Where there is woman there is magic. That's how author (and cook in her own right) Ntozake Shange starts her book Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo—a book as full of women and magic as it is of recipes.
We know this magic firsthand: When we asked the Food52 team, in honor of International Women's Day, about the women who have influenced their food lives, they had a lot to say:
The first kitchen I worked in was run by Jody Adams, the renowned Boston chef who was then running Michaela's in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn't know this at the time but working for her would have not only an influence on the way I cook, but also a profound impact on my career. In those early days of one's career, when the tiniest events can derail your journey, I was welcomed into the restaurant kitchen by Jody. Her kitchen was filled with an equal mix of men and women. It was organized, supportive, and peaceful. She paid attention to everyone from the dishwasher to her line cooks. I was an inexperienced—and let's be honest, clueless—intern, and still Jody made me feel like I belonged. For this, I wanted to succeed, I wanted to be in the world she'd created.
It wasn't until later, when I worked in more typically chaotic and stressful kitchens, that I understood the magic of Jody's kitchen. And how easily I might have fled the food world under different circumstances. —Amanda Hesser
I have enormous respect for Andrea Nguyen. She is a culinary powerhouse—not only has she written multiple cookbooks (which have been nominated for multiple James Beard and IACP awards), but she also teaches, consults, and writes for various publications. She makes a mean banh mi and can even turn tofu into fudge, but she’s refreshingly relatable —her cooking style never feels holier-than-thou or unattainable.
Case in point: Even though one of her books is all about Asian dumplings, she’ll reassure you that it’s okay to buy frozen dumplings (and even tell you how to cook them). Plus, she’s kind, funny, and an all-around lovely human being. —Lindsay-Jean
My mom is an Irish immigrant from a farming family. Go ahead and insert the jokes about Irish cooking here. I know more of them than you. My favorite is from my BIL Doug "Butter and salt—all the Irish spices." And, it's all true: the overcooked meat, the reliance on potatoes, the excessively-boiled vegetables.
But I attribute my love of cooking to only my mom. She shared with me the utter thrill of a good ingredient. Our summers were filled with the gorgeous tomatoes from our garden on fresh bakery bread. My mom would buy half a cow and break it down herself to save money and to get the best beef (...that she cooked until brown and leathery). She made homemade butter and found illicit buttermilk. Our grocery shopping, even in the '70s was market to market to pick up all the special items and the freshest produce. The meals were basic but did change over time. Only later in life would I understand that many of our family favorite meals were actually not Irish at all. My mom swapped recipes and ideas: Cabbage rolls were from our Polish babysitter's family; our family's beloved cheesecake recipe is actually from an Italian lady who refused to tell my mom the recipe, but later gave it to her as a wedding present. —Bridget
But last and most importantly, my mom just cooked, all the time. Never exceptional, sometimes begrudgingly—but the act of cooking was woven into our lives. She almost never used a recipe. She made certain dishes so often that I can cook them by rote just by conjuring an image of her making them. I took this for granted but as I got older, I realized that this wasn't the norm. By the time I was in high school, I understood cooking in my gut. I understood that celebrating means cooking and comforting means cooking and love means cooking. Like any immigrant, she showed her love by the piles of mashed potatoes on the plate.
