#FoodHerStory: Feminist Cookies and Baked Symbols of Resistance

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A history of food requires a history of women. And there could be no better time to highlight all the ways and recipes and dishes and gastronomic advances that make this statement true than Women’s History Month.

Using this theme as a guide, I will be celebrating Women’s History Month through the lens of food studies and will feature several new posts and recipes throughout the month of March featuring women who use food to change society.


Today is International Women’s Day. Earlier this morning I posted an image of my three-year-old daughter holding a cake we baked earlier this spring for the anniversary of the Women’s March. In the photo she’s mad because I told her she couldn’t start eating just yet. Her fork is raised, her face determined, and the words spelled out on top of the cake in vanilla buttercream fittingly read “resist & persist.”

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From the very beginning (and no I’m not exaggerating), women have been using food as a tool for resistance, though that resistance wasn’t always spelled out so plainly in buttercream frosting. By taking what was considered an onerous slice of the gendered sphere of women’s work, women could make food work for them and their agendas, political, social, and otherwise. Food is generalized here because all manner of food stuffs could and have been used to these resistant ends, but there appears to be a particular correlation between women’s resistance and baked goods, especially cakes, cookies, and pies. Numerous scholars have studied the constructed gendered world of food work and the feminization of baking on both the domestic front and within the professionalized restaurant kitchen. Feminist food scholars Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber, co-editors of From Betty Crocker to feminist food studies: Critical perspectives on women and food, explain that, historically, in many cultures baking was a communal act for women who would share the arduous and lengthy tasks involved with making bread and baked goods which could include milling, mixing, rising, and finally the baking itself. Innovation after innovation—from baking powder to convection ovens to boxed cake mixes to pre-sliced bread—shifted the way this communal act took place. Women still gathered to bake, but the circumstances were often different and relegated to special occasions like holidays, birthdays, and such. Many women no longer needed to bake or could afford to pay others (either companies or hired cooks, many of which were women of color) to bake for them. In the updated afterword to her book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, food scholar Laura Shapiro argues that “cooking is no longer an aspect of being female, no longer an obligation women assume because they’re women. It has become an activity that floats free of gender, like driving a car.” If cooking and baking were no longer gendered, then why do many women continue to use these acts as tools and methods of resistance? Whether the baked goods are symbolic or physical and covered in sprinkles, the resistance is real.

“Cakes are a medium of culture critique and become a part of the modernist project in rendering consciousness.”

- Ann Romines, “Reading the Cakes: Delta Wedding and the texts of southern women's culture”

Whenever anyone flippantly says “food is just food,” I want to reach into my bag and hand them a xeroxed and highlighted copy of Ann Romines’ article “Reading the Cakes: Delta Wedding and the texts of southern women's culture” (The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1997). In reality, I likely won’t have a printed copy, but I have a version downloaded to both my desktop and my laptop and full paragraphs memorized by heart. Whenever I feel offtrack in my own research, I return to “Reading the Cakes” and find myself reading the foundations of food studies, and a feminist food studies, in particular. Romines argues that cakes, and by extension all food, serves as a linguistic medium, specifically a “female language that is clearly alive, not dead, and that can express passion as well as preservation.” In her analysis, Romines is looking at the cakes at the center of Eudora Welty’s southern-based novel, Delta Wedding, but the premise is transferable, to other examples of women’s literature and to real life. Romines explains that the novel’s female characters are practiced at “reading the cakes” and able to understand all the subversive social, racial, and gendered messages baked inside. Non-fiction women possess this skill, too, and non-fiction cakes (and pies and cookies, etc) are imbued with all flavors of resistance.

image credit: flickr user @ sajbrfem

image credit: flickr user @sajbrfem

Baked goods can be symbols of feminist messages. In this current digital era, a “feminist cookie” refers to a “reward or special commendation for being a decent human being” or doing the bare minimum. Anyone, regardless of gender, can be guilty of “cookie-seeking,” the majority of which is found on modern social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The term “feminist cookie” is further contextualized within the online geek and gaming cultures, spaces that are both still dominated by male users. A “cookie” is given in response to insincere or self-serving statements of feminist action; the symbolic gesture is equally insincere if not plainly sardonic though some users fail to see the criticism beyond the metaphorical chocolate chips.

