Recipes as Sources for Women’s Lives: Student Reflections on Food, Feminism, and Femininity

By Rachel A. Snell

In the summer of 2016, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maine approached me with the opportunity to teach a course exploring women and food. I eagerly accepted, since opportunities to teach connected to your research don’t come around every day. My dream course, titled, “Food, Femininity, and Feminism in American Culture from Amelia Simmons to Martha Stewart,” considered the ways in which the production and consumption of food fundamentally shaped concepts of femininity and feminism in American culture from the period of the American Revolution to the present.

Since the course was listed as both a History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, these majors were well-represented among the students taking the course. However, the topic of food attracted a number of social scientists, education majors, and even a Biology major who all confided they otherwise would not have considered signing up for a history or a women’s studies course.

An intriguing 1925 Maine publication that was the starting point for several student projects.

Throughout the course, students were asked to develop the skills to read a recipe not just as a set of instructions for a culinary process but as sources for women’s lives. Although they initially approached the assignments with some skepticism, in their end-of-semester reflections many divulged that “before this class, I had never looked at recipe further than how it would get me to a completely finished baked product;” through in-class exercises and weekly recipe analysis presentations students came to appreciate recipes as “stories and little snapshots of a woman’s life” and “a reflection of the time in which [they were] written.”

Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf, Maine food expert, author, and home economist.

Over the course of the semester, students developed independent research projects that used recipes to explore major course themes. The research project was purposefully open-ended, to allow students to draw on their personal and academic backgrounds to demonstrate the breadth of recipes as sources for historical research. The one limiting factor placed on students’ projects was a requirement to make substantive use of materials from the Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf Papers, a collection of recipes, newspaper columns, cookbooks, and personal correspondence collected by Maine culinary authority, Brownie Schrumpf. The final products demonstrated the students’ research creativity, as they used recipes to exploring topics ranging from:

  • An analysis of chocolate chip cookie recipes from six different time periods to explore changing ingredients and tastes.
  • Combining The State of Maine Cookbook produced by the Democratic Women of Maine in 1925 with genealogical and archival research to create a personal and culinary portrait of selected participants.
  • Analyzing 1940s cookbooks to better understand housework and cookery as patriotic service.
  • A nutritional analysis of several mid-twentieth century recipes compared to similar recipes published on social media within the past year to contextualize the Center for Disease Control’s data on rising obesity rates in Maine.
  • A historical survey of labor-saving devices in the kitchen, focusing on the development of refrigeration from ice boxes to modern appliances and the transformation of American diets and culture as a result.
  • A geographic analysis of community cookbooks published throughout Maine to explore the regional variance in the identification of “Maine” food (lobster, potatoes, blueberries, etc.).
Collage of cookbook covers from the Schrumf Collection.

In course reflections, students addressed how their perception of a recipe had changed through course instruction and their research process. When asked to define a recipe, students described their shifting attitudes toward recipes and the discovery of recipes as historical sources:

“What I have learned is that a recipe can provide an image of the identity of women during a certain time period. We often do not get to hear about the perspective of women in history, so cookbooks help fill in the gaps of what it meant to be a woman during certain eras.” (Mara Hintz, Secondary Education)

“From the earliest cookbooks we looked at to the more modern ones, it was evident to me that recipes are often more than just directions for how to prepare food. In fact, recipes seem to tell their own story. They hint at relationships, economic status, available resources, and the roles of domestic women and how those roles changed over the years.” (Naomi Holzhauer, Biology)

“What I also learned from this class is how the power of a recipe can empower a movement in spreading a message, raising funds for the cause, or show a way of life that doesn’t have to be solely about homemaking . . . It is more than just a way to share good meal ideas. A recipe is a way to share culture, promote independence, and when used in the right way, used to further the conversation and culture shift regarding women’s roles in society.” (Sarah Nichols, Secondary Education)

“The dictionary’s definition of a recipe is as follows: ‘a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of ingredients required.’ I find that what this definition fails to capture the essence of recipes. It fails to acknowledge that recipes are so much more than just mere instructions and ingredients. Collectively, recipes give us insight into different parts of history. How people lived, what they had available, what their homes and families were like, how society functioned, among many more things. Recipes often times have deeper meanings and connections within our lives than we realize. History is certainly reflected in the cookbooks, diaries, and other examples of culinary literature. By studying recipe books throughout time, we are able to better understand how we came to be where we are with food today.” (Sarah Noble, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

“I’ve learned that a recipe is more than just a list of ingredients with instructions on how to make it. A recipe has history, family connections to people. A recipe could be a reminder of the first time you’ve made it with someone you love; a recipe that has been passed down through the female generations with all the written side notes of modifications.” (Sierra Crosby, Psychology/Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies)

Finally, history major Abby Belisle Haley, provided the perfect postscript for the course as an in-depth exploration of transformations in American women’s lives through the lens of food:

“In terms of ‘recipes’ I think this course in itself was a recipe because it provided new and interesting ingredients for the student to combine together to produce a wholly new product that is different from another dry, overcooked research paper.”

More information about the course can be found here, including syllabi and sample student projects.


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