Special Series Guest Post: Peace Cookbooks: Mixing Gender, Food, and Activism

Today's guest post by Abby M. Dubisar on peace cookbooks is part of our special series: Conceptualizing Cookbooks. 

Peace Cookbooks: Mixing Gender, Food, and Activism

It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.

-The Great Day Cookbook, 1983

In 2010, the peace organization Codepink published a cookbook, Peace Never Tasted So Sweet: Women’s Delicious Recipes for a Sweeter World (With Action ‘How-tos’ and a Few Cookies Thrown in For Good Measure). A few months before its publication, I was finishing my dissertation on rhetoric and women’s peace activism and noticed Codepink’s call for recipes. I was intrigued that Codepink would expand its published materials to include a cookbook. Doing so took on gendered risks since cookbooks are not necessarily considered authoritative activist resources. But Codepink is known for playing with gendered norms and expectations for femininity (such as in their major use of the color pink), so I figured that the cookbook might prove useful for my research. Although I was unable to include the cookbook in my dissertation study, I turned my attention to it once I began researching how food, peace activism, and gender intersect.

Historically, women have used a number of persuasive strategies to argue for peace, including drawing on their various statuses: as mothers, as potential war victims, as individuals treated differently by militarism and other patriarchal endeavors, and so on. To argue for peace, they have held marches, organized strikes, disrupted political gatherings, delivered speeches, and tried countless other methods of persuasion. In light of Codepink’s 2010 cookbook, I began researching whether other peace cookbooks exist. And they do. To date I have collected five cookbooks that address peace as well as cooking, finding them on ABEBooks.com and ShopGoodwill.com and by browsing used bookshops whenever I could. 

 I found four peace cookbooks that were published between 1968 and 1983. The Los Angeles branch of the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) movement published two volumes of its Peace de Resistance cookbook, in 1968 and 1970, the Greenwich Village Peace Center (GVPC) published its own cookbook, Peacemeal, in 1973, and two members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Velia Dean and Barbara B. J. Zimmerman, in 1983 published the baking book, The Great Day Cookbook. I have yet to find any peace cookbooks published between 1983 and 2010. The GVPC cookbook is the only one not published by an organization specifically identified as a women’s organization, yet it addresses economic disparity and other power-related issues in its contents.

I am fascinated by several of the themes revealed in these unique cookbooks, and I will address two of these themes here: (1) connecting food and peace and (2) subverting gendered norms within a gendered text (both “doing” and “undoing” gender within a single text). After addressing both of these themes, I will turn to a few more recent cookbooks that relate to my small archive, perhaps revealing a growing trend of connecting activism with food in the form of a traditional cookbook (with recipes and other cooking instruction).

Connecting Food and Peace

In my research I have chronicled how women have connected food and peace, a topic that deserves more consideration than space allows, including Jane Addams’s hope that women could identify with antiwar positions out of concern regarding food and hunger. Looking back, she wrote, “I hoped to find some trace of woman’s recognition of her obligation to feed the world and of her discovery that such a duty was incompatible with warfare” (Second Twenty Years at Hull House, 144). Others connected food (generally nonthreatening to the status quo) with peace activism (threatening to the status quo), such as when New York’s Grandmothers Against the War tried to enlist in the military armed with buckets of cookies. Such activists are performing a political action while toying with the notion that women are obligated to cook and bake, creating a disorienting contradiction. Also, for many women and feminists, the obligation to feed the world positions food and cooking as peace issues. Codepink’s cookbook, for example, encourages readers to provide food at peace events since it brings people together. In addition to publishing recipes, Codepink uses recipe as a metaphor in order to teach readers how to conduct various types of political actions. They also play on terms such as pie by featuring the pie graph for the U.S. budget, showing the government’s militarist priorities.

The quotation from The Great Day Cookbook at the start of my blog entry is the 1979 slogan for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). But this cookbook also connects cooking and peace throughout its pages by inserting quotations at the bottom of recipe pages from famous and respected leaders. Since war creates hunger, the quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower declares, “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed” (19). Because hunger and war affect resources and their distribution, this quotation concerning the waste that war causes attempts to cause bakers to connect antihunger sentiments with an antiwar position.

Doing and Undoing Gender via Cookbookery

For those unfamiliar with the concept of doing gender, the recent article “Bottling Gender: Accomplishing Gender through Craft Beer Consumption” offers a helpful description in its literature review (297). Put simply, doing is a verb and thus indicates that gender must be done in an active way. Such activity can be located along a continuum from conformity to rejection of expectations as we each do or undo gender within the various contexts of our lives. Thus, gender is not a natural occurrence; rather, it is a culturally embedded collection of norms and practices that have been socially constructed, revised, and rerevised over history, reinforcing or destabilizing power structures across space and time. For example, as the authors of this craft beer article show, food and drinks such as beer enable us to do gender or, conversely, undo gender by confirming or rejecting gendered expectations projected on to us by power brokers who try to leverage gendered power by, say, marketing “manly” beers and putting pink labels on drinks to hail women to buy them. In the culinary habits and traditions we carry out, reject, or otherwise critique or play with, we are often also doing and undoing gender for ourselves and various audiences.

