Thinking with Gingerbread

I’m not vegan.  This is something that confused the students I spoke with earlier this year in a Feminism and Veganism presentation, and it may confuse some of my fellow food historians and food colleagues.  This is due to two main realities I grapple with in my research: 1) humans have a long history with dairy animals and dairy products that have created intricate social, economical, and biological dependency networks, and 2) all food systems have good and bad aspects to them, including those promoted by veganism.  Personally, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting one food system for another based on over-generalizations – and that is often what happens in the formation of certain diet cultures.  I’m all for moderation and thoughtfulness in eating, but I’m also aware that only a privileged group of individuals can execute this way of consuming food.

Despite my reservations, I cook and bake vegan when I can.  Why?  I think veganism, along with vegetarianism, gluten-free diets, paleo-diets and other dietary cultures, is good to think with.  Such diets help us contemplate different food relationships, and they often use experimentation and science to make lifelong favorites possible within dietary restrictions.  The re-creation of certain recipes to fit these models helps reveal the historical contingencies of our food systems.  It also shows what types of food certain people are not willing to give up, and which are able to be converted to different food network systems.

For example, the way humans have consumed sugar over the centuries has changed dramatically since the 16th century.  Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985) outlines some of these changes, and nutritionists continue to grapple with the economic realities and sociological meanings attached to sugar and what this has meant for human health today.  During the holidays, we consume more sugar than usual.  Cookies and candies are markers of tradition: they once symbolized wealth, and they continue to symbolize giving, friendship, and family bonding.   Sugar may be a necessity for these recipes – but vegans ask if eggs, butter, and milk are just as necessary when making such traditional treats.

Using one of my favorite vegan gingerbread cookie recipes – I want to walk you through some of the thoughts and questions I encounter as an ethnographer and historian of foods and feeding.  Again, “baking vegan” brings up questions of contingency, and I’m always asking if the “vegan age” is truly a contemporary one based on an intricate set of understandings about animals, food, and consumer responsibility that only came to exist in the 21st century.


Question One/Step One: What are the ingredients?/Gathering ingredients


Not all ingredients are equal, and history can show how the economy has affected our baking over the past century.  The history of cake mixes, for example, reveals that a surplus of molasses in the 1930s affected how companies began to re-package and advertise flour and mixes.  Similarly, historian Kendra Smith-Howard does a terrific job in Pure and Modern Milk (2013) describing how milk surpluses were managed by the government and companies.  The book shows this was partially done by pushing consumers toward “new” milk products in the postwar period – including skim milk, butter, and ice-cream.  So, sometimes what we think are recipes located in long traditions are actually located in contingencies related to supply and demand.  To think of cake mixes as located in an historical molasses surplus rather than egg surplus is also interesting, as many scholars have located concerns of “freshness” and “authenticity” in the use of eggs by postwar housewives.

My gingerbread recipe requires a good bit of molasses – but this wasn’t an easy ingredient to find at my 21st century Philadelphia city store.  Is molasses used today as often as it was in the 1930s through the 1960s?  Perhaps it is dependent on geographical location (I’m thinking shoo fly pies are less popular in California… though I could be wrong!)  What has come to substitute molasses in the 21st century?  What does molasses symbolize today?  And, is molasses more necessary for gingerbread making than eggs or milk?  Is it a characteristic of the cookie?  I think it is – and it is perhaps one reason the cookie can be taken up more easily by vegan bakers (than, say, meringue cookies, though chickpeas seem to be providing a new solution).


Question Two/Step Two: How does it cook?/Mixing and cooking

As chemistry developed as a discipline, so did cooking.  Certain ingredients help achieve certain characteristics in a baked good – and this is why following recipes becomes important in that attempt to get a similar result each time you bake.  Historically, some ingredients took more trial and error to develop than others.  One better known story is that of baking powder, which is said to have been developed in the mid-19th century by Alfred Bird who was trying to find alternatives to yeast and eggs (his wife was allergic to both).  By the 1880s, Calumet Baking Powder would be advertised as “double acting” with leavening starting in the bowl and continuing in the oven.  Ingredients like baking powder were created/discovered out of need to find alternatives, and they have since helped in alternative baking efforts like this recipe I’m using (which requires canola oil, baking powder, baking soda, and soy milk, with the added step of refrigerating the disc of dough before rolling and cutting).


