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Celebrate the Most Significant Women in American Culinary History

significant women in American food history

These days, more and more women are getting recognition for their contributions to the food industry. But, it’s been been an agonizingly slow process and a long time coming. Sure, cookbook authors like Molly Yeh and Samin Nosrat are starring in their own shows on major networks, and award-winning chefs like Dominique Crenn and Gabrielle Hamilton have become household names. But women have been making huge contributions to the way we eat for centuries, if not millennia.

The Mothers of Culinary Invention

According to cultural historian Dr. Megan Elias, author of “Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture,” and director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, American culinary history is a culmination of the work of women whose stories will never be told—especially women of color. “They’re women whose names we’re not going to know,” she explains. “They’re all the people who did all the cooking for everybody all the time. People’s mothers, sisters, and wives are the ones who shaped the national palate.”

While we may not be able to pay sufficient tribute to them all, we’ve put together a list of some of the most significant women in American culinary history to celebrate Women’s History Month.

1. Catharine Beecher

The author of “Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book” played an interesting role in 19th century American history. “She gave cooking a moral character,” says Elias. While Beecher’s views on the woman’s place in the home are certainly out of date—she felt it was a woman’s moral duty to learn how to run a household—she recognized that this type of knowledge was not innate, but rather something that needed to be learned. At the time, this was a radical idea. “It was a way to say, it’s okay if you don’t know everything,” Elias explains. “Just because you have breasts doesn’t mean you know how to make a cake.”

Miss. Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, $23.04 on Amazon

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2. Fannie Farmer

If you’ve ever baked anything, you likely used measuring cups and spoons to do it, and it was Farmer who invented these tools to make recipes more precise. And while she may be both revered and vilified for insisting that measurement matters when it comes to cooking, her classic cookbook is still in heavy use across the country. According to Elias, Farmer basically codified American food for the middle class and upper middle class in the late 19th century, including recipes ranging from simple fare, like scrambled eggs, to fancier dishes, such as chicken soufflé.

Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book, $11 on Amazon

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3. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher

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. “Everybody loves her,” says Elias, “because she’s the first American and woman writer to put pleasure above all else.” Although she came from a privileged background, she had a relatable, evocative style of writing and an independent spirit. Elias points out, “She discussed food in terms of physical and emotional pleasure, tying it to a person’s character. It was a new way of looking at women.”

The Art of Eating: 50th Anniversary Edition, $20.44 on Amazon

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4. Julia Child

Considered a national treasure with her “go for it” attitude, Child took things a step further than M. F. K. Fisher by introducing cooking as a form of entertainment to an American audience—especially to women creating meals at home. By the time her two volume set, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was published, Americans of all classes were regularly dining out. Elias credits Child with helping people to understand that “you don’t have to go to a restaurant to have a fine dining experience.”

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, $22.71 on Amazon

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5. Leah Chase

Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Chase is a New Orleans-based chef known for her award-winning recipes. But more importantly, her restaurant, Dooky Chase, was a gathering place for organizers of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She and her husband have continuously contributed to their local community for decades, and recently established the Dooky Chase Foundation.

The Dooky Chase Cookbook, $24.95 on Amazon

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6. Ruth Reichl

While some may not yet quite realize the importance of Reichl’s writing, Elias insists she deserves a place in history. “She really forcefully shifted the recognition of American food,” states Elias, “especially when she took over Gourmet magazine…She made a case for treating all food equally. She’s undoing the hierarchy.” Also, much like Fisher, the pleasure of eating—often also connected to the pleasure of sex—features prominently in Reichl’s memoirs.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, $14.10 on Amazon

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Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, $17.70 on Amazon

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7. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor

According to Elias, Smart-Grosvenor was one of the first cookbook writers to create awareness of the cultural appropriation of African American cuisine, proving that the black culinary community doesn’t have to depend on a white audience. She’s also a proponent of the idea that you don’t have measure or weigh everything to be a good cook, as evidenced in “Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” her landmark cookbook and memoir.

Vibration Cooking: or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, $20.10 on Amazon

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8. Alice Waters

Credited with making the farm to table movement mainstream through her award-winning restaurant, Chez Panisse, Waters continues to play a role in the healthy food movement through The Edible Schoolyard Project. “I think she’s responsible for the obsession with freshness, eating local produce, and also the chef as personality,” says Elias. Waters provides a detailed account of her career in her recent memoir, “Coming to My Sense: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.”

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, $16.16 on Amazon

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You can never have too many books—so check out our favorite classic cookbooks by women, and contemporary women-authored cookbooks that deserve room on your shelf too.

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