The foods I learned to cook came in this order:
1) Chocolate whacky cake (a cake made with no milk or eggs)
2) Macaroni and cheese (a version made with uncooked noodles and Farmer’s cheese)
3) Salmon cakes (because you needed something to eat with the mac and cheese, duh)
4) Deviled eggs (because Samantha Parkington ate them)
5) Chocolate peanut buddy bars
6) Zucchini cake
#4, Deviled Eggs, were my favorite on this list. My mom tells me that I used to jump at the chance of making them for every family reunion and church potluck. I kind of remember this, although I remember more loving the pleasurable delicate feel of hard-boiled whites beneath my fingers, and the disappointment I felt for not owning one of those Tupperware deviled egg carrying trays to display the finished eggs in. You know, the tray with little egg-sized gorges molded into the plastic so the eggs wouldn’t roll around and smash up your handwork. Those things were rad.
This Labor Day, I made deviled eggs for the first time since leaving for college–where I had had no devils or eggs or community picnics of which to speak. In the kitchen of some friends, I took out a Tupperware of eggs that I’d hard-boiled and expertly shelled, and I halved them with a steak knife with childlike solemnity. My fingers carefully separated the yokes from the delicate whites in the way I used to love, and my thumbs mashed and mixed and spooned the filling back in. I piled the finished eggs on a plate and presented them to the group with supreme six-year-old pride.
No one ate any for two hours.
I asked myself: Had I committed a culinary faux pas? Was I the only one who still liked these things? Maybe deviled eggs were actually an antiquated dish, as unappetizing to most modern 20-somethings as a mold filled with lime Jell-O and fruit cocktail. I fretted and dumped a can of chopped green olives over the top, which only made the eggs look stuck with green alien eyes. I pushed the eggs into plain view next to my friend’s taco dip, and I pouted when my boyfriend Jon asked me to please put the eggs back in the fridge; no one was ready for them.
“Deviled eggs are an old, old dish,” said my Grandma Grove. I had approached her to ask if she had made deviled eggs when she was younger in an attempt to determine how old the idea really was (she had owned a Tupperware deviled egg carrier and therefore I trusted her opinion). She responded in the same way my memory served me: “Yes, yes, we always made deviled eggs for potlucks and church picnics.”
According to some sources, the practice of boiling eggs and removing their yolks was introduced by the Romans, and deviled eggs appeared pretty regularly in cookbooks by the 17th century. Multiple other cultures have their own version, like the Germans, who are said to make their deviled eggs with anchovies or capers, or the French, who choose pepper and parsley. As for me, when I was younger, the filling didn’t matter; the presence of any kind of deviled egg at a picnic was simply, in my mind, indispensable, and, though I didn’t realize it, helping to define a social expectation.
Looking further, these eggs that regularly appeared at public suppers also help to characterize the women who continued, decade after decade, to make them. Deviled eggs are an attempt at elegance using a common household item. At one time, could a woman have been judged by her ability to make a good set of deviled eggs–her ability to spin something graceful out of the mundane–as a sign of her readiness to run a household, in the same way that my Grandma Grove once told me, beaming, that once I could roll a pie crust, I’d be ready for a man?
The history of food draws varying portraits of women’s roles as providers, entertainers, caregivers, and trophies, depending on the geography and generation. My list of foods above, for example, betrays Mennonite cookbooks and one-pot wonders, garden vegetables and stale powdery spices, Saltine crackers and canned fish, as well as the women who cooked this food: probably mothers with several children working off tight budgets with little room for creativity, women made sturdy through their resourcefulness.
In the introductory to the anniversary edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (2001), Julia Child’s depiction of the cooking atmosphere of the 1960’s helps define the women in a different way:
“I remember aspics. Jellied madrilene was a favorite fancy soup of the period, a beef consommé flavored with fresh tomato and topped with a splash of whipped cream–that was before sour cream came upon us. Melba toast was a standard accompaniment to the soup at ladies’ luncheons–and there were many of them then because running a household rather than having a career gave many women the leisure time. These carefully orchestrated meals often featured a large molded ring of tomato aspic, its center filled with chicken, crab, or lobster salad” (vii).
Her words — “careful,” “leisure,” and “luncheon” — outline a different shape of feminism, one in which women who have too much time on their hands and little other options, attempting perfection and self-definition through the cuisine they could replicate.
In recent years, deviled eggs have seen a resurgence onto upscale menus like the Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, and today, the requirement of a woman to be a proficient cook is less obvious due to practical reasons. Most Americans spend around 5.7% of their budget on the cost of food as apposed to 15% in the 1970s and upwards to 40% in some developing countries, meaning that I don’t have to spend days after school making pickles or freezing sweet corn to account for the financial difference.
I still hear rumors about “Doadi Rockwell’s pizza” and “Melinda Hoey’s cheesecake” and “Anna Grove’s cherry pie,” but they seem to mark a different trend, or at least, I hope they do: one of pride that shows that food does really mark a legacy, and the people who make them, female or not, can be defined, like an artist, by their creation.
At the end of the Labor Day picnic, my deviled eggs were eaten–all of them. I was pleased, because in the end, that is the purpose of food anyway: nourishment, giving, sharing, and, occasionally, an excuse to break free. Yet as I ate my own deviled eggs, I was wondering if any woman in my past had refused to cook for a social gathering, just for spite, and I wondered about what kind of women she would have been.