Learn how cooking can foster community connection and a deeper understanding of cultural and personal identity.
portrait of author and illustrator lindsay gardner
Credit: Courtesy of Workman / Smeeta Mahanti

Throughout the ages, women have been at the stove and running the kitchen, feeding family and friends home-cooked meals that come straight from the heart. Be it vegetable lasagna or chicken soup, it's Mom's cooking that we long for and Grandma's recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Given women's integral relationship to cooking and the large number of women who work in the professional food world, you might expect that they'd also be positioned for success, yet inequity still rules. Women of color and those in LBTQA+ community, in particular, are oftentimes overlooked and underrepresented in restaurant hierarchies and other culinary seats of power; many must confront racism, sexism, harassment, a dearth of financial investment, and a lack of recognition, says illustrator Lindsay Gardner, whose food art has appeared in scores of cookbooks and publications.

Catalyst for Change

Perplexed by that imbalance and determined to champion women's achievements and insights around food, Gardner created Why We Cook: Women on Food Identity and Connection ($19.99, barnesandnoble.com). This timely book features essays, kitchen profiles, interviews, recipes, and pearls of epicurean wisdom from 112 women from all walks of the industry, including restaurateurs, activists, food journalists, professional chefs, sommeliers, recipe testers, bakers, and home cooks. Gardner's vibrant watercolor illustrations make their stories all the more moving. "My goal from the start was to include a broad and diverse range of women's voices in the book and to give contributors a space to share their perspectives in their own words," she explains. "It's crucial that women not only see themselves represented in stories and the food media but that we have a chance at writing our own stories."

And there were other reasons closer to home that propelled her forward with this project. As a mother, she wondered what she was sharing sensorially, culturally, and creatively with her daughters through cooking. "Like so many women, I was balancing my professional goals and ambitions with the practical and emotional demands of motherhood and domestic life," says Gardner. "Cooking filled me with a mix of pride, joy, and creative energy, but caring so deeply about a major aspect of our family life felt quite weighty at times, and I wanted to understand that feeling more deeply."

Movers and Shakers, Including Homemakers

Who fills the pages of Why We Cook? Many of the contributors are legends in the food world, like chef, author, and Top Chef competitor Tanya Holland, ice cream impresario Jeni Britton Bauer, and food writer and editor Ruth Reichl, who describes some of the most memorable meals she's enjoyed throughout her illustrious career. Others, including food scientist Dr. Arielle Johnson, pastry chef Mimi Mendoza, and activist and soil steward Leah Penniman who shares a day in the life at the Afro-Indigenous focused Soul Fire Farm, wield influence among those in the know, and their stories, and approach to their craft, are just as compelling. Together, their contributions illustrate how food transcends necessity by effecting change, nourishing the soul, and ultimately providing a sense of community, identity, and cultural significance. "Each contributor in the book underscores this special and universal way that food and cooking can bring people together, preserve traditions and legacies, and pass down important knowledge to future generations," says Gardner.

For this accomplished illustrator and mother, these cooking stories have fostered a sense of empowerment, solidarity, and hope. From personal reflections to vivid profiles, the collection, she believes, has visceral staying power, offering a gateway to learning about people, history, and togetherness. "Personally, reading the insights and perspectives of other women on cooking and food makes me feel that I'm part of a larger conversation—it's a feeling that I am part of something bigger than myself, even if I am literally cooking alone."


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