Women's Kitchen Honor Roll

Not until the middle of Saturday afternoon did it occur to me that it was International Women's Day.

I kinda kicked myself for being remiss but quickly realized it's never too late to pay tribute to and honor the women who have made the world more delicious.

A complete list of the women who have made a mark as chefs, cookbook writers, food journalists, television personalities, restaurateurs, winemakers, farmers, cooking teachers, historians, scientists, cheesemakers, patissiers and chocolatiers would go on for days.

And that's not even counting all the home cooks, the abuelas, nonnas and grannies, who, with all kinds of tricks up their sleeves, would fry chicken and bake cookies, teach you not to talk with your mouth full, let you lick the batter and teach you, when you were good and ready, the recipes that preceded both of you, from another time and faraway place. They transported seeds from their homelands and planted them in new soil, continuing a legacy of nurturing, from farm to table.

Below, my list, but by no means comprehensive. These are just some of the women whose culinary accomplishments and bravery in the face of discrimination, harassment and work-life juggling has had a profound impact on my life and my career in food. I am forever grateful for their passion, their wisdom, their courage and their willingness to share lessons learned along the way.

Here's to....

....Julia Child (1912-2004), for having the chutzpah back in the 1950s not only to take on French cuisine but to teach the world, through her books, her history-making television series and her unforgettable voice.

...Ann Cooper, who wrote "A Women's Place is in the Kitchen," an important history book about women chefs and food writers. Cooper is making important history herself these days, as a champion of nutritious school meals (Check out her "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.")

...Elizabeth David (1913-1992) and ... M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), pioneering food writers, who shared their passion for the kitchen in spite of World War II-imposed rations and hardships, who wrote with gusto and whose prose always makes me hungry.

...Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915), a real firebrand, who ran cooking schools at the turn of the 20th century and who penned the famous "Boston Cooking-School Cookbook," which was resurrected in 1996 as the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook" by the inimitable Marion Cunningham, a culinary grand dame in her own right.

...Sheilagh Karl, a home cook who lived across the street from my childhood home in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Mrs. Karl cooked from the books of James Beard, Maida Heatter and Julia Child, when frozen food was still considered de rigeur. I found her passion intoxicating. I'd slip out of the house and go watch her cook, totally mesmerized, as opera blared from the kitchen radio. She was truly my first cooking inspiration.

....Edna Lewis (1917-2006), the grande dame of southern cooking, who made history in 1948 as the first African-American woman chef at Cafe Nicholson in New York. Miss Lewis's accomplishments are too many to list here. Get your hands on "The Gift of Southern Cooking" the book she co-authored with Scott Peacock, if you haven't already. I am grateful to have made her acquaintance in the late 1990s, when I had no idea what a force she was.

.....Deborah Madison for bringing vegetarian food into the American dining consciousness with her Greens restaurant in the 1970s and to Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote the ground-breaking "Diet for a Small Planet" in 1971 and who continues to work against the man-made cycle of world hunger.

...Frances Roth and Katherine Angell, who founded the Culinary Institute of America in 1946...

... Amelia Simmons, for being the first American to write a cookbook for Americans : her 1796, "American Cookery"

...Alice Waters, who opened Chez Panisse in 1971 in Berkeley, Calif. and is responsible in many ways for changing the culinary consciousness of this country. Waters continues to write and is fervently passionate about local, sustainable agriculture and is the founder of the Edible Schoolyard, both in Oakland and in New Orleans.

Here in Washington, I will forever be grateful to chefs Ann Cashion, who gave me my first cooking job, Gillian Clark, my first cooking mentor, Kate Jansen, who encouraged me to apply to cooking school, Susan McCreight Lindeborg, who, although relocated to New Mexico, continues to be my culinary counsel, eternally asking the tough questions and Mary Richter (Zuki Moon), who gave me a chance right out of cooking school.

Is there a special lady in your life with magical culinary powers? Add to the list in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 10, 2008; 11:08 AM ET Culinary History
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Hi Kim:
Is the Katherine Angell that you mention the same woman who was a famous editor at the New Yorker, whose son, Roger Angell still writes for them and whose second husband was E.B. White? She wrote a fantastic book about gardening that is a joy to read.

Posted by: Bethesda Mom | March 10, 2008 10:41 AM

Kim, your list is awfully US- and Euro-centric, particularly for INTERNATIONAL Women's Day! No one to commend from the so-called "third world?"

