How Food Culture Is Being Stolen From Women

by Elaine Reilly In kitchens all over the world, women are hard at work, and they have been for centuries. In many cultures, cooking has traditionally been women’s work. However, as feminist efforts to reclaim and elevate the status of women’s work have risen in popularity, cooking and food preparation in their most revered forms are being taken over by men and by patriarchal institutions. As we’ll see, this takeover comes at the expense of women in many cases.

Sexism and Harassment in Restaurant Kitchens

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem across careers and fields of work. However, sexual harassment seems especially prevalent in today’s restaurant kitchens. The Washington Post has documented many instances of sexual harassment in restaurant kitchens, from encounters in cramped storage rooms to powerful chefs demanding sexual favors in return for advancement.

The mistreatment of women in the kitchen doesn’t end there, however. The high demands of restaurant work on a cook’s time make it nearly impossible for a woman to manage the dual roles of chef and mother. Women are simultaneously expected to meet the demands of restaurant work, such as staying out late to complete a dinner shift, while being the primary caretaker of their children at the very same time.

Sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace are both common, unfortunately. However, the problem seems magnified within the restaurant industry. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Restaurants aren’t always run like a regular company. Oftentimes, a high-quality restaurant is run like a dictatorship, with the head chef calling the shots for everyone below. In a normal business, the job of the HR administrator to handle complaints about a superior’s behavior, but in a restaurant options are limited if things start to get bad.
  • As anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry can attest, undocumented workers make up the backbone of some of the country’s most beloved fine dining establishments. Not to mention the presence of undocumented workers at chains throughout the country. However, undocumented workers are not well-equipped by the law to respond to harassment. Fighting back against a harasser can lead to deportation or worse, so many choose to stay silent in the face of abusive colleagues.
  • Restaurants are the most busy when everyone else is finishing their work day. This means that women who pursue careers in the restaurant industry are stuck between a rock and a hard place: fulfill their obligations at work and make the commitments necessary to advance in the industry or fulfill what’s expected of them as women to be the caregiver in a household. Men who want to become popular chefs face no such dilemma.

Heirloom Seeds

Women aren’t getting the respect that they deserve in restaurant kitchens doing work that has traditionally been women’s work. However, women are also facing hostile takeovers in other arenas of food culture.

This time it’s not grabby chefs that are causing trouble. Instead, heirloom seed traditions, passed down over generations between women in the Global South, are under attack by genetically modified crops. While GMOs have been shown to have no negative health side effects, they can have negative effects on those who make a living through agriculture. For example, seeds from Monsanto and other Western companies have destroyed farms in agricultural regions in the Global South.

The seeds, initially provided to poverty-stricken parts of the world in order to solve the food crisis, will produce a much stronger harvest than the region’s heirloom crops, depleting the soil at a frightening rate. By the time the regional soil is spent, knowledge of the heirloom seeds has skipped a generation, making it incredibly difficult for women in these regions to reclaim their food culture.

What Can Be Done

It can be hard to see a way forward for such expensive institutional problems. After all, what can one person do in the face of an entire culture that’s OK with sexual harassment? Or against corporations that span nations?

We may not be able to take the fight directly to these institutions, but we can make decisions that affect our own communities. Be smart about what you buy — buy local crops when you can. Get behind a local CSA to make sure that you know where your food is coming from. When it comes to dining out, support women chefs and farm-to-table restaurants, which are known for keeping their food local.

Traditionally, food culture has belonged to women. It’s time to take it back.