Putting the feminism back in food

Women have had a complicated relationship with food.

For millennia, domesticity wasn’t a woman’s choice. Keeping house, including preparing food, was a woman’s job whether she liked doing it or not.

The first feminists, even before they called themselves that, bucked the notion that feeding a family was all they were capable of, but even as many of them found themselves working outside the home, they more often than not came home to their second job of, you guessed it, keeping house.

When food manufacturers figured out that women were in charge of making the majority of food purchasing decisions, they not only started marketing products toward them, but they developed products to ease the “burden” of cooking. Enter the era of canned soup, microwave meals and box mixes.

Advancements in food technology “liberated” women, while the stereotypes in how they were marketed upheld the ideal of the American housewife, cheerily feeding her family in an apron and heels.

It’s no wonder that many second wave feminists rejected cooking altogether. Dismissing food, and particularly their role in preparing it, was an important part of distancing themselves from traditions that were put upon women. (Cue scene of burning bras.)

In an effort to gain equal footing with men, even talking about food and relishing eating it became, in a way, anti-feminist.

As a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I watched my own mother, a teacher from the Midwest who embodied many feminist qualities even though she likely didn’t identify herself as one, come home from school every night and put dinner on the table. She took full advantage of conveniences like Shake ‘N’ Bake, boxed scalloped potatoes and jarred pasta sauce to make dinner as quickly and painlessly as possible.

We ate well, and she cooked from scratch quite a bit. Enough, in fact, for me to be interested in cooking from an early age. (My sister and I had an Easy Bake Oven, but we preferred to use the real thing.) We lived close enough to my grandmother that I learned how to make shortcake and dumplings from scratch.

My dad cooked three things: Pasta with cut-up kiobassa sausages, fish sticks and macaroni and cheese, and meat on a grill.

I started to self-identify as a feminist when I was a sophomore or junior in my rural high school in Southwest Missouri, but it wasn’t something I wore on my sleeve. Only when I entered college did I fully embrace that I was part of what people were calling the third wave of feminism: women and men who were fortunate enough to come around decades after standing up for women’s rights was considered a radical idea.

I disagree with the claim, cited on Wikipedia, that the “movement arose as a response to the failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism.” Backlash is such a combative word, and there’s enough of that among women as it is.

I’m proud to be part of a movement of women who defend the right for each of us to define feminism for ourselves.

Two years ago, I became the food writer at the Austin American-Statesman, taking the job of a columnist who’d been writing about food for longer than I’d been alive.

Thinking, researching and writing about food for a living has got me thinking a lot about the role of feminism in food today. The majority of my readers are middle-to-upper class women who are the primary cooks in their household. This is quite a different audience than the younger, more diverse and progressive online community I connect with daily via Twitter and my food blog.

In both audiences, there’s more chatter than ever about food. You can’t turn on the TV, read a magazine or website without stumbling upon food content, and that’s not counting the advertisements and commercials about food.

People are parsing every aspect of cooking, eating, buying and growing food, but I haven’t found many talking about women in today’s food-obsessed society: From the sexy “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi (and her homoerotic Burger King ad), “femivores” and the lack of female chefs in restaurant kitchens to the ridiculous way yogurt is marketed toward women and how modern feminists are reclaiming domestic tasks like canning and making bread not because they have to but because they want to.

As every blog evolves with its creator, The Feminist Kitchen will evolve in the coming months and years. I’m expecting my second child later this year, so you’ll be reading plenty about feeding my own kid (breastfeeding in public, FTW!) and why teaching my young sons how to cook is as important as teaching them to read and play nice.

For more on the idea behind this blog, check out The Feminist Kitchen Manifesto.

7 responses to “Putting the feminism back in food

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about and dreaming of researching! I can’t wait to explore your blog more, and hope to engage in some great conversation!

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