Posted by: CC | March 10, 2008 11:53 AM

Bethesda Mom, here's a link to a recent piece on Angell in Yale's Alumni Magazine. I think you're referring to Katharine Angell White


Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 10, 2008 12:00 PM

What a timely post! I could kick myself for not making a bigger deal of IWDay with my 5 year old *daughter*. And I just read Ann Cooper's book on lunch reform and LOVED it. Sorry to shout. I posted about her book and the Berkeley Edible Schoolyard today. If you know of any wonderful local chefs who want to work on DC's school food scene, I am all ears. Maybe you are interested in this too? MamaBird at SurelyYouNest.com

Posted by: MamaBird | March 10, 2008 1:02 PM

CC - instead of chastising Kim for what she wrote, how about including some international women of your own - proactive instead of reactive is a much better way to go about life. It would also serve to inform the rest of us about international and "third world" women culinaires.

Posted by: jm | March 10, 2008 1:05 PM

in that line, some of the women who have influenced me include my mom, my grandmother, the Pennsylvania dutch women who babysat me as a child and taught me about real food, local food and love through food, my "mama" in africa who taught me how to make the perfect chapati, and so many other women I would have to spend all day writing to get through the list.

Posted by: jm | March 10, 2008 1:07 PM

Growing up, we would refer to my grandmother's Boston Cooking School Cookbook whenever there was some classic technique that needed explaining.

And then when I moved out on my own, Marion Cunningham's was the first cookbook I bought for myself.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 10, 2008 2:17 PM

My mother who put a tasty homemade meal on the table every night despite working full-time nights as a nurse.

And my college roommate's mother who had what we called the best restaurant in NYC in her very tiny project kitchen. I'll always remember the first and best paella I've ever had. She was secular, so when she did a meal of traditional Jewish food, it was food from every holiday (burp!). When a group of us went to a formal Japanese restaurant, she had a Greek spinach pie waiting for us when we got back 'cause she knew we'd be hungry. I learned there was a whole new world of food out there from her!

Posted by: Fran | March 10, 2008 2:31 PM

I love my Fannie Farmer (Marion Cunningham version) cookbook and baking books! They were given to me for Christmas by my parents when I was 11. Mom had started grad school that year, and we all agreed to cook for one night. That, plus pizza and leftover nights, meant that Mom had most evenings free for classes and studying. For we kids, she chose simple recipes, bought the ingredients and wrote out super-detailed instructions. I got really interested in this and wanted to have a hand in planning the meals, so Mom gave me these cookbooks for Christmas.

The books were perfect for the novice cook because they explained everything in the reference sections and the recipe instructions were clear.

The binding is falling off the main cookbook from overuse now, and there are notes in childish handwriting in the margins. I've bought, and been given, many cookbooks since then. But the Fannie Farmer is the FIRST place I go to look up a recipe.

While Fannie Farmer is my main reference, I gotta give it up for Mom as the woman who got me into cooking. Aside from the aforementioned chore, she always welcomed me into the kitchen even when I was little. One of my first kitchen tasks was cracking eggs. She'd explain everything as we were going along. Of course, being a cook's helper, I got to lick the cookie dough bowl.....

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | March 10, 2008 3:11 PM

Early in my life, my mother was my biggest inspiration. At that time, most of her cooking was classic southern fare: fried chicken, okra, all sorts of pie, cornbread -- you get the idea. As I grew up, my mom grew up too, as a cook, particularly after my dad and she went to Europe. When they came back, all sorts of enticing new meals began to appear, including boeuf bourguignon, a special favorite. My older sister began cooking too, bringing home ideas from her home ec class. I still remember a marvelous chocolate pudding she made one night, and her attempt at a Buche de Noel. And my aunt, who never ever cooked, nonetheless influenced me by taking me out to try new foods when we visited her in New York City.
With those examples in my family, I was cooking by the time I was a teen, although I had a pretty limited (albeit fabulous) repertoire, which remained that way well into my adulthood. A single career woman for many years, I never made much time to try new recipes. Once I married and had a live-in guinea pig, I began to cook more, and realized I really enjoyed it.
As an adult, I have found inspiration in women writers whose love of cookery and food spilled into their work: Madeleine L'Engle, Jill Ker Conway, and Agatha Christie, plus the effervescent Jill Conner Browne, come to mind. And after reading the biography of Julia Child last year, my response was to get into the kitchen and cook up something wonderful.
In fact, my three favorite cookbooks were all written by women: The Perfect Recipe, by Pamela Anderson, The Good Egg, by Marie Simmons, and The Way to Cook, by Julia Child.
As I have grown older -- I'm 43 now -- my mother continues to inspire me in my culinary endeavors. It was she who gave me my subscription to Cook's Illustrated a couple of years ago, and who is always glad to come over and try whatever new dish I am experimenting with.
I thank all the women in my life who have broadened my mind and my palate!

