Throughout time and in many cultures, food, whether in the home or professional domain, has long been associated with gender and a range of social and political realities. Culinary historian Barbara Haber and celebrated chef Lydia Shire explored some of those connections during a recent talk titled “Does Food Have a Gender?,” sponsored by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and moderated by food journalist Louisa Kasdon.
Pages filled with recipes offer a window into social and cultural change for Haber, who curated a robust collection of cookbooks at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library. She said such texts reveal “social norms at any given time and place.” Those norms placed American women in their home kitchens throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. A 1901 cookbook refers to the man of the house who “cheerfully sallies forth to labor for those he loves,” with a perfectly packed lunch, she said, and warns women against “carelessly slighting your loved one” by ignoring his carry-out meal. “It was making it clear,” said Haber, that women should be saving their households from behind their sinks and stoves.
Still, some women railed against such stereotypes. In her 1878 cookbook “My Summer in the Kitchen,” Hetty Morrison describes the “diabolically expansive qualities of rice” and criticizes “writers of cookbooks who set up false expectations,” said Haber. But Morrison was largely the exception. Even writers Erma Bombeck and Peg Bracken, 20th-century humorists known for their wry takes on home life, “sort of accepted the cards they were played,” said Haber, “and it wasn’t until Betty Friedan came along with the ‘Feminine Mystique’ in 1963 when the whistle was finally blown.”
While many cookbooks in that period were written by women, men penned them too. Often, though, male authors sought to disparage women, “by proving that their interest in food was loftier, a higher art, while women were mere drudges,” said Haber. She added that although “stereotyping may be over when it comes to cookbooks,” gender equality in society at large is still far from a daily reality.