Moms, Memories, and Food Traditions
Today is Mother’s Day. And when many of us of a certain age think about our moms or grandmothers, one of the primary memories is of food and cooking, of these women as keepers of family recipes, teachers of cooking and baking skills, and unwitting creators of culinary legacies.*
While thinking about this general theme of mothers and culinary wisdom, I stumbled upon a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. Having researched cookery books from the 17th century to the mid-20th century, historian Janet Theophano wrote her book to “open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods who would otherwise be unknown to us.” (Theophano, p. 2.)
She discovered that these cookery books–some of which were in manuscript form and existed only in family or historical collections–were surprisingly rich sources of information about the lives of women, and often autobiographical in nature. She references the “marginalia, letters, poetry, and other forms of writing” she found in these books and the stories they told about the women who created them. She also notes that:
“…cookbooks are celebrations of identity. Connections to people, places, and the past are embedded in the recipes women kept and exchanged, transformed, and adapted to their changing world.” (Theophano, p. 8.)
It may seem retrograde and unfeminist to mark Mother’s Day by talking about women being in the kitchen. But books like Theophano’s position things in a different light, by assigning value to women’s stories from the kitchen and stating the importance of their traditions of sharing recipes and knowledge. This invisible labour was vital to women’s families and communities, yet has mostly been overlooked in the historical record.
Theophano’s book, and others like it, centres women’s voices as it celebrates women’s long history of creating and sustaining food traditions and sharing culinary wisdom. It is a theme I will be looking at over the course of this month, women’s role in passing on food traditions and the bonds they foster between generations when doing so.
Happy Mother’s Day to all who are celebrating!
*In many cases, they still are. Fathers do more cooking and other household tasks now than they did then, but statistics show that women still do the bulk of the meal planning, shopping, and preparation.This study from Pew Research is just one example.
Theophano, Janet. (2002) Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.