Posted by: tex | March 10, 2008 6:00 PM

I would add Irma S. Rombauer to the honor roll. The Joy of Cooking was a gift from my parents and helped this bachelor eat well. Even now, though I've graduated to more chichi cooking, it still is a treasured reference.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | March 10, 2008 11:09 PM

I agree with BB - I give Joy as a gift to each friend or family member when they first move out on their own - can't live without it. Thank god for Mrs. Rombauer (and her family). The Betty Crocker Cookbook was the one in our family with the destroyed binding, dirty fingerprints and much loved pages. What great pictures!

Posted by: jm | March 11, 2008 12:25 AM

I would add Ruth Reichl to the list as well - she really transformed the NYC restaurant scene. While I know she wasn't doing the cooking, she changed the way people think of food and dining.

Posted by: has3979 | March 11, 2008 8:22 AM

My mother was an excellent cook, frequently trying new things. As a french teacher, her students were thrilled when she would teach them how to make chocolate eclairs.

On a famous chef note, I always like it when someone points out that Julia Child, who famously said eat what you like and enjoy your butter, outlived Dr. Atkins by many years.

Posted by: Dave Marks | March 11, 2008 8:24 AM

jm -- pointing something out that is probably not even noticeable to most readers of this blog is not "reactive." Would you have even noticed had I not pointed it out? In that sense, it is certainly "proactive" and, I think, helpful.

But I suppose you want specifics, right? How about Patricia Yeo, Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffrey, Joyce Chen, for a start?

Posted by: cc | March 11, 2008 9:01 AM

I had two lists scribbled -- and while writing my piece, I had only one in my midst. Later yesterday, I found the other piece of paper with the following names: Madhur Jaffrey; Leah Chase, the unstoppable 84-year-old New Orleans chef who recently reopened her restaurant Dooky Chase; Susanna Foo, who opened my eyes to Chinese cooking back in the 80s when she opened her groundbreaking restaurant in Philadelphia; food writers Diana Abu-Jaber, who brought Jordan a little bit closer to me and Grace Young, who has schooled me on home cooking in China and Hong Kong.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 11, 2008 9:15 AM


Dr. Atkins died from a fall and hitting his head; not diet related. Nice try.

Posted by: lmthib | March 11, 2008 10:59 AM

My bad. Okay substitute Euell Gibbons. Oops! Euell died as a result of a genetic disorder. Okay then, let's just cheer Julia Childs who lived into her '90s.

Posted by: Dave | March 11, 2008 12:45 PM

And these are "international" women? Funny.

Posted by: whatever | March 11, 2008 2:17 PM

The holiday is meant to be an international celebration of all women.

When I lived in Russia it was a federal holiday- and still is, everyone got off from work and all the women were feted by the men around them. It was memorable.

Posted by: siro | March 12, 2008 1:36 AM

My grandmothers and my own mother were very influential in my cooking life. They cooked dinner, a real meal, just about every single night of their family life. My Granny taught me about fried green tomatoes and red eye gravy. My Grandma taught me roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. My mom still inspires me with her cooking but was instrumental in my passion for soup-making. Lately my biggest cooking influence is Shauna Ahern, the glutenfreegirl blogger in Seattle Washington. She helped me joyfully embrace the limitations of my gluten free diet and love cooking again.

Posted by: patty | March 12, 2008 4:28 PM

Anna Thomas opened the door to gourmet vegetarian cuisine with her Vegetarian Epicure books and certainly deserves a place on this list.

Posted by: Some Dude | March 13, 2008 3:07 PM

The two women who taught me to cook are Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith. How to Eat and Delia's Complete Cookery Course are the first 2 things I would grab to save in a fire, after my children and husband, of course.

Posted by: Ann | March 14, 2008 7:11 AM

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