image credit: @ thesweetfeminist

image credit: @thesweetfeminist

Baked goods can be media for feminist messages. Where Welty’s cakes had to be read via recipes and through the embodied knowledge passed down between generations of women, today’s baked goods can spell out exactly what they mean. Scroll through Instagram (mine included) and you’ll find bakers, both professional and in-home, using buttercream, sprinkles, candies, and more to spell out feminist messages in plain (and edible) text. Instagram user Becca Rea-Holloway, also known as @thesweetfeminist, exclusively posts images of cakes, cookies, and other baked goods decorated with clear (and not at all concise) contemporary feminist issues including universal childcare, affordable healthcare, representation, mansplaining, police brutality, abortion, toxic masculinity, climate change, white supremacy, and more. My personal favorite is a plain white-frosted cake, with multicolored non-pareils and pink and blue letters that spell “YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW WHAT I DO WITH THE CAKES.” The caption reads “they’re art 🤷‍♀️.” (fun fact, I asked her what she does with the cakes, as a food and material culture scholar…I NEED TO KNOW…because that’s a whole separate story there…but I digress).  Rea-Holloway’s account has over 46-thousand followers and only a couple hundred posts (that ratio is fairly significant in the complex and dynamically algorithmic world of Instagram) and recently made a cake as part of an exhibit for the “Like Sugar” exhibit at the Tang Teaching Museum. The choice to use baked goods, and specifically those that have long been associated with women’s food labor, is significant because these baked goods are still gendered objects. Many users are likely fluent in some version of “reading” baked goods and the various messages they hold. Some artists, like Rea-Holloway, go one step further, plainly spelling out those messages for everyone to read.

image credit:  Hot Bread Kitchen  (left) and @ cookiesforacausenyc  (right)

image credit: Hot Bread Kitchen (left) and @cookiesforacausenyc (right)

And baked goods can be, well, just baked goods that embody very feminist practices. Half of my dissertation looks at women in the food industry who uphold and actively promote feminist practices through their work. These women are the contemporary torchbearers in what is a very long line of feminist food history of feeding others and lifting them up in the process. There’s Hot Bread Kitchen, a nonprofit that creates economic opportunities for women and minorities in food through culinary training and incubator programs. And then there’s the bread, which you can buy online or in a few locations in New York and New Jersey, that helps support the whole enterprise. Hot Bread Kitchen teaches or gives women the support they need to bake and literally helps them become breadwinners. There’s also Ovenly, a women-owned bakery owned by Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga who both had backgrounds in social justice and social work before quitting to do baking full time. The company “provide[s] economic and professional growth opportunities to people from all backgrounds no matter their personal, financial, or educational history or his or her sexual or racial orientation” and aim to make their production process as sustainable as possible. There’s Cookies for A Cause in New York City that donates a portion of all cookies sales to causes such as the ACLU, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and Planned Parenthood. And then there’s your local baker who ensures that their employees have a fair living wage. There’s the cake-maker who makes a point to hire women and promote a family-friendly work environment. And the countless home and professional bakers who donate the proceeds from their wares directly to feminist organizations that support women and others who need help.

Baking may be gendered, but it is also feminist. For some people, cake can just be cake (and that is perfectly fine), but sometimes cake can hold messages of feminist resistance. And today, you don’t even have to be fluent to read them.


INTERSECTIONAL AIM: If you choose to leave a comment, I would love for you to help me broaden my world of intersectional feminist and food studies literature. I know I focused on issues of women and gender here, and very briefly so, but that does not mean other critical issues like race, class, and sexuality aren’t important. These are a few of the scholars I know that work on women, feminist messages, and baked goods, but they’re all white. Important voices, but I know there are others that I should add to complete the story. Thank you for sharing.


WORKS CITED:

Avakian, Arlene and Barbara Haber. From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food. University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.

Romines, Ann. “Reading the Cakes: Delta Wedding and the Texts of Southern Women's Culture.” The Mississippi Quarterly, (Fall 1997).

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. University of California Press, 1986.

