Justice Among the Jell-O Recipes: The Feminist History of Food Journalism




WHEN MY NANI — my Sicilian-American grandmother — died, I inherited her sticky and stuffed-full recipe box. I knew this trove existed when I was young, yet I never recalled her checking a cookbook or a clipping for the Sunday dinners of my childhood in a small, upstate New York town. We were usually the first to arrive, and soon she and my mom would have a bubbling pot of gravy (red sauce) on the stove and a pot roast in the oven, along with numerous salads and side dishes that my aunts would help finish.

I had hoped the small chest contained the formula for seasoning her sauce and an ingredient list for her stuffed peppers. Instead I was surprised — and disappointed — to find a collection of recipes and articles snipped from the food section of newspapers starting around my mother’s birth in 1949. These recipes included boxed mixes that claimed to save time for working moms and “Asian” slaw that provided a peek into a different culture. The clippings had run in local newspapers alongside profiles of professional women or commentary on food prices, among other articles.

Only recently did I consider what these clippings might have represented for my Nani, who was born in the United States, but spent her childhood in Sicily, moving back here essentially as an immigrant. She would later manage the office and flight school of the small airport she and my grandfather opened after World War II as they raised three kids, both of them often having to take on second jobs to keep the airport and the family afloat. Nani was abreast of current events — writing letters to politicians and occasionally confronting them on the tarmac between campaign stops. She never taught her children Italian, and never showed her granddaughters how to cook. “You won’t need to,” she said. “You’ll be a lawyer, or the first woman president.”

But now, after delving into the history of food journalism, I understand that the food pages of newspapers, initially called “The Women’s Pages,” were probably some of the first feminist and intersectional writing my Nani ever read. Scholar Kimberly Voss writes in her history of women in food journalism that one of the first of these food sections was published by the Milwaukee Journal in November 1882. “Women and the Home — HER DAILY PAGE” mostly included recipes, such as for boiling corn beef or making a wine pudding sauce. Moving into the early 1900s, there were increasing examples nationwide, reflecting culinary trends of the time and particular region. And almost exclusively the journalists researching and writing these pages were women, extraordinary when so few women worked outside of the home, and fewer in professional roles.

While, of course, these newspapers more broadly reflected the sexism and racism of the time, these women-led sections contained burgeoning progressive thinking around the expansion of societal roles for women and minorities. In one example, Voss found that in 1915 the Picayune newspaper in New Orleans published Creole recipes that the editor said were passed down from Creole cooks themselves. This was among the first acknowledgments, in publications written by, and geared toward, white readers, emphasizing the validity and value of non-Eurocentric foodways and recognizing marginalized cooks as experts.

While women were the primary writers and editors of these pages, World War II brought even more women into journalism, and into a wider variety of news sections. When, after the war, male journalists returned to their previous roles, women who had been writing and editing more hard-hitting stories were often forced back into the women’s and food pages. Newly empowered, many of the women helming these departments by the end of the 1940s conceived of ways to evolve their coverage. Themes around women entering the workforce, grocery prices, wages, nutrition, food safety, and hunger seeped into the pages. Their efforts were largely ignored by — and their offices sometimes geographically distant from — other more “serious” sections of the newspaper. This de facto independence allowed many of the female editors — largely college educated with serious credentials — to have freedom over the topics they covered.

Articles from this time show an increasing acceptance of diverse cultures and ideas, support of issues important to readers of a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and deep engagement with politics. For example, my search of digital archives found that in addition to developing recipes, stories covered by Jane Nickerson, the largely forgotten food editor of The New York Times from 1942 to 1957, ranged from food histories to analysis of food prices, and even included a 1952 psychological study about how “food figures in the psychology of a middle-class housewife” and provides a sense of power over her household. From the start of her tenure, she also introduced readers to diverse cuisines: recipes for Indian, Jewish, and Creole dishes appeared alongside French-inspired foods and techniques that were considered the most sophisticated of the day. Nickerson’s radical editorial choices, commonplace in food sections today, helped grow acceptance of marginalized communities more broadly.

Jeanne Voltz, food editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1960 to 1973, was another influential woman in the industry. The archives show that under her direction, the section brought attention to world hunger, extended investigative journalism into issues of food safety, and showcased a Mexican party menu provided by Oswaldo Llorens, manager of the popular local restaurant Senior Pico. And these are just a few of the examples of the vast breadth of coverage by women from the hundreds of food sections that existed in US print media by 1950.