Advertisement for Bird’s Baking Powder, circa 1870s.  The advertisement may suggest new methods of baking were needed in the midst of war/exploration/colonial expansion. 

Eggs and milk are added to gingerbread to create a certain quality to the cookie.  For a long time, eggs were understood to be the primary binding agent for cooking – giving baked goods their structure and stability.  But with the development of cooking powders, milk substitutes, and experimentation with bananas and applesauce (with their own food histories!) – eggs are no longer the “one and only” method for achieving desired structures or textures.  Technology also allowed some of these methods to come about in the first place.  Professor John Walter of the University of Essex credits the semi-closed oven of the 18th century with a “baking boom” that permeated Western culture’s affiliation with cakes and cookies.  Nineteenth century chemical developments like baking powder went hand in hand with these technological changes.  Even the status of fresh eggs to be included (or avoided) from recipes was predicated on notions of “freshness” that relied on the development of the refrigerator.


Question Three/Step Three: What about taste?/Presentation, eating, and giving


Does the gingerbread I’ve made look and taste like gingerbread?  To me, absolutely!  To some of my family members, not so much.  The texture, the color, and the taste seems “off” to those who are more familiar with it; those who have made gingerbread consistently every year for decades.  Gingerbread was not something I made or ate consistently with my family, so the recipe’s end result does not bother me as much.  If anything I find them more earthy to the taste and soft in texture, which are preferred qualities for me.

Just as economic markets, technologies, and ingredients change, so can tastes.  There are scholars that attribute certain tastes to certain time periods – often based on what was available at the time.  This includes Kellen Backer’s work on the creation of the American industrial food system that still permeates our tastes today: from WWII quartermaster corps to frozen and canned foods.  Taste and agriculture is also a big subject for debate today, particularly as consumers define close relationships between “taste” and “authenticity” in food crops amidst genetically engineered, conventional, and organic agricultural methods.  Taste is less about sensation in these instances, and more about the moral, historical, and – related to this – nostalgic relationships humans have with their food.   This makes vegan gingerbread interesting to me, for though the taste is not quite the same, it is similar enough for it to achieve its nostalgic purpose.  It may even be considered “authentic” if its absence of eggs or cow’s milk is not brought to the attention of its consumer.  I’ve recently learned that Oreos are a fantastic vegan cookie choice – but I would have never placed them in this category based on taste alone.

These are just some of the ideas and questions that come to mind as I bake, cook, and eat foods made with certain ingredients in certain ways.  Perhaps you’ve changed a recipe due to surplus resources, new technologies, allergies or taste preferences?  I would love to hear about such experiences in the comments below!


Dupree, Nathalie, and Cynthia Graubart. Southern Biscuits. Gibbs Smith, 2011.

Freidberg, Susanne. Fresh: A perishable history. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.

Smith-Howard, Kendra. Pure and modern milk: An environmental history since 1900. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Feminism and Veganism

On Tuesday, November 15th I had the amazing opportunity to speak with students from the Penn Vegan Society and the Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE).  My presentation focused on visual representations in both dairy advertising and vegan advocacy; where women’s bodies have been used to re-instantiate gender norms, challenge them, and/or challenge the normalization/naturalization of the larger dairy industry.   I hoped to provide participants with language and questions to help them better engage in the thoughtful promotion of their dietary activism: considering not only the implications of certain imagery, but also how they may successfully frame their concerns and goals as vegans and as feminists.


In the beginning of my talk, I spoke to the narrative challenges we all have when trying to argue for the acknowledgment of oppressive systems held in nonhuman nature.  I laid out quick, “simple” narrative histories in ecofeminism and vegetarian-feminist theory, when scholars in the 1980s and 1990s were encouraging nonhuman advocates (environmentalists and vegetarians) to pay closer attention to how systems of oppression are connected (really saying, “Hey!  You need to be paying attention to the patriarchy, like feminism does!”).   However, moving from human systems of oppression to nonhuman ones in advocacy (saying, “You’re a feminist, so you also need to be a vegan!”) doesn’t work as well in narrative or visual frames.   Human welfare and animal welfare issues often become blurred in these circumstances, and this has serious ethical repercussions.  Not only does it essentialize women (muting differences in gender, sexuality, race, and class from further critical engagement) it also tends to sexualize them, particularly when trying to illustrate the case against a food system predicated on reproductive organs and biological milk production.

