Good Reads: Women in Food
Author: Alyce Oh
Fifty years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a cookbook, magazine, advertisement—really any sort of print media concerning food— marketed toward females that didn’t somehow link their cooking abilities to their domestic capabilities. From Betty Crocker to Martha Stewart, the image of the perfect housewife, the hostess with the mostess, has been inextricably fashioned through tradition, consumerism, pop culture—really the list could go on and on. Sure, we’ve come a long way from the era of the apron-donning, pearls and heels wearing, dutiful housewife of the 1940’s, but the association of women with the role of homemaker still hangs heavy in the air. Hear the catchphrase, “Go make me a sandwich” lately?
I feel that here it is necessary to make the disclaimer that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman who cooks for her family. After all, food and cooking are among the greatest expressions of love, and for anyone to dictate who, how, where, or when one should or shouldn’t engage in such an act is overstepping the bounds of any individual—even if it is disguised as a noble act of emancipation. But if we claim to be moving toward a culture of inclusivity and greater social enlightenment, then it’s about time that women—whether in the sphere of the home or in professional industry—are duly recognized for their perspectives, experiences, and talents that extend beyond the perpetuating stigma of the home-bound, live-to-serve woman.
In honor of International Women’s Day (and to maybe further the aforementioned objective even by a teeny-tiny bit) I wanted to share a compendium of books written by or about women in food. As someone who does not claim to be a reader by any means, I can assure you that these books aren’t the kind that feel like a drudgery to get through. Food is the foundation, but the stories and approaches in telling them are as varied as they could possibly be. So next time you happen to pass by one of these titles (or feel compelled to go searching for them), I urge you to give them a read—if even only for the fact that they have to do with one thing we can all agree on: the utmost joy of food.
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter
If you’ve ever had the fantasy of living that ever-so-romantic and wholesome homesteader lifestyle (I’ll admit I have), this book may or may not convince you otherwise. Carpenter talks about her first-time experiences with trying to build and sustain a small “farm” in the middle of a run-down neighborhood in Oakland, California (think raising rabbits in an apartment room and trying to catch vegetable patch thieves). It’s funny, and interesting, and snubs the gimmicky aspects of the farm-to-table movement in a frankly refreshing way.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution by Thomas McNamee
As the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Waters is attributed to being one of the leading players of the organic, locally-grown produce movement that has influenced restaurants across the country—and other parts of the world. I appreciate that this book doesn’t shy away from portraying Chez Panisse as the unconventional and sometimes a little turbulent experiment of a restaurant it was in its beginning stages, though it is now such a widely recognized and respected establishment. It gives us all a little hope, if anything else.
Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Maybe you’ve heard of her New York restaurant Prune or seen her featured on the Bourdain-produced TV series, Mind of a Chef, but Gabrielle Hamilton is killing the food scene right now. Not only is she a bad-ass chef, but also an amazing writer (with an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan), so I guess you can call her something of a double-threat. Blood, Bones, and Butter talks about Hamilton’s discursive journey to becoming a professional chef and all the good, bad, and ugly experiences in between.
Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl has a load of punch to her name as former restaurant editor and food critic of the Los Angeles Times, the editor-in-chief of the former Gourmet Magazine, and the food critic of the New York Times in the 1990’s. Tender to the Bone highlights the formation of Ruth’s sense of taste from her childhood in a home where all kinds of food were served indiscriminately (even if they were on the verge of rotting) to her adult travels and experiences. This book is definitely infused with a sense of nostalgia that is always a welcome aspect of any good book.
My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
Julia Child doesn’t require much of an introduction, and if you’ve seen the 2009 film Julie and Julia, then you’re probably already well-acquainted with Child’s adventures (or misadventures?) in Paris. But if you’d like a quick primer, the rundown is that Child is credited with having introduced French cooking to the American home through her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and television show, The French Chef, in the 1960’s. It’s an amazingly detailed and well-supported book, thanks to all the letters Child and her husband wrote to friends and family during their time abroad, and the many photographs Paul took. It’s as if they knew this book was going to be written one day.
Tea and Pomegranates by Nazneen Sheikh
This book oozes the most amount of nostalgia, luxe, and just pure indulgence in food of all the books mentioned. Shiekh describes the food of her childhood in Kashmir, an area that has been broken and militarized since the 1940’s. This book was written to serve as a method of preserving her personal sense memories, but also the culture and traditions of her home country. Kashmiri cuisine is ancient, complex, and, according to Shiekh, pretty much magical (I mean, it has to be if every other dish is served with gold leaf, right?) She also includes recipes for dishes that are described throughout the book, so you can recreate them yourself, if you so desire.