Writing by Lucy Christopher // @LUCYCCHRISTOPHE
On Hogmanay a few years ago, a friend and I decided to stay in and celebrate with a delicious feast. Miss the frantic search for a bar, club night, and then later the inevitable wait in the freezing cold at 3am for a taxi, and stay indoors all cosy, just the two of us, and gorge on a four course meal. Those party funds could now be spent on all of our favourite things; we had baked Camembert with redcurrant jelly, root vegetable gratin, a ham boiled in cola, roast potatoes, pudding, a cheese board, champagne and whisky cocktails. It felt liberating to throw off the shackles of New Year expectations of crowds and parties to simply feast, without a care for calorie content.
While it would be indulgent to suggest that in an age of austerity and food banks the decision of a middle class woman to gorge herself on Brie is somehow a feminist act of resistance, feasting is rarely associated with adult women in a positive way. Even if we are seeing more representation of bigger bodies, the cultural ideal is still for women to take up less space and the diet industry - with its emphasis on supposed healthy foods over pleasure - still takes in millions of pounds of women’s cash each year. In this context, is a woman listening to her appetite, and indulging it, some small victory? Women’s appetites - whether it be for food, sex, power or money - have always been policed and used to shame us, powerful as they are.
When I came of age in the early noughties, feasts were the preserve of little girls and stories – think Famous Five, Willy Wonka and Alice’s Mad Hatter tea party – while women were meant to have a more complicated, even tormented, relationship with food. As I grew, so did an awareness that you shouldn’t eat too much of certain foods, picked up in overheard discussions of loss and gain and diets and calories. Figures needed to be ‘watched’ in order to be acceptable.
Often, women I would see on the telly didn’t really seem to eat proper food or enjoy food together. After a hard days work, tiny Ally McBeal would head home and sink a spoon into a tub of luxury ice cream while moaning to long-suffering flatmate Renee. Why did they never stir a jar of pesto through a big pan of tagliatelle, sprinkle liberally with cheese, and sit down with a shared bottle of red from the corner shop?
Bridget Jones associated food with guilt and always turned to chocolate or pizza when heartbroken, then regretted it after. In Sex and the City, even though the women met each week at a café for brunch, the food itself never got much enthusiasm, always second to the men being verbally dissected. At this time, women were often portrayed as career focused, which apparently meant no time for cooking, or even eating. In celebrating women who had thrown off the shackles of domestic servitude, the enjoyment of eating was lost. In Friends, one of the main characters is even a chef, but is rarely witnessed talking about food let alone eating it.
Within this context, it is easy to see why Nigella Lawson was such a sensation when her first TV series was first aired around the millennium. Food, and in particular listening to your own appetite and cooking accordingly, was celebrated. Dishes were discussed in terms of their taste and comforting properties instead of whether they were fattening. There were recipes for feasts to share with friends and family, but also recipes for solo feasts, indulgent dishes to be savoured alone. Nigella’s books often include recipes which serve one, such as her simple but decadent clam linguine, which has just a handful of basic ingredients and is ready in 15 minutes. Feasting solo – eating whatever you fancy, without thinking about others or worrying about calories – is an important, necessary indulgence.
Perhaps when women and indulgence in food is depicted, there should be a Bechamel Test, based on principles similar to the Bechdel Test, the measure of the representation of women in fiction, which asks if a work includes at least two women communicating about something other than a man. The Bechamel Test could instead ask if the work includes a woman enjoying food while a) not on a dinner date b) not indulging because heartbroken by man and c) not ashamed of eating said food, before or after.
Happily, there are many wonderful books which depict women eating and would easily pass; the much-loved Heartburn by Nora Ephron, the slyly subversive Supper Club by Lara Williams, and Breasts and Eggs, the debut English language novel by celebrated Japanese writer Mieko Kawakami. And, typically of a medium with less gatekeepers than traditional media, there are many podcasts which feature women happily discussing cooking, eating and yes, feasting; Hoovering with Jess Fostekew, and the Table Manners and Off Menu podcasts.
To enjoy food, to feast and to indulge – alone, with family and friends or at a shared table of strangers – is a pleasure which we should all be able to celebrate, joyfully and without shame.
Lucy's piece was originally published in our Feast issue. Get yourself a copy below: