Many a woman did this household task multiple times every single day. It was a heavy burden, yet it is also the one reclaimed by many women (and men) as the most artistic, expressive, and fulfilling part of housework.
This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.
It is ridiculous to try to cover the history of cooking in one episode. When I talked about housecleaning, my problem was finding enough sources. On cooking, my local library alone produced so many books I could barely stagger out the door with them. This topic could easily be not just its own series, but its own podcast.
It would be equally ridiculous to ignore cooking in a series on housework. So here’s what I’m going to do: At the most basic level, cooking is about heating food up, so today’s episode is about how historical housewives managed that. To a lesser extent, safe eating also requires keeping excess food cold, or if not, then preserving it in some other way. Next week’s episode is going to cover the history of how housewives did or (mostly didn’t) manage that.
What the food actually is will be incidental to my story. But if you are hungry and interested in all the succulent details then let me recommend some podcasts that actually do food history. The History of American Food takes a fascinating and chronological deep dive into what Americans have eaten over the centuries, with episodes on pickles, eggs, venison, and even horses and why we don’t eat them except when we do. The Wonders of the World podcast is part travel, part history, and part food, guaranteed to make you wish you were on vacation. Gastropod calls itself “Food with a side of science and history.” You can listen about licorice, fortune cookies, kiwi, and McDonald’s there, among other things. And then there’s Anthrochef’s History of Food, and he goes all over the world and all over the timeline too with some episodes on kimchi, or the Columbian exchange, or the domestication of corn.
If you are still with me, and haven’t switched podcasts yet, then let’s talk heat. It’s always dangerous to use superlatives, but the oldest evidence of cooking fires I found is the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa, from over 1.5 million years ago (Miller).
It is hard to overstate the importance of this development. Some anthropologists have gone so far as to mark it as the moment when apes became humans (Miller, Wilson, 77). Cooked food aids digestion, so you get more energy from it. All that extra energy can fuel our big brains to create other developments. No one was keeping a journal at that point, but based on later food developments, it seems likely to me that the old curmudgeons were surly and reluctant about this new-fangled cooking idea, preferring their food raw and wriggling, as it were. But the old curmudgeons lost that battle, even though cooking itself was no easy task.
Until very recently, cooking was largely the art of fire management, and managing it was the primary domestic activity (Wilson, 77). Women have often been the ones doing the managing. Actually cooking is not as gendered as many of the other tasks I’ve described in this series. Evidence of men in the kitchen goes back thousands of years. Kitchens in medieval castles were often staffed by men working in the nude, and certainly there’s been lots of bemoaning the fact that celebrity chefs today tend to be men. But most kitchens were not in castles and most chefs are not celebrities. In a humble homestead, things were organized differently.
The explanations for assigning this task to women vary, from evolutionary to religious, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the purely logical. Both fire management and child management require someone to stay put and keep an eye out. They dovetail with each other in a way that hunting simply doesn’t (Schenone, xxvi).
I myself have built a fire, but only with the aid of dryer lint, a cheap lighter, and a bottle of lighter fluid, and our women of the past had none of the above.
Image: Swedish woman with a fire striker and flint, Wikimedia Commons
You can start a fire with flint and a fire striker, but it involves both skill and possibly a bit of luck, so many women took the approach of never letting the fire go fully out. Building it up again was often the first task of the morning, and it was not a trivial task. Nineteenth century guides referred to it as an “architectural achievement” (Carroll, 9).
Assuming you manage to get the fire going at all, you’ll need a good working knowledge of how to get hotter and cooler fires depending on what you want to cook. Written cooking guides from not that long ago, historically speaking, would tell you to cook such and such dish over a “tender” fire. Or a “clear” fire. Or a moderate, solid, quick, slow, brisk, or soaking fire (Carroll, 10). I have no idea what most of those mean, especially that last one.
You’ll need an enormous about of fuel for your fire, and its presence or lack thereof will have a significant effect on what you cook. If you’ve ever wondered why the British are famous for big roasts and the Chinese are famous for finely chopped stir fries, it’s because China had a fuel shortage and for a long time Britain didn’t. (Wilson, xvi, 82). It takes more fuel to cook big chunks than small chunks.
The most basic way to cook is to roast the food on a stick over the fire. Pots of any kind are very recent in the archaeological record. Only about 9-10,000 years for clay pots (Wilson, 3). Metal pots are far more recent (about 4000 years old), and they have the advantage of being harder to break. A basket or a wooden box cannot be put directly on the fire, but you can fill it with water, heat stones in your fire, and then use tongs or a spoon to transfer the hot ones into your container. If your stones are hot enough, your water will boil (Schenone, xxix).
