Celebrating Women's History Month with Influential Women in Food

Every year in March we celebrate Women’s History Month and Sunday, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is: I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights, which is aligned with the UN Women’s multi-generational campaign, Generation Equality. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which is recognized as the most progressive roadmap for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere.

At EAT Club, we celebrate milestones that engender, well, gender equality! As we salute our own amazing women of EAT Club who are powering everything from culinary development to technology, partnerships to accounting, human resources to marketing, logistics to sales, we’d also like to highlight a few women from history that fought - and succeeded - to have equal footing with men in the culinary field. Here are six trailblazing culinary mavens who proved that women belong in the business of food.

 

Buwei Yang Chao (1889-1981)

Buwei Yang Chao was a force to be reckoned with, blazing paths in many directions. Many credit her as one of the first people to bring Chinese food to mainstream America with her books, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese and How to Order and Eat in Chinese to Get the Best Meal in a Chinese Restaurant. She, along with her husband, is also credited with coining the terms, “pot sticker” and “stir-fry,” which are now widely-accepted in American vernacular. But Chao’s accomplishments don’t end there. She was also a physician who opened the Sen Ren Hospital, arguably the only medical facility specializing in gynecology in early 1900s Japan, where she studied medicine. She was also one of the first female practitioners to bring Western medicine to China. Even her simple court marriage was hailed in the papers as a nod to modernity, in terms of China’s New Culture generation.

 

M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992)

M.F.K. Fisher, the prolific 20th century author of such books as How to Cook a Wolf and Consider the Oyster, is often cited as a hero of contemporary food writers. She was the first American and woman writer to put pleasure above all else, eschewing the propriety and etiquette of female writers past. Although she came from a privileged background, she developed a relatable style of writing over her 60-year career, discussing food in terms of physical and emotional pleasure, often tying it to a person’s character. Her fearless, unapologetic writings provided a new perspective on the way women look at food, who had largely been seen as mere makers of food removed from any sensual aspect of enjoyment. Considered a master of prose, she wrote in The Art of Eating, “Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells...there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

 

Julia Child (1912-2004)

Considered a national American treasure, Julia Child was a famous chef, teacher, author, and television icon. She took cooking lessons in France after World War II, a time when most chefs were men, and soon outshone her male counterparts. She is known for making fine dining accessible with her forgiving style of cooking, urging Americans to stay home and cook more instead of heading out to eat. Her landmark book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is one of the first to bring French cuisine to the west and “decode” its ways for the American public. Child was the recipient of 8 Emmy Awards, a US National Book Award, and a Peabody. Today, she remains a standard bearer for in-home, French gourmet cooking for both men and women.

 

Madhur Jaffrey (1933 - )

Madhur Jaffrey is an Indian-born actress, food and travel writer, and television personality. She is recognized for bringing Indian cuisine to the west with her debut cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), which was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2006. She has written over 30 cookbooks and is the food consultant at Dawat, considered by many food critics to be among the best Indian restaurants in New York City.

She played an instrumental part in bringing together famed filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, whose films won six Academy Awards. She acted in several of them, such as Shakespeare Wallah, for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Actress award at the 15th Berlin International Film Festival.

Jaffrey was knighted in 2004, in recognition of her services to cultural relations between the UK, India, and the US.

 

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor (1937-2016)

Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor was an American culinary anthropologist, griot, food writer, and broadcaster on public media, notably NPR’s All Things Considered and Cultural Desk. She was one of the first cookbook writers to create awareness of the misappropriation of African American cuisine, proving that the black culinary community does not need a white audience. She’s also a proponent of the idea that one need not measure or weigh everything to be a good cook, as evidenced in her landmark “foodoir” (cookbook + memoir), Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. A multi-talented woman, Smart-Grosvenor was also involved with the Black Arts Movement, won a James Beard Award for Best Radio Show, Seasonings, and performed on Broadway.

