Women's History Month: The Women Who Have Influenced My Food Life

March is Women's History Month, and today, March 8th, has been declared as International Women's Day. The theme of Women's History Month this year is Women: Builders of Communities and Dreams.

I do not know of a more significant way in which women build community and nurture our bodies and souls than through food and cooking. While men have figured much more prominently in the world of professional/public cooking (and continue to do so), most of the public figures in the world of food that have had the greatest impact on me have been women. So here is a short list of the women who have most influenced the way I approach food, and what they have meant to me.

Julia Child

Cookbook author, television personality

julia_child.jpg I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Julia Child was instrumental in causing a revolutionary change in American kitchens, when she published the first edition of Mastering The Art of French Cooking in 1961. I encountered her many years after that, via her 1980s PBS cooking series Dinner With Julia.

The appeal of Julia Child was that she was a very homely, and homey, lady. She was very tall, and hunched over a bit over her stove and cutting board, her outfits were rather dinner-lady like, and of course she always had that "impeccably clean towel" about her person. She had a distinctive slightly fuzzy, lilting voice, and a perpetual twinkle in her eye. At first she was mostly just entertaining to me. But when her old series The French Chef was rebroadcast on some channel in the 1990s, I was in a position and frame of mind to spend time really watching and studying them. I was amazed at how technically proficient she was, and how clear her explanations were of classic French techniques. Through The French Chef, I learned how to make a proper omelette, assemble a proper cassoulet, fold a puff pastry so that it realy puffs, and many other things that I would have otherwise never have been able to do.

Of her books, The Way To Cook is my absolute favorite. As the title says, it really does teach you how to cook so many things, and not just French. The numerous Master Recipes scattered throughout the book, which describe foundation recipes on which so many recipes are variations of, makes so much sense to me that I've adopted a similar approach here. My copy was given to me as a Christmas present back in the early '90s, and though I've moved about 4 times since then, it has always travelled with me.

M.F.K. Fisher

Essayist, author

mfk_fisher.jpg I have written extensively about Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher before. She's one of the main influences in the way I approach food, and how I aspire to write about it. Her writing is restrained and elegant, yet her love of food and wine is unmistakable. Many of her lighter-hearted works show that she had a wicked, if not sometimes twisted, sense of humor too. If you have never read her works, you are depriving yourself.

And by the way, her gingerbread recipe in How To Cook A Wolf is light and yummy. I have yet to get up the courage to try the survival sludge though.

Katsuyo Kobayashi

Cookbook author, TV personality

katsuyo_kobayashi.jpg Katsuyo Kobayashi is unknown outside of Japan, with the exception of her Iron Chef appearance back in 1994. (She beat Iron Chef Chen hands down in Battle Potato, by the way.) Katsuyo Kobayashi was "just an ordinary housewife" with an extraordinary knack for making cooking fun, efficient and tasty. She is a cookbook author and longtime fixture on the long-running NHK TV cooking series Kyo no ryori (Today's Cooking). She has a bubbly personality; when she's on the screen, it's like I am watching my mother, except that Ms. Kobayashi loves to cook. (My mom is a good cook but it's not a passion of hers.)

Like Julia Child, Katsuyo Kobayashi has the gift for explaining cooking methods so that they easy to understand. She's also a treasure trove of kitchen hints: one that I remember in particular is when she explained on one Kyo no Ryori show that the way to cut peppers easily if your knife wasn't very sharp was to cut it from the non-skin side. Her books also show how to put together a complete meal, and what goes with what - a detail that's so often omitted. She is my primary source of inspiration for Japanese home cooking, aside from what my mother and aunts passed down to me.

Japan is so trend-oriented that Katsuyo Kobayashi is not as "in" as she used to be. But she's passed on her gift to her son, Kentaro, who is one of the hot young food personalities right now. Still, I prefer his mother any day. It would be wonderful if some of her books could be translated to English. The problem may be deciding on which one, since to date she's published more than 150 books. There is also a line of kitchen products bearing her name. I have her dove-shaped silicon pot scraper, and it's marvelous.

Alice Waters

Chef, cookbook author, restaurant owner

alice_waters.jpgMy connection to Alice Waters is rather indirect. I've never been to her famed restaurant in Berkeley, California, Chez Panisse. But there is absolutely no denying that the kind of cooking she advocates is what I try to follow myself: using foods in season, using locally produced food. It's a bit harder for me to follow this all time, since at the moment for instance locally produced vegetables mainly means members of the cabbage family. Also, the food of my heritage (Japanese) has to be shipped to me in some form. But I try to stick to her philosophy as much as possible, especially when it comes to seasonal produce. No pears in March or strawberries in November!

Nigella Lawson

Cookbook author, journalist, TV personality

nigella_lawson.jpg Nigella Lawson is the Food Goddess to so many people; she brought sexiness to the realm of food with a vengeance. I have to admit that I had a hard time getting over her image. Once I finally broke down and got a copy of How To Eat, her first book, I was a convert. I have all of her books now and love every one of them.

Nigella Lawson is a descendent of sorts of British writers such as Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, who educated their readers about the pleasures of food, especially those from exotic (to British readers) locales. Where she has broken new ground is in making previously maligned American-style food sexy and appealing. One of her most famous recipes is for a ham cooked in Coca-Cola, which has been known in the American South for decades. It's not haute cuisine but it sure is tasty. The very fact that she is British, I think, has made it easier for her to validate this kind of food to American readers, who often have a sort of inferiority complex about their own cuisine in comparison to say, French food.

All of the recipes I have tried from her books have been excellent, with a more-ishness to them. Her writing has an intensity that shows that she is a true foodie.

This is a very short list, and I've omitted many other women who have shaped my food life in one way or another, such as Elizabeth David, Delia Smith, Marcella Hazan, Jane Grigson, Madeleine Kamman, Silvana Franco, Ruth Reichl, Fanny Cradock, and yes, even Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. I would love to see other people's lists - if you do decide to write one up, please let me know!

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