And then there’s pit cooking. In many parts of the world, people cooked by digging pits in the ground, lining it with stones or animal hides and then filling with hot stones and food before covering it back up. This works so well for starchy tubers and roots that Polynesians actually had and then lost the art of pottery. They simply didn’t need it for the food supplies they had. (Wilson, 7- 8) Pit cooking was better.
The benefit of pots was that it allowed people to catch the juices that otherwise drip into the fire or get absorbed into the basket, box, or pit. The first written recipes are from Mesopotamia, and they are for broths and bouillons cooked clay pots (Wilson, 14)
Pots had the disadvantage of being far more expensive than a roasting stick.
Image: Greek casserole with brazier, 6th-4th century BCE, Wikimedia Commons
In England in 1412, a metal cauldron cost 4 shillings. A clay version cost only 1 penny and there are 12 pennies to a shilling (Wilson, 19) Your average domestic housewife probably owned only one pot, if she even owned that (Wilson, 17). And that is why one-pot meals were the norm and the default menu was stew.
But actually you can cook multiple dishes in one pot. It just requires very careful timing. You can boil things in little bags or cages, adding and removing each one at the correct time for that item (Wilson, 19).
It was a big job, whether you attempted that or not. Members of the ‘Ksan tribe of northwestern British Columbia said a woman “has to be a hard worker, very clean. She’s up early and to bed late. If she’s not actually preparing fish for the smokehouse, she’s watching those fish already in the smokehouse, seeing that no flies get at the fish, tending the tiny smoke-making fires; cleaning off any specks of soot; moving the fish again and again to see that they dry evenly and do not sour. She’s got to be patient. If you’re in a hurry, nothing will be done right” (quoted in Schenone, 16).
Sometimes women have saved themselves some actual cooking time, but often at the cost of elaborate preparations before cooking. The Bemba women of Zambia threshed millet by pounding it with stout poles, sifting it, and grinding it. All of which was so exhausting that they could rarely get even a day ahead of their families’ eating. To actually cook it, it was mixed with water and boiled, stirred for only 2 or 3 minutes. Then the porridge was scraped out and shaped into balls (McCann, 141-144).
On the other side of the world, things were not much different. Confucius said little about women, but his followers filled the gap. In 9th century, the scholars Song Ruo zhao and Song Ruo hua wrote Analects for Women which included this instruction:
“To be a woman, one must learn to make it a regular practice, at the fifth watch when the cock crows, to rise and dress. After cleaning your face and teeth, fix your hair and makeup simply. Then go to the kitchen, light the fire, and start the morning meal. Scrub the pots and wash the pans; boil the tea water and cook the gruel. Plan your meals according to the resources of the family and the seasons of the year, making sure that they are fragrant and tasty, served in the appropriate dishes and in the proper manner at the table. If you start early, there is nothing you can’t get done in a day! Do not learn the ways of those lazy women who are thoughtless and do not plan ahead.”(Excerpts from Analects for Women)
They sound pretty much exactly like a modern domestic goddess dispensing her wisdom, but at least the Song sisters were women themselves. In 1615 Gervase Markham published the wildly popular book The English Housewife in which he very explicitly states that “she that is utterly ignorant of cookery) may not by the laws of strict justice challenge the freedom of marriage; because indeed she can then but perform half her vow; for she may love and obey, but she cannot serve and keep him with that true duty which is ever expected” (Markham, 57).
He then follows that up with page after page of advice on cooking. And how did he know enough to write over 250 pages of instruction for a housewife? Well, he says in the intro that a lot of the manuscript was prepared by an unnamed woman. At least he admitted it.
Almost every design for a house, teepee, hogan, whatever, was organized around the central fire which is not just your stove, but also your heater, boiler, and light source. Wattle-and-daub earth-floored cottages were common in Europe, but the principle behind a tepee is much the same. In either case the interior walls get black with soot and the air quality is not up to modern standards, but you do what you have to do.
Whatever her accommodation situation, a woman had to know how to handle the fire without burning down her house. By colonial American times, this was no small little campfire. A well-equipped kitchen hearth was serious business at 6-8 feet long. It had a heavy pole across the whole thing lengthwise and hooks so you could hang pots at different heights. You could keep a hot log in the back and also have several smaller fires going in the front at different heats. You’ll have no need for an exercise regimen because lugging all those pots in and out would be intense muscular effort. You don’t have any temperature gauge except your hand to tell you the difference between your various fires (Schenone, 64).
If you were lucky, you also had an oven. To use a clay or brick oven, you lit a fire inside until it was piping hot.
