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Posts tagged ‘suffragette movement’

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.

A yarn-bombed lamp in Hay-on-Wye

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 has undergone a similar transformation. At the Hay Festival a fortnight ago, Nigella Lawson argued:

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.

I agree.

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.

The yarn-bombed National Gallery in Cape Town

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.

This map drawn by UC Berkeley student Danya Al-Saleh plots the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District through bakeries. (See here for a bigger version.)

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.

More yarn bombing at the National Gallery in Cape Town

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.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Ladyfood

Like all fashions, food fads are by their nature transient. The Atkins diet enjoyed a mercifully brief vogue during the early 2000s; and in 1997 Britain’s supply of cranberries was totally depleted when Delia Smith cooked with them in that year’s Christmas special for her television series. (Something similar happened when Nigella Lawson professed a weakness for frozen peas. Truly, the British are mad.)

Inevitably, after a surge in popularity, these diets or ingredients are either dropped or supplanted by new fashions, or incorporated into our diets to such an extent that we wonder why we were ever so mad about them in the first place (I think of sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, smoked paprika….). It’s not often, though, that people declare themselves ‘sick’ of a particular product – or ask that there be a ‘backlash’ against it. But this has happened, and also fairly recently.

In the past fortnight or so I’ve read a range of articles calling for an end to…cupcakes. Yes, this most mini member of the cake family seems to be facing a kind of culinary doom. But why? What could be so appalling about a dab of Victoria sponge topped with either royal icing, or a blob of butter cream? They were the first cakes my sister and I baked on our own, and I made some last week for an indoor birthday picnic.

Valentine Warner writes in this month’s Delicious:

My assistant brought a pretty blue tin into work the other day and sweetly said, ‘This is for you.’ I prized open the lid and had to disguise my flaring nostrils. Cupcake alert! Feeling the need to be polite, I reached in gingerly, wondering why I feel so unkind towards this fancy spongy hell-spawn.

In the recent tenth anniversary edition of Observer Food Monthly, an article lists the top ten food trends of the past decade. Among its five worst are supermarket vegetable boxes (a genuinely daft idea, I agree) and cupcakes. Why? Because ‘these twee treats have had their day.’ Are cupcakes really as bad as genetically modified food – another of the Observer’s five worst food trends since 2001?

I think that it’s worth thinking about the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby. Food, as I have noted before, represents considerably more than simply nourishment. We attach a range of assumptions, prejudices, and meanings to food. These change over time and vary according to context, but remain a potent influence over how – and what – we eat. Importantly, they also shape our identities: food contributes to the construction of national, social, racial, and gendered identities. Cupcakes aren’t simply cupcakes. They are more than sponge cake and icing.

Cupcakes were not always fashionable. Warner writes:

Cupcakes aren’t exactly new. Most of us ate a paddling pool full of them between the ages of five and 10. They were party cakes whose function was twofold: half to be eaten and half to be smeared over the car on the way home.

I know exactly what he means. When I was a little girl in Paarl in the late 1980s and early 90s, cupcakes – or fairy cakes as we tended to call them – were birthday party food. They were dyed pink and lilac to go with our fairy dresses and decorated liberally with hundreds and thousands, glace cherries, silver balls, and whatever else we found in the baking cupboard. Woeker en Woel, Paarl’s biggest tuisnywerheid (a cooperative selling food, needlework, and other things made by women at home) used to sell them in batches of twelve in beer boxes. They were iced in green and pink and I remember them as being enormous – about the same size as flat, brown mushrooms. By no stretch of the imagination could these be considered elegant.

The rise of the cupcake began during the late 90s, and many pin this to the opening of the Magnolia Bakery in New York City in 1996. The Bakery sells individual, beautifully-decorated cupcakes alongside its more usual selection of cakes and pastries. Of course, other bakeries may well have been doing this for decades, but what makes Magnolia different is that it is in Manhattan, and that it is fashionable. The ascendancy of the cupcake was confirmed in 1998 when a couple of episodes of the then wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City depicted Carrie and her friends scoffing cupcakes in the Bakery.

