THE BLOG
09/30/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

The Politics of Women's Writing About Food

Cooking and dining with others train us in modes of feeling and behavior that are the foundation for democracy itself.

While writing my food memoir, Tasting Home, I avoided reading anything analytical about women and food. (I had been a professor for most of my life and didn't want to write like one in a personal memoir.) Only after I finished my book, did I begin to read critical work on women's culinary reflections and to see recurring political projects in their writing, projects in which, it turns out, I had also engaged. These projects included the construction or reconstruction of individual identities, of community identities, and of a larger civic identity as well.

1. Women's Food Writing and Individual Identities

In Aesthetic Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Women's Food Writing, Alice L. McLean explores the ways in which M.F.K. Fisher, one of the most famous food writers of the 1940s and 1950s, drew upon both masculine and feminine traditions of writing about food. A female tradition, dating from the nineteenth century, had focused on domestic cooking and on writing cookbooks for the home kitchen. A masculine tradition had produced cookbooks for professionals or had described in elegant detail the artfulness and pleasures of dining in public or social spaces. In works like The Gastronomical Me, McClean suggests, Fisher moves between the worlds of home cooking (recalling strawberry jam-making with her grandmother, for example) and the male-dominated public world of dining out in Paris and other exotic settings. In combining traditions, Fisher creates a new kind of food writing and a new version of herself as a modern woman.

Like many women, Fisher seeks emotional connections and finds them in dining with others: "When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and the warmth and richness and fine reality of having it satisfied." At other times, food pleasure is bound up with erotic discovery. As a young woman, Fisher attends a Christmas party at Miss Huntington's school for girls. She consumes her first oyster, a sensuous dish, and then stumbles upon a moment of eroticized tenderness in the pantry as the head house-keeper, "one arm laid gently" over the shoulders of the school nurse, places oysters on a platter while the latter eats them.

Fisher also enjoys the adventures which cooking and dining provide, whether they come from her own home cooking--a lip-blistering dish of Hindu eggs to which she added too much curry- or from the most "exciting" meal she ever ate at the Café de Paris, a "rich, winey spiced cuisine" that induces her to feel that "we had seen the far shores of another world." In writing about food, Fisher identifies herself as a woman who seeks emotional connections, as many women are wont to do, but she also represents herself as a woman who asserts her appetite for adventure, physical pleasure, and erotic sensation. In so doing, she breaks from long-standing norms which assigned middle-class women to the home and downplayed their capacity for bodily pleasures.

2. Women's Food Writing and Communal Identities

Arlene Voski Avakian's Through the Kitchen Window is a multicultural anthology of female culinary writing that focuses largely on women's cooking in the home. Although, the essays and poems in the book construct particular kinds of individual identities, they often imagine and celebrate specific forms of community as well. In her 1976 poem "What's That Smell in the Kitchen?" Marge Piercy invites us to see home cooking as something imposed upon, and oppressive to, women. The "smell" referred to by the poem comes from women, as an imagined feminist community, burning family dinners in protest: "All over America women are burning food they're supposed to bring with calico smile on platters glittering like wax."

Many pieces in this anthology, however, emphasize the way in which home cooking, while historically-imposed, can also function as a form of artistry, a source of pleasure and authority, and a way of preserving a specific community. Gloria Wade-Gayle, in "Laying on Hands' Through Cooking: Black Women's Majesty and Mystery in Their Own Kitchens," writes about herself and her female forebears, from the times of slavery on, as women who resist their own and their people's social marginalization by exercising authority and influence in their cooking. They are seen as women who perpetuate their community's racial and cultural identity by cooking traditional foods, and their community, in turn, is imagined as being strengthened and healed through eating it: "It is like the 'laying on of hands' we talk about and testify to and about in the black community; the healing hands touch us through the food they prepare."

3. Women's Food Writing and Civil Society

Janet L. Flammang's The Taste for Civilization also looks at cooking in the home but gives it broader social and political influence. Although Flammang recognizes that more men cook at home than ever before--a trend she would like to encourage-- she rightly points out that home cooking is still largely the province of women in this country and around the world. While restaurant cooking, a field dominated by men, is lauded as art, as heroic performance, and as worthy of historical attention, domestic cooking, traditionally associated with women, has largely been invisible, regarded as insignificant, or dismissed as what "real" history is not about. Yet, cooking the family meal, Flammang argues, has enormous historical importance in that it lays a groundwork for civil society itself.

Home cooking, for example, has characteristically brought people together, involved them in daily expressions of generosity and care, and maintained a continuing expectation that dinner conversations will be civil, that individuals will not just put their own needs above those of the group. Cooking for, and eating with others, produces a sense of common cause and creates reservoirs of good will which groups can draw on later in times of stress. Cooking and dining with others train us in modes of feeling and behavior that are the foundation for democracy itself.

Women writing about food have many projects, but when they call attention to the political potential of cooking and dining in these ways, they define themselves as part of a struggle for social change. Such writing invites readers to the table and to a civil conversation. How do we create a more fully human and equitable world though just, thoughtful, and pleasurable practices in growing, preparing and consuming what we eat?