Profiles

21 Stories About the Strongest Women We Know

For International Women's Day, we look back on our favorite pieces highlighting the female pioneers of the culinary world, past and present.

by:
March  8, 2020
Photo by Stephen Chen

Today is International Woman’s Day, and the food industry, like most others, is rife with various -isms that can make it especially difficult for women to succeed. As a female-founded media company, we’re committed to covering the stories of women who’ve succeeded in the culinary world, past and present.

For some of these women, history has been unkind to their memory—only now is the world rediscovering what they gave us. Others are highly visible, with names you’ve probably heard, yet their stories, too, are more textured than often recounted. In the coming years, we’ll continue working to tell these stories. There are still so many waiting to be heard. But here are some.

"Princess Pamela didn’t let just anyone into her restaurant. She ran her Little Kitchen out of her railroad apartment in an Alphabet City walkup, one floor above a Chinese takeout joint."


"Joyce Chen Cooks wasn’t just any television show. The half-hour program aired on WGBH for 26 episodes between late 1966 and early 1967, the first nationally-syndicated cooking show hosted by a woman of color. America had never seen a face like hers cooking on television."


"When Anna Del Conte was 19 years old, she went to jail. Twice. The first time, in February 1944, she was riding her bike past curfew in wartime Italy when a couple fascist soldiers stopped her on suspicion of couriering to partisans in hiding. (She was on her way to a party.)"


"Mary Jane Rathbun, on first glance, was just your average grandma. With the requisite greying hair, thick spectacles, and a comfy cardigan vest, she certainly looked the part. But upon closer inspection, you might also notice a clenched fist in one hand, a plate of brownies in another, and ironed onto her vest, a single marijuana leaf patch, one of her signature accessories."


"Shimbo has amassed a body of work that is three volumes strong, cementing her as an authority on Japanese cooking in America."


"There’s a photograph, taken at some point in the 1970s, of Padma Lakshmi clutching a doll named Helen. In it, Lakshmi is a dark-skinned, little-limbed girl with a bowl cut. She stands above a baby relative’s crib."


"The biggest mark of celebrity for her, though, was going to church and having the priest walk up to her and say ‘I saw your show.’ Then she really felt like she was a star."


"During World War II, Maria was a captain in Marking’s Guerrillas, a group of Filipinx soldiers who fought alongside the United States against the Japanese. Legend says that she devised a system for smuggling Soyalac and Darak in bamboo into Japanese-run concentration camps. These internment camps, which housed mostly Guerrillero and American prisoners of war, were known for poor sanitation and lack of food. Many would perish as a result of malnutrition. Freedom fighters disguised as carpenters would deliver Maria’s 'magic food,' saving countless POWs and civilians."


"As an immigrant to England from India, she has found her calling in life by lifting up the women around her—mostly immigrant women, women of color, and women who would otherwise likely be housewives or house cleaners in West London."


"The New York Times once called her the 'matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.' Michael Pollan has said that everything he says, Joan has said first, years before."


"There is a cluster of palms waving in Meera Sodha’s garden. The leaves are wide and sturdy, unfurling from a hairy trunk in a terracotta pot. Looking at them, it’s easy to forget we’re in East London and not shored up on a riverbank in South India. 'They remind me of Kerala. And I miss Kerala.' "


"The Ebony Cookbook, a compendium of violet-petal cakes and tamale pies, is often credited as the first cookbook by an African-American author written with an African-American audience in mind. Though the book remains in print, DeKnight's name has slipped out of the accepted chronicles of American culinary history."


"[Veronica] Steele’s isn’t a name that conjures up a specific cultural image outside of Ireland. But that should change, especially considering her single-handed revitalization of the industry of Irish cheesemaking."


"Throughout the special, Bastianich takes near-journalistic interest in her subjects: She speaks to each military veteran at length about the process of re-acclimating to life outside a combat zone, ingratiating herself with their family and friends. In the shadow of war, food acts as a salve for these veterans."

"When Diana Henry was in her late twenties, she quit her job in television to enroll at Leiths Cookery School. After her youngest son was born, she began writing about food full time. She published her first cookbook, the iconic Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, in 2002."


Known for her high energy and fierce attitude, Caplan first entered the produce business in Los Angeles in the 1950s as a bookkeeper for her husband’s aunt and uncle’s produce house. In 1962, after a string of successes and a burgeoning reputation, she opened her own, eponymous company.


Originally from Pennsylvania, Smith caught her break as a model in the 1960s when she signed with Wilhelmina models in New York City. She garnered fame and recognition in 1976 when she appeared as the one of the first black women on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine.


"Joy Mangano has been standing in front of America for 25 years. In 1992, she was a 36-year-old single mother from Long Island who had just prototyped her Miracle Mop, a self-wringing contraption that promised to revolutionize the deadening task of cleaning floors. That year, she landed an infomercial spot on QVC and sold 18,000 mops in 20 minutes."


"What some people may not realize is that she was a print journalist before starting a career in food. After studying languages at Oxford, she wrote book reviews and later worked as a restaurant critic; she was the deputy literary editor at The Sunday Times. Eventually she'd become a columnist at The New York Times and make a name for herself as one of the world's greatest proponents of home cooking. Which is another important point: She’s always called herself a home cook, never a chef."


"Today, in the British and American imaginary, Jaffrey has been cast in primary colors as the West's bellwether of Indian food: the 'queen of curries,' 'the global authority on Indian cuisine,' 'the Julia Child of Indian cookery.' (Her grandmotherly mien welcomes this. She is a short, unimposing woman who wears her hair in a mild frenzy of a bob; her face conveys biblical wisdom.) But she is, first and foremost, an actress."


"It’s easy to forget that the woman who brought French cooking into the homes of Americans wasn’t always the vivacious TV persona that we now know. Instead, she was a budding cook, a curious traveler, and a woman on the precipice of a storied career."

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mdelgatty
    mdelgatty
  • Humble*Pie
    Humble*Pie
  • Nancy
    Nancy
  • E
    E
  • Whiteantlers
    Whiteantlers
Comment
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.

6 Comments

mdelgatty March 21, 2020
I'm getting so exasperated by the videos at the end of your posts. What exactly am I supposed to do with them? They're too fast/short to actually cook from, I most often get to them in the middle so I have no idea what they are, and I can't find any way to access the recipes even if I can figure out what they're demonstrating. I don't generally waste time watching videos anyway, but why can't you at least make it possible to find the recipes?
 
Humble*Pie March 9, 2020
Swoon.
 
Nancy March 9, 2020
Wonderful collection! I am happy to see them all - the half I know and the half I have will get to know through your articles!
 
E March 8, 2017
Awesome compilation!
 
Whiteantlers March 8, 2017
YES! YES! YES! Thank you! : )
 
SandraH March 8, 2017
This looks exciting - so many good articles to read! Thank you Mayukh!