There are Marcellas and Nigellas and Marthas and Julias, but before I could see them, a woman named Kara Brooks taught me what food could be. She was the chef at the first restaurant I ever worked—Still River Cafe, in a tiny nowhere-town next to the nowhere-town where I grew up—and she took me through risotto, and crème brûlée, and cod fritters. She taught me how to pronounce haricot vert. She gave me a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, from which I tried and failed, repeatedly, to make red pepper coulis. And later, she took me to New York to show me what food could be here. —Kenzi
I've sung Tamar Adler's praises right and left, and I'll keep doing it, because her book An Everlasting Meal changed the way I think about cooking and food writing. She has a near-spiritual reverence in that book for good ingredients prepared very simply and unfussily (she worked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, so—no surprise there). The broth left from cooking an artichoke is not something you pour down the drain, she says; beans are perfect in their humility, the egg is a miracle, peas (and humans) aren't fully themselves without a little seasoning. Her writing is very meditative and thoughtful—and helped me make a space for meditativeness and thoughtfulness in my own kitchen just as I was really learning to feed myself. —Caroline
My aunt! She runs an amazing B&B in Niagara-on-the-Lake Canada, so it's no surprise that she was first person to introduce me to so many of the greats: good scrambled eggs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, lobster, homemade pizza (before her pizza parties with huge spreads of toppings and endless personal pies coming out of the oven, I'd only ever ordered out), port, caviar (she's been known to serve a caviar-blini-vodka shot appetizer), egg salad with curry as the secret ingredient, trifle, and more! —Lauren Locke
Pardon my inner dork, but journalist and historian Laura Shapiro is one of my female food heroes. Her three books—and her essays for Slate and Gourmet, The New Yorker, and other publications—are such smart, thorough examinations of culinary culture in a historical context. If you ever want to know the backstory of boxed cake mixes (and why most call for you to add an egg, and why this matters!), Shapiro is your source. Plus, her work sheds surprising insight on the way we eat now—and why this, too, matters. —Sarah J.
My friend Jess and I met over 10 years ago at a Michigan hotel where she was working and I was visiting. We immediately took to each other, meeting for late night dips in Lake Michigan, giggling over eggs at a diner, and talking endlessly about the world ahead (we were 18). Eventually, after many cross-country letters, we found that we shared an interest in food, and we'd cook from Moosewood (and many others) when we got to spend time together, whether in Indiana (where I grew up) or at her family's lake cottage in Michigan. We both find ourselves working in food now: Jess coordinates a CSA program in Seattle and I'm here at Food52. She taught me to have reverence for ingredients, and she cares about the people growing our food more than anyone I know. —Sam
One woman who had an enormous impact on my gastronomic life happens to also be one of my best friends, Miss Kaitlyn Rafferty. I first met Kaitlyn while working as a pastry cook at Red Devon, a restaurant in Bangall, New York. We started working there on the same day, and I remember thinking that she, in her crisp chef whites and fresh-out-of-culinary-school kitchen smarts, would surely dismiss little me and my semi-renegade, self-taught, pastry MacGuyver self. I couldn’t be more wrong.
Not only did we take to each other like old friends (quickly forming bonds over food puns and jokes about Matthew McConaughey), but she also taught me how to use an electric sheeter, why my equipment should be clean as a whistle when I whip egg whites, and the finer points of lavash crackers (i.e. sneakily eating heaps of it on the cooling rack). She played a huge role in kickstarting my culinary identity and continues to support all of my ambitions—in the kitchen, at the writing desk, and otherwise. —Sarah D.
I didn't come from a family of female cooks: My mom assembles, rather than cooks, dinner. My aunt turns on the stove exactly once a year, on Thanksgiving. It might seem cliché by now, but watching Ina Garten derive such joy from hosting her friends—from sourcing her ingredients from farm stands to sending her guests off with generous party favors—was probably my biggest food influence. She's warm but kind of endearingly awkward, has impeccable taste, and makes really good food. But it's the community aspect that I relate to the most: She doesn't see getting dinner on the table as a chore; she sees it as an opportunity to bring people together and have a wonderful time.
Last year I lived in England, and occasionally missed familiar American accents and shows. I realized the Barefoot Contessa came on the Food Network UK at 7 AM... So every morning, I had coffee with Ina. It was fabulous. —Annie
Anita Shepherd is a force, and has followed an inspiring path to founding her coconut yogurt company. After literally making herself sick off of cupcake batter and frosting while working in bakeries, she launched a vegan baking business. Out of necessity, she invented a no-additive vegan coconut milk yogurt to use in her baking, but once people started asking to buy the yogurt, she realized she could specialize in just one (highly scientific) product. Her business has been taking off, and last year she opened her own factory and had a baby, Ramona, in the same month.
She's also one of my favorite people to cook with—I learn something new every time. She made vegan pancakes out of the leftover beer at my 30th birthday weekend without a recipe (obviously), she renovated her own kitchen by watching YouTube videos, and she keeps all her spices in Bonne Maman jam jars, but doesn't label them, because she know them all by smell. —Kristen
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My grandmother! Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Nene (otherwise known as Sara Jean Colville Slayden) brought a small-town Southern sensibility to everything she cooked: Her cream cheese pound cake, steaming yeast rolls, so many trays of rippled cheese straws, and a fine and jiggly tomato aspic are all legendary in my family, along with a ricotta-and-noodle casserole she passed down to my mom called "Husband's Delight" (don't judge—it rocks).
