“A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” may have a tongue-in-cheek kind of title but the subject matter, the evolution of women chefs, is worthy of our attention and provides a masterful history of women in the kitchen.

From the book jacket, we learn that author Ann Cooper has spent her life striving for culinary excellence. Since beginning her cooking career at age seventeen (italics mine), Ann has risen through the ranks to become one of the finest female cooks with the Holland America Cruise Line and the first woman Executive Chef for the Radisson Hotel chain. Ann is currently a chapter president of the American Culinary Federation and serves on the boards of directors for Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, Chef’s Collaborative 2000 and the Alumni Association of the Culinary Institute of America. Not only that, but Ann is also an active contributor to Share Our Strength and the Chef and the Child Foundation. She has won numerous culinary awards and today is Executive Chef of the Putney Inn in Vermont, Corporate Chef for Pinnacle Hospitality, and an industry services consultant for the Culinary Institute of America.

Well, the wonder is that she ever found enough time to write a book—Ann Cooper is certainly an inspiration to us all!

“A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” traces the history of women’s connection to food. Ann’s research spans more than 10,000 years of our culinary history. The publishers note, “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” explores the irony that while women are generally seen as the main food providers for most of the planet, they have been overwhelmingly unwelcome in the professional kitchens until only recently. This attitude is slowly melting away as old-fashioned ideologies about gender and the workplace are replaced by the reality that educated, strong-willed, passionate women, who know what’s in their hearts and are willing to work hard, can accomplish anything…”

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” reveals why so many women have devoted themselves to the demanding and oftentimes harsh world of professional cooking. And who could be better suited to tell this story than Ann Cooper, a woman chef who has experienced much of this herself, firsthand?

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” shares the experiences and personal stories of dozens of women chefs. In the Acknowledgements, Ann explains that over 130 women took time out of their busy schedules to be interviewed, then took more time to fill out paperwork and send pictures, recipes, ideas, and words of encouragement. In addition, over 1,000 women chefs and cooks took time to fill out a ten-page survey that Ann says can be likened to a college entrance exam.

For the historical research, Ann turned to the culinary archives and libraries at The Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales Culinary Archives, Schlessinger Library, Williamstown Library, the National Museum of Women and the Arts, the National Restaurant Association and the American Culinary Federation. The research was done over a six month period and Ann reveals that she does not profess to be a historian, “nor do I want the reader to feel that this historical material does any more than provide a basis for what we know about women in the kitchen today and in our recent history…”

The opening chapter of “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” traces the history of women in the kitchen from prehistoric times and provides an enlightening explanation as to why, although women developed the techniques and tools for cooking, men have previously dominated the professional field of cooking. A strong case is made for women being the actual discoverers of fire and how, in hunter-gatherer societies, women contributed four-fifths of the clan’s food. Ann Cooper also says that women may have also been the first wine makers and she explains how a transition from a matriarchal to patriarchal society at the beginning of the Christian calendar may explain the lack of historical data on women and food. “At that time in history,” Ann writes, “women weren’t encouraged to read or write, and hence, most history was being recorded by men—women were seen as slaves or chattel…”

How this role began to evolve and change in early America and started with Mother Ann Lee, the founder of an off-shoot of the Quakers, who became known as the Shakers. “In this culture,” Ann Cooper writes, “women did all the cooking, preserving, smoking, canning, farming, and gardening. Some culinary historians credit Shaker women with being the best cooks of their time…”

Ann also notes that “many black slave women made their mark on America’s early culinary history”. She quotes Jessica Harris, professor of English at Queens College and a culinary historian with a specialty in the foodways of Africa with Dr. Harris’ belief that much of our culinary heritage stems from the African slave trade. 

A WOMAN’S PLACE IN THE KITCHEN” continues with tracing the changing role of women from the Industrial Era through the early 1900s and moves forward to Women and their Cookbooks. Ann acknowledges that although women were not the first writers of cookbooks, as a group we have been the most prolific.

