“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou
My very wise dissertation chair once suggested that I choose a topic that I love for my dissertation. My master’s thesis looked a public areas of scientific knowledge during the seventeenth century in England, and time and again I came back to the coffee houses. The British women did not have anything quite so elegant as their French counterparts. While well-mannered French ladies hosted salons and talked with the most prominent scientific men of the era, British women made do with public lectures hosted by museums or infrequent access to the coffee house. After all, unlike the private salon, truly public areas meant public observation. Yet I could not shake the idea of the caffeine-fueled debates.
My dissertation looks ahead to the 18th century to see the extent to which women LIVED science in their daily lives. I look at 18th century cookery books aimed at the middling sort (an odd social rank that both is and is definitely not like the modern concept of the middle class). The danger of fitting my dissertation into one or two sentences is that it comes across as too passive. Women weren’t the passive recipients of scientific theory that was spilling out of the coffee houses and into the home. They were active participants. The eighteenth century saw women publishing their own cookery books and opening culinary schools. The anti-French climate ensured that the all-male science of gastronomie developing in France never impinged the 18th century woman from claiming her expertise in the SCIENCE of cooking. And science it was indeed. Cooking touched into the realm of medicine, it offered theories for heat and leavening and flavor. Women took over 18th century kitchens in England and the very technologies in them changed. No more wide open fire pits for roasts where women’s hems could catch fire. The French batterie de cuisine was adopted, and as the smoke LITERALLY lifted, more flavors could be used in developing culinary expertise. And after all, was it not the golden age of experimental science and deductive reasoning? Was there not a giant statue of Newton in a public London square? Women were in a position to gain more experience in the science and technologies of the culinary arts than ever before, and their expertise was recognized.
Of course, the sad part of this dissertation is the ending. Historically at least- I am sure my dissertation committee will be very happy when it ends. In the nineteenth century the very expertise that women had achieved was turned instead into a wifely duty. The science was separated from the daily practice of cooking, and all women were suddenly expected to be able to cook. Cookery book titles shifted from “Companions” or books on the “Art of Cookery” to “Complete Systems” and cooking dictionaries. While this general trend does not speak for all cookery books, as cooking and domestic life became increasingly private, women’s public power through culinary scientific expertise was worth less.