Women and Food: A Complicated Love Story

Food pulls our triggers, but it also inspires us.

Posted Mar 04, 2013

With International Women's Day approaching this week in its -- not to stereotype or anything -- Mad Men-style stiletto heels and firefighter uniforms and Lululemon yoga gear, I've been wondering about the gender-specific ways in which women think about food. Psychologically speaking, tomahawk steaks and sprinkle-topped cupcakes don't strike all members of our species the same way.

This topic haunted me while I was researching my latest book, which I finished writing and sent to my publisher last week. The book is about low self-esteem, and it was poignant to realize how often, when talking about self-esteem, women talk about food.

A recent study found that women eat less when they eat with men than when they eat with other women. This study's authors concluded that this might be because women believe eating less makes them appear more feminine, thus more attractive, in male company -- and/or that women feel less judged around other women, thus more comfortable about eating more.

But because International Women's Day is a celebration of women's successes, I wanted some inspiring positive insights from "positive insiders" -- so I interviewed some female food entrepreneurs. 

Whitney Lamy founded Castleton Crackers after decades spent in other fields. She loved cooking, and happened upon a 19th-century recipe for a lighter version of hardtack, the old soldiers' and sailors' staple:

"Not many people I knew made crackers, and that intrigued me," said Lamy, who uses Vermont maple syrup instead of refined sugar in her remarkably crunchy-flaky snacks. 

"Starting my business in my fifties has given me the wisdom to know when to keep my mouth shut and when to speak up. But I am passionate about food and my product and I find that people respond to that. I always reply to fans' emails.

"When I do events, such as in-store samplings, I find that women love to engage in conversation about serving and pairing suggestions, what to serve with the crackers, how to display them and sharing recipes using the crackers: For example, using my maple crackers -- crumbed -- as a base for cheesecake or a topping on homemade mac-and-cheese. Sometimes we can get sidetracked if the woman is wearing a cool top or shoes," added Lamy, whom I first at January's San Francisco Food Fête

"One of the challenges for me is to not be overly sensitive and to develop a thick skin. For me, being in business is more about being passionate, honest and pleasant and less about being a woman."

Deborah Brenner left a plush Manhattan marketing career to write a book (of all things) about female winemakers (of all things) in California. That book, 2006's Women of the Vine, inspired Brenner to make wine herself, then to found Women of the Vine, a winery offering the creations of a dozen-plus female vintners. 

"I left my job, making well into six figures, an office on Madison Avenue and nice 401k and all to zero dollars. I used my savings and a home equity loan and finally got an SBA loan to finance my first wine vintage.

"I had spent the past 20-plus years in a very male-dominated field," Brenner told me. Upon first meeting female vintners, "I knew instinctively that there had to be more behind the barrels of wine than just a professional woman who chose this career path because I knew the struggles, fears, disappointments, and triumphs that I endured in my career and my life.

"I was curious to see if these women were like me, desperately trying to find the balance of work and life, finding my purpose, connecting with others, and struggling to make tough decisions. 

"To my surprise, I learned more about myself throughout this journey than I anticipated. Sharing these moments with these successful women inspired me to stop doubting myself. They encouraged me to pursue and press on no matter what bumps in the road came before me."

Women of the Vine -- the first and only wine partner of the Farm Aid charity founded by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp to support America’s family farmers -- will celebrate International Women's Day on Friday, March 8 with a Grand Tasting Event featuring 24 female vintners at the Westin Verasa in Napa, CA.

Brenner (that's her in the picture) has dedicated herself to helping women "whose passions dictate how they lead their lives, how they fight adversity and conquer gender stereotypes -- and how their calling has taken them on the most rewarding journeys of their lives." 

Sheila G. Mains also started a food company after leaving a career in big business -- but she didn't leave by choice. Cooking brought comfort, Mains told me:

In 1991, "I had just lost my job as executive vice president of an industrial advertising agency -- and I was devastated. Baking in general always brought me back to better days growing up in a home with two phenomenal bakers: my mother and my grandmother. I couldn’t think of a better way to overcome that difficult time then to begin buttering up some sheet pans and pulling out the mixer."

She launched a brownie business first; then in 2009, as the stuttering economy was starting to take its toll on how Americans spent their dessert money, she launched Sheila G's Brownie Brittle Company: Mains boasts that her crispy sweet treats -- far lower in calories than regular chewy brownies -- have "been tasted and loved recently by Bradley Cooper, Ryan Phillipe, Kylie Minogue and other celebrities."

"Starting the brownie business fulfilled two needs: It provided me with the opportunity to create my own destiny, and at the same time it allowed me to do what I loved," Mains told me.

As a female CEO, "I pay very close attention to detail. Presentation is everything -- from labels being straight to product looking perfect all the time. I’m sure there are many men in business who possess the same trait, but I truly believe that as a woman it is ingrained in us. Also, I like to help other women. 

"Being a woman in the food business or any business can have its challenges. Sometimes 'nice' is interpreted as 'weak' and that’s where the challenges begin. We need to look out for each other."

That's worth remembering any time of year.

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