Both volumes of Peace de Resistance assume its readers cook for their families, featuring recipes that do gender through referring to the readers’ hungry families. Yet the recipes also undo gender by assuming readers would rather do activist work than spend time cooking. Thus, the white, heteronormative patriarchal family is both upheld and destabilized. One of my favorite examples illustrating this dynamic includes the recipe for “Russian Borscht,” which is followed by a different recipe for “Rushin’ Borscht.” The second recipe opens with the line, “Make in 10 minutes in the morning before rushing off to your WSP [Women Strike for Peace] meeting,” thus enabling a home cook to quickly fulfill her domestic expectations so she can go demonstrate against nuclear armament. Another one of my favorite examples, a recipe for “Barbecue Leg of Lamb,” subverts the expectation that home cooks’ obligations to prepare food for their family is their primary purpose by saying, “Your family will never guess that while this lamb was cooking in the oven[,] . . . you were cooking up something for WSP on the telephone” (n. pag.). The recipes thus do and undo gender by offering readers ways to fulfill their nonpolitical domestic cooking activities while engaging in political action.

Conclusion: Activist Cookbooks in Contemporary Times

Although the GVPC cookbook is not oriented around a gendered or feminist identity, it does address class and strained food budgets in its recipes since many peace activists are poor, and feeding a crowd of people at a peace event can be expensive. This book also assumes its readers need to cook quickly in order to save time for their activism. Like many cookbooks, this book formalizes oral cooking instructions in its published pages. For example, author Grace Paley tells how she has learned about cooking from her Peace Center friends: “I have also gathered some hot tips at the Resistance dinners which we served once a week at the Peace Center to about a hundred young men who were not going to be part of the U.S. plan to torment and murder the Vietnamese people” (n. pag.). Delivering Codepink’s message a generation earlier, Paley illustrates in this cookbook how people need to be well nourished and energized in order to engage politically. That is, food is essential in peace-activist and not just domestic settings.

I mention the GVPC cookbook here in my conclusion because I see similar rhetorical moves being made in Julia Turshen’s 2017 book Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, which addresses how activists can cook delicious food for large groups of people, communities brought together to fight injustice. Like the Codepink cookbook, Turshen’s cookbook includes activist strategies from various contributors. Its proceeds all go to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), invoking the common cookbook tradition of being a fundraising mechanism. In her introduction, Turshen also addresses the issue of time. As the Food Team Leader of the Citizen Action Network of New York, her role was to ensure that “organizers didn’t have to think about what was for dinner. In saving them that time and providing the food, they could continue their important work and be guaranteed the comfort and nourishment of a homemade meal” (11). Another cookbook that belongs with this collection is 2017’s Cooking Up Trouble: Recipes to Nourish Women, by Leela Cyd and Anne Parker. Its proceeds benefit Planned Parenthood. While its contents include recipes without political context or connection, its introductory and preface materials describe the book as an activist intervention, rather than just a book of recipes. For example, in the introduction, Linyee Yuan reminisces about the recent Women’s March on Washington and how her group of marchers “were sending the incoming administration a message about women’s bodies and women’s rights, we were doing it together, and we were being powered by raw cacao truffles made by a mother, granola provided by a wife, and gingerbread cookings tucked away for the march by a sister” (n. pag.). This example of doing gender by addressing both marching and cooking continues the tradition established by earlier activist cookbooks.

As Turshen wrote in a New York Times op-ed published when her cookbook came out, “When it comes to feeding the resistance, there is no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.”  These cookbooks serve as to remind us how generations of individuals, many of them women, have contributed to this resistance.

If you know of other cookbooks that would fit into this burgeoning archive, please contact me at dubisar<at>gmail.com.) I have written for academic audiences about these books (see below) and delivered public lectures about them. I welcome your comments and questions about my small archive of cookbooks. Also, thank you to Lori Peterson for her adept editorial contributions to this blog entry.

Abby M. Dubisar is an Associate Professor in the English department at Iowa State University, where she also holds faculty affiliations in Women's and Gender Studies and Sustainable Agriculture. As a rhetoric scholar, she studies how gender, food, and feminism intersect and has published about activist cookbooks, student food activism, using the pressing issue of food waste to teach about rhetoric and media, and more. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on gender and communication, analysis of popular culture texts, feminist rhetoric, and activist rhetoric. Abby is currently conducting interviews with individuals who identify as women farmers or foodworkers. If you are willing to be interviewed, please contact her: dubisar<at>gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @adubisar. 

For more of Abby's writings on this topic, see: “Promoting Peace, Subverting Domesticity: Cookbooks Against War, 1968-1983.” Food, Feminisms, and Rhetorics, edited by Melissa Goldthwaite, Southern Illinois University Press, 2017, pp. 60-74, and “‘If I Can’t Bake, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution’: CODEPINK’s Activist Literacies of Peace and Pie.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-18.