The “Herstory” of Food: Gone Missing

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“Feast of Bread” held across Eastern Europe & Russia

“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. Because 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.

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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.

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

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.

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Traditional Ukrainian Easter Bread and Kukiełka Podegrodzka from southern Poland

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 fertilized, 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.

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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?

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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 archeology 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 reminds 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? 

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

Pollan may have helped to popularize 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.

Lavender Tea Milk Punch: A Libation to Toast the Returning Light

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It’s that magical time of the year—halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox—when we start to consider the returning light and warmer, softer days. The seeds in the earth are stirring and in some parts of the world (like ours) snowdrops are up and daffodils are already starting to peep through the soil. For my ancient ancestors, February was a time of great anticipation for the coming growing season. To ensure bountiful crops, productive livestock and healthy mothers and babes, they practiced fertility and purification rites—many of them featuring milk. Why, the Gaelic festival of Imbolc/Imbolg (Feb 1-4) has milk right in its name.

In light of the academic controversy that ultimately surrounds the term for this festival, the distinguished linguist Eric Hamp has conclusively proven that the second syllable for Imbolg can be traced to the Old Irish words for “milk” and “milking” which, in turn, was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root-word *Hmelǵ– signifying “purification”…Rekindling the Rites of Imbolg, W. MacMorrighan

Milk played an important role in these rites. It symbolized new life and so was considered sacred and pure. I imagine it was also dear. It seems unlikely to me that ancient peoples actually drank much milk. It would have been difficult to store and milk production was tied to the seasons. I reckon they made butter, cheese, yogurt, etc and possibly saved the milk drinking for ceremonies or for offerings to goddesses—particularly fertility goddesses.  Brighid, the mother/sun goddess associated with Imbolc, has a close association with milk. Legend has it that she was nourished exclusively on milk from an Otherworldly red heifer. Even post-sainthood, St. Brigid was considered a protector of herds and a producer of milky miracles. Pre-Christian and Christian worshippers of Brighid/St Brigid relied on the goddess/saint to bless and protect the milk supplies of their herds and the new mothers in their communities. Of course there’s a whole lot more to Brighid/Brigid than an affinity for dairy—like fire, poetry, herbs, healing…for starters.

In Scotland, dairymaids made libations of milk to the Gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies and a protector of herds. It was a practice that may have originated with ancient mother goddess worship and continued as recently as 1770, with an account of dairymaids on the Island of Trodda leaving daily offerings for milk on hollow stone. (source)

And so with a nod to milk-loving faeriefolk, fertility goddesses the world over and for my own ancestors who would have so revered dairy this time of year, I’m once again making this rich “milk punch” for my own midwinter feast. Danielle and I served this last year at our Midwinter Festival of Lights workshop and I’m so looking forward to lifting a cup or two (or three) again this weekend.

The recipe is pretty simple—it’s really just a heavenly mix of whole milk, cream, honey, tea and herbs & vanilla. Heat-loving herbs for a celebration to welcome the sun, makes sense to me. And so I went with lavender for it’s calming, healing and purification properties. You could experiment with other herbs and flavours. I’ve made this with rose and cardamom for a winter solstice party and it was delicious. Rosemary, another Brighid/Imbolc herb, might be interesting…Oh, and bourbon, brandy or any other favourite spirits make this ceremonial libation all the more magical! I serve this in a milk glass (of course) punch bowl with an ice ring (water & flowers frozen overnight in a bundt pan) and a sprinkling of lavender buds. You could also serve this with boozy whipped cream as you would with egg nog. For those avoiding dairy, I imagine you could do something quite spectacular with almond milk or coconut milk and coconut cream…

Recipe: Lavender Cream Libation

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Lavender Cream Libation by candlelight…and cake.

Ingredients 
1/2 cup + 1 1/2 cups whole milk (the most delicious you can find, grass-fed, organic, fresh,etc)
2 cups of good heavy cream (again, the good stuff, sans artificial thickeners)
4 teaspoons honey (more or less to taste – I use lavender-infused herbal honey)
1/2 a vanilla bean, split & scraped
2 cups of strong brewed lavender tea (use store-bought tea bags or make a tisane with fresh or dried lavender. I used a commercial chamomile & lavender tea. black lavender tea is also lovely. brew extra for blending to taste)
brandy (optional)
lavender buds for garnish (optional)

Instructions
Brew a pot of lavender herbal tea. You can make your own with dried/fresh lavender or buy herbal tea bags from the shop. I use multiple teabags and allow it to steep overnight or at least for a few hours to really get that nice herbal flavour. Remember you’re going to blend this with a whole lot of milk and cream, so your tea needs to be able to hold her own.

Once your tea is how you want it and cooled to room temperature, slowly heat a 1/2 cup of milk over low heat with the honey and vanilla. Stir to dissolve the honey and break up the vanilla bean seeds. Allow the sweetened milk to cool and chill.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk and cream in a large bowl. Add 2 cups of tea and remaining sweetened milk. Mix and tinker to taste! Add brandy if you like. Sprinkle with lavender buds or grate some nutmeg on top. Serve very cold or on ice. And if you have a bit to spare, go pour a bit in your garden to bless your own fields or leave a draught or two for the faeries. Happy almost-spring!