Adre Meyer's Cupcakes at the Hope Street Market in Cape Town

Since then, macaroons, pies, and whoopie pies have been dubbed the ‘new cupcake’, but to little effect. Even with the apparent current backlash, cupcakes appear still to sustain a baking industry: there are legions of recipe books (even Martha Stewart deigned to write one), blogs, websites, market stalls, bakeries, and cafes dedicated solely to cupcakes. This is also a global fashion which spread quickly from the eastern seaboard of the United States to the rest of the world.

In Britain, the cupcake was popularised by Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). Unlike other food writers, she acknowledges that their appeal is based on a nostalgia for childhood. She notes: ‘At about the same time I started getting into top cupcake and fairy-cake mode, ostensibly for children, I noticed that the people who really seemed to get excited by them were the children’s parents. I think it’s not till you hit 30 that nostalgia is even a remotely comforting option.’

In contrast, the Telegraph’s Xanthe Clay writes, in all seriousness, that her favourite cupcake decoration is ‘summer berries whose freshness cuts the sugary icing. Perched atop each cupcake like a Philip Treacy hat, they’re as exuberant as Carrie’s wardrobe and they taste fabulous.’ This is food – almost literally – as fashion. Valentine Warner adds:

I think it’s the re-branding of this childish treat that gets me so cross. Or perhaps it’s not the cupcakes that annoy me but, rather, their west London devotees climbing into huge urban four-wheel-drives holding wee shiny boxes crammed with mouse-sized cakelets.

Cupcakes are associated with women. They’re girly. They’re ladyfood. And this isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, some contemporary feminists argue – rightly – that the labelling of cooking, baking, knitting, needlework, and other ‘feminine’ pursuits as being silly, frivolous, or demeaning is sexist. They point out that all over the world, suffragettes embroidered banners and other protest material, and held tea parties and cake sales to raise funds for the campaign for women’s right to vote.

I’m not, of course, accusing Valentine Warner of misogyny – although I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women – and I think his point that cupcakes are simply glorified children’s food is important. Cupcakes are marketed to women on the grounds that these little treats are dainty, pink, and pretty – like women (or, rather, girls, or ladies). They are safe for slim, demure ladies to eat: they contain fewer calories than a wedge of cake, and they’re easy to pick at with a (mini) cake fork. When Warner describes the cupcakes as ‘mouse-sized’, he could as easily be referring to the women who buy them.

Like cupcakes, this gendering of food isn’t anything new. As I noted a few weeks ago, some Victorian doctors advised that women, children, and invalids be fed carbohydrate-heavy, bland food to ensure that their delicate systems remained calm: too much red meat, fruit, or spice would upset them and cause them to behave inappropriately.

What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity. Why are cupcakes marketed so successfully to well-off, educated middle-class women? (And cupcakes are often exorbitantly expensive so it’s only well-off women who can afford them.) In a nasty irony, when Sex and the City depicts Carrie eating cupcakes it isn’t to emphasise her healthy attitude towards food (that we should eat everything in moderation), but, rather, to indicate that even when she does eat cake, it’s small, childlike, and entirely unthreatening (as she is).

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Judith Flanders, The Victorian House (London: Harper Perennial, 2003).

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess (London: Chatto and Windus, [2000] 2003).

Valentine Warner, ‘Valentine’s Notebook,’ Delicious, May 2011, p. 49.

Other sources:

Sander L. Gilman, Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘Scientists, Pseudoscientists, and Faddists’ and ‘Too Rich and Too Thin?’, in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 86-97, 194-211.

Susie Orbach, ‘Interpreting Starvation,’ in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, eds. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace (Manchester: Mandolin, 1998), pp. 133-139.

Kerry Segrave, Obesity in America, 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment (Jefferson, NC,: McFarlane, 2008).

Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Doris Wit, ‘“How Mama Started to Get Large”: Eating Disorders, Foetal Rights, and Black Female Appetite,’ in Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of US Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 183-210.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.