Jane Austen's birthday: radical domesticity, good apple pies, + historical recipes

"Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness."- JANE AUSTEN

December 16th, 1775, bonneted-icon of femininity and the OG empowered rom-com writer Jane Austen was born. 2017 has been quite a year for the author as both die-hard fans and chagrined high school English Lit students alike marked the 200th anniversary since her death, the introduction of the 10 pound bank note printed with her likeness, and the New York Times tracked all things Austen complete with handy infographics. And in each and every instance the same question: how and why does Jane endure?

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She endures (hashtag #shepersisted) because she is applicable, because she is readable (well maybe not each and every word), and because she writes about the every day, which, in her case, was consummately domestic. Anyone who has ever picked up an Austen novel can discern its contenst just by looking at the publisher’s artistic cover design: clothes, books, dances, marriage, the home, women, extra domesticity. But her work and life choices demonstrate a far more radical perspective on women’s roles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries than those 21st-century interpretive covers convey.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Austen was a feminist. It can be difficult to see at first, but examples are plentiful from her self-care focused characters like Emma Woodhouse and Lizzy Bennet to her own tireless effort for economic autonomy. Austen’s work has been historically confused for sentimental literature when, it reality, it spoke plainly about real world issues. And non-issues, too. In the same pen stroke, Austen could artfully clap-back at 19th century sexism and then share her favorite recipe for spruce beer or baked goods. She was honest about what she liked and what contributed to her happiness and that included “good apple pies.”

The food and recipes Austen mentions in her letters and prose are heavily imubed with historical context, allowing the reader to discover new aspects about her characters (like understanding Mr. Darcy’s ridiculous wealth through his imported fruit habits) as well as her own lifestyle and dining patterns. Through this historical foodways we can better understand Austen in her own time and the purposeful choices she made to empower her female characters.

So it seems only fitting to celebrate her 242nd birthday by baking her favorite pie.

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I asked my PhD program colleague and fellow food scholar, Claire, to join me on this research (mainly because her crust crimping is immaculate, but also because baking in an academic sisterhood seemed decidedly appropriate given the situation).

Ever the academics, we questioned everything: Should we bake an English-style pie? What even IS an English-style pie? Do we add raisins or currants? Do the English like a lattice? What about rose water? [turns out we didn’t have any rosewater] How about vanilla? What kind of apple? [But it’s winter, apples are out.] What about dried apples? That’s very North Carolina (where we both live and work)! Should we consider the appropriate historical sugar? Refined or brown? [And then things got deep…because why not] December 16 is also the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Austen is British and would have probably appreciated such resistance, let’s add some tea!

We sifted through several historical recipes, consulted The Jane Austen Cookbook by Deirdre Le Faye and Maggie Black, dug through the digital archives at Feeding America, and finally ended up with a transatlantic amalgamation of a pie using British flavors, American techniques, and North Carolina-style dried apples.  

A very modern Austen good apple pie.

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Amelia Simmons,  American Cookery , Hartford: Printed for Simeon Butler, Northampton, (1798).

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, Hartford: Printed for Simeon Butler, Northampton, (1798).


Winter Tea + Dried Apple Pie
makes one 8-inch pie

For the filling:

  • 1 pound dried apples
  • 2 cups cold-brew earl grey tea
  • grated rind of one lemon
  • brown sugar to taste (about 1/4-1/2 cup) 

Combine the apples, earl grey tea, lemon rind, and juice in a large saucepan and simmer until the apples are plump and have soaked up most of the liquid. Allow to cool slightly.

For the crust:                                                                                                                                     

  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons dried earl grey tea leaves (optional)
  • 1/2 cup butter, chilled
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 6-10 tablespoons chilled water
  • egg wash

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and dried tea. Cut in the butter and shortening until large pea-sized pieces remain. Sprinkle the water one tablespoon at a time over the mixture until a workable dough forms. Divide the dough in half, wrap, and chill for a half hour before rolling out.

To assemble:

Set the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out one piece of dough to form the bottom crust. Roll out the second to form a top crust or cut into thick ribbons to make a lattice. Carefully place the bottom crust into a pie pan, trim the edges. Add the dried apple filling and sprinkle sugar on top. Add the top crust, trim and crimp the edges. Brush on the egg wash and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until the crust is set and a deep golden color. Serve warm with sweet cream or milky tea.


