There are hundreds of fierce young women who are remaking the current food and wine landscape. I admire so many of them, and I am grateful for their passion. But the women I admire most are the pioneers; these women were game-changers, forging a fairly lonely path at a time when an interest in food was considered a strange obsession. We stand on their shoulders.
1. Marion Cunningham
As a young woman, Marion was so agoraphobic she was terrified to leave the house and so alcoholic she had vodka hidden in every closet and under every bed. “I was afraid,” she once told me, “that they would stop manufacturing it.” But she loved to cook, and at the age of 45, rigid with fear, she left California for the first time to take cooking lessons with James Beard. “I had never been on a plane before, and I cried the entire way.”
The class only lasted a week, but Marion returned a different person. Transformed by the experience, she became Beard’s assistant and traveled the world. With his encouragement, she wrote cookbooks (my favorite is The Breakfast Book). She also became the den mother of the American food movement, connecting us all with one another.
I loved Marion for many reasons—her generosity, her forthrightness, her all-American cooking. But what Marion taught me transcended friendship. She was proof positive that we all have second chances.
2. Vertamae Grosvenor
In 1970, when I read Vibration Cooking: or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, the words just leapt off the page. Here was someone who was writing about culture but using food as her medium; I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do. What Grosvenor wrote was fascinating, but I also loved the rhythm of her prose and found myself reading it out loud, humming along. I’ve never met her, but even now, sometimes when I’m blocked, I go back and read passages of her book just for the energy it gives me.
I also love the fact that when the editors of Time published a piece calling soul food “tasteless,” she got mad. "Your taste buds,” she wrote, “are so racist that they can't even deal with black food.”
3. Frances Moore Lappé
When Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet, she changed the lives of an entire generation. Long before anyone was talking about sustainability or climate change, Lappé was doing the math and showing us that the American way of eating was unsustainable.
Her book made me—briefly—a vegetarian and dumpster diver. But Diet has influenced my food choices ever since then. And Lappé did not rest on her laurels; with her daughter, she’s continued and expanded her food activism.
4. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher
In a time when women who wrote cookbooks were lovely ladies with sedate recipes, Fisher was something else. Intellectual. Acerbic. A wonderful writer. One of the highlights of my career was being asked to interview her for Ms. Magazine in the late '70s; it began a friendship that lasted until her death. It was Mary Frances who sent me off to work at a newspaper: “You need to stop polishing every word,” she told me, “and remember that anything you write today will be wrapping someone’s fish tomorrow.”
5. Cecilia Chiang
Still vibrant at 95, Cecilia is a force of nature. At a time when most restaurants were dishing out chop suey, Cecilia opened the Mandarin restaurant and brought serious Chinese food to an American audience. She taught me about Chinese food—and so much more. At one point she had three elegant residences, each complete down to cars and wardrobe. When I asked how she had done it, she said, “You can make money on food at restaurants. But you can make more by listening to the advice of your wealthiest clients.”