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9 Women Who Have Influenced Our Lives as Cooks and Eaters

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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 editorial team, in honor of International Women's Day, about the women who have influenced their food lives, they had a lot to say:

Andrea Nguyen's Cashew and Cardamom Fudge (Kaju Barfi)
Andrea Nguyen's Cashew and Cardamom Fudge (Kaju Barfi)

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

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


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.

Jess and Sam!
Jess and Sam! Photo by Samantha Weiss-Hills

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.

Ina Garten's Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola
Ina Garten's Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola

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

#nene #bff

A photo posted by Amanda (@mandasims) on

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.

Who are the influential women in your (food) life? Tell us about them in the comments.

Tags: international day of the woman, girl power