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I Am Woman, Hear Me Whisk: A Short List of Cookbooks
Review by: Kim Wells

December 2004

You know the song-- the anthem of "women's libbers" of the 1970s who demanded all the equal rights we third waver feminists are so glad to have today:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an'  pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before

now here's my version:

I am woman hear me whisk
I can even make a bisque,
and if know just how to throw a dinner party,
while plotting to overthrow patriarchy....

Second wave feminists abandoned much that had been considered traditionally "female" work-- pantyhose, make up, getting the coffee, cooking, staying at home to be a mom. They had a right, and the abandonment of these bits of "women's work" was really a starting point at making the world realize that nothing outside of literal biology is inherently male or female. But third wavers, like myself, have begun to tentatively reclaim some of those skills that the modern superwoman gave up as not being part of her liberated life. It's a lot of fun to imagine a political agenda combined with ways to get smeared mascara out of your great new white blouse. So third wavers are exploring uncharted territory: things once called "food and stuff" combined with the choice of defining it as "your" stuff too.

One of my biggest things is that I absolutely love to cook. friends call me their Martha Stewart, or a domestic goddess. These same friends never hesitate to come over if I'm cooking and need more mouths for the recipe that "serves six" instead of my husband and my "not another leftover" "serves two." The most complicated recipe I remember my mother (a relatively radical feminist of her day in many ways) cooking was a version of Beef Burgundy that substituted the red wine for beer. So I figure that being a kitchen queen is my way of choosing a path that previously would not have been identified with feminist.

I think that many women would like to learn to cook, and/or teach themselves, but nowadays who takes Home Ec? Is it even an option in the high schools anymore? I know when I was in high school we scoffed at the idea, but today I think cooking is something that is as much an art as music or dance or painting... anyone can nuke some hamburger helper, but can you bake a cherry pie, danni girl? Mothers don't always teach this anymore, having rejected the kitchen as a patriarchal trap years ago-- so it's up to us to figure it out. Are you a Martha Stewart type of cook or an Emeril Lagasse type? Julia Childs? How about Justin Wilson? The Naked Chef, perhaps?

So in the interest of passing on over ten years of figuring this out for myself for the past ten years, I'm publishing a short list of my favorite cook books, and the reasons why I like them. I do recommend whenever possible getting them in hardback because cookbooks can really take a beating, and I have found paperback cookbooks to be not worth the few dollars cheaper they are. Start easy, but give it a try-- the whole point of feminism, as I keep stressing over and over again, is the CHOICE to do one thing or another. Recipes really are simple to follow if you don't start with Gourmet (an expert level cookbook if there ever was one). All of the cookbooks I recommend have clear, specific recipes, directions that are easy to decipher, and relatively simple ingredient lists. They usually feature pictures, and often have lists of the essential things you should have to be prepared for every eventuality. I either own the book or have bought it for others--you can come and check my bookshelf if you don't trust me on this one.

Don't let the lack of experience limit you to fast food take out and the massive aerobic debt that causes. If you've seen the movie "Supersize Me" you know how much eating out is killing us. Cooking a good dinner from scratch (or almost) is cheaper, and better for you.

Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!

"I had always known of the existence of the kitchen," begins Kevin Mills. "It was the room with the fridge in it. As for cooking, it was somebody else's problem. It was Mom's."

This cookbook is one that I've bought for a number of friends who wanted to cook but didn't think they could do it. and this book lists about 100 easy-to-make beginner level recipes that can get you cooking in no time. One feature that I really like is the list of things to have on hand so you won't starve (other than cans of spagettios, mind you). The only real drawback is that it doesn't have pictures-- which is something that helps a beginning cook understand table settings & the all important "it ought to look appetizing" principle of cookery. As much as I hate the intro there that says "cooking was someone else's problem-- Mom's" which sort of implies something about this book being for the starving bachelor, I do think that it hits on the fact that even today there is this idea that cooking is not something that young people learn and do.

The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
Julie Fisher Gunter & Kaye Mabry Adams

Southern Living, the penultimate magazine for those who have a hankering to know when to plant their magnolias if they live in the Deep South or Coastal South (etc) is a great source for easy-to-make recipes. They aren't all chitterlings and cornbread, though, so don't think that southern food is all fried... these cookbooks are great because they are often quite practical-- they list as ingredients such easy-to-get and understand things as "a small bag of frozen corn" or "a can of black beans." Yes, there are some more complicated recipes included with the easier ones, so you'll want to carefully review the recipe before inviting your entire group of friends over. But there are great pictures and menus, and lots of practice. This is the cookbook that I started with and still reference all the time.

With Heart & Soul : Recipes
by Among Friends, Roxie Kelley, Shelly Reeves Smith (Illustrator)

The Among Friends people put together cookbooks that are pretty and whose recipes are great for almost all skill levels. I almost always use a little bit less sugar than the dessert recipes call for (two cups of sugar in a brownie recipe really is a little overkill-- cut out about a half a cup and save the calories for ice cream). These cookbooks are great as gifts because they are smaller, have a lovely "greeting card" esque feel to them. When I first got my first one (a gift from a great friend) I was a little afraid to use it for fear of gunking it up with chocolate & flour, but they have held up fairly well over the years.

The New Joy of Cooking
by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker, la Maestro, Laura Hartman Maestro (Illustrator), Maria D. Guarnaschelli (Introduction)

Joy of Cooking is the ultimate reference book for cooks of almost any skill level. Some of the recipes are hard-- but they tell you in advance how to do it, the principles behind, say, blanching vegetables, and are very well organized. The new version of this cookbook has more cosmopolitan recipes, has deleted some of the old "midwest housewife" standards like tuna casserole. I personally own an old version (from the 1970's) and would recommend getting both versions to supplement each other (you can easily get an old version at a used book store). The old version does tend to make some things more complicated than the modern cook might like-- using a double boiler instead of the microwave to melt chocolate for a recipe is harder-- but sometimes it does work better.

The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
by Cathy A. Wesler

Finally, I usually go for light recipes nowadays. They aren't really "diet" because they do have fat, they do have sugar. But they are lighter versions of a lot of old clasics, and you can really enjoy Cooking Light's interpretation of the recipes you're used to. I subscribe to the magazine, which also gets me access to their website. When I'm in the mood for something, I go to the site and type in some ingredients, and usually print off the recipe to add to my collection. You can also get reader reviews on the website, so it's worth subscribing just for that reason. But you can stick to the old-fashioned cookbook format too.


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