The Most Influential Women in Food
In honor of Women’s History Month, Meatless Monday is celebrating the many women who have helped make our food and food system more equitable, accessible, nutritious, entertaining, and delicious.
Although countless women have contributed to the cause, we’re highlighting a diverse group that touches every corner of the food world, from food policy leaders to Michelin-starred chefs to plant-based eating advocates. And while their accomplishments vary, they all share one thing in common—a commitment to making food healthier and more enjoyable.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (MFK for short), is one of the most accomplished and revered American food writers. Her whimsical and approachable writing style, mixed with a vast knowledge of gastronomy, made her writing dynamic, unique, and comprehensive. Although she passed away in 1992, her 27 published books are still lauded by food enthusiasts and culinarians around the world because they teach the reader how to truly appreciate—and love—food. If you’re new to MFK Fisher’s work, we recommend starting with An Alphabet for Gourmets or How to Cook a Wolf.
Born in 1907, Rachel Carson was a writer, scientists, and ecologist who was an important pioneer of the environmentalist movement. Although she originally focused her studies on marine life and oceans, Carson shifted her attention to the increased usage of pesticides and chemicals in American agricultural production. Her ground-breaking expose, Silent Spring, told the real-life story of how bird populations across the country were suffering as a result of the widespread application of the synthetic pesticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was being used widely to control mosquitoes and others insects. The shocking revelations outlined in Silent Spring galvanized a new generation of environmentalists, inspiring them to protect the world and all its creatures.
When it comes to Southern cooking, Edna Lewis is larger than life. The granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, Lewis put Southern comfort food on the map when she opened her own New York City restaurant, Café Nicholson, in 1948. Lewis was one of the few black, female head chefs in the country, but her simple, yet delicious Southern food truly wowed her restaurant’s high-profile clientele, which included Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gloria Vanderbilt. In 1972, Edna Lewis authored, The Taste of Country Cooking, which focused on pure and fresh ingredients, annual Emancipation Day picnics, and the aromas of celebratory meals. The Taste of Country Cooking ushered in a new wave of cookbooks celebrating the diversity of southern cuisine.
Known as the inventor of modern California cuisine, Alice Waters is an American culinary icon who popularized local, simple, and sustainable cookery. She opened her world-famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, in 1971, and her ingredient-forward style has been applauded by chefs, customers, and environmentalists alike. By showcasing seasonal produce grown by local farmers and artisans, Alice Waters was able to redefine what is considered fine dining, and in 2007, Chez Panisse was included on the list of, “The World’s 50 Greatest Restaurants.” Today, through her Edible Schoolyard Project, Alice Waters is dedicated to promoting food awareness and better eating habits in children and young adults.
Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, which she chaired from 1988-2003 and from which she officially retired in September 2017. Over the course of her long and successful career, Marion Nestle has authored several books detailing the interplay between food, science, politics, and industry. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, remains a must-read for anyone interested in the modern history of the American food policy.
Dominique Crenn is one of the most powerful female forces in the culinary world and is currently the only female chef in the United States to attain three Michelin stars for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco, California. Crenn’s culinary career has always involved challenging the typical gender roles that are pervasive in professional kitchens. In 1998, she became head chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, making her Indonesia’s first ever female head chef. Dominique Crenn describes her cooking style as “poetic culinaria,” and her kitchens are known for being professional and absent of screaming and condescension.
Cookbook author, writer, activist, and television host of the culinary competition, Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi knows a thing or two about food. As an Indian American, she is dedicated to bringing greater awareness to the rich, complex, and often-misunderstood nuances of Indian cooking. But Lakshmi is more than a food personality; she fights bravely for equality, women’s rights, and immigration reform, and her work as an activist, philanthropist, and Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program has impacted the lives of millions.
Mother, lawyer, writer, and former First Lady, Michelle Obama remains a role model to women around the world, but her contribution to the fight against obesity and unhealthy eating remains one of her greatest accomplishments. While in the White House, she championed the Let’s Move campaign, which was created to help curb the childhood obesity by providing healthier meals in schools, improving food nutrition labeling, and encouraging more physical activity. Michelle Obama also played an important role in the new MyPlate design, a visual graphic that would replace the outdated food pyramid by putting an emphasis on eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Informative, bubbly, and talented, Tabitha Brown has taken the food world by storm. Her recipes are simple, accessible, and comforting, but they’re also primarily vegan. Tabitha Brown has emerged as an important cheerleader for plant-based cooking, and she shows via digital channels like YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok that eating fruits, vegetables, grains, and other whole foods can be fun and delicious. Her innovative dishes, like carrot bacon and okra grilled cheese, show her young audience that cooking can be a creative art, as well as way to eat better.