“When we learned to cook is when we became truly human, but we’ve lost touch with how that food got to our plates.” Michael Pollan in Cooked.
As is so often the case with history, the “herstory” tends to get left out – and food is no exception. While there are as many books on food history as leaves on a tree, try to find just ONE exploring “the herstory of food”. I still haven’t. Which is odd considering from our earliest days as hunter-gatherers to the first domestication of plants, it was women who stoked the first hearths, stirred the first pots, brewed the first beer, and baked the first bread.
And if you explore research papers that examine the origins of plant gathering and food production (as I love to do) you’ll find for the most part, that the language is curiously gender neutral. Almost as if the sexual division of labour that dominated earliest food gathering, is unseemly and better left unmentioned. But fact is, women were the first gatherers, introducing the deliberate cultivation of plants and the various complex processes such as cooking, baking, preservation and food storage—basketry, pottery, that went along with it.
Why does this matter? Well, what’s gone missing is much more than women’s history. What’s rendered invisible is the story of our earliest relationship with food and the natural world – the vast swath of “herstory” which kindled our transformation into humans. And in this post, I’m going to explain why I feel, in this time of ecological and food crisis, this loss goes a long way towards explaining why we’ve lost touch with the food on our plate.
Let’s start with food activist and author Michael Pollan’s recent four-part documentary series on the history of food. Exploring the transformation of the four natural elements, fire, air, earth and water, into our earliest food and drink, Pollan never mentions that the “alchemy of cooking” was originally a women’s domain. Yet in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (the book upon which the series is based) Pollan makes the point that “for most of history most of humanity’s food has been cooked by women working out of public view and without public recognition.” And yet his televised series continues the tradition.
I’m totally with Pollan when he defines cooking as the “essential human activity at the heart of all cultures” and that by “relying upon corporations to process our foods we’ve disrupted our essential link to the natural world.” But that he urges us to “reclaim our lost food traditions” and “revel again in the magical activity of making food” without acknowledging that women’s food magic is at the very heart of our early food history, is quite an oversight.
Because long before food was a commodity bought and sold for profit, no act of food production, from harvesting, growing, preparing, preserving, storing, cooking, baking, was left unblessed by women’s prayers, rituals and devotions. Their food magic had one central purpose, to nourish the earth who nourished them.
And for thousands of years, from the customs of our coastal First Nations to the rituals of the ancient world, whether they called her Isis, Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Astarte, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, Pachamama, Annapurna, or Freya, women have carved and painted her sacred symbols onto hearths, ovens, pots, cooking and food storage vessels, made offerings to her as they gathered food in the fields, forests and waters, and held countless ceremonial feasts in her honour.
And while we may no longer remember why we bake fruitcake at Christmas or hot cross buns at Easter, they descend from the “holy foods” once ritually consumed to ensure her fertility – thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.
That Pollan’s series never mentions any of this, is hardly unusual. Today the herstory of cooking is relegated to the realm of ‘fertility cults”, sympathetic magic, folklore and old wive’s tales. After all, everyone knows that baking magical bread isn’t going to causally affect the harvest. So today the history of cooking is, for the most part, the story of visionary male chefs who pioneered the art, techniques and economics of “good cooking”.
Pollan himself points that this problem (as Janet A. Flammang, a feminist scholar suggests) may have something to do with food which by “its very nature falls on the wrongside -the feminine side-of the mind-body dualism in Western culture… food is associated with body, animal, female and appetitive – things civilized men have sought to overcome with knowledge and reason.”
Today the earth’s body is industrially farmed and artificially fertilised, food is a “product” earned by the sweat of our brow, and the great mother is all but forgotten. Women no longer gather communally to harvest with prayer and song, but shop harried and alone in corporate superstores, and the kitchen is a place where we consume the processed and fast foods that suit our busy lifestyles.
It seems to me that the loss of reverence for the earth desacralized our food and severed us from the rituals which brought us together, from which we drew nourishment, meaning and spiritual sustenance. So I can’t help but wonder, if this has anything to do with why, from perpetual dieting to eating disorders, to an obsession with “watching what we eat”, modern women have such a complicated relationship with food?
In their book From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber write women today are suffering from an internal conflict, in which “our hidden hungers”, “the sensual pleasures of food and cooking are all too often obscured by the increasing demands of careers, families, battles over body image, and the desire for a life outside the “traditional” domain of the kitchen.”
And they point out that feminism has been of little help sorting it all out, as women’s history scholars are more interested “in setting straight the public record on women’s achievements”. Instead, feminist scholarship on food has largely focused on “women’s food pathologies, such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders” and ignored cooking “as if it were merely a marker of patriarchal oppression and, therefore, not worthy of attention.”
But growing evidence in the fields of anthropology suggests that women’s early place by the hearth may have had nothing to do with the centuries of domestic oppression that followed. Because long before women ate last at the table (and maintained their trim figures) long before cooking was part of an invisible unpaid economy, women had control over the crops they harvested, cultivated, cooked and consumed.
Our very early foremothers, as Eleanor Leacock suggests in Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society, lived in a society where “issues of status are irrelevant because both women and men produce goods and services for their own use…and hence control their own lives directly.”
What if before the shift to ownership of crop and land, before food became “property” (usually of an elite class of landholders and the Church) women’s central role in food production granted them economic autonomy, status and spiritual authority? (see more on this here) What if cooking, far from drudge work assigned to the lesser sex, was originally a source of women’s empowerment? What if it provided fellowship, and an avenue of creative, artistic and spiritual expression? What if eating and feasting were celebratory occasions to honour the life-sustaining gifts of the earth, opportunities for women to nourish and pleasure themselves?
There are no answers to these questions because no one is asking. After all, who remembers there is a “herstory” of food at all? So I am left searching obscure anthropology and archaeology texts, quaint holiday customs and pagan cookbooks, for scattered references to a historical and spiritual legacy, that if pulled together would not only illuminate both women’s history and the story of our earliest relationship to food – but maybe even what it means to be human.
In the words of this reviewer, Pollan seeks to remind us that the kitchen is “a holy place where the gifts of nature are transformed into physical, emotional, and even spiritual forms of sustenance”, and in Cooked he urges us to “forge a deeper, more meaningful connection to the ingredients and cooking techniques that we use to nourish ourselves”. But ahem, isn’t that the herstory that’s gone missing from our plates?
Pollan may have helped to popularise the food axiom “you are what you eat” but for our ancient foremothers, it was how you ate that mattered. Baking ceremonial bread may be considered magical thinking, but l think it works like this: it binds us together in reverence and gratitude for our mother the earth, it revives the ‘old ways’ of creating blessings for ourselves, our family, community and the planet herself, and it reconnects us with the joy of nourishing and being nourished. And isn’t this a legacy worth remembering?
Oprah may have bought WeightWatchers to help women be their best selves, but maybe we’re hungering for something we can no longer even name? The way I see it, the “herstory” of food isn’t the old well-worn tale of women being oppressed by their place in the kitchen. Quite the opposite. It’s about reclaiming our age-old power as caretakers and nurturers of the earth – not to mention ourselves.