How a New Wave of Feminist Cooking Publications Is Redefining Women’s Relationship to Food

“Goddess” and “beer” aren’t two words we’re used to seeing together; the beer companies have told us for decades that women are just a backdrop to beer enjoyment and beer making. (Even though that stereotype is further from the truth than you might think: according to the Brewer’s Association, the craft beer market is about 30 percent women.) But a timeline in Render Magazine’s second issue takes it easy on our Clydesdale-and-male-soaked unconscious. The “Goddesses of Beer” timeline is filled with kitschy and playful drawings of ladies with rosy cheeks, but beneath those cute drawings, there’s a powerful statement: women have always been brewmasters, as early as 1800 BC and even throughout the thirteenth century when strict restrictions were put on alewives once brewing moved from the house to the taverns — a woman could only be a brewmaster if her husband held the license.

But it’s the first paragraph of the article, where Marcy Franklin writes, “Masculine brewery names… contribute to the idea that only men make (and drink) beer while women’s bodies are used to sell it,” that tackles the much bigger theme: our fundamental understanding of the relationship between women and beer is false. This redefining of women’s roles is one of the many reasons why Render is a whip-smart magazine, but it’s also part of something much bigger — just a slice in the pie of feminist cooking publications that have emerged in the past year.

“At Render, part of our mission is to change the way women are portrayed in food culture (and we don’t do that by singling out female chefs as ‘women chefs’) — that is, [to portray them] more fairly,” Gabi de León, the magazine’s founder and creative director, told me via email. “Another part of our mission is to provide our readers with feminist perspectives as to how women (and people of color, and people with a range of economic backgrounds, etc.) are portrayed or treated unfairly in contemporary food culture, and to harbor discussion about how we can cultivate change.”

De Leon explains that her history of disordered eating helped inspire the magazine. “In the beginning stages of creating, I knew I wanted the magazine to be a source of empowerment for readers who were having a similar experience as I did with food, eating, and body image,” she says.

I identify with de Leon’s eating struggle and her need to reckon with that disordered past. I was a sophomore in college when I started counting calories. Starving was the only way I knew how to be in control. When I got better, I didn’t distance myself from food — I embraced it, working for a health food store in San Francisco. When you feel out of control with your body — or the world — cooking has a grounding effect. It’s a place of comfort. This is why feminist cooking publications are very different from your typical cooking publication. To appropriate Amy Poehler’s famous words: These publications don’t give a fuck if you like them. They’re not here for your comfort.

The Sistah Vegan Project, another feminist cooking pub, has a different focus than Render. It’s not exactly a cooking pub, it’s not really a vegan site either — it’s not like Pickles and Honey, or In My Bowl, or The Sweetest Vegan. Instead, Sistah Vegan founder A. Breeze Harper dissects and breaks down the cultural and sociopolitical issues surrounding black women and why food is crucial to healing and survival from the traumas of racism. In perhaps the most inspiring of her videos, Harper discusses her kale smoothie recipe for racial tension headaches. (She acknowledges that the recipe is is a nod to Queen Latifah’s SNL skit.) The recipes were a response to the racial stress Harper experienced as a child and an adult — instead of running to junk food for solace during traumatizing events like Ferguson, as she had in the past, she now turns to greens or spirulina.

Sistah Vegan's A. Breeze Harper
Sistah Vegan’s A. Breeze Harper

“Instead of over-dosing on Dunkin’ Donuts when I’ve had a stressful day, when I’ve had to deal with the micro-aggressions of racism in a ‘post-racial’ society, I’ve discovered these healing foods,” she explains in one of her videos. “A lot of the anxieties I had were cured through a more green, raw diet.” At the end of April, Harper is opening up the topic with an interactive web conference, “The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter” that includes discussions with Lauren Ornelas, director of the Food Empowerment Project, Pattrice Jones, co-founder of Vine Sanctuary, as well as vegan chef Bryant Terry.

Harper’s use of comfort food isn’t new; but her dedication to veganism as a way to find comfort from centuries of hurt is fresh and dynamic. In her newsletter Eat Me, feminist writer Jessica Valenti takes a more traditional approach to comfort food: she throws down recipes for sea salt cookies and short ribs, but infuses the publication with articles on the myth of feminist man-hating or the UVA rape case.

“I started Eat Me mostly because I love cooking and food. The idea that because I’m known for writing about feminism I shouldn’t write about anything else felt sort of silly,” Valenti told me via email. “That said, food and cooking are absolutely related to feminism, gender dynamics and relationships — so it did feel like a natural extension of the things I already think about.” Last year, in an essay for The Toast entitled Sunday Sauce, Saving Me, Valenti wrote about how the tradition of making a weekly sauce with her daughter Layla saves her emotionally—she began the tradition after her daughter was born. Layla was a two-pound premature baby; the pregnancy, Valenti writes, “had nearly killed us both” because Valenti developed pre-eclampsia by the 28th week.

By the time the essay is written, Layla is three, and she’s fine, healthy, happy — she has all the checkmarks of childhood. And then Valenti learns she’s pregnant again. The doctors feed her haunting warnings: “Your liver could fail.” “We can’t stop you from getting sick.” “We don’t know what will happen to the baby.” Valenti decides to have an abortion, despite fantasizing about “Layla helping me feed a baby, of sisters holding hands or pulling each other’s hair…” It’s the kind of blending that you don’t usually see in a column about food — but it allows Valenti to dissect why food and feminism are both profound influences on her life.

In a manifesto on her blog, the Feminist Kitchen, Addie Broyles writes that the point of a feminist cooking site is that it allows women to “choose how involved they want to be with the food that sustains them. Many cooks, farmers, canners, sausage-makers, entrepreneurs and even homemakers, who happen to be women, have reclaimed domestic tasks not because they have to, but because they want to.”

Women’s relationship to food is often framed as either something unhealthy or as part of our work. It’s possible that feminist cooking publications will help us regain what Barbara Kingsolver says, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that we’ve lost: a food culture. And she blames some of this “lost” food culture on women. She writes:

“When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising… we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable… I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation.”

It’s a guilt-inducing, backwards statement, and at first I took offense to it. My kids get a home-cooked meal once or twice a week; we don’t always eat it together, and I don’t have to make any excuses for that.

But on second glance, I think Kingsolver really means that women can’t possibly be saddled with the task that was once put upon us. There’s an unhealthy sacrifice in that model of serving — the idea that cooking for the family is somehow more important than the health and survival of the mother. Women are now in a place where we need to redefine our relationship to food and cooking in a way that’s about culture and pleasure rather than obligation. It’s precisely why the feminist cooking publication is even that more important: because it raises the female position in the kitchen as something to elevate and revel in — not just to expect.

Hayley Krischer is a freelance writer who has written for The Hairpin, Salon, The New York Times, The Toast and other places. You can find her through her weekly pop culture newsletter So Very or on Twitter.