Eating the Past

80s Dinner Party: The Politics of Feminist Food Writing  

The relationship between feminism and food is one of ambivalence and contradiction. Cooking, eating and the kitchen are strongly affective sites of domestic discontent, expectation and anxiety, comfort, pleasure and belonging. Recipe sections, a staple feature of mainstream women’s magazines, occupy a far more uncertain position in feminist periodicals. And what would a feminist recipe book look like?

Sheba Feminist Press’ Turning the Tables: Recipes and Reflections from Women (1987) sets out to meet that question through a direct engagement with the politics of feminist food writing. This feminist recipe book is a bold political project and a cosmopolitan document of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Divided into seven unconventionally titled sections – Migration, Celebration, Ambivalence, Changes, Memory, Rushing, A Clutch of Salads – it brings omelettes, dumplings, cakes, curries, ludkes and soups into contact with a feminist politics. As Polly Russell has observed, Turning the Tables ‘ignore[s] many of the conventions of the [cookery book] genre’. Anti-aspirational, collectively produced, with a non-proscriptive approach to quantities and instructions, the anthology has the feel of a ‘big, generous recipe swap’, in the words of editor Sue O’Sullivan. Each recipe is prefaced by a reflection on the pleasures, difficulties and ambivalences of cooking as a feminist, contextualising and politicising the recipes which follow.

Image by Laura Bracey Curry Instagram: @laurabraceycurry

Just reading the contents table brings back my own, eaten, past. Recipes with casual, unpretentious titles like Cynthia Williams’ ‘Rice and Mushroom Thing’ or Val Johnson’s ‘That Omelette’ remind me of my own family’s equivalent term, ‘nosh’, used to describe a dish my avant-garde vegetarian mother often made and into which any number of different vegetables would be added but the base of which always remained the same: garlic, onion, tinned tomatoes.

Turning the Tables’ exploration of feminist food-making contends at every turn with what O’Sullivan calls the ‘underbelly of family life’. Mothers, lovers, fathers, housemates, grandparents, husbands, friends and children loom large in both reflections and recipes. These evocations of the familial range from the conventional (Michelene Wandor recalls that ‘when I got married, my mother taught me how to make chicken soup’) to the ambivalent (as Jewelle Gomez pithily puts it, her family recipe for cornbread is a ‘coarse joy’) to the revolutionary. For Susan Ardill, her discovery of world cuisines was ‘simultaneous’ with her discovery of radical politics and ‘inextricably linked to a rejection of the claustrophobic, emotionally violent nuclear family I came from’. This is not just a recipe book: it is a feminist space where ideologically opposed ideas of domestic organisation, often dramatized as generational difference, play out. In its pages, we encounter O’Sullivan’s childhood experience of the ‘white liberal middle-class “family [eating] together” imperative’, Val Wilmer’s memories of being raised on ‘sausage-and-mash and National Health orange [juice]’, and Zoe Fairbairns’ progressive cooking arrangements with her partner which offer her, every other week, ‘the gastronomic privileges of a husband’.

Published by Sheba Feminist Press, an innovative, mixed-race feminist publishing collective, Turning the Tables is very much a product of the later years of the British women’s movement and its activist literary ecosystems. Compiled by O’Sullivan, a member of the London Women’s Liberation Workshop and the Spare Rib, Feminist Review and Red Rag periodical collectives, introduced by Dena Attar, a feminist historian and member of the Shifra Jewish feminist magazine collective, and designed by Pat Kahn, also of Spare Rib collective, it features recipes by the likes of feminist historian Catherine Hall, Outwrite founding member Shaila Shah, members of the Black Brixton Women’s Group including Sona Osman and Melba Wilson, actors Julie Christie (of Dr Zhivago fame) and Miriam Margoyles, and feminist authors including Gomez and Angela Carter. These contributors share not only their recipes but their experiences of familial tensions, racism, collective living, eating disorders, class divides, ‘the sensuousness of women’, feminist organising and in the case of Pat Kahn, working the night shift. It is, as Rebecca May Johnson notes, a ‘formally daring book’. Some reflections are fictive, some poetic, some are memoir; many are very funny. Moy McCrory promises that her ‘exile’s soda bread’, ‘perfect, soft and floury’ despite being made with buttermilk and soda flour substitutes, is ‘guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of hard women’.

Original cover of Turning the Tables, Sheba Press, 1987

Attar’s introduction is propelled by the question: what is a feminist cookbook? Attar tells us that she writes about food out of a desire to connect her compulsion to cook to her feminist politics. Her authoritative introduction situates Turning the Tables in its historical contexts. By the late eighties, the shift precipitated by the appliances and inventions (microwaves, dishwashers, convenience foods) of the 1950s had dramatically changed British eating habits. But the effects of these technological changes on women’s lives, as Attar shows, are complex and not necessarily emancipatory: ‘[t]echnology doesn’t alter who does the work… The evidence suggests more that woman are continually being freed from some kinds of work so we can take on others’. Tracing the history of the written recipe, Attar argues that ‘no cookbook is simply a collection of recipes’. Almost all are at least ‘partly made up of propaganda promoting the ideology of a woman’s place… in the kitchen’. This is true even of those recipes, often found in women’s magazines and aimed at the modern, working woman, that ‘tell us how to take meals straight from freezer to microwave’ as quickly as possible. As more and more women joined the workforce, their unwaged, reproductive labour in the home and the kitchen was not correspondently reduced: as Attar tells us, it was compressed (or, for wealthier women, outsourced).

