The Nature of Women and Food

The following is a summary of the January 8, 2018 Food History Project presentation by Libbie Agran.



We can all tell our life stories through food experiences. Food is an eternal thread running through women’s lives. Food reflects our history: personal tastes, ethnic heritage and culture, our traditions, where we live, sense of place, access to food, budgets and food economics, family recipes and traditions, socialization, global outreach. From the beginning of time food is “women’s work”; cooking is a major force in the rhythm of women’s lives. Women have been caretakers of “the stomach” with food and medicinal plants. Food has shaped women’s lives because we eat to survive; food brings people to the table that we love, and we need. For hundreds of thousands of years, anthropologists research shows that women have been preparing and serving food because it was logical for them to do so. The survival of each baby depended on a woman’s ability to feed and nurture her child.

Women’s lives focused on the culture of gathering, growing, producing and serving food from the dawn of human existence to the present Women developed expertise in plants for safe and nutritious food, health remedies and medicine. Women became gathers of shell fish, nuts, fruits, berries, grains, grasses. Eventually as women perfected the art and science of cooking, they altered the course of history.

However, when one researches food and wine history, there is nothing describing the history of women. There is information on apples, pears, almond, grains, grapes and vegetables grown in SLO County but not a single mention of women and the history of any of these crops. There is history of cattle, sheep, the dairy industry and fishing but there is not history written about women – their recipes, their food preferences, their menus, their innovations. So, I think the history of women and food might be best told by looking at the history of cook books and recipes.

The History of Cook Books in America

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796 – Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Read the book online.

Who wrote the first cookbooks? Who read them? Who used them? Where did the recipes come from? Note that during the Revolutionary War, the role of women was revolutionized.

  • Women knitted socks because they could not and would buy imported British woolens
  • Women spun linen and made shirts for our soldiers
  • Women began to debate the issues of independence
  • Women rioted against greedy merchants who hoarded food
  • Women ran the farms and businesses while their husband were at war
  • Thousands of black and white women traveled with the army troops and battalions in which their husbands served. These women worked together to cook gather and cook food, to launder and iron the soldiers’ clothes.
  • Women organized the boycotts of tea and other British goods using their consumer purchasing power to support American independence.
  • Women developed new sources of tea to create regional teas in America
  • Women developed new sources of food and recipes to replace the British sugar, flour, and biscuits among other types of imported food.
  • Women recognized that the colonies had been the source of raw materials for the British Empire who used them to manufacture all sorts of products which they sold to the colonists. They began to develop and manufacture products to replace their dependence on imported goods.
  • TEA – the major beverage in America at the time helped women find their political voices and the language of politics.
    THE TEA BOYCOTT MOVEMENT became a special form of female politics.
  • In publishing in the 19th Century, cookbooks were built on “Republican Cook” – a dynamo of industry and simplicity.

1796 Amelia Simmons, a poor orphan, authors and publishes the first American cookbook ever written by an American and published in the USA. The name was “American Cookery” and it sold out almost immediately.

  • Amelia’s cookbook – the first cookbook – was a declaration of independence
  • Amelia was offering new recipes for a new nation
  • After the War of Independence there was an obsession with purity and morality. These became the models upon which to build politics, religion and culture in a new nation.
  • Americans became “reformers”: politics would be fair, Americans would be superior to Europeans because of their moral values and ethics, and American food would taste much better than British food
  • Amelia offered recipes with names such as: Federal Pan Cake, Election Cake, Independence Cake
  • Amelia offered all new recipes for a new nation. (Although she relied heavily on old British cookbooks.)
  • Amelia developed recipes from American ingredients such as: pumpkin pudding, cranberry pie, and hoe cakes
  • She called for chemical leaveners (Potash) instead of the use of time consuming yeasts
  • She developed recipes for teas made from local plants
  • She encouraged women to become experts on plants and to use them to make salads, beverages and herbal medications


Impact on American Society

A select group of educated women seized on this new opportunity in the publishing industry and became national culinary celebrities and used their power to shape American culture.

  • American cookbooks written by women became new vehicles for women to call for the right for all women to be educated, to learn to read and write.
  • Cookbooks by women called for social reform from labor saving devices in the kitchen to women’s education at all levels for all social classes to organizing the temperance movement to ban alcohol, to women’s suffrage and to politics – particularly the politics of the civil war.
  • Cookbooks gave women their first public voice.
  • Cookbooks developed women’s careers in culinary arts.
  • Through cookbooks women helped define the values of a growing nation.

1829 Lydia Maria Child becomes the first of many American Culinary Celebrities

  • She was a prolific writer of fiction, memoirs, culinary arts, the plight of the American Indians, slavery
  • Lydia founded the first children’s magazine in America called “Juvenille Miscellany”
  • Lydia’s cookbooks sold better than her fiction.
  • In 1829 Lydia published “The Frugal Housewife”, later renamed as “The American Frugal Housewife”.
  • The American Frugal Housewife was reprinted 32 times in the first 20 years.
  • Lots of recipes describe simple New England style of cooking.
  • Recipes include: cranberry pudding, currant wine, chicken curry, cod chowder with salt pork, recipes for beer, instructions that beef and pork should always be under brine.
  • Lydia advises that eggs properly prepared in salted water and slacked lime were expected to last three years at least.
  • You can make your own soap and you can make your own lemon syrup.
  • The book was unique in that it was written for the poor and for those who were not ashamed of being economical. Her audience was the earthy rural woman who was deeply committed to being practical and efficient.
  • She lobbied for women to be educated so that they could be better household managers. She presented her recipes with appeals for female education.
  • Lydia later became a famous abolitionist.
  • All her papers were preserved and given to Harvard University Library Archives. You can make an appointment to view them the next time you are in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Industrial Revolution changes everything

  • Men move from the home and land as their workplace to the factory.
  • The home changes from a messy workplace and economic unit to a “safe haven” in a heatless money driven world.
  • Prior to the Industrial Revolution most people in the Western world ate with the goal of getting enough calories to survive and to work.
  • The Industrial Revolution brought science and economics to the kitchen. People believe that food and science can achieve better health and morality, prevent so many children and women in childbirth from dying, end alcoholism, change table manners and etiquette, people would learn to show restraint (a moral) by eating and drinking less, food would taste better and be more attractive.

The Industrial Revolution causes a big shift in

  • Public Health
  • Food Science
  • Taste
  • New Equipment
  • New Commercial Products
  • Table ware and cook ware
  • The electric and gas stove
  • Refrigeration
  • Transportation of food
  • Freshness and quality of food