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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.