Image: Woman Baking Bread by Jean-Francois Millet II (Wikimedia Commons)
Forget about a temperature gauge there too. To decide if it was hot enough, you could toss in a little flour to see how quickly it turned brown. Or more likely, you’d stick your hand in and see how long you could hold it there (Carroll, 11). The benefit of an oven is that it traps the heat even after the fire is out. So if you sweep out the ashes and then bake in succession first breads at the highest heat. Then as it cools, stew, pastry, puddings, and finally you can leave herbs in it to dry over night before starting that fire back up again in the morning. (Wilson, 94). But loads of women did not have that option. Throughout much of Europe, baking was a profession. Professionals baked the bread. Housewives didn’t because they didn’t have an oven.
The fire danger was real. The Great Fire of London in 1666 began at a bakery and swept through the city for four days.
Image: Great Fire of London in 1666, Wikimedia Commons
Usually you didn’t burn down the whole city, but you might very well burn down your own house. Laura Ingalls Wilder did. In the fourth year of her marriage, she left a teakettle unattended in the house Almanzo had built for her. A few minutes later the whole kitchen was ablaze. She grabbed her daughter and the deed box and ran out screaming and sobbing “What will (Almanzo) say to me? And there [he] found her and [their child] Rose, just as the house roof was falling in” (Wilder, 129).
If you were rich enough, you could lessen the danger by having your kitchen as its own separate building. That way when it inevitably burned down, the rest of your belongings might be safe. But the average housewife could not afford that. Even assuming you kept the fire from destroying everything, the fact is it would almost certainly burn you at some point. Utensils tended to be very long-handled, so the cook could stand a good distance away. (Wilson, 84)
The first faint glimmer of relief from the blaze came in 1765 when the first cast-iron stove was produced (Schenone, 66). Stoves were an investment up front, but in the long run they saved fuel. In summer, they saved everyone from some, but not all, of the oppressive heat. They lessened the fire danger and kept things cleaner by funneling the smoke out. They also were better for women’s backs because the stovetops were at waist level, so less bending and stooping. You could cook multiple dishes on them at the same time at different heats. Meals that weren’t one-pot meals became easier.
Even so, consumers were initially reluctant to embrace the cast-iron stove. The hulking thing was heavy, expensive, and not-the-way-we-do things since time immemorial.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Also, you couldn’t roast on it. What we currently call roasting is not roasting in the traditional sense. It’s a mixture of baking and stewing, which is not the same as when you hold a skewer over the campfire. Many cooks and eaters were not at all pleased.
But they got over it. By the mid-19th century, a stove was a necessity for a middle-class home in the US and western Europe.
But let’s not run away with the idea that this made cooking easy. In 1899, Boston’s School of Housekeeping ran some tests and found that women spent one hour per day caring for the stove. Not cooking anything. Just caring for the stove: sifting ashes, laying in the fire, tending the fire, emptying ashes, and most of all blackening that cast-iron to keep it from rusting (Strasser, 41). In seven days, a woman used 292 pounds of coal. If she didn’t have coal, it would have been even more wood (Strasser, 41). Cooking was still the art of fire management.
This burden caused 20th century feminists to point out cheekily that the person who benefitted from the stove was not the woman of the house, but the man of the house. He didn’t have to chop as much firewood, while she didn’t see any reduction of work at all. And there is some truth to that, but it misses the boat a little. Because plenty of women chopped and hauled their own wood.
The gas stove, on the other hand, was a time saver for the housewife. The gas stove was invented in the early 1800s, but the public infrastructure needed to support it did not exist, so good luck getting one. It didn’t become a reality for ordinary housewives until the 1880s in England and the 20th century in continental Europe and the US.
The early promoters were amazed at how fast it was to cook. How cheap it was to cook! And how easy it was to clean! But as usual, the curmudgeons were against it. They were sure they’d be poisoned. (Wilson 101).
As it became clear that gas stove owners were living well after all, gas stoves became extremely popular, especially after manufacturers decided to rent them out, rather than sell them, so more women could afford the initial outlay.
Image: Gas Cooker from 1890, Artstor
And the other important piece of the puzzle was that manufacturers got with it and hired women on the sales force. By the late 1880s, troops of women were demonstrating gas stoves at trade fairs and exhibitions. These female demonstrators were called “lady demons.” They also made house calls door to door, and some of them wrote cookbooks.
