“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 growing 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’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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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?
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?
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.