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#FreeFireCider: Folk Herbalists, Feminist Hashtags, and the Instagram Modernity

Earlier this month, I participated in The Recipes Project virtual conversation "What is a Recipe?". The Recipes Project is a Digital Humanities focused blog devoted to the study of recipes from all time periods.  Through their five years of historical research, several underlying questions emerged:

"What exactly is a recipe?  How do we know one when we see one?  What is their structure? What functions do recipes serve? How are they shared and passed on? Are they a set of instructions, a way of life, or a story? Aspirational or frequently used? Prose, poem, or image?" 

To help answer these questions, scholars from all corners of the food world came together through various technological media - including Twitter, blog posts, and Facebook Live - to share their work and research. The virtual conference started off with a live-stream panel on "Repast and Present: Food History Inside and Outside the Academy" from the Berkshire Conference. Other presentations included a weekly update on A reconstruction of Rev. Mr. Cochran’s Potato experiment, 1791” with @SpuddenlyFarming,  a blog post on "Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate," and my friend and colleague Emily Contois distilled her research and experience with #teachingcookbooks into a capsule thread on Twitter. On the final day, I presented my work on fire cider, the traditional folk herbalists who make it, and the role of the Instagram app using the image and video sharing features in Instagram Stories. 

Click through the slides above to see a version of the archived instagram story. 

Herbalists consider fire cider a community-owned recipe, one that is open-sourced and routinely reimagined by individual practitioners. With the advent of Instagram and the broader connected community it creates, many folk herbalists carved a commercial niche and developed an extended client base by marketing their individual versions of fire cider through this social media platform. My research looks at this historic “recipe” and how this community of shared knowledge deals with modern legal issues including copyright and trademark law. While this story spans several mediums, I focus mainly on the Instagram accounts of women folk entrepreneurs, how they use the hashtag #freefirecider in the hopes of winning back their recipe, and, in turn, help form a folk narrative within the Instagram modernity.

Part of my original Instagram Stories presentation, a boomerang (gif) with a filter and tag (#recipesconf).

As I will outline in other posts in the near future, there are many reasons to incorporate social media into your academic and alt-ac work and public-facing presentations. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to use Instagram and Instagram Stories for sharing my research:

1. Visuals - No other social media platform (or slideshow for that matter) will allow you tell a story through images as powerfully as Instagram. This is what the app was designed to do. While words and facts are the foundation of our work, ultimately, visuals help keep an audience engaged and interested. 

2. Reach - Plenty of academics are on Instagram (though not nearly enough), but, more importantly, so is everyone else. Instagram allows you connect with individuals and groups that you never knew were interested in your work. Connections and engagement through non-traditional outlets like Instagram could even lead to surprising writing and publication opportunities. 

3. Creativity - All research is, at its core, creative, but posting your work in this way allows you to flex a different part of your creativity. It may force you to learn new tech-related skills, try your hand at making short Instagram videos, or figure out how to tag other users, but it will also provide breadth to your research and your abilities as a modern scholar.  

4. Longevity - And for a final logistical point, while Instagram feeds are static (unless you edit or delete a post), Instagram stories are ephemeral and disappear after 24 hours. These dual posting options allow you to choose how to post your work and who will be able to view it. A well-framed single image could exist on your feed, whereas the more entertaining and whimsical aspects of your research (like that silly image you found #inthearchives or a video of you recreating a historical recipe) can live, temporarily, in your Instagram stories. 

When asked about the role of Instagram in the success of the #freefirecider campaign, several herbalists claim that it gives the community a voice and a platform through which the newest generation of folk traditions can learn about the issues surrounding the recipe. One herbalist credits the success of this year’s World Fire Cider Day with the “massive social media coverage” as herbalists and supporters shared their sentiments, recipes, images of their process, and stylized ingredient shots, each connected with collaborative tags. A quick search for the #freefirecider tag populates over 1,600 posts and the more generalized #firecider has nearly 13,000.  Combined with the other terms that make up their collective folk taxonomy, this feminist narrative reaches a digital community spread across the nation, around the world, and far beyond the geographic boundaries of U.S. trademark law. Whether this reach culminates in a successful win for tradition over trademark, only time and the tags will tell.