The Magical Herstory of Food

“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 celebrating “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. 

Why does this matter? Well, the history of cooking may seem trivial – or even regressive – when it comes to “serious” women’s issues.  But what if women’s early place by the hearth had nothing to do with the centuries of domestic oppression that followed? Today a growing body of evidence suggests that long before cooking was part of an invisible unpaid economy,  cooking and food were a source of women’s empowerment – granting women spiritual authority and economic autonomy.

The current “history” of food tells us none of this. And what is 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 time of ecological and food crisis, I believe reclaiming the herstory of food can go a long ways towards healing our fractured relationship with the planet, with food – and maybe even our bodies as well.

The Alchemy of Cooking

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 production is unseemly and best left unmentioned. But while it is rarely acknowledged, fact is, the vast bulk of historical evidence suggests that women were the primary 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.  

desktop42

So why has women’s pivotal role in early food production gone missing? Take for example, food activist and author Michael Pollan’s recent four-part documentary series on the history of cooking. 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.

cookedbook.jpg

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 early food history, and our earliest relationship to the earth, is quite an oversight.

Because long before food was 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. And for most of human history nearly every domestic activity from making pots to planting seeds to baking bread was ritual “hearthcraft”. And to put it very simply, women’s food magic had one central purpose, to honour and nourish the great mother of all – who in turn nourished them.

Recently Updated375
Left: Quinault berry picker, The Plimpton Press, 1913 Right: Zarma woman carrying decorated water pot on head, Niger |

And for thousands of years across the ancient world, whether they called her Isis, Inanna, Ishtar, Asherah, Astarte, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, women have carved and painted the earth goddesses 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 Pollan’s episode on bread tells us we don’t know who invented baking (most likely some Egyptian who accidentally left wet flour out to rise), there is no other food more entwined with the religious history of women. From 12,000 BCE in Ice Age caves, down through the Neolithic and Iron Age, into ancient Egypt, Judah, India, through the classical periods of Greece and Rome and old world Europe, women have been baking and consuming ritual bread for the great goddesses for millennia.

Recently Updated374.jpg
Traditional Ukrainian Easter Bread and Kukiełka Podegrodzka from southern Poland

Today from Ireland to Russia, many folk customs still remain where bread is ritually baked in honour of the goddess and ploughed into the fields to nourish the earth. And while we may no longer remember why we bake fruitcake at Christmas or Hot Cross buns at Easter, they descend from the “holy day”  foods we once consumed to magically ensure prosperity and abundance for all.

That Pollan’s episode mentions none of this – is hardly unusual. Today the herstory of food is relegated to the realm of ‘fertility cults”, sympathetic magic, folklore and old wives tales. And despite the fact that women’s place by the hearth is as old as time itself, I have to hunt through obscure research journals in order find scholarship exploring women’s unique contributions to early food history. What is abundant however is the story of visionary male chefs who pioneered the art, techniques and economics of “good cooking”.

Pollan himself points out 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 wrong side-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.”

And overcome they did. Today the earth’s body is industrially farmed, artificially fertilised, and laden with chemicals – and the great mother is all but forgotten.  Food is no longer freely given by the earth but bought at the store. What was once gathered, grown, harvested, prepared and consumed with ritual, ceremony and devotion, is now a “product” devoid of spiritual meaning. 

herstoryshopping

I agree with Pollan that the loss of reverence for the earth desacralized our food. And for women it meant being severed from the rituals which brought us together, from which we drew nourishment, meaning and spiritual sustenance. 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.

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? 

Disordered Eating

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. Women’s history scholars are more interested “in setting straight the public record on women’s achievements”. And 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.”

herstoryfoodingreece
http://www.rwaag.org/daily

But that’s why I find women’s earliest food history so fascinating. Author and scholar Christine Downing eloquently describes how women’s role in food production was considered sacred. Women were linked with food not only because they cultivated and prepared it, but also because their own bodies, like the great goddess, were a source of food and life.

And despite our association with food, cooking and the kitchen as disempowering drudgery, this wasn’t always the case. Growing evidence in the fields of anthropology suggests that 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.

The Birth Of The Unpaid Economy

Turns out a woman’s place in the kitchen was likely at the centre of a very different economy. As Eleanor Leacock writes in Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society, women in hunter gatherer cultures lived in societies 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.”

Women role in early food economies granted them not just autonomy but authority.  They were at the centre of what are often referred to as “gift-giving” societies meaning no one had to “pay” to eat. Because long before food became a commodity it was a sacred gift of the earth, who as a mother fed all her children equally, no matter their class, status, or gender.  And she gave freely to all of her forests, fields, rivers and oceans. 

