A Woman’s Place

Women have long wielded their power through food. Similar to the Indian Farmers’ Protest, women around the globe have stood on the front lines and used food as a vehicle for change. This was one of the many reasons why my dear friend and partner-in-crime, Stef Ferrari, and I set out to write our book, A Woman’s Place (Little, Brown and Company), two years ago. So it’s only fitting that today, on International Women’s Day, we put the spotlight on all those fierce females who fought against injustices and misogyny, who dared to dream a new way of doing things (usually out of necessity), and who paved the way for all of us.

The introduction in our book was written by Stef—who I admire and adore immensely—and I’d love to share it with you today. Also, a big shoutout to Jessica Olah for her beautiful illustrations!

Our Place: How we Got Here, and Where We’re Going

This book all began with sauce. It started with a simple conversation between a writer of Indian descent and one of Italian, geeking out about the importance of condiments to our respective cuisines over coffee and tea. We noted, but were not entirely surprised by, how many times the term “mother,” or “grandmother,” had come from our mouths. My, how the women of our lives had shaped the food we loved so much, and that was a theme that ran far deeper than the biggest pot of simmering marinara or tikka masala on our matriarch’s stoves.

The power of women in food has long been a point of shared passion for us. In fact, one of our earliest collaborations was with culinary publication Life & Thyme, for which we created and organized a photography exhibition titled Doyenne: Female Force in Food. The project, inspired by a shifting political climate and perception that women were being marginalized in all industries, sought to celebrate some of the badass females from our own. We featured fourteen chefs from around LA, where we were both living at the time––each of whom responded instantly to our emails and phone calls. Absolutely, they said. Whatever you need, they said. Just say the word, they said. They showed up early, they brought their staffs and their friends and their insanely delicious food for everyone to share. And together, we raised over $10,000 for Planned Parenthood. It was pretty clear to us then, we weren’t the only ones wanting to champion women in the culinary world.

And yet, as food documentarians, so few of our subjects had been female. In fact, our little Sauce Summit took came on the heels of a photo shoot and interview in which the featured chef was a man. He’d built his career replicating pastas he’d learned to make while traversing the Italian peninsula, and was the latest culinary darling to rack up accolades and press mentions. Happily, he’d been quick to credit his teachers. He told us his mentors had many methods, at times conflicting opinions on how an agnolotto should be shaped or the ratio of pecorino to black pepper for the Roman cacio e pepe, but there was one thing in common regardless of where he traveled. From region to region, island to mountain, province to town, street corner to family table: the making of pasta was a woman’s domain. 

It got us thinking, if a woman’s place has always been in the kitchen, then why do the annals of culinary history read like the guest list of some old boys’ club?

These insights were certainly not new, but after that day, we were super tuned in, listening in every conversation, hungry for further indications of women’s influence on food culture and history. And did we ever find it. Not more than a few weeks later, another critically beloved and highly researched male chef––Mexican this time––talked about the tradition of tamale making, and how it belongs to a community’s women. In India, the chapati––a staple of the cuisine––has historically been a woman’s work. In Vietnamese culture, the celebration of Tet, or the lunar new year, is commemorated with the making of  banh chung in a female only ceremony. 

And it’s not just contemporary society; new studies show cavewomen were hardly sitting around at home waiting for their men to bring home the woolly mammoth bacon. More likely, there was a more equitable division of labor. And as Michael Price of Science Magazine reported in 2017, new research analyzing the fossils of prehistoric women in early agricultural societies found “that their upper body strength surpassed even today’s elite female athletes”––an indication they were likely very involved in the laborious farming tasks of the era. Hell, even making and selling booze turned out to be the work of women throughout the course of history. 

It got us thinking, if a woman’s place has always been in the kitchen, then why do the annals of culinary history read like the guest list of some old boys’ club? Men may have long been the ones holding the pens that recorded history, but so often, it was women wielding the knives––not to mention, the spatulas, the spoons, and the know-how.