She also notes that British women authored many of the first cookbooks.

“One of the earliest,” writes Ann, “written in 1604 by Elinor Fettiplaces, was called the Receipt Book which included 134 recipes…”

Ann lists in chronological order the various women in both England and the United States who authored early cookbooks, taking us through the 1700s into the 1800s. She writes, “Catherine Beecher was 100 years ahead of her time in 1846 when she wrote MISS BEECHER’S DOMESTIC RECEIPT BOOK which helped promote her ideas on women and food…” and notes that, during the late 1800s, two other culinary writing venues took shape, both of which have had a lasting effect on our written culinary heritage. “The first of these legacies,” she explains, “was the advent of cookbooks written to help support charitable causes. This phenomenon began with the end of the Civil War as a way of combating postwar poverty. To this day, women all over the country have sold cookbooks as a way to raise money for every imaginable cause…”

Ann Cooper says that “the second of these written culinary legacies is the woman’s magazine or journal. The late 1800s saw the rise of such newsstand icons as THE WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION, THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. These cornerstones of the homemaker’s kitchen have flourished for almost 200 years and were the predecessors of the culinary print media we know today…”

The roster of women cookbook authors continues through the 1800s and into the 1900s, observing that “the last of the authors from this era was Lizzie Black (Mrs. Simon Kander) who in 1901 published THE SETTLEMENT COOKBOOK. This book was self-published with funds raised by volunteers.

“The Settlement House” Ann explains, “was started in Milwaukee at the turn of the century as a place to indoctrinate European immigrants into the Amercan way of life. One of their projects was a cookbook to help the newly arrived better adjust to their new home….”

It was through advertisements that the cookbook earned enough money over the course of eight years to pay for a new settlement house building.

(This was something I had never known and I don’t recall ever reading it anywhere else before–sls).

Ann Cooper continues listing cookbook authors who have made indelible differences, such as Irma Rombauer, with her JOY OF COOKING.

Ann Cooper also traces the establishment and success of women and their cooking schools and carries us forward to women working their way into the professional kitchen.

I’ve written extensively about these opening, introductory chapters of

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” – and yet, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the book.

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” is a most important contribution to women’s culinary history. It is wonderfully illustrated, often with old-timey covers from old cookbooks and magazines. If you are interested in our culinary heritage and learning about the evolution of women chefs today, this is the book for you. Included are short biographies of the women chefs’ featured in “A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN”, a glossary of terms to help us all better understand terminology in this field, and a women chefs’ recommended reading list (some of the titles you will recognize from previous issues of cookbooks reviewed in the CCE; other titles may surprise you a little). There is also a sample list of women chefs and their restaurants throughout history, dating back to Antoines in New Orleans, in 1840 and moving forward to Square One in San Francisco, 1996.

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE KITCHEN” by Ann Cooper was published by Van Nostrand Reinhold, and was published in 1998. The book originally sold for $29.95.

However, you can obtain it from Amazon.com new $15.03 for new softcover,  or pre owned starting at.49 & up.   (and no, I am not receiving anything from Amazon for any of these suggestions. I am just passing along what I learn).

Finally, I want to explain why I have posted this book which I have reviewed before; I watch a LOT of the Food network on TV. I like CHOPPED and IRON CHEF AMERICA and I follow the programs featuring rising new stars. One thing that has baffled me for years is the low percentage of women chefs compared to men. Most of the time on CHOPPED there will be perhaps one woman to a ratio of three men (usually the woman loses. Only rarely does she win). And once they had three women chefs on the program. I think we need to raise our awareness of women chefs. No, I wouldn’t want to be on any of those programs. I am strictly a home cook, who has been preparing meals for family and friends for over fifty years. Fifty years ago it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to aim for higher education and reach for a degree in home economics. This is a topic near and dear to me. You go, girls!

Happy Cooking!



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