Monday, May 13

Women at Work: Wrapping up "Give Me Some Sugar"

Photo (and pie crust) by Emily Hilliard.
Writer, folklorist, and baker Emily Hilliard has been blogging for us this spring about Southern female pastry chefs. Here, she reflects on what she learned.

For the past 3 months, I’ve been talking with women pastry chefs from across the South for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s series "Give Me Some Sugar." One of the questions I asked each chef was how being a woman has informed—or hasn’t informed—her work. I asked this, fully understanding that the question has its problems (as described by this Eater piece that was published when I was working on the series), as it marks women as an “other” in the professional culinary world, where women chefs are no longer a rarity.

But I still wanted to ask the question. I knew some might feel indifferent, but also thought that particularly in the world of baking, a realm that at least in the home sphere is still commonly associated with women, that it might elicit some interesting responses. And though a few did laugh at the question, it evoked some powerful stories in others.

Table 310’s Stella Parks spoke of her disbelief in gendered flavors—how to her, ingredients like tobacco and bourbon don’t feel masculine, but instead feel “homey,” inciting her memories of growing up middle of a Kentucky tobacco field, a stone’s throw from the world’s most famous bourbon distillery.

Phoebe Lawless said that while she doesn’t feel like being a woman has necessarily informed her baking, being a mother certainly has. As a parent, she’s had to adjust her schedule to cook more meals at home and choose recipes that she can make with her 8-year old daughter—both of these factors have influenced her baking repertoire and the menu at Lawless’s Durham, NC, bakery, Scratch.

Many of the chefs I spoke to, including Cheryl Day, Christina Tosi, and Carla Cabrera-Tomasko, learned to bake at home from the matriarchs in their family. As adults, they professionalized these domestic skills they developed with their mothers and aunts and grandmothers, some supplementing them with formal culinary training.

I thought about how I might answer the same question when applied to my own work—as a writer or folklorist or home baker, and I realized that being a woman doesn’t affect how I write or research or bake, but it does inform in part why I do those things and what I chose to write and study and recognize. I believe it’s important to acknowledge the legacy of women’s work from past generations, whether in a field that was typically seen as feminine, or one that was always male-dominated. In my academic work and writing at Nothing-in-the-House, I seek to bring attention to the power of creative domestic skills not only within the home itself, but in the ability for those skills to transfer to and influence other public spheres—commercial, social, and communal.

Though women pastry chefs may no longer be a rarity or a marked category, there is something about preserving the memory of women’s contributions that I think is important. And the exciting thing about baking, is that we can make this memory manifest, as many of the chefs I interviewed do, in the form of baking our grandmother’s chocolate cake, using our mother’s lemon juicer, or carrying on the tradition of making something beautiful and delicious with what we have.