Stories of grandma’s recipes circulate at the dinner table, but the role of women in shaping the food served on it is rarely discussed. Men are consistently recognized for their contributions to the culinary canon, but it is a woman who was responsible for the camembert with which he finishes his finest dish, the beer he has at the end of his shift––even the dishwasher he uses to clean up. From the story of macaroni and cheese to the mole sauce that makes your taco sing, to the fork you lift at every meal, if you look for it, you’ll find a woman’s stamp on just about every meal. 

There are so many logical reasons for women to be at the center of food history, right down to the physical elements. Some say men are in the kitchen because they’re stronger. Hogwash, we say to that––and we think any woman who’s ever worked in the food biz would agree. But there is evidence that in specific ways, women are even more well-suited to culinary pursuits. Sometimes that means a delicate touch when it comes to intricate details or organizational skills, whether in deliberately mapping out a mise en place or arranging microgreens on a tweezered plate. And studies have shown there is true physiological advantage when it comes to sensory analysis. Women are often enlisted by big brands to do quality control, leveraging that natural ability in identifying flavors and aromas.

So what the hell happened here? Because even with overwhelming evidence of women lingering in our at-home holiday traditions or in romanticized tales handed down through generations, a glance at food media front pages or the list of the world’s best restaurants, or even when setting foot in the corner bistro, the faces staring back at us were almost exclusively men. Women may be depicted slaving over that proverbial (and literal) hot stove, and setting the feast on the table in a pressed dress with perfectly manicured nails. But rarely, it seems, are they considered fit for the professional jobs. 

Female absence from today’s food conversations is no surprise when you consider the glaring omission of women when referring to historical advancements in food. The origins are either muddled or entirely rewritten––an exalted man where a headstrong, inventive and determined woman should be. 

They say behind every great man is a strong woman. We knew they had been there, and now we wanted to know why they were not there. Not in the conversations. Not in the history books. Where were their stories? What were those contributions? We knew if we looked hard enough, we would no doubt find women who changed our world. We wanted to know about their worlds––what motivations inspired them, what circumstances that forced their hands. We wanted to know their lives. And we wanted to know their names.

It was no easy feat, given the thick, consuming layers that have grown over these women’s memories like moss on a stone, masking identities and threatening to forever obfuscate what they’ve contributed. But if you turn that stone, there they are. 

Women. 

In kitchens, yes. But also in high offices operating businesses. In tool sheds inventing the next indispensable kitchen tool. Leading picket lines and publishing revolutionary works that provoked reactions beyond the chemical or culinary. We learned about women associated with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the modern-day doughnut, but we also learned about history. About societies and civilizations, unrest and upheaval, war and peace and progress and oppression. And most importantly, we learned about the ferocity of the female spirit.

But these women (and girls) weren’t just sugar and spice––they were also full of fire.

We learned that women were responsible for a lot of food and drinks that, without which, life would be a whole lot less fun (see also: Champagne, buffalo wings). But they also used it to not only sustain physically, promote economy, and secure independence, but to evoke feeling. Some used food, or their involvement in a food business, as a way to change the world in which they lived. As a form of protest or progress or protection, it was a tool to make people feel something––pride or outrage or a responsibility to action. Others feelings were less grave, but just as critical. In making freshly churned ice cream a treat for all people, regardless of social or financial class; in codifying a recipe for Chinese stir-fry that gave families far from home a taste of something familiar, food provided far more elemental feelings––comfort, and joy. 

Some women didn’t invent food, but rather radical new machines and devices that revolutionized the way we cook or clean or eat today. Necessity may be the Mother of Invention, but these women were the Grand Dames of Design.

And in learning their stories, we found many themes that united our gender throughout the ages. You may notice how many of the women in this book were widowed. Historically, a woman’s primary objective was to find a husband and make a home for his family. But with illness and conflict ongoing issues in developing societies, and men were often killed by disease or war. Women left behind at times found themselves in charge of businesses or vast estates, while others were newly minted single mothers saddled with an uncertain future for their families. Some were left with fortunes. Others with massive debt. But in their grief, all of these women were also granted a certain kind of freedom. Single women were meant to find someone suitable to marry, and not much more (an expectation that any modern day single girl at a bridal shower has certainly been subject to). A widow on the other hand, had no such pressure. She also had something new and invaluable: time. Sometimes her motivation came from desperation and a need to provide for herself or her family, like Josephine Cochrane when she created the dishwasher. For others, like Madame Clicquot, it was a deep passion, and hope to preserve her husband’s legacy (and thank goodness, because our New Year’s Eves would be pretty flat without her). Regardless, it was in the face of tragedy that they enjoyed a unique societal dispensation for women of their day––independence.

