Do women have to actually like each other to be in a sisterhood, or do they just have to be people who work in the same industry? What’s frustrating about the article “The North Carolina Way: A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina” in last week’s New York Times
is not that it celebrates women-owned restaurants and food businesses in the state but that it feels it needs to call this arrangement a “sisterhood.”
That implies not just a happy coincidence of liberal thinking in what has traditionally been a male-dominated profession but also suggests an old-fashioned sorority of imagined camaraderie, of girls sharing lipstick and giggles. Here is a notion of kinship, a socio-cultural arrangement of relatives that, despite the existence of these same-sex businesswomen, does not exist in North Carolina.
The question I have is: In our progressive world, should it matter what lies beneath the apron of the people who make our food? Who is included and who is excluded from this so-called sisterhood?
What does the reporter Kim Severson want to prove in her article? That there’s a group of women seemingly running the culinary show here in North Carolina? If that’s the point, the women she chooses to feature—not incidentally, all of whom were previously mentioned in a similar story in the November issue of Walter magazine, which also coheres on the pleasant shock that women run their own kitchens and food businesses here in North Carolina—are a homogenous crew of middle-class white ladies with very ambitious agendas. (Disclosure: almost all of them are my acquaintances and a couple are good friends, and I am a middle-class white lady)
Where is Mildred Council, the first woman to own a restaurant in this state and an African-American, whose daughter and granddaughter run her world-famous Mama Dip’s
and who have pioneered a pipeline of prison-to-work rehabilitation in their restaurant kitchen? Where is Vimala Rajendran, the Bomaby, India, native whose namesake restaurant
is both an eatery and also a kind of community center where homeless folks can go to be fed any time, who also mentors young cooks in her kitchen every day?
Of course, no article can include every example of a phenomenon, and in producing more examples that Severson could (and should) have included in her coterie of what seems more like a snapshot of it-girls than an expression of feminist intent, I prove her point that this area is especially rich for women in the food business. The reason, clearly and smartly articulated by the great Southern food scholar Marcie Ferris, is that since this state hasn’t been a hotbed for male chefs women have been able to seize more jobs and opportunities than in other, larger, wealthier, less late to industrialize areas of the country and the world.
It is not because chefs like Vivian Howard, from the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,”
and Andrea Reusing, of Lantern in Chapel Hill (who Severson has written about for the Times
three times since 2011) first cooked in New York and then decided to bring their talents to a more agreeable market for all cooks, not just women.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was perhaps the first person to notice that the food world is a locus of a special kind of relationality. To Levi-Strauss, food is not a “mere commodity” but rather a means through which alliance is formed. The reciprocal exchanging of food, he says, enables relationships to “gain security and solidify.” To give and to receive food “serves the moral purpose of producing a friendly feeling.”
And, indeed it does. When we talk about food, we are seldom talking about food: Beyond the “friendly feeling” of the exchange, what’s at the heart of food as a subject is not simply something edible that may or may not taste good (although the product is there). When we talk about food, it’s never just what’s on the plate or growing on the tree or sitting inside the package: We are talking about race, sex, class, religion, power … all the important themes of human existence.
We are not living in a time in which a woman business owner is a surprising development. Yes, it is still harder for a woman to do this than for a man, for all the obvious reasons: Being a mother and a partner and a businessperson all at once is a very, very challenging row to hoe. Should we support their businesses more than others just because they’re female-owned? Maybe. Should we assume that these women are all friends and mentor one another just because they own food businesses, when, in fact, they compete for market share? Would we assume the same about men? Would we want to visit these women’s establishments any less if we discovered they harbored competitive feelings toward one another and were pretending to be buddies for the sake of a good story that might drive profits at their individual businesses (now that’s an intriguing, and—spoiler alert—true story that I’d like to read).
Levi-Strauss shows us the way that the giving and receiving of food can refer to power, influence, sympathy, status, and emotion—an exchange in every bite. When we exchange the idea of chefs, restaurateurs, and even farmers as an all-male’s club with Severson’s substitution of women in their place, we aren’t making the kind of exchange that suggests equality; we’re merely changing up a fraternity, if you will, for a sorority.
Instead, I would invoke the work of Clementine Paddleford, on whom I have written a biography
(which Andrea Reusing tested the recipes for), the country’s preeminent newspaper food reporter in the 1950s and 1960s who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune
: “Good food is good food wherever you find it.”
Let’s not seek to define our chefs by the traditional gender categories that have dogged and demeaned the profession: It was a boys’ club, now it’s a girls’ club, either way the same kind of exclusion is denoted. Let’s talk about what’s on the plate, and how we can improve its quality, instead of whether or not a dude made it. I’m not exactly saying it doesn’t matter who makes your food; I’m saying the identify politics of calling out a local sisterhood, whether it exists or not, is helpful neither to diners nor to women.
Kelly Alexander is the author of a best-selling barbecue cookbook, the winner of a James Beard Award for food journalism, and a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at Duke University.