Recently Updated724

It was the shift to ownership of crop and land (usually by an elite class of landholders and the Church) that spelled the end of the goddess and her gift economy. And according to feminist economist Silvia Federici, in order for the new capitalisic order to succeed, women’s role in food production – and their spiritual authority had to be removed. Women’s traditional access to land, and control over the crops they cultivated was replaced by a “labour force” and “their work and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources”. Mostly unpaid. (for more on this see here)

Reclaiming Domestic Magic

So here’s the big question. What if cooking in these early economies was far from drudge work assigned to the lesser sex? What if it 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?

recently-updated336
Hungarian Festival of Bread

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 his series 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 gone missing from our plates? 

womfoodkitchenmaidjoachimwtewael
The Kitchen Maid (with Christ, Mary and Martha) c.1620-25 Joachim Wtewael

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 and blessing 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 historical legacy worth remembering?

Today women struggle with perpetual diets, bread is a “forbidden food” and we do our best not to “lose control” during times of holiday feasting. Oprah may have bought Weight Watchers 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, of each other – not to mention ourselves.

P.S. I’m now developing a documentary (and accompanying cookbook) celebrating The Herstory of Food.  Please consider supporting this project by becoming a Gather Patron.

60
Liked it? Take a second to support gather on Patreon!

Posted by

Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

26 thoughts on “The Magical Herstory of Food

  1. I think the mind-body dichotomy of how things are written down and spoken about obscures the view of something that never went away entirely. We just have to find someone invested in the traditional knowledge of food, to find that the value and understanding is still very much there. In my town, there’s Trena Lynn Sutton who shares some of her experience of indigenous women’s food knowledge and skills on her blog beingtsouke dot com. As for me, I grew up in extreme modernity in the context of food – I could barely feed myself when I went to university. But soon after that I had children, jumped into Catholic life, decided to stay home & do daycare, and in the process of ten long years of hard work, I learned to grow and prepare food from the basics, to manage and understand where food comes from, what is in it, how it works, how it all comes together. Finally now, I can make a wide array of good food from the most basic ingredients: ground flour, eggs, milk, butter, a vegetable, a piece of meat or beans. And I realized…this was my birthright! This is the difference between wealth and impoverishment, between the autonomy or the dependence of my household, and hopefully the community around it. I don’t feel left out or forgotten at all – I feel like every woman who has ever stood over food, and made magic happen, can see me. 🙂

  2. You show nothing or mention how the Black Women Slaves prepared and cooked food for the slaveowners and their families during slavery or through the Jim Crow Era. Beatrice Ross 

    1. Yes I have missed loads & loads, this is just a general overview and it doesn’t even skim the surface. There is so much forgotten history to explore, and yes, this is on my radar for future posts exploring the “herstory” of food.

  3. I think of my grandmother who lived into her 90s, taking an individual cheerio, buttering it and dipping it into sugar. And then eating it happily. And her sister making yohgurt from double whipping cream. As I finished medical school, the 10% fat diet was being popularized, but I thought of my grandmother and great aunt and refused to give up butter or cream. Food was full of ceremony and joy and enjoyment. Thank you!

  4. Lovely article! Thank you so much for exploring the topic. There are women writers in academia working on this topic on a larger scale, but we are not often known to the wider world. My dissertation, which was the basis of my first book, dealt with all of this and more. Please see “Spiritual Foodways: An Ecofeminist Perspective on Our Sacred Journey With Food.”

    1. Oh how wonderful! This is exactly the kind of material I have been searching for. I’d love a copy of this book – what site would you recommend I purchase from? Then, if you’d be so kind – I’d love to talk to you and learn more….

      1. Hiya! Whatever site works for you would be the best option. Please do get in touch with me!

  5. i think about this topic almost on a daily basis. i hold the cultivation, harvest, and processing/cooking of food holy. if we all remembered reverence for food as a source of life, and reclaimed pride in making delicious, beautiful food to nourish ourselves and our loved ones, it could be a positive force for women’s self esteem and for all our respect for the earth. when i cook, it is not usually a chore, but a “sadhana” which brings me joy.

  6. Fascinating, thank you. I cook with recipes handed down through generations of my family and grow some of my food and I really appreciate what you’re saying here. Food In History by Reay Tannahill is interesting but isn’t written specifically from a female viewpoint.

  7. Thanks! Really enjoyed this article. Great ideas to ponder. I have just found your site and intend to spend many happy hours reading your other offerings and maybe trying some recipes. Just started an internship with a Wise Woman to learn native plant foods and medicines, so excited to start my journey remembering what my great great grandmothers knew so well.

    Cheers!

  8. LOVED! My master’s degree is in intercultural communication and I studied how food creates and sustains our cultural identity, matrilineally. I came across (and up against) a lot of this in my studies (and i have From Betty Crocker to Feminisnt Food Studies on my bookshelf!) . Women WERE the first agriculturalists and it wasn’t until/unless food could earn money that it became seemly for men to cook– and then they were quick to keep women out of the paying kitchens. A lot of my work also revolved around the social coded messages within a recipe, which includes comments on access to resources/social standing. Would love to chat sometime.

Leave a Reply