I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either.
Yet I, like you, love to read about food, even though it makes me hungry. I never feel more loved than when someone feeds me. I like to watch The Great British Bake Off and critique a pastry technique I know nothing about. Maybe most of us harbor a secret desire to test our mettle in the heat of a busy kitchen or marvel at the perfectly saturated photographs accompanying a new recipe. I keep an eye on food lit, especially in my bookselling capacity; this spring heralds a smorgasbord of books written by culinary influencers. Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen, Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta, Notes on a Banana by David Leite and I Hear She’s a Real Bitch by Jen Agg all debut before June.
This reading list was inspired by a suggestion from my friend, the playwright Lydia Hadfield, who introduced me to the work of Jack Monroe. Monroe (who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) writes about British politics, poverty, gender, single parenthood, and making delicious, healthy meals while living with food insecurity. They’ve had a column featuring their recipes at The Guardian and continue to blog regularly. Of course, I’m obsessed now.
Lydia’s suggestion aligned serendipitously with a smattering of food-related developments in my own life and in the untamed wilds of journalism: I emailed a farm to sign up for a CSA. Lucky Peach announced it will fold after May. Autostraddle published a gallery of simple and perfect reader-submitted photos called “Queer in the Kitchen.” I beefed up (pun very, very much intended) a can of chili with a can of black beans and spices and felt like a superhero. I researched Nicole Gulotta’s upcoming book, Eat This Poem, for a work assignment.I ate a fresh chocolate chip cookie from the bakery down the street, three days in a row. All of these things felt like bittersweet omens I needed to see through. The result in this list, which explores the intersection between gender and the culinary world from the perspectives of refugees, restauranteurs, reporters, chefs, students, and food writers.
1. “Women Who Cook: Dismantling the Myth of the Bitch in the Kitchen.” (Lilian Min, The Toast, August 2015)
Lilian Min has written a strong survey of the double standards seemingly inherent in the formal food industry. I wanted to highlight this entire piece. I’ll leave you with this:
“…every woman-in-the-kitchen joke should include an asterisk that of course, you wouldn’t mean the professional kitchen, as those are still dominated by men. A 2014 study found that 95% of executive chefs (those running the kitchen) are men, while a 2005 study cited in Deborah A. Harris and Patti Giuffre’s book Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen puts the percentage of men working as sous chefs (second-in-commands in the kitchen) at 82% and as line cooks (the ones you see sweating and running behind burners) at 66%.”
2. “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture.” (Multiple Contributors, Brown University, May 2016)
Students at Brown University, led by Emily Contois, created this beautiful website. Essays include “Filipinas, Food, and Feminism,” “Dear Mom: Teach Him How to Cook, Not Me,” “The Agency of the Vegetable,” “Dinner at Martha’s: The Exuberance and the Exclusion,” and many more.
3. “The Testosterone Takeover of Southern Food Writing.” (Kathleen Purvis, The Bitter Southerner, February 2016)
Kathleen Purvis, food editor at The Charlotte Observer, has a bone to pick with the lack of parity in Southern food writing, especially the diminishment of women’s historical contributions to the field.
4. “How Jen Agg is Smashing the Food-World Patriarchy One Plate at a Time.” (Molly Langmuir, Elle, May 2016)
Canadian restauranteur Jen Agg wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times in 2015, calling attention to the egregious rate of sexual harassment in professional kitchens. At Elle, Molly Langmuir follows up with Agg about her feminist collective, ambition, ego, and what she wants inscribed on her gravestone:
“I remember being 14, skinny legs and all, and there were a bunch of dudes who I thought were the handsomest, and it cemented an idea of male coolness that I’ve never escaped. And you know, eventually I dated or fucked a handful of them. But I didn’t just want to fuck them, I wanted to be them.” [Agg] paused, then added, “These are great quotes, by the way.”
5. “Remembrance of Tastes Past: Syria’s Disappearing Food Culture.” (Wendell Steavenson, The Guardian, December 2016)
Look, if you don’t feel a thousand feelings while reading this, I have nothing to offer you. I learned so much from this essay. Wendell Steavenson reports from Lebanese refugee camp and the city of Beirut, telling stories of refugees from Syria and the culinary traditions they’ve abandoned, reformed and cherished throughout their displacement–like making kibbeh, which varies in taste and texture depending on its region of origin.
“When I saw them in Beirut in late spring, Masto and Mohammed did not know where in America they would be settled. They were nervous. Masto told me, she wanted to take a special kind of milled hard-grained wheat with her so that she would be able to make the Assyrian kibbeh she had learned from Marlene and Nahren.
‘It’s not just for Assyrians to preserve their tradition,’ she told me. ‘Food is a way to preserve history and culture, to pass traditions on to the next generation so that they can understand their origins and identity. In books and in schools, children learn about history and different cultures and ruins and the remains of different civilisations, but they don’t learn about the food which is also a part of their history and culture. If we don’t preserve it and teach it to them, it will disappear. It is our duty to keep it going. Kibbeh is everywhere, kibbeh holds the culture and region it comes from, it holds its identity inside.‘”
6. “From Botanical Gardens Intern to Anthony Bourdain’s Assistant.” (Laurie Woolever, The Billfold, June 2014)
Sadistic bosses, bedbugs, the South Beach Diet, and Mario Batali: Laurie Woolever traces 18 years spent interviewing, editing, cooking, catering, testing, tasting, assisting, and writing in New York City and beyond.
7. “Follow Your Arrow: ‘Great British Bake Off’ Star Ruby Tandoh Shares Her Love of Food.” (Beth Maiden, Autostraddle, February 2017)
Ruby Tandoh is an unabashedly queer food writer/cookbook author/reality TV star who advocates for mental health and eating disorder awareness. In this interview, she discusses her favorite parts of her creative practice, the “stiflingly traditional” food writing universe, and her future career plans. (Hint: There’s a manifesto in the works.) Want to read more of Tandoh’s writing? In addition to her columns at The Guardian and Vice, she wrote recently about her Ghanaian heritage for Suitcase Magazine.
8. “Escaping the Restaurant Industry’s Motherhood Trap.” (Amanda Kludt, Eater, January 2016)
Many of the women Amanda Kludt spoke to for this story asked to remain anonymous. One had to justify her salary to her male colleagues after announcing she was pregnant. Another refused to sign a contract that would negate her partnership in a successful project if she became pregnant. Another was demoted significantly after taking (legal!) maternity leave. Simply put, abysmal paid family leave policies contribute significantly to the dearth of successful women in professional kitchens. It’s an atmosphere that discourages women from returning to the fine dining industry after they’ve had kids or from pursuing it at all. Kludt surveys the fight for paid family leave on the local and independent levels, but concludes that large-scale federal policy shifts will make the biggest difference.