— Postcards from the Edge of the Plate: Women’s Business, Women’s Work–

Food as a passion, a gift, a means of revenge, even source of power –….Women weigh up the loss of a lover, or the loss of weight; they consider whether hunger and the thought of higher things are inextricably linked; they feast and crave and die for their appetites, or lack of appetite” – cover blurb -The Anger of Aubergines : Collected Stories of Women and Food – Bulbul Sharma, India, 1998

I was once surfing channels TV in boredom when I became aware of the high frequency of images of women and food – and remembered Bulbul Sharma’s book — the social and political connections between women and food is both obvious and obscure.  Food politics is bone-deeply symbolic for women in conflicting clashing paradoxes,  both love/hate combined, both bonding/bondage, both pleasure/pain for women.  More postcards, tourist snaps, 30-second news bites. Russian women standing in food queues. Chatting with a woman neighbour in the frozen food aisle of my local supermarket.  Refugee women in some warzone preparing international AID mash. Backyard barbecues with women around the food tables– helping to toss a salad perhaps, add a dash of mayo, or hand finger-foods to a toddler.

Childhood images, dawn on a winters morning, warm, frothy full-cream milk from our family goats and cows. Separating the milks by hand, churning butter, squeezing cheeses – slapping sister with the cheesecloths. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts agonise for weeks, months over weddings – catering arrangements are Very Serious Business, Women’s Business, Women’s Work.

Bushfires, floods, disasters – armies of women cutting sandwiches, filling thermos flasks. Jamaican women harvesting bananas. Bangladeshi women planting rice. Mexican market-women selling vegetables. Shelling peas, stringing beans in the kitchen with my mother. Picking grapes – summer job as a teenager – in awe of the Italian women – laughing, talking, sweating, stripping the vines for the ‘table’ grapes. Teaching me my first lesson of hard-labour in high summer heat – ‘No drink –Suck on a grape – keep mouth wet. But no drink – you be sorry!’

Sleepovers at friends houses, stunned by rituals of fathers, boys served, fed first. Women, girls must all wait their turn. Hungry women, famine in Asia, Africa – women are the last to die, but the first to feel its pain, as they wait their turn behind men, children.

North-west Australia. Isolated mining town, ‘Life’s Hard on the Pilbara’ my T-shirt shouts – Iron ore country, Hammersley Iron Mines owns everything – H.I.M. trucks pepper the roads of red sand, red desert, red coastline – 12 young white women, British, Australian, Canadian, Swedish, German etc – serving breakfast, dinner in the single men’s mess – pays well, very well. 6 weeks work – overseas airfare, ticket home for some of us. A girl’s gotta eat, No? We do the maths – 1,000 single men, 12 women – pick one each sistren, or you’re free-for-all. Balancing several layers of breakfast trays of greasy eggs on our arms, the cooks slapping floured handprints on our bums. The wives in the married men’s compound glare at us, one or two nod politely, hosing their lawns in their transplanted suburbia in the desert. Judy, with her classy British accent speaks up ‘Anyone for tennis after brunch?’. We laugh. Lazing, sunning on the beach between shifts, the men lunch underground, we nibble stale pastries, quibble over canned fruit – the Black women, abandoned by the H.I.M. men who spent the night ab/using them, walk past us on their return journey to the Aboriginal Reserve – 10 dusty, red iron-ore hot kilometres inland, exiles on their own lands. We give them the cans of fruit. Promise to give them more.

The Personal is the Political. Food is Personal and Political. We define our status, class, race with Food. Vegetarian or not, kibble-wheat & rye breads, we argue Marx and Mitchell munching muesli.

Stories of visits to tropical ancient lands, discuss the spirituality, the transcendence of curries, nasi goreng, rice and coconut. Sharing sweets, nuts, savouries in bed with a lover. I tell my sistren the story of how I failed Home Science in high-school, laughing we eat my inventions anyway, hunger really is the best sauce. Watching a film – Puberty Blues – the narrator mentions the ritual of the surfer girls going to the shops to buy burgers, chips – (for the boys who were too busy surfing) –

its not cool to ‘eat in front of the boys’ she says, so the girls gobble their food down on the walk back. Why is that?

