The F Words: Food & Feminism

the f words

Welcome to The F Words, where our mission is to share the stories of remarkable women through food, to explore the ways food binds us to one another in the present - as well as to generations past - and to do all of this without dismissing the complicated relationship second- and third-wave feminist women have to the kitchen and cooking.

My name is Meg, and I'll be your guide on the (assuredly) delicious, (definitely) exciting and (potentially) thorny journey. If you're friends with my mom, you might know me as Queenie, author of the food and travel blog Queenie Takes Manhattan. If not, hi! It's awesome to meet you.

I write an awful lot about food - and sometimes even more about Bourbon - on my blog, but I rarely touch on one of my other great passions: feminism. It's not because I'm scared of the word, it's just that feminism can be a tough thing to bring up in a food-centric context. I'm far past the point of thinking that feminists should shun the kitchen because of its associations with enforced domesticity and limited options, but I'm also not always entirely sure of how to articulate how I feel about the intersection of cooking and my feminist ideals. I think it's time to see if other people can help - and to prove true to my roots, I say we get them to give us some recipes, too.

To make sure my victims - I mean, interview subjects - know there's nothing to be scared of, I'll go first. But I promise that some seriously exciting, brilliant women will grace this space in weeks to come. In the meantime, let's hit it.

Tell us a bit about your day job. I work in user research and experience design, which basically means I ask people questions about what they want and need and tell their stories to other people all day long. On a good day, that is.

How did you learn to cook? Oh, gosh - in all sorts of ways. I grew up surrounded by people who love food, especially my mom and my au pair. We ate out quite a bit, but Mom and Lori were also both great cooks. Snack food was at a minimum; if you wanted something to eat, you had to make it yourself, so I mastered chocolate chip cookies at an unnaturally young age. My grandmother, Nonie, taught me how to bake pies, and I figured most of the rest of it out (including the savory side of things) when I moved into my first apartment after college. I remember calling my mom to find out how to cook meat in an oven - I’d mostly learned how to grill things like steak or chicken, and had no idea how to roast anything.

Do you prefer to cook alone, or with friends or family? Either alone, or with close friends or family - but really, I can cook with anyone who isn’t too much of a control freak. If I’m preparing a meal with someone else, I like it to be with someone who isn’t going to be looking over my shoulder the whole time. I love to cook with my best friend, Louisa. We have a pretty awesome rhythm when we’re together in the kitchen.

What's your favorite thing to make? Depends on the day - and the season - but I always find it really satisfying to make a stand-out dessert, like a gorgeous chocolate cake or a blueberry pie in the height of summer.

If you had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of your life, which would it be? Probably either Vietnamese or French - baguettes and strong coffee are common themes, you’ll note.

What recipe, cuisine or technique scares the crap out of you? Chinese food. So many new techniques and combinations to learn about, if you want to do it right. I need to find someone to coach me through it.

How do you think your relationships with your family have affected your relationship to food and cooking? My family is seriously into food. My mom is a great cook, but she also loves to dine out, and I feel really lucky to have eaten so many amazing meals even before I could (legally) drink the wine that came along with. I grew up with an appreciation of fine dining and simple, home-cooked food - the only food snobbery I know is a disdain for stuff that tastes bad. I also grew up with divorced parents, and my mom was single until just recently. That meant that - starting sometime in late adolescence - my brother and I had to fend for ourselves at dinnertime fairly often. I started us off with grilled chicken, salad, and Uncle Ben's wild rice (that spice mix was amazing), then graduated to stir fries, and, eventually, homemade pies. My brother was - and is - in charge of eggs.

Even today, home cooking is strongly associated with women's traditional place in the family and society. How do you reconcile your own love of the kitchen with your outlook on gender roles? I’m a single woman who lives alone (and loves it), so when I cook for other people, it’s entirely by choice. And when it comes to cooking, I'm pretty much a choose-your-choice feminist. (That isn't the case for all things, but we can talk about that in another piece sometime.) If a woman cooks, it's not an anti-feminist act. And if a woman doesn't choose to cook, it doesn't make her a better feminist. People should do what works for them, whether that's ordering in, taking out or having another member of the household do the whole thing. Someone assuming I should cook because I'm a woman, though - that's not okay.

That said, I actually think that home cooking is less fraught these days than the professional culinary world, where women are still actively encouraged to follow the (traditionally less prestigious) pastry track. While most (not all - you know who you are, slackers) hetero couples I know share kitchen duty (either cooking together or trading off cooking and cleaning), cooking for money and acclaim is still primarily thought of as men’s work. Which drives me crazy, for the record. When a woman does it, it's considered routine and expected. When a man does it, it's worthy of applause and statues. Step. Off.

Tell us a bit about the recipe you're sharing. When did you first make it, and why? What do you love about it? This is my brother’s favorite cake. I tend to gravitate more toward fruit desserts, especially in summer when peaches, plums, berries and the like are in season. My brother? Not so much. I mean, he won't turn down a strawberry-rhubarb tart, and he loves apple pie at Thanksgiving, but when it's up to him, it's going to be chocolate. And so even though his birthday is smack in the middle of July, I bake this cake for him, because I am an awesome sister.

It’s chocolate-on-chocolate, with a little bit of coffee thrown in to bring out the flavor of all that - you guessed it - chocolate. It’s also super crazy easy, which isn’t always true of cakes. It’s based on Ina Garten’s chocolate cake recipe; I’ve tweaked it a bit - notably by adding more coffee - but the luxurious simplicity (the thing I aim for most in my own cooking) is the Barefoot Contessa at her finest.

Perfect Chocolate Cake Adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home

For the cake: Butter, for greasing the pans 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans 2 cups sugar 3/4 cup good cocoa powder 2 tsp. baking soda 1 tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. kosher salt 1 cup buttermilk, shaken 1/2 cup vegetable oil 2 eggs, at room temperature 1 teaspoon good vanilla extract 1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

For the buttercream frosting: 6 ounces semisweet chocolate (I use Guittard!) 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature 1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Make the cake: Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 2 round cake pans (8- or 9-inch both work.). Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the salt and mix on low speed until combined.

In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low, gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry. Add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the sides & bottom of the bowl with a spatula.

Divide the batter evenly between the pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, swapping pans from top to bottom about halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack (parchment paper side down) and cool completely.

Make the frosting: Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes.

Turn the mixer down to low, and gradually add the confectioners' sugar. Beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of very hot tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended - but don't whip! Now you're ready to frost!

Frost the cake: Peel off the parchment paper from both layers and place 1 cake layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting (steps for making it are below) evenly on the top and sides of the cake.