Why we should give female food writers more respect


Carody Culver

Annabel Crabb on the cover of her book 'Special Delivery'.

Annabel Crabb on the cover of her book 'Special Delivery'.

Fresh from the Australian leg of her Simply Nigella book tour, Nigella Lawson is still being touted by the media as a 'domestic goddess'. This cutesy moniker has stuck ever since the release of Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess 16 years ago – a title that was meant to be ironic. But our characterisation of women who cook (for some people, that equates to 'all women, everywhere') hasn't moved far beyond the 1950s housewife cliché.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these gender stereotypes often play out in the pages of contemporary cookbooks. Pay a visit to your local bookshop's cookery section, and you're likely to spot fair few titles confirming the antiquated idea that 'women cook, men grill'.

When Nigella dared to deviate from her 'domestic goddess' persona by including a recipe for avocado toast in her Simply Nigella TV series in late 2015, Twitter lit up with indignation – apparently, it doesn't count as a real recipe if your four-year-old can make it (strangely, no one vilified Bill Granger for including avocado toast in 2008's Bill's Sydney Food). Just a few months beforehand, male chef and cookbook author Pete Evans had to upset a lot of health experts with his recipes to court similar outrage from fans.

Irena Macri laughs over her salad on the cover of 'Happy Go Paleo'.

Irena Macri laughs over her salad on the cover of 'Happy Go Paleo'.

So what's going on here? Is this part of a wider problem of gender stereotypes skewing the levels of respect we ascribe to male and female cookbook authors?


Cookbooks continue to represent a significant portion of the Australian book market. In December, the Australian Retailers Association predicted that Australian cookbook sales would rise by 50 per cent during the Christmas rush; according to Neilsen BookScan, this month's top-selling non-fiction title is Jamie Oliver's Everyday Superfood.

A quick survey of last year's bestselling cookbooks reveals some uncomfortable truths about how cookbooks by women often seem to be marketed and designed differently to those by men. While cookbooks don't always feature their authors as cover stars, those that do are usually penned by food celebrities. Jamie Oliver grins into the camera on Save with Jamie, posing in front of a nondescript white wall that may or may not be a kitchen; Matthew Evans poses manfully by an outdoor table on Summer on Fat Pig Farm; Marco Pierre White looks aggressively chef-like on the 25th anniversary edition of White Heat; Nigel Slater stares pensively into the middle distance on A Year of Good Eating: The Kitchen Diaries III. At the other end of the gender shelf, if you will, Nigella Lawson stands beatifically behind a kitchen bench, holding a stack of white bowls, on Simply Nigella; Karen Martini smiles down at her chopping board on New Kitchen; Irena Macri laughs over her salad (don't we all, ladies!) on Happy Go Paleo; even Annabel Crabb poses by a cake stand on Special Delivery.

Matthew Evans poses manfully by an outdoor table on 'Summer on Fat Pig Farm'.

Matthew Evans poses manfully by an outdoor table on 'Summer on Fat Pig Farm'.

So what about all those books that don't have their authors on the cover?

Food trends, from fermenting and foraging to wholefoods and clean eating, tend to drive the kinds of cookbooks we see hitting shelves. Trends can shape whole subgenres, like celebrity chef cookbooks or baking cookbooks. And some of these subgenres seem to have noticeable relationships with gender. Overwhelmingly, celebrity chef cookbooks are by men – Neil Perry, Heston Blumenthal, George Calombaris, Yotam Ottolenghi, Adam Liaw. Some of the biggest names behind the farm-to-table movement are also men – because farming is manly, right? – like Rohan Anderson and Matthew Evans. But if it's wholefoods, diets and baking you're after, it gets trickier to find a cookbook author without two X chromosomes.

This approach doesn't just reinforce gender stereotypes; it contributes to a lack of respect for women, to people thinking it's OK to publicly lash out at a famous female cook because she's supposedly not fulfilling her culinary duty. But who gets to decide what form that duty takes? And how much is our concept of that duty influenced by the way we so often see gender represented in cookbooks? The food industry is notoriously male-dominated anyway – the 2015 World's 50 Best Restaurants list features only two establishments with female head chefs. That's four per cent of the list.

Of course, there are cookbooks that don't conform to cliché, like Hana Assafiri's Moroccan Soup Bar, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Love Your Leftovers and Heidi Swanson's Near and Far. But there are enough that do to give us cause for concern. Ultimately, it's not just cookbooks that need to change, it's our attitudes – because our cultural output reflects our social mores. Women who cook are women who know about food; women who cook for a living are not necessarily less qualified or knowledgeable than their male counterparts. It's about time we started acknowledging this by giving female cookbook authors the respect they deserve – even if they're telling us how to make avocado toast.