Erasing Women from Culinary History
This essay was first published on February 9, 2015. I'd been out of writing school for less than a year. In usual fashion, I put it up on the blog after a late night of writing. I was feeling low—my work seemed to be landing in a void, and I was questioning my purpose.
When I woke the following day, my social media feeds were buzzing. While I was sleeping, Francis Lam, then at the New York Times, had shared my essay on Twitter. He called the writing "terrific." It was exhilarating surfing his influence. The universe had sent me a message.
I debated revising the essay—for reasons you may understand—but decided to leave it mostly unchanged.
I taught young women and men destined for culinary careers for more than 15 years. I had a passion for one subject some of my colleagues lacked. I loved teaching food theory. In an introductory course, two of a total of 28 hours was assigned to culinary history—a paltry allotment. The squeeze forced me to leap and careen through evolution.
Because I studied independently, I soon realized some of what I was passing on was suffering from its Western orientation. Through Susan Pinkard's A Revolution in Taste, I came to understand that Catherine de Medici's role in the evolution of haute cuisine was overstated. Pinkard calls it "one of the evergreen myths of culinary history."2 The fork did not spring from Catherine's hand, nor was it evidence of Italian superiority at the table. Instead, it points to the trade ties Italy had with the East. The fork came from Byzantium. Other innovations like ices and sorbets came from Persia. Catherine de Medici was a carrier between the East and West.
I loved seeing this truth light up in the faces of my students of Turkish and Persian descent. It was a lesson in the benefits of inclusion. A realization began to take shape in me that our culinary culture could benefit from more truth-seeking and telling.
I usually inventoried the chefs who made vital contributions—Apicius, Careme, Escoffier, Fernand Point, and Paul Bocuse. French-trained, I'd inherited immense respect for a few of these figures. But I was mostly asleep and repeating by rote the things I'd been taught and deemed to be true. The exclusivity of this version of history was slow to dawn on me.
That changed in my early 40s when I discovered chef Eugénie Brazier. Her achievements surpassed those of Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse, and her absence from history demonstrates our perverse cultural bias to celebrate only the accomplishments of white European males.
How is it possible that a woman we've never heard of could outshine the likes of Paul Bocuse? Using the French measuring stick of Michelin, Brazier was one of two women awarded three Michelin stars in 1933 and the first chef to hold six stars—three stars for each of her restaurants in Lyon and Col de la Luère. Her six-star reign lasted from 1939 until Alain Ducasse exceeded it with nine in 2005. That's sixty-six years.
Paul Bocuse never held six Michelin stars, nor did Fernand Point. She's keeping company with chefs like Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. In his forward to the book, La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking, Paul Bocuse, writes that Eugénie Brazier, "remains one of the pillars of global gastronomy (who) taught all of us about flavors and gave us a taste for hard work and work well done. There would have been no success for any of us without her, something we often forget these days." 3
But Paul Bocuse gives us an excellent example of just how this kind of forgetting happens. His attitude toward women in professional kitchens was no secret. We shrug off as French idiosyncrasy his refusal to employ women until his death in 2018. (Ironic, given his namesake school in Ecully, France benefits immensely from the tuition of many female culinary students.)
In the Lyon episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, Bocuse shows his unseemly bias when speaking of his first mentor. Early in the episode, tribute is paid to Brazier, but when Bourdain and Daniel Boulud are in Bocuse's presence at his restaurant, she is dealt a fatal blow. When asked what he remembered about her, his only comment was about her temper—nothing about the early skills she imparted, about a cuisine that won the highest level of gastronomic approval or her Michelin achievements. Bourdain closed the subject by characterizing her as a "truly terrifying figure."4 Three esteemed male chefs feasting on the remains of a woman with incredible talent. How I wish that scene had been left on the editing room floor.
How is it that Paul Bocuse is celebrated for cuisine that didn't evolve in more than forty years while nothing is said of Brazier's cooking? Are we to believe that Bocuse never raised his voice or pushed an apprentice hard? Are we to assume that what happened in chef Brazier's kitchen has never occurred in a Michelin three-star kitchen? I spent six weeks in a Michelin two-star restaurant on the Cote d'Azur, and on most nights, I could see the chef's tonsils clear across the kitchen from the pass.
When does it stop being okay to degrade an esteemed contribution because a woman makes it?
In the compressed culinary history I delivered to students, Catherine de Medici was the only woman of significance clear through to the 1970s when Alice Waters and Julia Child came along. Eugénie Brazier was not there. And we didn't see our culinary history as diminished by her omission.
What is the danger in celebrating her? If we can so easily paint such an accomplished woman out of our history, who else might be missing? Are we afraid that armed with this knowledge, young women might build more ambitious professional lives?
The real lesson I was inadvertently imparting to the young women and men who sat in my classes, carrying all the enthusiasm of a brand new career, was that women did not contribute significantly to culinary history. That pains me. Charged with advancing the minds of a young generation, I accepted this biased view and passed it on without question. I'm also relieved that my curiosity and desire to learn led me to a richer and truer understanding.
I want young cooks to know that this canned version of culinary history, where only men lead, is a half-truth. It's a fictionalized account not worth learning. Brazier's accomplishments challenge the idea that white European males have done most of what is important or distinctive in culinary culture. Bourdain, Boulud, and Bocuse demonstrate that the achievement of white European males rests mainly in their ability to muscle a particular version of events into the books. It's well past the time for an inclusive history to be written. Let's begin with the message we deliver to our young.
1.Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. (Massachusetts: Wellesley College, 1988)
2. Susan Pinkard. A Revolution in Taste. The Rise of French Cuisine. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009) p. 30
3. Drew Smith trans. La Mère Brazier. The Mother of Modern French Cooking. (New York: Rizzoli, 2014) pp. 6 — 7
4. Lyon. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Season Three. Episode Three. Sunday April 27, 2014.
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