Even Spare Rib magazine, the longest-running and best-known British feminist periodical, had a recipe section in its early days. Like the mainstream magazines at which Attar takes aim, its occasional food column, ‘Munchy Business’, was intended for ‘people who don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen’. Some of those early Spare Rib recipes would enjoy a well-earned place on the 70sdinnerparty Instagram feed – a ‘Banana and Raw Cabbage Salad’ served with a ‘vaguely curdled’ dressing, to give one example – even if the feature writer, Fran Fogarty, has a decidedly unfeminine way with her imperatives, instructing her readers to ‘squash determinedly’ or ‘shove [the dish] under a fierce grill’ (Spare Rib issue 1). In what seems to be a sign of the difficulty of reconciling feminist politics with domestic pedagogy, however irreverent, ‘Munchy Business’ soon disappeared completely from Spare Rib (and was long outlived by the DIY column ‘Spare Parts’ which taught women basic car, bike and home repairs).

The Haringey Black women’s newsletter United We Stand (c.1984-86) sustained a less troubled relationship with its ongoing cookery section, with recipes for West Indian ducana or coconut rice sitting alongside articles on the oppression of Black women. The first issue of FOWAAD (1979-80), thenewsletter of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), offers no recipes but does mount a critique of racist school curriculums and Home Economics Teachers who teach students how to ‘make Christmas Cake, but would never dream of attempting a curry or patties!’ In 1987, the young feminist magazine Shocking Pink run an unconventional ‘review’ of Turning the Tables. With typical brio, Shocking Pink’s review includes a ‘recipe’ for a ‘Romantic Candlelit Dinner for One’ with the following instructions: ‘Lay the table, light the candle, sit on the chair, eat the food, think about how much you love yourself! BON APPETIT!’ Alongside Turning the Tables, Shocking Pink also recommend Shange Ntosake’s Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo (1982), a novel punctuated with recipes, alongside letters, poems and journal entries. (Jennifer deVere Brody writes of Shange’s work that it ‘takes seriously the idea that cooking is a feminist act, if not a form of feminist art.’)

The Jewish feminist magazine Shifra (1984-1986) included a recipe section that was far more earnest than Spare Rib’s, and for the most part uncritical. But in the final issue, published in December 1986, the recipe section is accompanied by an essay by Erica Burman, ‘Love and Knisches: Jewish Women and Food’ which asks: ‘What is it that makes food such an emotive topic for Jewish women? Why do I feel so strange about the recipes that have appeared in the back of Shifra?’ Burman, like Attar, refers to the ‘boom of technological devices in the 1950s that were supposed to make life so easy and actually incarcerated women in their kitchens’, and looks forwards to a time ‘beyond the love-hate splits of our ambivalences towards food’. These periodical experiments with the feminist politics of food anticipate (or, in the case of Shocking Pink, respond to) Turning the Tables.

Image by Kaiwen Li

Utopian dreams are woven into feminist food writing. Turning the Tables contributor Cynthia Williams’ ‘utopian food dream’ is ‘a network of collectively run neighbourhood cafeterias’, and Angela Carter cooks in the style of a ‘Utopian cafeteria’ (forerunners to Rebecca May Johnson’s brilliant essay ‘I Dream of Canteens’). For other contributors, food is already the site of a collective politics: Rosamund Grant, the author of one of the first Black-British authored Caribbean cookbooks, Caribbean and African Cookery (1989), tells the story of founding a co-operative restaurant, Bambaya, in North London. There are also collective contributions, like the Chinese Lesbian Group’s ‘Steamed Fish with Ginger’, or recipes for collectives, like Annie Whitehead’s Feminist Review carrots, julienned and simply dressed, which are her way to ‘demonstrate I found (a little) time to cook for the [collective’s] meetings’.

At every turn, this cookbook is imbued with an intersectional feminist awareness that time and money are often tight, and that structures of power and privilege shape the ways we eat. Kum-Kum Bhavani provides a ‘Recipe for Thought’ rather than for food and discusses the politics of eating out during the miners’ strike, writing that ‘during the miners’ strike in 1984/5 I would have felt physically sick if I had eaten an expensive meal’. Bhavani poses shrewd political questions around the impact that ‘healthier eating’ among the middle-classes might have on workers, especially those in the developing world, and asks: ‘Is the health of “The Nation” important (à la Edwina Currie) because it ensures a healthy workforce for capital?’ Undoing the conventions of the genre in form and content, Turning the Tables makes space for expressions of apathy (as Farah Sharif has it: ‘bloody food!’) as well as enjoyment. The many mixed feelings collected in its pages validate the feminist who chooses to cook, and the feminist who chooses to stay out of the kitchen, as well as she can.

This piece is based on a longer paper, ‘Love and Knisches: Food in Feminist Magazines’, for the 11th International Esprit Conference: Periodicals and Belonging, 27-29th June 2023, Leeds Beckett University

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