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”  part 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, that this loss goes a long way towards explaining why we’ve lost touch with the food on our plate, not to mention the planet, maybe even our bodies as well.

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.

Reclaiming The Radical Legacy of The Witch

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about witches. Not just because top ten lists of hot tv witches and sexy Halloween selfies currently swamp my social media feeds, but because my tables and shelves are currently so laden with herbs, plants, berries, phials and bottles that if an inquisitor of old were to enter, I’d find myself quickly tied to the stake. And while this worry seems remote, it’s a plain fact that women in third world countries are still hunted down, tortured and set aflame for the crime of witchcraft.

Sure, the witch is emerging from the world of taboo and shadows onto the world stage. Sure, she’s being touted as a feminist icon  – a “powerful feminine model free from male influence or ownership”. But I’m not so sure. Because how can it be that the witch, once associated with everything transgressive and beyond the realm of normative society, is now so trendy and positively mainstream?  Is it really a feminist step forward that W magazine declared Fall 2016, the season of the witch, replete with pouting models in gothic dresses, chains and black lace underwear?

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W Magazine, Salem Issue, 2016

And while many believe the witch of the middle ages was a spectre created by the church, I believe she was real. Yes, many put to death were just ordinary women who practiced folk magic, herbalism and midwifery, but many were powerful spiritual leaders of the indigenous, animist faith traditions of the old world – and their magic was earned through a lifetime of spiritual discipline spent in communion with nature.

And I worry her make-over into nubile fashion siren not only obscures this history, but her true relevance as a role model to us today. One that if resurrected, would be just as subversive and dangerous to the powers that be. 

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Today the witches tall black hat and burbling cauldron have become icons of Halloween kitsch, but they were once hallowed items of the holy women and priestesses, the healers and herbalists, the oracles and diviners of old Europe. Their conical hats and cauldrons date back to the 2nd Millennium BCE and were connected to the female shamans of the Indo-European peoples.

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Tarim Mummies, 1800 BCE

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Scythian Princess and her cauldron, 4-5th century BCE

Their cauldrons (as well as crystal balls and magical wands) were still being used thousands of years later by the “witte wieven” or wise women, the sibyls, seers, and female druids of Celtic, Anglo Saxon, and Norse traditions of the middle ages.

According to Max Dashu, author Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion,  these “dream-readers, sooth-sayers, and herb-chanters, fire-gazers in Switzerland, or water-gazers in France and Spain”, practiced “all the elements of shamanism: chants, prophecy, healing, weather-making powers, and shapeshifting”. Legends tell of their sacred cauldrons in which “they simmered mysterious herbs to produce a drink of immortality and resurrection.”

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The Magic Circle,  John William Waterhouse

These women were the guardians of the earth, the protectors of the sacred groves, lakes and springs, from which they derived their magical power. And until the middle ages they were highly respected, sought out and consulted for healing and divination by common folk, nobility and clergy alike.

But according to Barbara G. Walker , it was during the 14th century that the Catholic Church, during its relentless expansion and appropriation of sacred land, began to distinguish between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men.

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While books on sorcery were condoned well into the enlightenment, female witches in contrast were said to “magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty”. And thus their religious practices (as described by Dashu) of “sitting-out” on the land “gazing, listening, gathering wisdom” were extinguished by a priesthood that sought to bring nature, magic, women (not to mention their land and property) under male control.

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These women did not go easily, or take usurpation of their holy sites and old ways lightly – it took the Church hundreds of years to hunt them down. And so it seems likely, at least to me,  that the stereotype of vengeful witch, casting curses and blighting crop, was real, at least for the church. She must have been the original eco-feminist, fighting the patriarchy with one of most powerful tools at her disposal, magic. And the Church took it pretty seriously indeed.

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And I’m sure that if they were here today, these witches would be doing a lot more than striking a pose, they’d be busy protesting our dying forests, fighting the polluting of our waters, and protecting the planet. I like to think they might even have been part of The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H. a radical feminist protest group whose manifesto stated witches “were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression — particularly the oppression of women — down through the ages.”

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W.I.T.C.H. casts a spell

Their first action took place on Halloween 1968, when WITCH members marched down Wall Street and place a “hex” on New York’s financial district. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is said to have declined sharply the next day.) And isn’t this the radical role model rendered invisible in the witches new fashion friendly image?  One that explains why corporate interests would rather have us dressing the part, than actually taking her seriously?

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As her image grows ever whiter, more privileged, prettier, and objectified in the west, women accused of being witches in Africa, Latin America and New Guinea continue to be hunted down and burned alive. I can’t help wonder what this all means for the “real” witches here and now?

Accusations of witchcraft have long been used to control women’s behaviour. And if we take any lessons from history, what might happen to those who don’t (or won’t) look the part, or otherwise refuse to behave?  How long will it be before they hear the inquisitors knock at the door? Just who benefits when the witch becomes no more than a fashion statement or pouty pose?

But that said, I do find something hopeful evoked in the trend of witchy selfies found on Instagram and Tumblr. Like photographic spells, they evoke the long repressed archetype of the holy woman of old. And while they may be romanticized, they offer a vision of a forgotten time when wise-woman communed with the land for healing, guidance and visions, creating magic and blessing for themselves and their communities.

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It is this age-old impulse in the female psyche that is reemerging as the popularity of Wicca, herbalism, kitchen witchery, flying ointments, tarot, crystals and gemstones, continues to grow. An impulse, perhaps, that still threatens the powers that be?

And it’s why I resonate deeply with Max Dashu when she writes, “In a world in extremity, we are searching for the wellspring, the inexhaustible Source known to all our ancient kindreds. Many of us have been cut off from our deep roots, and especially from the ancient wisdom of women, and female spiritual leadership.”

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And as I look over the drying plants and herb craft spread around me, her words remind me of my childhood ways of spending hours alone in the woods, gathering stones, listening to the whispering wind and watching it move through dancing trees. But I had no guide to show me how to “hear”, no wise-woman to teach me how to “gaze” or “see”.

Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, believes the burning of witches, the subjugation of women, the desacralization of nature, and modern capitalism went hand in hand. And she asks us to consider – just what was eliminated when these women were condemned to the stake?

And that’s why in a world of ecological crisis, where the witch’s hat is cheap halloween merchandising, where the cauldron’s medicine is replaced by pharmaceutical labs, where nature is a “raw resource” without spirit or sentience – we are in need of the witches radical magic more than ever.

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