For the past 70+ years, the discussion of women in food has primarily focused on women as potential customers or as consumers. However, women have also made significant contributions to the food industry from invention to advocacy.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight select stories of amazing women in food history (though of course this is not a complete list). Enjoy!
1. Joyce Chen
. . . the Woman Who Made Chinese Food Popular in the U.S.
Joyce Chen, chef, author and entrepreneur, is largely credited with making Chinese food popular in the United States. Chen and her family emigrated from China to the U.S. in 1949 as communism was sweeping her country. Cooking for her kids’ bake sale, Chen quickly learned that her food - which she had suspected might be too unfamiliar for a predominantly white school – was in high demand. Chen catapulted to fame when she published a cookbook making Chinese cuisine more accessible to American audiences. Her cookbook launched a restaurant chain, TV show, and sauce company.
2. Marthe Distel
. . . the Woman Who Founded Le Cordon Bleu
Marthe Distel, a French journalist and avid foodie, founded the famous cooking school called Le Cordon Bleu. In 1895, Distel began a magazine that brought the culinary arts to households in France. The magazine was so popular that Distel introduced free cooking classes to her readers. The first lessons at Le Cordon Bleu focused on practical everyday cooking, but as the success continued, lessons started to include French haute cuisine. Today Le Cordon Bleu is an internationally renowned culinary school, with famous graduates like Julia Child and Mario Batali.
3. Eva Ekeblad
. . . the Woman Who Helped Sweden Avoid Famine
Eva Ekeblad, a Swedish aristocrat and scientist in the 1700s, revolutionized the way that people thought about the potato. While experimenting with extracting the starch from potatoes, Ekeblad discovered how to make potato flour and alcohol. At the time, Europe was regularly plagued by famines, and potatoes were not seen as food fit for human consumption. Her work brought potatoes to Swedish tables and helped to reduce the frequency of famine.
4. Antónia Ferreira
. . . the Woman Who Launched the Portuguese Wine Industry
Antónia Ferreira advocated for local winemaking in Portugal at a time when Spanish imports were more popular. After being widowed in her thirties, Ferreira supported her family by channeling all her efforts into the production and trade of port wine, including helping farmers combat pestilence. As a result, Ferreira became one of the most successful landowners in Portugal.
5. Georgia Gilmore
. . . the Woman Who Funded the Montgomery Bus Boycotts
Georgia Gilmore funded the 1955-56 bus boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement with food. To fund alternative transportation, Gilmore organized black women across the city to make and sell food. They called the group The Club from Nowhere and the members went door-to-door and to beauty salons, cab stands, and churches to sell their food. It is estimated Gilmore and the Club helped to fundraise over $45,000.
6. Jessie Lopez de la Cruz
. . . the Woman Who Organized the Farmworkers’ Movement
Jessie Lopez de la Cruz was the top (and first female) recruiter for the United Farm Workers (UFW) and advocated for the safety of migrant workers. Lopez de la Cruz began working alongside her family on California farms when she was five. Decades later, she fought for worker safety by protesting harmful farm tools and shone a light on employer corruption and abuse. Her work extended beyond the fields to the inner workings of UFW itself as she advocated for women in leadership positions at the organization.
7. Irma S. Rombauer
. . . the Woman Who Brought Joy to Cooking
Irma S. Rombauer wrote one of the most popular American cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking. Rombauer was a fantastic hostess and a decent cook, but after the stock market of the 1920s, cooking and hosting went from being social to an economic lifeline. As a newly widowed mother, Rombauer had to figure out how to take care of her family. Rombauer saw that the circumstances of the Great Depression required creative cooking and culinary skill. She set to work collecting and developing recipes for The Joy of Cooking. From a self-published cookbook to an enduring bestseller, Rombauer has clearly left her mark on American cooking.
8. Ruth Graves Wakefield
. . . the Woman Who Invented Chocolate Chip Cookies
Ruth Graves Wakefield, an entrepreneur, dietitian, and cookbook author, is most famous for her contribution to American desserts by inventing the chocolate chip cookie. Wakefield and her husband founded the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House), where she developed the menu and cooked for the inn. While experimenting with recipes, Wakefield added chocolate chunks to cookie dough and voila! the chocolate chip cookie was born. Fun fact: Wakefield's original recipe is still featured on Nestlé’s bags of chocolate chips.
9. Elsie Widdowson
. . . the Woman Who Improved Health During WWII
Elsie Widdowson increased the nutritional value of food rations during World War II. A chemist, dietitian and nutritionist, Widdowson’s work includes researching nutritional composition and the impact of diet on childhood development. During World War II, Britain implemented severe food rationing. Widdowson and her colleagues studied the effects of such a diet on health – using themselves as test subjects – and realized that calcium supplements were needed. Widdowson and her colleagues became the first to advocate for and manage the fortification of food with vitamins and minerals.
Interested in learning more about food innovators throughout history? Sign up for our newsletter!