Celebrating women’s contribution to food history

Blair Dohey
Throughout history, women have been at the forefront of changing the way we look at food. From inventing the modern cooking show to coining the term “stir fry”, here are five women who have helped broaden the way we see and prepare food.
With International Women’s Day on the horizon, it’s time to dedicate some time to women’s valuable contribution to food culture and history. From groundbreaking food inventions to revolutionary concepts that have changed food culture fundamentally, here’s a look at five women who are synonymous with taking our understanding of food to the next level.
Edna Lewis and the Art of Country Cooking
Having grown up the granddaughter of a freed slave in the community of Freetown, Orange County, Virginia, Edna would eventually make her way to Washington DC before ending up in New York City in her 30s. While she started her career out as a seamstress, it would be her take on Country and Southern cooking, which begins with frying food in shallow oil rather than deep frying, that would cement her in the annals of American food culture.

With an astonishing career that began with running the kitchen at Cafe Nicholson in New York, an establishment that was frequented by the likes of Marlon Brando, Elenor Roosevelt and Diana Vreeland to name a few, Edna went to try her hand a farming, running her own restaurant and eventually co-writing four cookbooks that put Southern food on the map. Her recipes for pan fried chicken, pork and greens all incorporated fresh, locally sourced ingredients. But it might be her recipe for her famous chocolate soufflé that she will be remembered for most. Bringing the knowledge and the how-to of Southern fried food to masses helped put American cuisine on the world stage.
The Organic Influence of Alice Waters
Alice Waters’ food influence goes far beyond the kitchen but it was her passion for organic food in the 70’s that started a movement that continues to grow to this day. Having started her world famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971, its focus on locally sourced, organic ingredients propelled her into the stratosphere of California’s restaurant industry. The road to the restaurant business for Waters was dotted with travels to Turkey and Europe where she gained an expertise in French cuisine. This expertise paired with her belief that organic foods don’t just taste better, they’re better for you, now creates a singular experience for those who come to her restaurant and for those around the country who practice eating locally and organic.

Beyond the kitchen, Alice Waters has been a vocal activist throughout her life, supporting the Free Speech Movement and anti-war policies. Through the Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters continues her work in food education, using it to empower youth while also promoting sustainable practices in the food industry.
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Buwei Yang Chao and the arrival of Chinese Food in America
Often credited with popularizing Chinese Food in America through her cookbooks, Buwei Yang Chao was a firecracker of a woman whose tongue was rarely in her cheek. She began her career in medicine after completing her studies at an all girl Roman Catholic school in Shanghai. Having studied in Tokyo, it was her disdain for Japanese food that led her towards a passion for cooking food for herself.

With a flair for recreating her recipes from memory, it was her daughter who began writing down and translating her recipes and while her family was stationed in Massachusetts during World War II, where her husband was chosen to do language training with the US Army. Her first cookbook, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, coined the terms “pot sticker” and “stir fry”, bringing a culture of Asian flavor to millions of people around the country.
The One and Only Julia Child
There may not be a more toweringly famous woman in the food industry than the OG celebrity chef herself, Julia Child. Credited with introducing America to French cuisine, Julia’s own taste for cooking developed later in life, after she married her husband, Paul Cushing Child. Following a career in the Office of Strategic Services, she moved to Paris with her husband where her love for fine food blossomed. She would eventually graduate from the prestigious Cordon Bleu culinary school in France and then tour Europe before returning to the US.

Following the launch of her famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which included her famous Dutch oven roasted chicken recipe, Child’s first nationally broadcasted cooking show, The French Chef, began a decade-long run in 1963 and was a hit. Her kind demeanour mixed with a slightly aloof sense of humor and impressive height drew viewers in and she would go on to star in a number of television shows through to the 90’s, solidifying herself as an icon and the first person to popularize the modern cooking show.

Her impact on the American home was made greater by the humanity that she exuded on TV. Allowing herself to make mistakes and try again allowed her audience to see that there’s no harm in failing if you pick yourself up and try it all over again.
Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, the Mother of Thanksgiving
When we gather around the table with our friends and family to celebrate our annual thanksgiving dinner, we have Sarah Josepha Buell Hale to thank. As a writer and activist, Hale shared strong opinions on everything from gender equality and slavery to the power of the Union of the United States.

She’d been petitioning for years to have the last Thursday in November reserved as a day to give thanks but her plea wasn’t heard, until her petition reached the desk of President Abraham Lincoln. Dubbed the “Mother of Thanksgiving”, it was her petition to Lincoln that convinced him to declare a national holiday that would unite families following the stress of the Civil War. Harvest festivals and local holidays existed for centuries in North America, especially New England, but up to this point there’d never been an official Thanksgiving Holiday. So now, as we get together to enjoy a feast of juicy turkey and all the fixin’s, maybe save a little of that thanks for this remarkable woman. Without her we would be a little less thankful.
Today is very different and we know that some women are making a great contribution to food and cooking. We just need to pay attention to what they do!