“….A significant portion of this work situates mothers as the nexus between food and pathology. Indeed, since the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis with its focus on oedipal narratives of subject formation, mothers have been a particular focal point and the move from this to women and food has often been made, both in the negative terms which “blame” mothers for eating disorders and in the more positive social goals that inform movements such as La Leche. – Cross-Cultural Perspectives On Women, Identity, Food – University of British Colombia Workshop, 1998

Play-groups, inner-city creches, mothers, babies, toddlers underfoot – the Lebanese women laugh at us for snatching away the nuts, at our fear of babies choking. In Lebanon, nuts are the traditional first-solids & their babies don’t choke, they say. A Turkish mother, heavy in black asks ‘Why can’t you white women feed your babies? Are your breasts deformed?” – defensiveness, mumblings of ‘my doctor said..’- ‘I work, you see…’, ‘I kept getting mastitis…’ blushing, awkwardness, changing the subject to something neutral – food, coffee, lunch. The Turkish woman offers to show us how to make baklava & Turkish coffee, to ‘make your milk strong for your babies’.

A lifetime of girltalk, coffee, cakes, biscuits, take-away, chocolate – collectives discussing funding, submissions, actions, over crackers, dips, nibblies and cheap wine. Kaffee-klatsches, coffee-mornings, brunches, kitchen-teas, bridal showers –
Women office workers pore over faxed menus, discuss the relative merits of seafoods and soups. ‘Let’s do lunch’ the office women say –to discuss which restaurant, what sort of food, in loving/bonding detail. Without men around we feast on Womens Business, Women’s Work, Women’s Words.

“In some recent poststructuralist work, food (and the mother’s breast) has also been specifically associated with words and self-representation (or identity). This association is foregrounded in Kristeva’s scenario of abjection in which food symbolically competes with words. But we also find it articulated in recent work addressing prohibitions or disciplinary protocols used to control groups who might other wise be perceived as unruly. Less well theorized, but certainly evident in a wide range of narratives about the forging of individual, national and diasporic identities are more positive definitions and descriptions of food as consolidating communities or genealogies ranging from the family to the nation…. – Cross-Cultural Perspectives On Women, Identity, Food – University of British Colombia Workshop, 1998

Food as language? Food for Thought, indeed!

Woman’s Language.
Woman’s Words.
Woman’s Work.

Puberty Blues girls mustn’t eat in front of the boys they are trying to impress – to do so breaks a rule.
A ‘disciplinary protocol’ to control the ‘unruly’?

Double, double, toil & trouble. Fire burn, cauldron bubble. Eye of newt, tongue of toad. Famous murderesses are poisoners. Mad, mad women slump, thump around kitchens, expressing madness with pale offerings, melted plasticware, burnt offerings, lime & bitters. Eve and Snow White, seduced by an apple, witches have insatiable appetites.

Television ads – women serving food mountains-high, smiling beatifically at margarine. Dad gets take-away, but Mum’s hands are the ones to dish it up. Magazines for women, so many about food, catering, dinner-parties, healthy lunches for pre-schoolers, diets, ‘summer-slim’ recipes. Women always serving food, but never eating in ads – why is that? Except maybe – snack-foods, directed at the adolescent market, when cartoon, or disembodied exaggerated feminine lips seductively lick phallic chocolate bars, or play, snatch, throw, steal them, peel them – but are not shown actually eating? What message does this Food Language send?

The Pornography of Food? Woman is object. Source of Nourishment, symbolic Fountain Breast of all pleasure – she provides pleasure with her hands this time – disembodied hands serve chicken nuggets fresh from the oven. Men and children eat. The woman smiles, radiant, standing while the subject eaters sit. There are none left for her – she doesn’t mind. The girls of Puberty Blues dispense burgers, chips – there is none for them – they don’t mind, they ate earlier, secretly – they smile, radiant their secret safe. Men and children first, women must wait their turn.