Nene grew up with a garden full of produce and kept it up long after she had to; I remember eating tomatoes so sun-ripened they were hot right off the vines in her back yard. She helped me develop a love of travel (she and her husband Paul lived everywhere from San Juan to China), of kittens and cats, of the French toast sticks at Shoney's, overly sweet tea, and the green beans cooked in bacon fat that we'd go eat together at the local S&S Cafeteria. She passed away this winter at the age of 95 and all the kids and grandkids went to McMinnville's local Shoney's after her services—which just felt right. —Amanda S.
I was thrilled when, earlier this year, Nigerian writer Yemisi Aribisala became the first woman to win the John Avery award for her Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, a collection of essays on Nigerian food and cooking. I read a review copy of her book last year, and was wondering why everyone wasn’t talking about it. Hers is a voice of authority that spews poetry seemingly without trying. She switches registers between memoir and instructional food writing beautifully. What's especially wondrous is the way she manages to subtly communicate the great lack of understanding that has fermented around Nigerian food in the West. I encountered this book just a few months into my job as a full-time food writer, and her writing has become the standard I hold myself to. —Mayukh
Rose helped me truly appreciate the art of baking and that I shouldn't be afraid to fully embrace my meticulousness when baking. As shown in her books and blog, Rose applies precision and thoughtfulness into every step of a recipe. Whether it's being specific about the type of flour to use (yes, there is a difference when you use bleached versus unbleached flour!) or the size of an egg (at room temperature, of course), Rose has a rationale for every choice she makes in her recipes. She and her amazing baking assistant, Woody, likely have photos from their multiple recipe tests to prove it, too. There is no detail too small for her and for that, I thank her!
Ina Garten is the one who inspired me to learn how to cook, but I'm going to divulge a bit on my current culinary love: Maangchi. Every week she posts a video on YouTube highlighting a traditional Korean recipe, and recommendations on serving it. She's a home cook through and through, and that's a big part of the reason why I love her and feel so inspired watching her content. It's hard to describe, but she exudes a passion for cooking in everything she does.
You can tell that divulging her secrets and her tips, introducing people (like myself) to ingredients and dishes they're may not be totally familiar with, and sharing the food she makes with loved ones brings her so much joy. Her affirmations of dishes being delicious and easy tap into my life philosophy that anyone can cook anything with a little bit of guidance. Watching someone do what they really love (and be so excited by other people wanting to make her dishes) is an absolute joy to behold. More food channels on YouTube need to take note: You can tap into any trends that may arise, but true passion and joy for cooking will always shine through. —Connor
I've certainly cooked for friends and boyfriends before, but it wasn't before I started cooking for my best friend that I felt at home in the kitchen. Since we first fell in friend-love, no Friday night has been complete were we not buried under blankets on the couch, cupping bowls heavy with pasta in our hands. She has an insatiable hunger which makes her the perfect taste-tester-- we usually begin with a cheese board stacked with Saint André, Brillat Saverin, and a wild card cheese to stink up my apartment. Next comes the pasta, whether it's mac and cheese bejeweled with roasted garlic and kale, or mafaldini dressed in chili flakes and ladlefuls of Marcella sauce.
Before our carbohydrate-filled journeys in the kitchen, I felt an element of discomfort sharing my cooking: My grandmother's recipes never turned out quite as good when made by my hands, and there were technical errors in nearly everything I made (as pointed out by a fancy sous-chef ex boyfriend).
But every weekend with my best friend means an unwavering trust in whatever I decide to explore on the stovetop, and usually she will eat whatever I make, technically correct or not, until she feels physically ill. I can't think of a think of a woman who has made me fall more in love with food: cooking it, eating it, and most importantly, enjoying it. If you have not met someone who makes you laugh with your mouth full every time you share a meal together, then you have yet to truly dine. —Zoe
Who are the influential women in your (food) life? Tell us about them in the comments.
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