Reviving Women’s Lives through Cookbooks

June 19, 2008

I wrote a post recently about Carol and her dread of cooking. This was from a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. As I’ve continued reading this book, I just have to comment further.

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily detailed examination of, well, as the subtitle indicates – unearthing and resurrecting women’s lives and social surroundings through a detailed examination of various cookbooks. It’s not as boring or far-fetched as I may have made it sound, here. That little synopsis just simply doesn’t do it justice.

What Theophano does is to go far beyond the mere printed words on the page, to examine the ways cookbooks link multiple generations of women (heirlooms); how cookbooks also serve as guidebooks to womanly and wifely duties and decorum; how cookbooks were a way to gain or promote literacy among women; and how cookbooks, through the exchange and gathering of recipes, are a communal activity – and therefore can reveal a myriad of social interactions which often crossed boundaries of race and class which were otherwise insurmountable, given the time and place of their writing.

I am truly impressed with Theophano’s versatile range and analysis, and her ability to shed light on women’s lives and culture through this method. She is truly talented in the way she brings these women back to life, through something that on the surface seems so ordinary and mundane – a cookbook. And many of the women discussed in the book are otherwise obscure or unknown – simply everyday ordinary women. Now and then, there is a prominent authoress or lordly lady, but by and large, most are ordinary women.

I’m certain that my poor attempt to convey the drama and interest of this book falls short, but if you are interested in learning more about our foremothers, the history of home cookery, or general women’s studies, this is one not to miss!

©2008 writingreading

Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #1 – Ada Byron

May 5, 2008

I suspect there will be more of these, so I might as well start numbering them now.

Since blogging and technology were on my mind, I picked up a book today called: Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology by Howard Rheingold. I don’t usually read much in this vein, but it seemed interesting, and the one chapter that really caught my eye and made me want to read it was: “The First Programmer Was a Lady.” I fully expected it to be about “mothers” – the original programmers!

Well, he was actually serious. She really was a Lady – in the grand old British tradition. Today I learned about Lady Lovelace, also known as Augusta Ada Byron, a British belle of the early 1800s, famous in her own right as the daughter of the dissipated but suave poet, Lord Byron.

As a teenager, she saw Charles Babbage, and his “Difference Engine,” an early calculator of sorts. Ada helped Babbage develop his “Analytical Engine” – the first real computer, using French punchcards from the textile industry to drive its calculations. Babbage himself said she understood its workings better than he did, and her ability to explain it to others was far superior to his expository skills. (Babbage was known for his irascible temper, eccentric nature, and his hatred of organ grinders). It never was completed, however, although her work on the project – especially using punch cards to perform repetitive functions and calculations, makes her the first computer programmer. The irony of a female mathematician and scientist adapting and using items from the textile industry – “women’s work” traditionally being sewing and clothing – as well as mill work – is also a delightful turn.

I’m no scientist, and can’t add two two-digit numbers without a calculator, so I may have gotten some of my facts a little confused in my summary – but what impressed me most was – Where was Lady Lovelace (Ada Byron) during all of my school years? If I had had her as a role model – who knows where I might be? (bet I wouldn’t need my calculator nearly as much!) The only women I ever remember reading about all through my public schooling were: Madame Curie, Harriet Tubman, and maybe Clara Barton. I think Dolly Madison might have been in there, too, though I always assumed she was just a cook who made tasty treats for Charles Shultz’s Peanuts gang. There simply were no women in history, until, apparently, the 1980s or so.

My generation missed out, but today’s generation doesn’t have to. Young girls need more role models like Ada Byron, today as much as ever. Remember her, the next time Charles Babbage is held up for inventing the computer. As we all know from the deceased computers that clutter our offices and landfills now – a computer without the programs/software to run it – is just a box.

©2008 writingreading