Popular relationship self-help books – the Mars & Venus books, use food imagery to describe the ‘healthy’ marital heterosex relationship – men need ‘quickies’ the author says, for ‘sustenance’, a maintenance ‘diet’, if women love their man they will provide regular ‘quickies’, a Gift the author says, and he will provide ‘home-cooked’ sex once a week – ‘gourmet’ sex once a month – in return. She must wait her turn, in return. She masturbates, silently, secretly in the bathroom. Reminder of the old hunter/gatherer paradigm. Hunter food is not regular day-to-day sustenance food, it is ‘feast’ food, ‘party’ food – it is rare, special, an occasional ‘treat’ – provided by the male, though not always. The greatest chefs in the world are men we are told.

Sustenance diets of ‘quickies’ in bed, and ‘quickies’ on the breakfast table are Women’s Business, Women’s Words, Women’s Work.

Announcement for a Radical Lesbian Feminist Festival – When, Where, and What’s to Eat? “….for anyone who wants to come early to help chop vegetables and plan the revolution.” –

Food is Serious Business, Women’s Business, Women’s Work – even for Revolutionaries.

More “positive definitions …… consolidating communities”?

Food issues are political issues. Language of Food, Language of Solidarity as well as Division. Women United/Divided by Food.Globally – the bulk of agricultural workers are women, the bulk of food processing workers are women, the bulk of food is sold, prepared, cooked, bartered, carried, and shared by women.

What “messages” we send through food! Pleasing/Punishing mothers-in-law, grandmothers, just getting-to-know-you – we instinctively offer food, or offer help in the kitchen – holiday dinners, afraid to offend, or paradoxically – quick to offend – in our rebellion/rejection of the Language of Women.  We know how much it means to them to please/not please through the food they’ve prepared. We *hear* other women’s messages encrypted in the stuffing, salads, desserts, sauces. We judge other women, Reject/Embrace through the Language of Food, Language of both Solidarity and Division.

Food is the Language of women. Food is Serious Business, Women’s Business, Women’s Words, Women’s Work – We sow/grow, harvest, pound, grind, shell, slice, chop, julienne, grate, sift, squeeze, pinch, knead, roll, bake, saute, fry, grill, shred, blend in instinctive rituals – too much, too little – never sure, the agony and the ecstasy, the paradox –we love/hate our food bondage/bonding.

“…the egg the female brings to maturity is a complete feeding mechanism…..the devaluation of the milk that has no price-tag is part of the generalised devaluation of women’s bodies and contributions to the nourishment of the race, a devaluation that is now reaching its nadir in a distorted attitude to food on the part of women themselves……..The pattern of devaluing women’s contribution is as old as human civilisation. Clearly food production and consumption have changed vastly since industrialisation, but the devaluation of women’s contribution remains a constant.”
Germaine Greer – The Whole Woman, 1999

Messages of the Women’s Language of Food get mixed-up, mix-mastered, mashed, pulped, too bland, dropped, lost, boiled off, fallen, over-cooked, burnt, too cold, too stale, too hot, too spicy, hunger, hurt – tones/tomes overloaded with too much salt or sugar, pleasure or pain.

Anorexia. Bulemia. Daytime TV discusses Stomach-Stapling Surgery and the Joy of Herb Gardens. Mad, Mad Women. Junkie women extol the virtues of appetite suppression by heroin, cocaine, speed, crack. The De-valuation of Women continues.  Weight-watchers. Diets. Obsessions. Chocaholics. Sweet-tooth.  Functions – the invitation reads ‘Ladies, please bring a plate’. Bake-sales –our grandmothers wistful for memories of cinnamon, home-made ginger snaps. Misfit women pay homage to the Joy of Food, Life, Love, Women – chopping vegetables for the Revolution. Diabetes. Heart disease. Iron-deficiency. Blood thin, blood-letting. Tiredness, lethargy, allergies. Diet Coke. Take-out, take-away, disposable. Dainty morsels only when menfolk are around. So thoughtful women are – being cheap dinner dates. Binge, feast & puke when alone, or with the girlfriends. Mad, Mad Women – we come to love/hate food, we starve, we purge, we hunger, we feel for bruised tomatoes, pick carefully through apples, obsessed with ‘purity’ we cuddle our half-litre bottles of water to flush away the poisons, we hate our bodies, hate our Selves.