There is also more than one instance of divine intervention throughout these pages. Convents often relied on the culinary works of their residents to keep the lights on and the water running. And it seems no coincidence given that a compassionate nature and desire to nurture a community is a cornerstone of cooking. 

But these women (and girls) weren’t just sugar and spice––they were also full of fire. We met rum runners and ex-cons, women who weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, for money or love, or for the good of all humanity. They made it their mission to move the needle––rules be damned.

But despite bravery and bold intentions, time and time again these women produced thanklessly. Their dishes, innovations and ideas were co-opted by male counterparts, for their businesses or for their own glory, while women were sent back to the homestead. Sometimes it took a while for men to fully eradicate them. For example, women invented beer and for centuries were the primary sellers of the stuff, but later were accused of nefariously bewitching townsmen to act in unbecoming (read: drunkity drunk) ways. And men elbowed their way in, taking over an industry that belonged to women for millenia. Only in recent years have we again seen women return to helm brewhouses and pubs. Strides made by females in food have provided the foundation on which men have built empires, earned global renown––not to mention billions and billions (and billions) of dollars. And in the process, they stole from women not only their rightful recognition, but financial independence and autonomy. 

In this book, we’ll take a journey through the ages and across continents, cultures and races. What we eat is the end product in many of these stories, but we also touch on innovations, science, culture, and history, illuminating the innumerable ways women have influenced the way we dine today, and finally giving females their rightful place––in the kitchen.

Fortunately for us, it feels as if we’re finally experiencing a moment of change, and women are getting some of the recognition they deserve in the food business today. According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 1/3 of U.S. restaurants have female owners. The NRA also notes that over 60% of women have worked in the restaurant business at one time or another, and more than half of restaurant workers today are female, further demonstrating that the food world is a woman’s place. It makes this a pretty exciting time. 

We’ve got a long way to go, though. Women still occupy less positions at the top––only 7% of head chef jobs are held by women. They command less pay (according to a 2016 Glassdoor study, female chefs make 28% less base pay than men––the second highest gender pay gap of any occupation), and continue to be underrepresented in the media, the “must lists” and major industry awards. 

There is work to be done. But this book is meant to demonstrate that we’re not doing it alone; we are supported by centuries of powerful women––even if we’ve never heard their names. They are the specters of womens’ movements past, a lineage of ladies on whom we can call for inspiration and strength. They’ve led us boldly by example, and to honor their legacies, we must first observe their existence.

This book is about telling their stories, giving each of these fierce women a face and a voice. It’s about changing the narrative about women in the food world. It’s about demonstrating that if a woman found herself in a kitchen, it wasn’t because she was forced there; more often than not, she passionately sought out and fought her way into that place. 

It’s not about rewriting history––it’s about uncovering what’s been there all along. It’s about due credit, in the kitchen and on our dinner tables. It’s a celebration of unparalleled achievements made by uncompromising women. It’s about inspiring a new generation to embrace their own creativity, to address their own circumstances, to be bolstered by what came before, empowered to know what is already inside each of us. 

We consider this book a manifesto––to never again allow our contributions to be written out of history, to be 86’d from the culinary narrative. Today, we continue a legacy of compassionately feeding people all over the globe. Of embracing and instigating political and social change. Of subversiveness and success against endlessly stacked odds. Of using food to create a better world––by way of doughnut or the democratic process. Because a woman’s place isn’t about being confined to the four walls of a kitchen. A woman’s place in food culture is one of authority, of esteem, of respect, and it belongs to each one of us––past, present and future.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s