal observations about gender in the kitchens of her Tennessee childhood illustrate how much has changed in our expectations around food and yet how much is still the same. This is so not just in West’s small corner of the world, but in places I know more intimately.

In the second chapter, West muses on the place of frying in the Southern kitchen and, more significantly, on the place of cooking in feminine self-assessments of role and worth.

The power of food is daunting to ponder. Cooks of any region are bearers of a culture and a tradition; they are oral historians, not to mention sustainers of humanity. When it came to kitchens, my Mimi believed that larger issues were at risk; if a woman didn’t fry, then perhaps she was failing in some crucial way. This made an impression on my tender brain. If I failed as a chicken fryer, then I might fail as a wife and a mother. I might end up alone, rebuffed, unloved.

In chapter three West picks up on the theme, observing the roles played not only in the kitchen but in the adjoining dining room where the food is consumed. She describes the Sunday gatherings of the extended clan, men, women and children congregated separately: the children ‘corralled in the kitchen,’ the men seated at the dining room table and the women moving from kitchen to table and back again as male needs dictate.

Seated in the kitchen with the other children, West remembers:

We all looked up when one of the aunts came through the door, carrying the ham on a blue willow platter. She set it before Great-Uncle Charlie, Estelle’s firstborn son. Carving was an inheritance, passed from father to son, from brother to brother. Women, including Estelle herself, were excluded from this ritual, as if we couldn’t be trusted with knives—at least not outside the kitchen.

The male role was to pay appropriate compliments, flirtatiously perhaps. The female role was to serve, one embraced with great seriousness:

In the days before microwave ovens and antidepressants, it was a challenge to serve a hot meal, much less a feast, but these women were specialists. And they had a mission. It was imperative that the men be fed, as if more was at stake than the filling of stomachs, the soothing of appetites, the quenching of all thirsts. As soon as the last amen was uttered, the men began passing bowls, ignoring the ladies, who glided around the table, anticipating needs before they were felt.

Lee observes without comment or postscript the constant movement of the women, their care of both children and men, and the disdain of the older cousins who watched on from the kitchen table.

‘Look at them in their aprons,’ said Cousin Jeannie, eyeing the aunts. ‘Just like Harriet Nelson.’ ‘And June Cleaver,’ said Nena Grace. Jeannie shuddered. From the dining room, one of the fellows called out, ‘We need some more butter here!’ A second later one of the aunts ran into the kitchen, her head disappearing into the icebox. She sped back to the dining room and was greeted by shouts: ‘Over here, sugar. That’s my good girl.’ ‘Am I going to be like this?’ Jeannie’s eyes blinked open wide. ‘Good girl? Is that the same as good dog?’ That cousin now lives an exotic life, designing intricate jewelry that she carries from Las Vegas to Paris to Greece to Hong Kong. She speaks fluent French. And she changed her name from Jeannie to Beverly.