Oh girls, girls,
Silly little valuable things,
You should have said, No, I am valuable,
And again, It is because I am valuable
I say, No.

Nobody teaches anybody they are valuable nowadays.
— ‘Stevie’ Smith

Mad, Mad Women – if we can’t value them/us – who will?
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A previous version of this post was published on Rain’s Place
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14 comments
  1. karmarad said:

    What a rich and poetic and deep essay, Rain. This is close to the hidden roots of patriarchy, down to a mythical place where the deformation first begins.

  2. Sydney said:

    Exquisite

  3. allecto said:

    Beautiful, beautiful, stunningly, gorgeously beautiful. You are an incredible poet, Rain. Simply breathtaking writing, weaving, spinning here. And you say you are not a craftswoman!

  4. rainsinger said:

    thanks *blush*
    by way of background – this piece began life as an ad-lib “performance piece” in a women’s street theatre group. It was first spoken to rhythmic drumming. After the first few women from the group gave a story or two, women from the audience would then be invited up to tell a story to add to it 🙂

  5. Absolutely stunning!! thank you for this beautiful piece of food for thoughts

  6. Mary Sunshine said:

    * enjoying breakfast with you all this morning *

    🙂

  7. Thank you rainsinger, this is a lovely piece and has inspired me to do some reading around women and food, seeing as both are passions of mine.

  8. zeph said:

    Gorgeous post Rain!

    “Mothers, grandmothers, aunts agonise for weeks, months over weddings – catering arrangements are Very Serious Business, Women’s Business, Women’s Work.”

    I hate weddings, women work so hard to make them beautiful, we alternatively diet to fit the dresses and pore over menus and cake designs. Men mostly sit back and watch us creating our own cages, we always hope we will be safer inside than out, but in reality we usually won’t. All we will get is permission from the p to have children and give them some mans name.

  9. Linda Radfem said:

    Thanks, rain. A beautiful and delicious read. It put me in mind of Puberty Blues even before the mention of it – that part about not being able to eat in front of boys resonated so deeply with me at the time.

  10. yttik said:

    Thanks! Yes, that was beautiful, poetic, fun to read! I think if I ever saw it performed as street theater, I’d be in tears.

    There’s a pizza roll commercial out right now where the kids call their mom and say, “I’m dying!” She’s like, “no you’re not dying, you’re just hungry.” Then she proceeds to explain to them how to find the pizza rolls that are right in front of their face. The language of food is such a huge, huge issue. I remember screaming at my family once, “I am not nursing any of you anymore!” We had a house full of food and I was working all day. Never the less, every time I’d walk in that front door half a dozen people would complain about how long they’d been sitting around waiting for somebody to feed them. By the time I had my last child, I really resented breast feeding because I knew it would never, ever end.

    Remember Little Shop of Horrors? “Feed me Seymour! Feed me!” Women, food, and oppression really is like a giant carnivorous plant in our lives.

  11. luckynkl said:

    Food! Food! Glorious food! There is nothing so basic and crucial to life. And yet such a fine art. Not to be knocked. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most important basic human need of all. For women to be in charge of such a basic necessity is a good thing, not a bad thing. Start to worry when women are deprived of that domain. Death will probably be right around the corner.

    My family and culture (Italian) celebrates food and it isn’t viewed as a feminine thing. It’s a gender neutral thing. Men are as adept in the kitchen as the women are. So there’s some culture variances too. But men generally dictate what families eat. So women’s diets are often being controlled by men around the world. But women also can go to the kitchen and serve him up dog food when he acts like an ass. Isn’t it funny how men can’t seem to tell the difference?

    I love life. I love food. The two go hand in hand.

  12. Very beautiful Rain, thank you.

  13. Mary Sunshine said:

    This is one of my all time favourites. ❤ ❤

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