Tasting Home
Tasting Home

While writing my food memoir, Tasting Home, I avoided reading anything analytical about women and food. (I had been a professor for most of my life and didn’t want to write an academic memoir.) Only after I finished the book, did I begin to read critical work on women’s culinary reflections.  It was then I learned about “the new domesticity.”

Sometimes the new domesticity takes the form of women returning to the land, cooking from scratch, using organic and local produce, raising chickens, or canning and, in so doing, resisting and responding to traditional food practices, which emphasize profit over sustainability and promote unjust labor relations.

At other times, the new domesticity takes the form of rethinking and writing about domestic labor. One development in women’s studies, for example, has been the effort to reclaim the kitchen, and in, the process, to question and modify the tendency of some feminisms to define cooking and other forms of domesticity as inherently oppressive to women and as always enforcing a conservative status quo.

Many women of color, of course, have long seen cooking as a form of creativity and power and as a means of creating community solidarity in the face of ongoing struggles against racism.  Now, white feminists are also writing about home cooking as a retreat from, but also an implicit criticism of, the uncaring values of the world of work.

Indeed, a “mindful cooking,” one that takes into accounts the values of sustainability, economic justice, community, and caring labor is being theorized as a crucial feminist activity.  Even labor intensive and  time consuming projects like fancy baking are being newly valued as a means of  expressing or redefining the self, of bringing intensity and joy to living, and as a form of resistance to the rushed pace of  life in the workplace and now, too often, in the home as well.

Janet L. Flammang’s TheTaste for Civilization gives home cooking an even broader social and political influence. Although Flammang recognizes that more men cook at home than ever before–a trend she would like to encourage– she rightly points out that home cooking is still largely the province of women in this country and around the world.  While restaurant cooking, a field dominated by men, is lauded as art, as heroic performance, and as worthy of historical attention,  domestic cooking, traditionally associated with women, has largely been invisible, regarded as insignificant, or dismissed as what “real” history is not about.

Yet, cooking the family meal, Flammang argues, has enormous historical importance in that it lays groundwork for civil society itself.  Home cooking, for example, has characteristically brought people together, involved them in daily expressions of generosity and care, and maintained a continuing expectation that dinner conversations will be civil, that individuals will not just put their own needs above those of the group.

Cooking for, and eating with others,  produces a sense of common cause and creates reservoirs of good will which groups can draw on later in times of stress. Cooking and dining with others trains us in modes of feeling and behavior that are the foundation for democracy itself.

Flammang cites Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from the  Delicious Revolution, as an example of  women’s food writing which recognizes this relation between food and civil society and which proposes to improve both. Waters, for example, writes that the pleasure of delicious food can bind you to values that make for a better world—because delicious food means food that is fresh, unpolluted, and easy on the environment, means food that sustains local producers:  “If you eat two or three meals a day, in a very specific way with those values associated, it begins to change your life.”

The food movement, which Waters helped to initiate, provides an example of this theory in practice.  The  movement’s communal gardens, farmer’s markets,  school lunch programs, prison outreach, and deliberate acts of cooking and dining together are  bringing people together across the divisions of race, class, and gender and also prompting them to consider far reaching forms of social change.

When women and men writing about food call attention to its political potential in this way, they define themselves as more than individuals, as more than members of a particular community. They define themselves as part of a larger human society and as part of a struggle for thorough-going social change.

Such writing invites readers to the table and to a civil conversation. How do we help create a better world through just and thoughtful practices in growing, preparing and consuming what we eat?


Based in the Bay Area, Judith is an author and Professor Emerita at U.C. Davis


  1. I really like this post. A few phrases struck a chord and made me think: “the uncaring values of the world of work,” and “unjust labor relations.” It also never really occurred to me that most chefs – or at least the famous ones – are men.
    I have a copy of The Art of Simple Food and am a great admirer of Alice Waters.

  2. Judith – really enjoyed this post. Thanks for introducing me to a couple of books too. I’ve been thinking recently about how something as superficially innocuous as the food on our plate can divide society as well as bring it together. So many ideas here – a whole conference I think!

    1. Lynne, good to hear from you! Yes, many conferences! I really think you’d like Flammang’s book and Domestic Cultures by your country woman, Joanne Hollows. I’m trying now to write about my visit to London in September. Lovely and poignant (the trip).

  3. This is an important discussion. It is so important for society to acknowledge and respect the work of women. If feminism does anything, it must do this. I have the compulsion to cook, to return to the land, to harvest sustainability in my life, and I want that work respected as much the male CEO playing golf while he hobnobs with “business” partners. In fact, I want my work respected more!

    1. Dear Marlene, I couldn’t agree more. If that work were truly respected, a whole different set of values (caring, communality) would be valued more too.

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