03/04/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Reclaiming the Kitchen: Women's History Month Meets the Food Justice Movement

When I was younger, Women's History Month drew my attention to the women's rights conference in 1848 at Seneca Falls. In my maturity, it prompts me to recall the 1970s, when women all around me were rethinking their relation to the kitchen, to housework and to making the coffee at work or in political organizations. In the 1970s, I, too, engaged in many efforts to challenge or rethink women's traditional practices and roles. For starters, I stood up to sexism in my university, helped create Women's Studies and learned to pump my own gas. But I never did question my role as family cook.

This was partly because I loved cooking and partly because I was lucky. While many women I knew were struggling with male partners over a more equal division of household labor, I had married a man who willingly did all of the dishes and half of the housework as well. (When it came to parceling out the household tasks, I found cooking a soufflé a lot more satisfying than scrubbing pots and pans.) Since in my childhood, my mother's meals had been the most reliable form of nurturing I'd received, cooking was also the only sure way I knew to create a comforting sense of home. By 1970s, moreover, cooking had become central to my sense of who I was as well -- a woman who was not (but also was) like her mother.

Although I had undoubtedly internalized my mother's belief that an adult woman was best known by her ability to produce a decent meal, when I began to cook in the 1960s while getting my English Ph.D., I was conscious of doing so in a way that would define me as different from my mother and my mother's life. She cooked Midwestern. I deliberately chose French. While she baked apple pies to please my heterosexual father, I composed Tarte Normande aux Pommes to enchant the man I loved and married, a man who'd told me "if it weren't for you, I'd be homosexual." In the 1980s, when I was living in a small commune and it was my turn to cook, I often made Moosewood's Spinach-Rice Casserole. My mother, who remained in a nuclear family all her life, was fond of serving her own favorite one-dish meal -- Heavenly Hash. Like my mother, I valued the comfort and connection that cooking for others produced, but the cuisines and relationships I pursued broke with family tradition.

My deepest food-related difference from my mother, however, lay in the fact that I began to think of cooking in relation to politics. I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement, that a committed political life could and should involve "sensuality." "To be sensual," Baldwin wrote in Down at the Cross, "is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread." For me, sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food. Cooking through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the 1960s, a wildly optimistic venture, inspired and energized me not only in my domestic life, but in my work and in my political activities.

In the 1990s, when I started to host a series of lavish buffets in an effort to help build a cross-race community on my campus, I would learn that cooking for and eating with others involves shared pleasures that can bring people together over their differences. I would learn what Janet A. Flammang would write about ten years later in The Taste for Civilization that cooking for, and eating with, others engages you in the repeated practice of generosity and trust and of civil conversation at the table, activities that can produce a sense of common cause. Such experiences, Flammang maintains, lay the groundwork for democracy itself and build reservoirs of good will which communities can draw on later in times of stress.

Cooking for and eating with others, I would come to understand, are especially powerful in building community because they tap into deep and early pleasures and emotions. As I wrote in my memoir, Tasting Home"

Eating what is cooked and served with good will evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.

It is "emotion," Belinda Robnett writes in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights, that is central to the transformation of individual identities, that creates movement culture, that brings self-interest into consonance with collective goals.

Cooking for, and eating with, others, however, like other efforts to produce pleasure and emotional connection, can't be women's work alone -- in the house or in political communities. And this is where Women's History Month meets the food justice movement. Some of those currently writing about the food movement have expressed the hope that it will unify now-disparate communities into a cohesive movement for thorough-going social change. Others have given voice to the concern that the food movement's emphasis on organized, locally sourced, and homemade meals will end up placing too great a burden on women, thereby deepening gender inequality and division-- hardly the basis for a unifying movement. Neither possibility, however, is automatic or inevitable.

There are signs, for example, that the current food movement, especially in its food justice components, is engaging men and women both in gardening, participating in farmer's markets, cooking and dining together, activities which, they testify, are bringing people together across race, class and gender boundaries. The food movement also seems to be prompting more men to acknowledge the role of pleasure, emotion and even working on the relationship in creating communities that can strive with some coherence for a better world. Both tendencies could draw attention to the fact that creating community requires labor, requires what a colleague once called "earning our relation to each other." Creating community, indeed, demands the very kinds of effort to generate emotional connection and sensitivity that used to be thought of as women's work. If we are to have political communities that unify across boundaries, "women's work" must now be everybody's labor. This is another way to reclaim the kitchen.

(Based on the memoir Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.