Food: Gender, Power and More

I was off and running. In the hour or so we spent on the phone, I speculated on the reasons why food and “foodculture” had evolved into an obvious subject for Lilith. First, we’re Jewish, and food is about transmission. Foodways provide an alluring opportunity for noticing—and sometimes even appreciating—diversity. Sephardi vs. Ashkenazi holiday morsels; conflicting expectations around women’s roles; shifting intergenerational tastes; the kitchen as a place of respect or as a battleground between mothers and daughters; sisterly competition over the recipe box; and more. Much more.

Jewish food-related rituals are meant to teach. Passover’s injunction “Let all who are hungry come and eat” is an instruction: let hunger spur our empathy. Those raising children in circumstances of abundance can nourish their empathy by asking them to imagine “that you can’t have all the food you want to eat.” Families of middle schoolers might live on a SNAP (food stamps) budget for a week. “So, no ice cream after soccer.” Because eating is necessary for survival, food empathy is a powerful engine propelling us along the road to food justice.

I paused to breathe. I asked the caller to send me her final paper. I was sure, correctly, that I’d never remember all the points I was making. (Sidenote: she never did.) She wanted to know if Jews were obsessed with food. I said the obvious, that Shabbat and holidays present occasions for ritualizing a family meal. And I speculated that privation can sometimes lead to fixation. Plus, food traditions are a highly portable method of cultural maintenance, a powerful container of memories when non-consumable goods (silver candlesticks, that violin) had to be left behind.

For everyone, refugee or not, food holds nostalgia, and links us to a specific identity. For me, unique Winnipeg flavors do the trick: smoked Lake Winnipeg goldeye, the ethereal knishes of Mrs. Zaslavsky, the mocha poppyseed torte made by a woman from Vienna. Little fingers of party sandwiches with their layers of yumminess, recently extolled in the Boston Globe. My mother’s komish bread, the local variant of biscotti. I mean, come on. I wasn’t forced from my ancestral homeland, nor were any of the scores of other Winnipeggers scattered in professional precincts around the universe, but you would think, from the persistence of certain palatal sense-impressions, that we’d fled our prairie Egypt, abandoning culinary delights we’d never again savor. That’s the olfactory lock of the foods we remember.

Food can cement identity; just follow Lilith’s “Tasty Tuesday” posts on Facebook for examples. Eating together can bind friends, families and romantic partners, but it also has the power to cause fractures, as demonstrated by a Lilith article about a painful breakup. This five-year-old memoir, “When Food and Love Collide,” has had very long legs. Readers remember its dating couple, who agree on keeping a kosher home. But he wants them to eat out only at kosher restaurants or in the homes of equally punctilious friends, and she wants to eat (though nothing non-kosher) with their less-observant buddies for the sake of keeping their social networks intact. They were in love, then doomed.

What we eat, how we prepare it, serve it, deal with the leftovers—all these are practices that evolve out of decisions we make, sometimes at every meal. Pescatarian? Vegan? Raw food? Personal food practices are a proxy for self-denial or self-indulgence, revealing an inability to share or an openness to new flavors, a way to evaluate hospitality, generosity, waste. Each choice can stake out a spiritual, ideological or political position.

Food is also about class. Gribenes, for example, scraps of onion and chicken skin cooked in chicken fat, a dish some of our predecessors were proud to have moved beyond, is enjoying a revival, and homemade pickles now appear in artisanal eateries. Here, too, we return to the gender question. Many of the chefs touted for reviving classic Jewish dishes are men. But home cooking, the stuff Lilith has prized as a way of recovering women’s history, women’s experiences and the value of women’s traditional work, has until recently been considered unworthy of serious attention. 

Ruminating on the ways gender and power play out around cooking and eating, I hosted a Lilith salon conversation about food with women in their 20s and 30s at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. A woman who’s single passed judgment about restaurants and dating; what a guy ordered on a first date determined whether she’d be interested in a second. One partner in a lesbian couple bemoaned that she wasn’t allowed to cook in her girlfriend’s kosher kitchen. And a married, feminist mother admitted that even when injury sidelined her she resisted relinquishing the kitchen—and her power in it—to her husband.

Who owns the kitchen? Who decides on the menu, who shops, cooks, invites, serves, cleans up—all these tasks reveal power dynamics around food’s pleasures and perils. So of course the discourse is fascinating. Why wouldn’t any self-respecting feminist magazine want to take it all on?