Is Baking Feminist?
Life in post-1994 South Africa can be very strange. Yesterday morning my friend Ester and I went to the National Gallery’s retrospective on…Tretchikoff. Yes, apartheid South Africa’s favourite producer of kitsch, bad, and, occasionally, bizarre artwork has earned himself a serious exhibition and re-evaluation. As far as I can see, his sole redeeming feature was his consistency: Vladimir Tretchikoff was never mediocre, but always uniformly, consistently, bad.
But on our way into the Gallery, we came across Cape Town’s first experiment in yarn bombing. This is a form of graffiti or street art where knitting and other needlework is used to decorate public spaces. Statues get scarves; railings are covered in woolly tubes; and trees are festooned with crafty baubles.
Yarn bombing is now a global phenomenon, and it’s part of a broader craft movement which seeks to celebrate, promote, and often re-learn hobbies like knitting, crotchet, and tatting. Stitch and Bitch societies – founded originally in the United States – can be found now in nearly every major city, and knitting is particularly hip. Much of this is given a feminist spin. It’s an attempt to reclaim activities once derided as unimportant because they were performed largely by women. Some craftivists make the – legitimate – point that suffragettes used embroidery, tapestry, and quilting to create banners and to raise funds for their cause.
Baking is the less applauded of the cooking arts, whereas restaurants are a male province to be celebrated. There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female.
She added that How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000), the recipe book which kick started both her career and the British enthusiasm for cupcakes, is an ‘important feminist tract’. Now if this is the case – and I write this as one whose copy is scuffed, stained, and torn from extensive use – then I am a three-toed sloth. But her point that baking is seen as a particularly feminine, and, as a result of this, frivolous, pursuit is worth considering. In fact, professional cake-baking seems to be dominated by women: most pastry chefs are female. Restaurant cooking and bread baking are largely a male preserve, and are seen as more serious, complex, and creative activities.
But feminists are not the first women to celebrate baking and home cooking as part of the construction of particular femininities. However much money suffragettes may have raised with their needlework, even larger numbers of women organised tea parties and sold cakes, cookies, and delicately embroidered goods at fetes and bazaars to support missionary work and other more conservative causes. In 1881, the Huguenot Seminary, an elite girls’ school near Cape Town in the Cape Colony, organised a bazaar selling cake and embroidery and raised enough to fund a year’s rent and living expenses for a woman missionary working on a Dutch Reformed mission station in the Transvaal.
Baking has been used by different women at different times to mean many things. What is so interesting about the recent rediscovery of baking (and knitting too, for that matter) is that it’s been embraced enthusiastically by young, educated, middle-class women. I think that this is the product of a variety of factors: the impact of a resurgent green movement and the global economic recession have encouraged a rediscovery of craft and cooking both to save money and to reduce our impact on the environment; young fashion designers and cooks’ interest in knitting and baking have made these fashionable pursuits and rendered ‘make-do-and-mend’ cool; the impact of television series like Mad Men have prompted a (hopefully ironic) re-embrace of domesticity; and this is also a reaction to the feminism of the 1970s which rejected traditionally feminine pursuits because of their connection to women’s subordination.
And here is a crucial point: middle-class women now have no need to bake or to knit. These are leisure activities, to be done in the evenings and over weekends. We forget that until relatively recently in the West, most women baked and sewed not out of choice, but because they had to: because shop-bought cakes and clothes were expensive. One of my maternal great-grandmothers was a seamstress because that was deemed to be an appropriate trade for a white, lower middle-class adolescent in pre-War Cape Town. But my very bourgeois paternal grandmother employed a cook, nanny, and maidservant to do her domestic work for her – as indeed her mother had done too.
I don’t know what my great grandmother would have made of yarn bombing, nor of the slow gentrification of the Cape Town suburb in which she lived for most of her life. Woodstock, recently dubbed ‘Cape Town’s Manhattan’ by the New York Times, is being gradually transformed into a hip, middle-class enclave. And baking is an aspect of this transformation.
She’s not the first to do this. Kathe Newman has argued that ‘cupcake shops can provide a more accurate and timely guide to the frontiers of urban gentrification than traditional demographic and real estate data sets.’ This is certainly true for Cape Town. The very traumatic gentrification of parts of the Bo-Kaap or Malay Quarter – where families were forced to move out of houses which they had rented for generations – was signalled by the arrival of upscale bakeries. In Woodstock, where gentrification seems to be proceeding at a slower pace and without the fracturing of existing communities, bakeries and cafes have begun to appear along the main road and near the Neighbourgoods Market, that ultimate expression of Capetonian cool.
In the city’s eastern precinct – the district which stretches from Parliament at the top of Roeland Street and all the way to the Cape Archives – people have been lured out of their cars and onto pavements first by Charly’s Bakery, and then by Mugged on Roeland Street (ho ho), and the coffee- and cupcake-selling Book Lounge. When I first started working at the Archives in 2005 for my MA thesis, the furthest I would go for lunch was to dash across the parking lot to a slightly dodgy sandwich shop. I returned in 2008 while researching my PhD, and could choose between at least five different places to eat – and felt safe to walk to all them.
As one commentator notes, it’s because cupcakes and cake shops are fashionable at the moment that we can use them as an indicator of gentrification:
In the 1990s, it might have been the proliferation of Starbucks coffee houses that indicated gentrifying neighbourhoods, and in the 1980s, perhaps gourmet yoghurt shops moving into an area, etc. I don’t know about other cities, but in NYC where I live, right now it would be the new doggie day care centres that are springing up in many places that appear to designate a change to a more affluent, up-and-coming hipster-ish nabe.
The point remains that cupcakes have been embraced with enthusiasm by middle-class women and have been implicated in the creation of contemporary middle class femininities. Activities once performed by women out of necessity have been transformed into hobbies – and because of middle-class buying power, cake shops and cupcake bakeries are now involved in the gentrification of poor, often crime-ridden neighbourhoods.
I am not suggesting, to paraphrase Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, that I can’t eat a cupcake without commenting on the appalling working conditions in the icing sugar industry. I understand how fraught and disruptive processes of gentrification can be, but I really enjoy being able to walk down main road Woodstock to buy coffee and cake at The Kitchen. And I think that it’s fantastic that so many cake shops and cafes are run by women, and I’m so pleased that the craft movement is reviving and remembering skills which were at risk of being forgotten.
But I do think we need some perspective. Our enthusiasm for cupcakes and cakes is helping to fuel gentrification of poor neighbourhoods – and we need to think carefully about the implications of this. As my friend Shahpar pointed out a few weeks ago, cupcakes are snack food for Dhaka’s busy street vendors. In other words, cakes and baking mean different things all over the world. Cakes, cupcakes, and baking can only be associated with feminism for white, affluent middle-class women. Baking a tray of cupcakes may be a subversive, feminist act for me, but it’s a well nigh impossible one for a woman living in Gugulethu.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.