The Magical Herstory of Food

Long before food was a commodity bought and sold for profit, no act of food production, from harvesting, growing, preparing, preserving, storing, cooking, baking, was left unblessed by women’s prayers, rituals and devotions. And for most of human history nearly every domestic activity from making pots to planting seeds to baking bread was ritual “hearthcraft”. And to put it very simply, women’s food magic had one central purpose, to honour and nourish the great mother of all – who in turn nourished them.

The loss of reverence for the earth desacralized our food. And for women it meant being severed from the rituals which brought us together, from which we drew nourishment, meaning and spiritual sustenance. Women no longer gather communally to harvest with prayer and song, but shop harried and alone in corporate superstores, and the kitchen is a place where we consume the processed and fast foods that suit our busy lifestyles.

So I can’t help but wonder if this has anything to do with why, from perpetual dieting to eating disorders, to an obsession with “watching what we eat”, modern women have such a complicated relationship with food?

In their book From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food, Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber write women today are suffering from an internal conflict, in which “our hidden hungers”, “the sensual pleasures of food and cooking are all too often obscured by the increasing demands of careers, families, battles over body image, and the desire for a life outside the “traditional” domain of the kitchen.”

And they point out that feminism has been of little help sorting it all out. Women’s history scholars are more interested “in setting straight the public record on women’s achievements”. And feminist scholarship on food has largely focused on “women’s food pathologies, such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders” and ignored cooking “as if it were merely a marker of patriarchal oppression and, therefore, not worthy of attention.”

But that’s why I find women’s earliest food history so fascinating. Author and scholar Christine Downing eloquently describes how women role in food production was considered sacred. Women were linked with food not only because they cultivated and prepared it, but also because their own bodies, like the great goddess, were a source of food and life.

And despite our long association with food, cooking and the kitchen as disempowering drudgery, this wasn’t always the case. Growing evidence in the fields of anthropology suggests that women’s early place by the hearth may have had nothing to do with the centuries of domestic oppression that followed. Because long before women ate last at the table (and maintained their trim figures) long before cooking was part of an invisible unpaid economy, women had control over the crops they harvested, cultivated, cooked and consumed.

Turns out a woman’s place in the kitchen was likely once at the centre of a very different economy – one that granted them autonomy and spiritual authority. As Eleanor Leacock writes in Women’s Status in Egalitarian Society, women in hunter gatherer cultures lived in societies where “issues of status are irrelevant because both women and men produce goods and services for their own use…and hence control their own lives directly.”
These early food economies are often referred to as “gift-giving” meaning no one had to “pay” to eat. Because long before food became a commodity it was a sacred gift of the earth, who as a mother fed all her children equally, no matter their class, status, or gender. And she gave freely to all of her forests, fields, rivers and oceans.

It was the shift to ownership of crop and land (usually by an elite class of landholders and the Church) that spelled the end of the gift economy. And according to feminist economist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was that they no longer had access to land, and control over the crops they cultivated. Now “their work and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources”. Mostly unpaid.

So here’s the big question. What if cooking in these early economies was far from drudge work assigned to the lesser sex? What if it was originally a source of women’s empowerment? What if it provided fellowship, and an avenue of creative, artistic and spiritual expression? What if eating and feasting were celebratory occasions to honour the life-sustaining gifts of the earth, opportunities for women to nourish and pleasure themselves?

Today women struggle with perpetual diets, bread is a “forbidden food” and we do our best not to “lose control” during times of holiday feasting. Oprah may have bought Weight Watchers to help women be their “best selves”, but maybe we’re hungering for something we can no longer even name? The way I see it, the “herstory” of food isn’t the old well-worn tale of women being oppressed by their place in the kitchen. Quite the opposite. It’s about reclaiming our age-old power as caretakers and nurturers of the earth, of each other – not to mention ourselves.

– The Magical Herstory of Food By Danielle Prohom Olson

Painting by Juan van der Hamen

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