James Beard lived a long, full life as one of America’s foremost authorities on food. He wrote books, taught classes and cooked on television before Julia Child did. His legacy lives on in the James Beard Foundation, which tonight and tomorrow night will give out the country’s premier annual food awards.
While the food glitterati are in New York for the ceremonies, I’m at home finishing Mary Drake McFeely’s “Can She Bake A Cherry Pie? American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century,” a good primer — at least from a white, middle-class perspective — on the evolution of the American kitchen in the past 100 years.
McFeely explains how everything from food rations to can openers transformed how women cooked. We take many of the advances for granted (canned tuna and electric or gas ovens), but in some ways, very little has changed since the 1950s.
In “The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery” from 1955, James Beard and Helen Evans Brown wrote: “We believe (that charcoal cookery) is primarily a man’s job and that a woman, if she’s smart, will keep it that way.”
McFeely adds: “Unlike their wives, (men at the grill) performed publicly, demonstrating their skill to wide-eyed children and suitably impressed guests. Of course women provided the rest of the meal…”
Around our house, I take pride in being the “fire priestess” who takes on as much of the grilling duties as cooking in the kitchen, which I’d estimate is about an 85/15 split with my husband. (You’ll be reading plenty about this division of labor later.)
But by the looks of all the manly grilling cookbooks I receive at work, as well as the packaging, marketing and product design of barbecue tools and recipes, it seems men are still expected to be masters of the grill.
James Beard died in 1985, but the awards named for him are gaining more and more attention each year. And how do women fare? Last year, Eat Me Daily called the Foundation out for recognizing only 16 women out of 96 nominees, but the number of nominees reflects the overall lack of female chefs in America’s best restaurants, according to Food + Wine editor Dana Corwin.
Too bad there’s not a James Beard Award for starting and cooking over a campfire. I might just give those boys a run for their money.
Top photo from Magnum archives.