A quick word on International Women’s Day



Women in Whitby, courtesy of the Preus Museum

So this – hopefully – short post is borne out of my mild irritation with something that started with the best of intentions: every year on International Women’s Day (day after my birthday, which is International This Woman’s Day) Richard Herring makes a point of finding idiot men tweeting ‘When’s International Men’s Day???’, and publicly telling them that it’s on November the 19th. Well and good, but now what happens in my timeline is men rubbing their hands with glee about the chance for a man to be sarcastic to other men meaning that – imagine my surprise – an opportunity to celebrate women ends up as an opportunity for men to receive attention.

It is traditional, when we talk about IWD, to talk about women who have made contributions in STEM fields, or the arts, or politics or many other public fields because we are making the point that anything men can do women can do too, and better.

I’m sat in my living room now, surrounded by things I’m knitting and cookbooks and my thoughts are turning in a slightly different direction. I hope that I live my life so as to make it obvious that I don’t think your gender ever should limit your ambitions or your interests. My career – when I had one, let’s hope I do again – was in IT, my academic qualifications are in law and economics. Posts here have mainly been about domestic matters, but when I started this up, that’s because I thought I was playing against type: I was obviously a Professional Someone, so wouldn’t it be interesting if I wrote about baking.

I mentioned in passing once (here) that I believe that textiles are under-appreciated as a technology and as an object of study because they decay easily, but also, if we’re honest because they are domestic, small, women’s work. As you will have noticed above, not even women are immune to this thinking. The same applies to domestic cookery, and I just want to beg you to consider two food writers in particular today – they are of course very very famous, and hardly need the tiny amount of light I can shine on them, but I will take any opportunity I can to spread my prejudice for cookbooks you can read rather than look at.

I was given Claudia Roden‘s Book of Jewish Food for my birthday yesterday – I have looked at it longingly in book shops for ever – and am so looking forward to getting to know this book. In the introduction, she writes:

My maternal grandmother, Eugénie Alphandary, was from Istanbul. She was a grande dame who spoke French like a Parisian, quoted Voltaire and Victor Hugo and was fired by the ideals of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’. The private language she spoke with my mother when they did not want us children to understand was Judeo-Spanish. She called it Castilian to differentiate if from the Judeo-Spanish that she described as a ‘degraded Spanish mix’ which some other people spoke. Hers was below French in her esteem, but to us it represented a mysterious lost paradise, a world of romance and courage and glorious chivalry which enmeshed us all in invisible threads of deep longing with its songs about lovers in Seville and proverbs about meat stews and almond cakes. That world was embodied by the little pies, sharp egg and lemon sauces, and meatballs incorporating vegetables that we ate at my grandparents’ home. Her cold vegetable dishes had a faint sweetness about them, the pastries an orange flavour. When we bit into a pie, we found mashed aubergine or spinach. Everything had a Spanish name, and many things had an affectionate ending, like ‘pasteliko’ and ‘borekita’, which denoted that they were small .

I already know and love Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food and Mediterranean Cookery, so those come recommended but really if you don’t want to know more about how Eugénie Alphandary from Istanbul might have lived, I can’t help you.

If you don’t own Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, you are not living your fullest and best life, and you should remedy this error immediately. Her entry on Broad Beans starts like this:

In Europe we should feel particularly comfortable with broad beans. They have been bobbing about in our cooking pots certainly since the Bronze Age, perhaps even earlier. They are ‘the bean’ for century after century, the star of the ‘bean feast’ and most of our bean phrases until scarlet runners, haricot, kidney and butter beans, arriving from the New World, made a distinguishing adjective necessary. Small, early beans were coarser eating than our improved modern varieties (Dioscorides described them, in the 1st century A.D. as ‘windy, flatulent, hard of digestion, causing troublesome dreams’).

More lyrically, the white and purple flowers, spreading over the fields in spring, provided a sweet smelling world for lovers. ‘My love is as sweet as a bean field in blossom’, wrote John Clare, who met his Mary where the ‘bean fields were misted wi’ dew’. Once they were a sweetness of Spring round many villages, Nowadays they are not so common.

…and if ever you needed illustration of how our food and what we do with it is part of culture – small C and big – I cannot suggest strongly enough that you pick up this book and its sister volume, the Fruit Book.  Also, before I start accosting people in the street to press it upon them, you should own her English Food if only – you philistine – because it has a recipe for Grasmere Gingerbread in it.

I am glad and proud I live in the world of Björk, of PJ Harvey, of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, of Ray Eames, of Valentina Tereshkova, of the Pankhursts, of Sally Ride, of Olympe de Gouges, of Margaret Hamilton, of Laura Trott, of my mother and grandmothers and my smart nieces and my fierce women friends. Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson have shared their knowledge and their hard work and made my life fuller and better as a result. Thank you!

Edited quickly after publishing to add: Oh man, you ought always to be alive to your own blind spots, and that is a very white list of accomplished women at the end there. I am grateful also for the lives of Nina Simone, Annie Easley, Sei Shonagon, Malala Yousafzai, Serena Williams and Anson Chan, amongst many many other women of colour and while my list was never meant to be exhaustive of all the women I am lucky to share a planet and a species with, I should have seen more clearly in the first place.


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