Marie Jenny Sugg published The Art of Cooking by Gas in 1890, and it tells you how to cook everything from ox-tail soup to cheese straws on a gas stove, but the fact that she was married to a gas stove manufacturer was no accident. She carefully describes all seventeen of the devices he sold. To a modern reader, the most startling thing about the book is not the boiled tongue or the goslings or the calf head, but the fact that she expects her readers to be cooking a hot meal for six people, three times a day. Plus occasional seven-course meals for 24 guests.
We have come a very, very long way from the idea that you only own one pot and stew is pretty much all you can make. Standards have risen dramatically for the middle class woman. And if the sheer quantity of cooking wasn’t pretentious enough, Sugg adds that extra bit of class by writing the menus in French. The Brits were the pioneers in cooking by gas and by 1939, three-fourths of British households owned a gas stove. These British women were then liberated from what had been the defining domestic task for millennia. They didn’t have to keep the fire going.
Electric stoves were initially poor competition. They cost more and initially many people didn’t get enough power to run one anyway. In 1890 one manufacturer advertised a cooker that could boil a pint of water in only twelve minutes. I confess I didn’t know what to make of that because I had no idea how long it takes on my own stove. They say a watched pot never boils, but I can officially say (now) that I can boil a pint of water on my gas stove in four minutes. So imagine just how long women were standing in front of that cast-iron stove if twelve minutes was an improvement. Still, the curmudgeons were unhappy. You were sure to be electrocuted by that thing, they said. Stick with the gas.
But the changes were not over. Gas and electric stoves bore little resemblance to the campfires of our earliest foremothers, but they were far easier to comprehend than the microwave.
The microwave was invented in 1945 by Percy Spenser, who was trying to work on military radar systems. There are various tales told of the eureka moment, including one that features an exploding egg.
Image: Early microwave sold to the military, Wikimedia Commons
But Spenser’s real genius was in realizing that the military wasn’t the actual market for his invention. Housewives were.
As usual, people were afraid of it. The radiation would cause cancer. And it was just too far removed from the fire to be real. Also, it is true that some things don’t cook very well in the microwave: bread or a roast are best done elsewhere. With such concerns afloat, the market proved almost as slow to pick up microwaves as it had been to pick up gas stoves.
Alongside the microwave came an explosion of other new possible heat sources. Back in the day you had an open fire. That’s it. Now the possibilities are endless. You can have a toaster, a crockpot, a pressure cooker, a coffee maker, a bread maker, an air fryer, a deep fat fryer, an electric griddle, a waffle iron. The list goes on. And the only one I’m going to discuss is the rice cooker. Because millions of women don’t have any of that other stuff, but they use the rice cooker every day. For its story we get to go to Japan.
Japanese women cooked rice on a kamado which, is more or less an enclosed wood-burning stove, which in terms of the work required was not that different than the western ones I’ve already discussed.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In the 20s and 30s, there were some attempts at an electric rice cooker, but they were on an industrial or military scale, they didn’t work very well, and they were absolutely no use to the average housewife.
After World War II, a Toshiba salesman was making the rounds trying to sell washing machines, but when he spoke to housewives they said they wanted help with cooking rice, which many of them were doing three times a day. The project was passed to an engineer named Yoshitada Minami, who knew he didn’t know how to make rice, so he passed it to his wife Fumiko. She wasn’t an engineer, but she knew her rice. After extensive testing by Fumiko, Toshiba ended up with a new product with two cooking pots, one inside the other and a bi-metallic switch that would turn it off when it got hot enough, thus liberating Japanese women from the kamado. (Atlas Obscura).
First sales were in 1955, and within a year the company produced 200,000 rice cookers a month. (Atlas Obscura). In public demos when no charred rice could be found on the bottom “housewives were screaming at the splendid cooking” (echiriashi). Admittedly, I’m using Google translate on a blog for that quote, but I love the image of hordes of women screaming in excitement, and whether they did or didn’t scream, the sales numbers are well documented.
When the rice cooker entered China in the 60s, some housewives were so proud they kept it in the living room, not the kitchen, so they could show it off (Nakano, 5). Rice cookers are specialty items to people like me, but for East Asians and those who still eat like East Asians, they were every bit as transformative as the gas stove or the microwave in the West.
Throughout this series, I’ve relied heavily on Susan Strasser, who wrote Never Done: A History of American Housework in 1982. The only time that book let me down was when it said that the microwave wasn’t popular because it didn’t save much time and “offered only limited benefits” (Strasser, 264). At which point I chuckled because I am fairly certain that I know a lot of people who would ditch their stove before their microwave if they had to make a choice.
