Summer Research Project: Cuisine de mères: Apprenticeship, Gender and the Construction of Culinary History

image via antiqua print gallery
image via antiqua print gallery

Congratulations to Rachel Black for being awarded the Culinary Trusts’ 2013-2014 Julia Child Independent Study grants. This support will allow Dr. Black to go to Lyon, France to conduct summer research on an important, yet neglected chapter in twentieth-century French culinary history–the cuisine des mères. This project offers insight into a moment in postwar France in which women maintained a privileged position between the two worlds of domestic and professional cookery.
image via Cuisine Plurielle
Photo of Jacotte Brazier via Cuisine Plurielle

Who were these mères? In the early twentieth century, affluent bourgeois households in the Lyon area employed women cooks who became known for their refined cuisine. After World War I and the economic crash of 1929, most families could no longer afford to keep a cook. Finding themselves without work, some of these women opened small, family-run dining establishments, which served simple yet perfectly prepared cuisine. Notable among these was “La mère Brazier” (Eugénie Brazier) who was the darling of the French restaurant critic Curnonsky and the only woman to ever earn three Michelin stars for two of her restaurants. Dr. Black’s research project looks at how women like Brazier, collectively known as ‘les mères’ (the mothers) in French culinary circles, brought their knowledge of local cuisine into the public sphere and raised these culinary traditions to new heights. It was during the interwar years that cuisine bourgeoise, previously only attainable in privileged private households, became available to the public, largely thanks to the women cooks who had been the keepers of these culinary traditions. The work of these women and the apprentices that they trained had an important influence on the construction of Lyonnais and French cuisine after the Second World War.
Postcard featuring la Mère Fillioux carving one of her famous poultry dishes.

Dr. Black will focus on the rise to prominence of the mères lyonnaises in the otherwise male-dominated professional kitchens, and it will look at the reasons why male chefs eventually eclipsed these women. Through archival research and oral history interviews with family members and the chefs who apprenticed with the mères, she will not only seek to answer the question, ‘Why have the mères largely been written out of French culinary history?’ but will also take important steps to writing them back in.

This guest post is brought to you by Barbara Rotger and Rachel Black.

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