Feminism and Food


Remember last time when I raved about Supersizers Go Regency, an episode of a British TV reality show in which a restaurant critic and a writer/comedian/performer try to recreate the gastronomic experiences of the past? Turns out there are 13 episodes on periods ranging from the heyday of ancient Rome to the 1980s. I find them utterly compelling and vastly entertaining. My favorite episodes so far have been the ones on the Regency, World War II, the 1920s, and the 1980s. I have two or three episodes yet to see.

I've learned things from each episode, and one thing I've learned from most is how meaty and boozy most diets of the past were. Bread, meat and booze constituted most diets. If you were rich, you ate mostly meat and drank strong booze--lots of it. If you were poor, you ate lots of bread (generally stale) and drank weak or "small" beer, because water wasn't safe--at least, not until the arrival of tea and coffee in England, which required the boiling of water. (Take that, people who say that drinking alcohol, coffee and tea are inherently immoral.) You ate fruit when you could get it, but vegetables were considered either sources of disease (the plague was blamed on vegetables) or just plain indigestible. Of course vegetables are somewhat indigestible--that's part of their virtue: the cellulose in them goes through you and helps keep your bowels regular and clean.

Meat and alcohol require lots of time--both to prepare and to digest. In excess, they also damage your health. People ate so much meat in the past that it killed them--drove them right into early graves, from heart disease or liver failure or whatever. Only a hundred years ago, the life expectancy for a well-to-do man was the mid 40s. That's pretty sad.

A vegetarian society was formed in England in 1847, but the diet took a while to catch on. As it did, it not only helped people avoid some of the health threats posed by a diet composed mostly of animal products, it also supported the women's suffrage movement.

Middle- and upper-class men often ate at clubs that excluded women and served (as you'd expect) lots of booze and meat. However, women who wanted to eat away from home occasionally ended up at vegetarian restaurants, which served neither meat nor booze. The diet appealed to women partly because vegetables take less time and work to prepare than meat, and this gave them a little more freedom from one of their primary shackles: the oven. In the more salubrious settings of vegetarian restaurants, and increasingly aware that their lives didn't have to be devoted entirely to cooking for someone else, they began to discuss ideas, like the idea that they might deserve the right to vote. Indeed, as the segment below notes, one prominent suffragist, Maude someone (couldn't catch the last name) commented with wonder that "the ranks of the militant suffragettes are mostly recruited from the mild vegetarians."

Check it out.

I hope to find a more detailed discussion of the relationship between vegetarianism and feminism, and if I do, I'll tell you about it.


Re: vegetables were considered either sources of disease (the plague was blamed on vegetables) or just plain indigestible.

Why were they cultivated then? Just to feed to animals?

Why were they cultivated then? Just to feed to animals?

pretty much, at least in Britain, though other European cultures might have had different attitudes, and from what I know, Asian cuisine didn't view vegetables that way. And even in England, there were always a few people adventurous or poor enough to eat things like carrots and beets, which seems better to me than stretching your flour with ground chalk, something else the Brits did when they got hungry enough.

I personally suspect that part of what was going on was that the Brits just didn't like vegetables, though, because they made exceptions for onions, leeks and garlic, because they add so much flavor to food.

Hello, I've been reading your blog for a couple years now but never commented. I've been interested in the intersection of feminism and vegetarianism on and off for a while.
Have you heard of "The Sexual Politics of Meat" by Carol J Adams? I was not able to finish the book because I got nightmares, but it's been on my To Try Again list since. I thought it was well written, and obviously provoked an emotional response in me.

Hi Jen--I haven't read that book, or even heard of it, but it's extremely relevant to a project I'm working on how, so I'll check it out. Thanks for the recommendation. I get you mean about the "To Try Again" list of books that are just too upsetting the first time you pick them up--twice now I have started but not finished "The Body in Pain" by Elaine Scarry, despite the fact that I really, really need to read it all.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on May 8, 2010 8:40 AM.

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