Throughout history, cooking shows up again and again as primarily women’s work. As a reviewer of Richard Wrangham’s thought-provoking Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009) summarizes, “Here, too, Wrangham apologetically explains, is probably where the global subjugation of women began. Women, he observes, do most of the cooking in most societies (he describes it as a historic phenomenon, not a biological necessity), and the division of labor around food could have been the beginning of the marriage contract and the prototypical human household.”
So what does this rather intellectual interpretation have to do with British cooking and, more specifically, with book #13? Read on. It’s the last book in the Baker’s Dozen, a little lagniappe for you, as a Baker’s Dozen implies!
13. The WI Cookbook, by Mary Gywnn (2015):
I first learned of the iconic Women’s Institute, or W.I. as it is fondly known, through watching a film starring Helen Mirren – “Calendar Girls” (2003) – a rollicking and poignant true story of the cultural impact of a group of determined Yorkshire women. One of the activities most associated with the W.I. turned out to be cooking, and some of the women in the calendar do just that. Then I ran across Jambusters: The Story of the W.I. in the Second World War (2013), by Julie Summers, also featured as a TV series.
Fine and fascinating, for the W.I. appeared to be much like the Junior League, a similar American organization for women. Both groups groups arose at a time when social mores restricted women’s activities and both groups produced cookbooks for charitable purposes, a practice that began during the Civil War years in America (1861-1865). So when I saw that the W.I. published a 100-year celebratory cookbook, tracking recipes published in their magazine, Home & Country (now called W.I. Life), I couldn’t resist the temptation.
The first English W.I. began in Anglesey, in 1915, to help with the food shortages so rampant then because of World War I. By 1917, a highly driven and and competent woman, Lady Gertrude (Trudie) Denman, took the helm of this remarkable organization, which welcomed the rich and not so rich alike. Elizabeth David credited the W.I. with saving and recording scores of traditional recipes, which she relied on while writing English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977). Members of the W.I. early on operated under the very restrictions discussed by Dr. Wrangham: cooking and food subjugated women, but at the same time, food allowed women to move out of the private sphere of the household and enter the public sphere inhabited by men.
The apex of the organization came in the 1950s, but a newer focus on current issues facing Britain possibly assures a rather bright future for the WI. As always, the women of the WI find food to be one of their major foci, with nothing less than advocating for a reduction of harmful chemicals in the environment and for improvements in farming/gardening. The WI Cookbook traces patterns of change over the 100 years since that first WI set itself up in Anglesey.
Organized chronologically in increments of ten years, decades as it were, the book both conveys the sense of the passage of the time and the changes that occurred in British cookery as women found themselves taking a greater role in public sphere activities. One of the first recipes is “Kedgeree,” originally an Indian dal and rice dish, served at breakfast during the Victorian and Edwardian years. And one of the last is “Couscous with Beans, Feta, and Olives.” In between, you’ll find many of the usual British standbys: Yorkshire Parkin, Fish Cakes, Toad in the Hole, Lemon Curd, and Shrewsbury Biscuits. A recipe for Beef Curry appears, as well as Fried Chicken American style and strawberry shortcake, perhaps a sign of American influence through a marriage, travel, or otherwise. French-influenced recipes pop up here and there as well. Green Vegetable Curry and Thai Red Prawn Curry with Basil hint at the influx of Asian influences in the kitchen, too, but overall, The WI Cookbook either does not mirror the culinary changes in Britain or cooks prefer to stick to older food ways in their own kitchens.
Ms. Gywnn accumulated the recipes in The WI Cookbook through the W.I. archives, recipes in the official W.I. magazine Home & Country, Google searches, an appeal on Facebook for contemporary recipes, and over 200 W.I. local and national cookbooks. She found local cookbooks of immense help, because she felt that they record what families were actually cooking and eating. The book would be improved by more analysis, but certainly has initiated a conversation about women’s roles through time, as well as the impact of globalization and new cuisines on traditional British fare.
For a quick jaunt through modern British food history, The WI Cookbook delivers just enough to tickle your curiosity, as well as recipes that sustained souls and bodies during wartime, stringent rationing, and times of abundance.
Check out all of the books in this series:
1. Florence White’s Good Things in England
2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England
3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles
4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen
5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things
6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book
7. Jane Grigson’s English Food
8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook
9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book
10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast
11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers
12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston
13. Mary Gwynn’s The WI Cookbook
© 2015 C. Bertelsen