For centuries, women have been caretakers, nurturing and loving their families, while making sure they’re well-fed. It’s hard to believe that a few of the greatest female culinary icons were born at a time when women were not only denied the right to vote, but were considered chattel property, first belonging to their fathers and then to their husbands.
How ironic that at a time in history when women weren’t allowed to succeed openly, they were making huge contributions to the culinary world–contributions that would have a lasting and prolonged effect, far past their own lifetimes.
At 16, Fannie Farmer had a stroke that left her unable to walk and dependent on her parents. Eventually, with determination, she regained her mobility and headed to the kitchen. She turned her mother’s home into a successful boarding house with a reputation for good food. Her collection of recipes comprised one of the first American cookbooks.
Everyone knows the story of Julia Child. She started cooking at the age of 32 while living in France. She signed up for a culinary program, found her niche and went on to shatter the sexist notion that women couldn’t be chefs; she not only broke into the male dominated world of the commercial kitchen, but became a legend.
Around the same time, Edna Lewis, the granddaughter of emancipated slaves, was making a name for herself as the chef of a famous New York restaurant frequented by many literary greats such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and William Faulkner. Lewis was known for her eloquent interpretation of classic southern fare, which incorporated the elements of traditional European cooking.
Marion Cunningham was another late bloomer. She didn’t begin cooking until the age of 50 when she enrolled in a cooking class taught by the renowned James Beard. It was immediately apparent to him how talented she was and Beard quickly hired her as his assistant.
While these women were extraordinary in their talents and successes, the kitchen has always been dominated by ordinary women, mothers and grandmothers, many with exceptional skills and talents. Ask any chef about what led them to the profession and they’re apt to tell you about their first cooking experiences with the family matriarch and most likely, share a favorite childhood recipe.
My husband is an excellent cook, though he usually winds up playing sous chef to my role as chef. Often, though, he’ll surprise me with a special meal, usually based on a recipe given to him by his mother.
My mother-in-law was an independent woman. While most girls her age were getting married, she went off to college, had a career as a fashion buyer for the family department store, and then didn’t marry until she was in her late 20s. The latter absolutely flew in the face of social norms. She had five children in relatively quick order and when the children were all in school, she went right back out into the workforce. Not only did she manage to juggle raising five children, but she had a successful real estate career, too.
Once, my husband and I were reminiscing about favorite childhood meals when he confided that a lot of the time his mother would pick up a bucket of chicken for dinner. The chicken was a convenience; it had nothing to do with her cooking. In fact, she loved to cook and had many often requested recipes, but with children, a husband and a career, something had to give.
One day, she came across a fantastic real estate deal and that night, instead of bringing home a bucket of chicken, she surprised the family with a restaurant. It was there that I would first meet her, when I went looking for a job and she hired me.
Running a restaurant was far from an easy life, especially in the Louisiana summertime
when the temperature in the kitchen quickly topped 100º and the only breeze came from a rickety box fan set up in the window next to the stove. She took her spot next to that fan and from there, she ran the entire restaurant, working the fryers and frying pans and still managing to pop her head out to peek into the dining room, greeting and hugging customers and taking special orders.
Most all of the recipes on the menu were handed down. She cooked from the family hip–these were recipes that came to her from her mother and grandmother who learned them from their mothers and grandmothers.
Last Christmas, we received a copy of the family cookbook, a project that had been in the works for a little over five years. It included an assortment of family recipes and photos, but also photographed copies of old handwritten recipes that somewhere, someone had found, some so stained and worn, the print was barely legible. These were the old recipes, the ones that everyone already knew by heart, the ones we were all expected to make for special occasions and gatherings.
At one time, women were limited by societal rules, but by taking up their place in the kitchen, women were able to succeed in spite of the rules. Fannie Farmer, Julia Child, Edna Lewis and Marion Cunningham are truly iconic culinary idols to whom we owe a round of applause. But the real heroes are our own mothers and grandmothers who fed us well and passed on the family recipes.
Here’s one of my favorite family recipes. Make it, then pass it on.
Lil’s Pecan Pie Miniatures
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans
1. Preheat oven to 350º.
2. Mix cream cheese and butter until well-blended; add flour.
3. Chill dough for 1 hour.
4. Roll dough into 24 balls and press into mini pie tins or into mini muffin pan. Use your fingers to press out dough so it completely covers the whole tin/cup.
5. Mix together the brown sugar, butter, bourbon, egg, vanilla and salt until smooth.
6. Mix in the pecans.
7. Fill the prepared crusts with the filling.
8. Bake for 10-12 minutes.
9. When done, turn out on foil or wax paper upside down.
10. Let cool; store in an airtight container.