Should vegan advocacy focus solely on the female body (human and animal) to make a case against bovine milk consumption?  It might not be the most successful narrative frame to use, or even the most productive.  For example, one of the topics I wanted to address in the talk (and didn’t have time to emphasize!) was the role of science and technology in altering dairying practices today.   New feeding regimens and new technologies (*including* rbST) have been developed and promoted considering current environmental concerns connected to dairying.  These concerns include the production of methane gas emissions, water pollution, and overall land use.  Not only are technologies being developed, but regulations are being passed based on these larger environmental concerns.


Small, anaerobic digester installed on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania – using methane to produce other forms of energy like electricity on the farm.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

To the students at this event, and to new vegan readers of this blog:  I think centering vegan advocacy on larger issues of climate change and ecological impact provides a different kind of opportunity; an opportunity for meaningful discussion and collaboration with farmers that animal liberation efforts alone may not be able to achieve.  For example, my dissertation looks into how “animal welfare” becomes differently defined between scientific, farming, and consumer groups.  So far, I can say confidently that welfare is a tricky subject, and what farmers think is best for their animals is often not the same for consumers.  These discussions often end up being unfair to the farmer who is asked to reevaluate their livelihood and the relationship they may have fostered with their animals.  Though animal welfare issues are certainly important to address, they tend to fall into dangerous, philosophical traps that are difficult to generalize.  And as I stated above, when trying to illustrate welfare in a visually meaningful way – connecting the feminist agenda with the vegan one – it often falls into the trap of sexualizing and thus ostracizing groups that are critical to vegan advocacy.  A shift to environmental issues also doesn’t take away from the feminist weight of vegan advocacy.  It relocates it to larger problems of capitalism, resource extraction, and technocracy that are wrapped up in ideals attached to the patriarchy.

There is much more I can say about the topic of veganism, my own feelings about the dairy industry, and dietary activism.  This is an ongoing topic for me as someone researching the history of the dairy industry.  But to those interested in advocacy, I wanted to provide a short bibliography of readings that address the important connections held between feminism, environmentalism, and veganism (call it a “starter syllabus,” if you will).   I hope my blog (in past and future posts) also helps demonstrate the complicated nature of human-cow relationships, technologies of care (including feeding), and technologies of production (rbST and artificial insemination included!).  I believe activists of all forms need to be educated on both sides of these issues to better craft arguments for and against certain practices.  Such crafting opens up opportunities for constructive conversation and, perhaps, tangible solutions to some of the things we are most worried about in relation to our nonhuman companions.


Helpful framing literature:

Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, 1980 (environmentalists need to pay attention to feminism)

Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, 1990 (vegetarians need to pay attention to feminism)

Vadana Shiva and J. Bandyopadhyay’s “The Evolution, Structure, and Impact of the Chipko Movement” in Mountain Research and Development 6, no. 2 (1986): 133 – 142

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 1, no. 2 (1972): 5–31. doi:10.2307/3177638.


On connections between vegetarianism, veganism, and feminism:

Deckha, Maneesha. “Disturbing Images: Peta and the Feminist Ethics of Animal Advocacy.” Ethics & the Environment 13, no. 2 (2008): 35–76.

Lucas, Sheri. “A Defense of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection.” Hypatia 20, no. 1 (2005): 150–77. doi:10.1353/hyp.2005.0015.

Schiebinger, Londa. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-Century Natural History. (Cover Story).” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (April 1993): 382–411.

Taylor, Sunaura.  “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship.”  American Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2013): 757 – 764 (Heads up: fantastic article!!!)

Thomas, Marion. “Are Women Naturally Devoted Mothers?: Fabre, Perrier, and Giard on Maternal Instinct in France Under the Third Republic: ARE WOMEN NATURALLY DEVOTED MOTHERS?” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 50, no. 3 (June 2014): 280–301. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21666.


Ecofeminism blogs:  (Particular emphasis on positionality) (Its history and connections with veganism) (More history!) (Helpful for more literature networks in the field.  Not so helpful in speaking to GMOs.)