Arts & Culture

Food, sex conference draws SRO crowds

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Radcliffe hosts experts on food, gender, and culture

Money. Race. Health. War.

That list of potent topics summarizes the first four years of conferences on gender sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

This year’s gender conference (April 12 and 13) added a fifth topic: food, which by some accounts has elements of all the others combined.

The production and consumption of food requires money, highlights racial divisions, impacts health, and changes (or disappears) during wartime.

But like food and sex, food and gender calls up a special set of tensions and juxtapositions. Throughout much of history, women have prepared most of the food, yet men have gotten the choicest cuts and the largest portions.

Women have grown the food, and men made the profits from selling it. Women have run the kitchens, while men have dominated its celebration in writing. Women and their children suffer most in famine, yet men oversee the wars and for-profit food systems that create food shortages.

Food throughout the ages has been a source of creativity, joy, self-expression, “even hedonism” — yet has also been an instrument of oppression, said Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew G. Faust, Lincoln Professor of History and president-elect of Harvard University, in remarks opening the conference on April 12.

“We will try not to ignore the tension” that the issue of food and gender invites, she said, “but will underscore it.”

The conference had two aims, said Faust to a crowd of 300-plus at Radcliffe Gymnasium: to confront the gender landscape of disparate issues like food writing, famine, the sugar economy, and obesity — and to celebrate Radcliffe’s research crown jewel, the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

Those attending the conference — 425 food writers, scholars, and enthusiasts from all over the country — took time out to look at “A Taste of History,” an exhibit up through Sept. 28 that samples the Schlesinger’s culinary collections. (It includes the first published cookbook by a woman and the first published by a former slave.)

Over two days, many experts agreed that the wide-ranging Radcliffe event seemed to come at a time when food studies are increasingly seen as a legitimate entry point into studies of literature, history, and the shifting culture of gender.

The road to the convergence of gender and food studies was rocky, said Barbara Haber, the former curator of books at the Schlesinger, who is credited with building the library’s world-class culinary collection. Among feminist scholars in the 1970s, she said, “no one was going to get tenure by writing about cupcakes.”

Today, said Haber, there’s an “acceptance of cookbooks as a genre of studying women’s lives, and men’s too.”

Academics now believe in “the value of studying everyday life,” agreed University of Pennsylvania historian Kathy Peiss. And studying the role of food, she said, “shines a light on the roles, privileges, and power of men and women.”

Despite the unifying value of the subject, “there’s little public discourse about food, except eating disorders,” said Peiss. “We need to enlarge our perspective.”

One suggestion, she said: Take a lesson from legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher: “Food is not just about eating,” said Peiss, “it’s about loving and being.”

Loving and being and celebrating food figured in a talk during the conference’s first panel by India-born Sharmila Sen, editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. She called recipes “a kind of cultural script waiting to be performed.”

Dartmouth College geographer Susanne Freidberg next unwound a discourse on refrigeration, iceberg lettuce, and how in the early 20th century virtuous salads (“internal sun baths,” one advertisement read) became entwined in an emerging fixation with the slender female form.

University of Oklahoma French professor Julia Abramson, on the same panel in praise of the Schlesinger collections, outlined her research into the history of carving.

The practice grew alongside the emerging art of human dissection, she said, and migrated from dining rooms of 16th century aristocrats to the tables of the modern middle class. There it survived, said Abramson, both as “part of the performance of the meal” and as an artifact of male dominance as a hunter, sword-wielding soldier, and dispenser of choice cuts by class and gender hierarchies.

“Food is a prism through which we can look at anything,” mused John Willoughby ’70, executive editor of Gourmet magazine, who recounted his early formative hours in the Schlesinger.

Another panel, on food writing, featured the widely published Molly O’Neill, Ruth Reichl, and Laura Shapiro, along with food scholar Jessica B. Harris, a Queens College English professor.

Food writing, they seemed to say, is a measure of shifting patterns of gender identity and dominance.

The 1950s are commonly remembered as a decade of food fright, a time of “casseroles with Spam and canned peaches,” said Shapiro, whose compact biography “Julia Child” was published this year.

But in fact the postwar years marked an attempt by advertisers to turn fine cooking skills over to the man, in a sign that food was now about “money, class, and ambition.”

Today, said Shapiro, you can’t tell which gender is working in the kitchen by the quality of the food. “For once, you don’t see a cultural hierarchy” in the world of food, she said. “I call that progress.”

O’Neill, at work on an anthology of food writing, has looked down through the American centuries and was shocked to find women writers so little represented. In the 19th century, she said, the kitchen was “a zone of female autonomy” — a fact not reflected in writing about food.

Reichl — for years a restaurant reviewer at The New York Times — agreed that “food is one of the places gender roles show up early.” For one, prosperity on 17th century estates transformed wives from hardworking partners to delicate wards of the parlor — a shock of inequality that still has echoes today.

“If you’re a restaurant critic,” she said, “you quickly become sensitive to the sexist character of food.” The wine list goes to the man.

On the second day of the conference, ruminations on gender and food took a more sober turn, at least in two panels. One looked at gender and appetite, focusing on obesity and anorexia in America.

The other looked at gender, nutrition, and famine — “the dark side of the relationship to women and food,” said panel moderator Martha Nussbaum, a visiting professor of law and classics at Harvard.

Among the panel’s messages: Access to food in developing countries is written along gender lines, often to the detriment of women and female children. In Pakistan, for example, caloric deficits account for stunted growth in girls at a rate three times higher than in boys.

In Africa, famine contributes to the breakdown of the communal meal, the backbone of social order.

Famine is well studied, but recurrent hunger — a hidden issue — is not.

And although women are the agents of gender-weighted food distribution on a family scale, they are the first victims of food shortages, which contribute heavily to domestic violence.

Gender — not class — is the biggest inequity across the world, said Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor at Harvard. One of the keys to unlocking famine and hunger, he said, is the empowerment of women — through literacy, schooling, and gainful employment outside the home.

In darkly passionate remarks in the conference’s final panel, food activist and onetime physicist Vandana Shiva said that, in a way, “men, women, and food have all disappeared.”

Traditional food systems in developing countries — where food is grown, processed, cooked, and distributed largely by women — are being replaced by patriarchal corporations, she said. They are eliminating small-scale agriculture, seed diversity, and undercutting regional food systems.

On the heels of these changes comes a lack of high-quality food, and a public health epidemic, said Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology in New Delhi.

One billion people are permanently hungry, she said, and another 2 billion are “cursed with diseases of food.” The other 3 billion people in the world are encouraged to see food as just a commodity, and not the heart of traditions of joy and sharing.

If industrial monocultures — dependent on just a few chemical-dependent grain crops — collapse, said Shiva, “we’re going to have famine on a scale you’ve never seen.”

On a brighter note, both men and women — young and old — are cooking more and better than ever before, said writer O’Neill, who’s researching home-cooked meals. “I’m optimistic. Food isn’t going to go away,” she said. “We can safely plan on meeting here again.”