The reason, of course, is that many women are not really cooking anymore. Or at least they are not cooking three meals a day as Marie Sugg expected. Partly they are reheating food that has already been cooked, and the microwave really does excel at that. But partly it’s a total shift in how food is consumed. Through most of the nineteenth century, many Americans had never eaten a meal that wasn’t home cooked. But the family lunch disappeared by 1900 as family members simply weren’t home to eat it together. Family breakfast was a casualty of the 20th century.
By the 1950s Americans ate out frequently. And by the 1970s many women could afford to stop cooking entirely if they wanted to (Strasser, 280, 283, 284, 296). By 2000, half of all American meals were eaten outside the home (Schenone, 316).
Now to be fair, there have always been women who existed entirely on takeout. In any densely packed urban environment, the kitchen facilities were few and the fire hazards huge. In Pompeii, archaeologists have identified 158 snack bars (Silver). By the early 1200s English towns had hot meat pie sellers (Carlin, 200).
And when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found Aztec street vendors selling tamales (Coe, 116, and Sahagun, 104).
Image: Tamale seller from the Florentine Codex
But for most women there wasn’t a lot of choice involved here. If you ate out it was probably because you didn’t have a kitchen at home. If you ate in, it was probably because no one was selling anything you could afford. The idea of having a fantastically equipped kitchen and eating out anyway. That is a luxury.
The reason is that for many first world women, time has become more precious than money. In 1956, married American women who did not have jobs spent two hours a day on cooking and cleaning up. In 1995, they spent less than an hour, and in 2013, it was only 30 minutes a day (Carroll, 201). It’s hard to know just what to make of that. Some people celebrate the liberation of women, who have been tied to that kitchen fire for millennia. Others fret about obesity and other health concerns. What’s interesting is that we may not have time to cook, but we certainly have time to watch cooking shows. They’re very popular. More than any other household task, cooking has been reclaimed by women who don’t view it as a ball and chain, but a chance for artistic expression and craftsmanship. I don’t think Julia Child felt oppressed by cooking. The difference, of course, is that Julia and women like her are cooking because they want to. Not because they have to.
It isn’t that way for everyone. Some three billion people around the world still cook over an open or slightly contained fire (Nijhuis). All the time concerns, safety concerns, and health concerns that historical women faced are still real to them. And these women are likely the same ones who struggle with the flip side of food preparation: keeping the food cold, which I will talk about next week.
Carlin, Martha. “‘What Say You to a Piece of Beef and Mustard?’: The Evolution of Public Dining in Medieval and Tudor London.” Huntington Library Quarterly 71, no. 1 (2008): 199–217. https://doi.org/10.1525/hlq.2008.71.1.199.
Clendinning, Anne. ““Deft Fingers” and “Persuasive Eloquence”: The “Lady Demons” of the English Gas Industry, 1888–1918.” Women’s History Review, vol. 9, no. 3, 1 Sept. 2000, pp. 501–537, 10.1080/09612020000200254. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.
Clendinning, Anne. “Gas Cooker.” Victorian Review 34, no. 1 (2008): 56–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41220399.
Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. Austin, University Of Texas Press, 2005.
Ewbank, Anne. “The Battle to Invent the Automatic Rice Cooker.” Atlas Obscura, 31 July 2020, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/rice-cooker-history. Accessed 30 May 2022.
“Excerpts from Analects for Women by Song Ruozhao.” Asia for Educators from Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/song_ruozhao_analects.pdf. Accessed 3 June 2022.
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Mccann, James. Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. London, Hurst, 2010.
Miller, Kenneth. “Archaeologists Find Earliest Evidence of Humans Cooking with Fire.” Discover Magazine, 16 Dec. 2013, www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/archaeologists-find-earliest-evidence-of-humans-cooking-with-fire. Accessed 25 May 2022.
Nakano, Yoshiko. Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers : How “National” Went Global via Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press -12-01, 2009.
Nijhuis, Michelle. “Three Billion People Cook over Open Fires ― with Deadly Consequences.” Photography, 14 Aug. 2017, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/guatemala-cook-stoves. Accessed 3 June 2022.
Partner, Simon. “Brightening Country Lives: Selling Electrical Goods in the Japanese Countryside, 1950—1970.” Enterprise and Society 1, no. 4 (2000): 762–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23699536.
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Silver, Carly. “Everyone in Pompeii Got Takeout, Too.” JSTOR Daily, 31 May 2020, daily.jstor.org/everyone-in-pompeii-got-takeout-too/. Accessed 28 May 2022.
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“☆ブランドに学ぶ☆ 儲けを生み出すビジネスコラム – 台所革命を起こした町工場.” Www.echirashi.com, http://www.echirashi.com/column/html_columns/momo128.htm.