Yet while there were nods to a larger community of readers, and increasing articles around diverse food cultures, there was a stark lack of people of color among newspaper staffers, and few, if any, articles in major newspapers were written from marginalized perspectives. Thus, from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s — and, to a lesser degree, to today — newspapers published by and for a black audience provided some of the news, stories, and perspectives missing from the more mainstream papers that focused on a middle-class and white audience. These newspapers include the New York Amsterdam News, which began in 1909 and is still in publication, and which also had women’s pages where female journalists were able to set a progressive agenda. In the years that Betty Granger oversaw the section, I found football tailgating menus as well as more political topics such as Civil Rights–era boycotts. In 1970, she was promoted to managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News. Today, she’s considered a groundbreaking, if often unsung, journalist of her time.

Among the publications directed toward a black audience, Ebony was, perhaps, the publication with the broadest reach and most progressive agenda — which the food section helped propel. Freda DeKnight was hired in 1946 as the magazine’s first food editor, famously recruited after cooking publisher John H. Johnson an elaborate dinner in Chicago when the original chef had taken ill. Her role was to include food coverage among the magazine’s hard news, ranging in subject matter from the effects of drug use on impoverished populations to profiles of successful black businessmen and -women. Among this serious journalism, DeKnight thoughtfully included spreads of black cultural icons — of both genders — dressed to the nines serving elevated soul food and international cuisine for party guests, essentially demonstrating that black home cooks and chefs were highly skilled and admirable.

Within months of DeKnight’s arrival, stacks of letters began piling up from readers praising this new food and lifestyle coverage. It was important in that it was among the first to model cooking for pleasure for a black audience, to present traditional Southern dishes as worthy of the dinner party, and to encourage more men to cook. In a 1947 spread, Nat King Cole is shown in a bow tie hosting a New Year’s Eve party, with tamale pie and punch, served in a crystal bowl. Another feature has Lena Horne sharing an Indian curry recipe. DeKnight expanded to more substantive food-related articles as well, much like her newspaper counterparts. But she is perhaps best remembered for authoring A Date with a Dish, considered one of the first major cookbooks written by and for an African-American audience.

Sadly, DeKnight died of cancer in 1963, and as food coverage grew in popularity into the late ’60s and early ’70s, its hard-won success, in some ways, reduced these pioneering women editors to footnotes. Many of the sections developed into larger “Style” or “Lifestyle” sections with more prestige, and more men began writing about food. At the same time, articles that featured women as the family cook came under fire by second-wave feminists. Today, almost all of the major food periodicals and newspaper sections are helmed by men. So, it’s not surprising that the role of women in the birth of food journalism — a realm they almost exclusively controlled for more than half a century — has been largely erased.

In 2009, the New School hosted a retrospective panel — which included renowned modern female food writers — that was titled “Craig Claiborne and the Invention of Food Journalism.” Obviously, food journalism had been around — and widely popular — for generations before Claiborne started in 1957 as the first male food editor of The New York Times. Of his qualifications for the role, Saveur magazine lists “observing his mother in the kitchen, traveling to Asia and Africa during his time in the navy, and studying at the École Hoteliere in Lausanne, Switzerland” — hands-on experience, travel, and education — all of which most women who held similar roles before him possessed.

There was no mention that Claiborne only had a section to helm because Jane Nickerson had been growing it for years before him. And when Betty Fussell claimed that Claiborne changed reader’s perception of food in the home through his leadership, perhaps she really meant that men were more likely to listen to another man about the joys of cooking.

These early food pages weren’t perfect — there was more than a little man-pleasing advice and a distinct lack of cultural and economic diversity, both in the newsrooms and on the pages. Yet the food pages were among the first public, published places women could begin to reframe their role in society, find agency in political conversations, and highlight issues they found important. Those who do remember these early decades of food writing often dismiss it as a forum where housewives shared recipes or shopping tips, but this ignores the major cultural shifts the coverage pushed. I dismissed my Nani’s box of clippings with the same limited perspective.

I’m sorry I can’t ask about the personal significance that decades’ worth of recipes and articles had for her. Perhaps it was a reminder that she belonged in the office, as well as the kitchen — that her daughter and, later, granddaughters would have many more options than she felt she had. But whatever it was that she gained, she, and millions of other women, thought that message was worth saving.

¤

Suzanne Cope is a narrative journalist and food studies scholar.


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