 

Alice Waters (1944 - )

Credited with popularizing the farm to table movement mainstream, Waters also advocates for the healthy food movement through The Edible Schoolyard Project. She’s known for her obsession with freshness and eating local, organic produce. Her multiple award-winning, SF Bay Area restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been named the Best Restaurant in America (Gourmet magazine); ranked in the top 50 restaurants in the world by Restaurant magazine; and has been awarded a Michelin star three years in a row (2006-2009). In 2007, Waters won Restaurant Magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award and was cited as one of the most influential figures in American cooking over the past 50 years.

 

Whether we speak of Buwei Yang Chao’s unapologetic pressure against traditional Chinese social norms, or Julia Child’s momentous foray into the “man’s world” of fine French cuisine in America, these mavericks highlight the powerful capabilities of women. But heroines cannot continue to advance equality in an echo chamber. Television networks are still male-dominated, kitchens worldwide are still male-centric, and men still prefer investing in other men -- investment being arguably the raison d’etre of professional cookery and the apex of a chef’s career. 

In an Esquire op-ed entitled, I’ve Worked in Food for 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?, Amanda Cohen’s research underscores the preference towards men: in 2017, The New York Times had written major reviews for 44 restaurants - six of those kitchens were run by women. In the prior 27 years, 361 James Beard Awards had been given out; 81 of them had gone to women. Since 2000, Food & Wine has selected 192 of the Best New Chefs in America; 28 of them have been women. And since 1932, only 13 women have earned 3 Michelin stars (none of which were women of color, emphasizing the even more difficult path for minority women in the culinary world).

Furthermore, even when women’s culinary skills are being praised by media outlets, diminutive definitions abound. While men are “technically gifted and extraordinarily creative, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and seeking to revolutionize the way we eat, women are portrayed as relying on instinct and love, hewing to tradition.” Adjectives conveying innovation, power, and daring need to be applied to women, too - arguably more so, as they contend with the added pressures of male-dominated societies.

Nevertheless, the moral arc of the universe is continually bending towards justice, as women are emerging as leaders in all corners of business - not just food. Just this year, there was a massive shift in the portrayal of women during the Super Bowl, highlighting the power of increased social activism, such as the #MeToo movement. Double the number of female celebrities headlined this year’s commercials compared to last year, with companies rapidly shifting away from sex appeal and instead, portraying women in power. Zoe Kravitz showed just how far things have come when she appeared in an ad for beer. Her spot for Michelob Ultra was made by a predominantly female team and green-lit by Anheuser-Busch's vice president of marketing, Azania Andrews, who told Advertising Age, "First and foremost, as a woman in beer, with all the conversations around diversity, I feel that I want to use my power for good...and create equity in the industry by creating opportunities for women." 

The movement is taking place globally, as well. Women now make up roughly half of the agricultural sector in developing countries, and are responsible for up to 80% of food production. They are empowering smallholder farmers in the developing world, building food as medicine into the medical system, and re-imagining a more accessible and sustainable grocery store to name just a few advances. They include everyone from Allison Aubrey, a James Beard nominee and award-winning food and culture correspondent for NPR, to Debra Eschmeyer, “one of the most innovative women in food and drink”, Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at the White House, and co-founder of FoodCorps.

We highlighted only a handful of women who battled against the barriers to equality, but they illustrate why this fight is critical, and why it must continue. In and out of the culinary world, we need gender equality urgently. Gender equality prevents violence against women and girls. It’s essential for economic prosperity. Societies that value women and men as equal are safer and healthier. Gender equality is a human right, and as such, everyone will benefit when it is achieved. Perhaps Buwei Yang Chao said it best when her primary school entrance exam required her to write about the benefits of educating girls. She responded: “Women are the mothers of all citizens.”

 

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About the Author
As a strategic communicator at EAT Club, Leena Chitnis assists with everything from internal communications to social media and marketing. She has previously consulted for Ericsson, NetApp, PayPal, Salesforce, FOX Broadcasting Company and other major studios in Los Angeles. In her spare time, she enjoys photography and working on various inventions.
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