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Memory has added seasoning

The legacy of feminist restaurants and cafes in the United-States
La mémoire rajoute l'assaisonnement ; l'héritage des restaurants et des cafés féministes aux États-Unis
Alex Ketchum

Abstracts

This article looks at the legacy of the communities created by feminist restaurants and cafés in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Using a mixed methodology of interviews, archives, and a survey of online forums, including Facebook, I explore how the memory of the feminist restaurants and cafés endures through online communities and a new generation of feminist food businesses. The process of remembering feminist restaurants and cafés has the effect of reproducing and promoting the values enacted by the original owners. First, I briefly discuss the kinds of communities feminist restaurant owners fostered during the years of the restaurants’ operation, giving attention to who was included and excluded. Following an explanation of the factors that led to the closure of these businesses, I examine the resurgence of their communities in online spaces and the other ways their legacy has been preserved. I conclude by highlighting the restaurants’ impact on the current food business landscape.

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So… who has the recipe for those home fries?

  • 1 For a complete list of feminist restaurants and cafés, see www.thefeministrestaurantproject.com.
  • 2 Part of the paucity of research on feminist restaurants arises from the difficulty of defining thes (...)

1Although The Brick Hut Café of Berkeley, California had closed 16 years earlier in 1997, former patrons continued to crave the restaurant’s home fries. Under the above user’s June 28, 2013 post on the Remembering The Brick Hut Café Facebook group’s page were eleven comments as patrons and former workers pieced together the secret recipe. Maybe this eatery had amazing home fries, but what is more amazing is that people still cared and still talked about them. The Brick Hut Café was one of the hundreds of feminist restaurants, cafés, and coffeehouses in the United States and Canada founded in the 1970s and 1980s.1 For the purposes of this article, in order to not be in a position of policing who can call themselves feminist and to make the project the most manageable, I decided that a restaurant must be identified as feminist in either its title, in flyers, in interviews, or in descriptions in restaurant reviews, magazines, or periodicals. Within these parameters, a central tenet of the restaurant owners’ philosophy was a focus on the needs of women and feminists above all other goals.2 While The Brick Hut Café existed from 1975 to 1997 and Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant of Bridgeport, Connecticut has been in business for over forty years and continues to serve its feminist fare as of 2019, the majority of these spaces lasted only a couple of years. However, the impact of feminist restaurants and cafés has far outlasted the actual lifespan of the spaces themselves. Their legacy extends through the communities they created and lives on in digital forums and through a new generation of feminist businesses. The history of these restaurants is notable beyond their owners’ amalgamation of feminist values with food business; the American feminist restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s are significant because they were always more than restaurants. They were feminist community centers, continuing beyond the lifespan of the businesses themselves.

2This article examines the importance of feminist restaurants in fostering feminist centered spaces both in the physical and digital realms. Using a mixed methodology of interviews, archives, and a survey of Facebook pages and Facebook groups, I explore how the memory of the feminist restaurants and cafés endures through online communities and a new generation of feminist food businesses. The process of remembering feminist restaurants and cafés has the effect of reproducing and promoting the values enacted by the original owners. First I briefly discuss the kinds of communitiy feminist restaurant owners fostered during the years of the restaurants’ operation, giving attention to who was included and excluded. Following an explanation of the factors that led to the closure of these businesses, I examine the resurgence of their communities in online spaces and the other ways their legacy has been preserved. I conclude by highlighting the restaurants’ impact on the current food business landscape.

Methods

  • 3 I assembled materials from nineteen archives around the United States and Canada, including The Sal (...)
  • 4 The process of locating interviewees grew organically. Locating the interviewees was made possible (...)

3This article is part of a larger project about feminist restaurants, which relies on archival sources, literature from the period, and oral histories. For this project I assembled materials from nineteen archives around the United States and Canada.3 At these archives I gathered textual sources such as diaries, day planners, notebooks, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as posters, event promotional flyers, surveys, audiotapes, buttons, t-shirts, menus, photographs, napkins, travel guides, advertisements, ephemera, and other paraphernalia. I also relied on feminist literary materials such as feminist and lesbian periodicals, magazines, and travel guides. In addition, I conducted a series of oral interviews with the founders, staff, and customers of feminist restaurants and cafés in the United States and Canada4. Inspired by Ann Cvetkovich’s drive to document oral histories in An Archive of Feelings: “in forging a collective knowledge built on memory, I hope to produce not only a version of history but also an archive of the emotions” (2003). Even if gender historian Joan Scott rejects the notion that historians can capture experience in the sense of “lived reality” or “raw events,” she concedes, “experience is not a word we can do without” (1991). The women I interviewed spoke about their individual experiences in a particular space. That level of personal reflection is missing in a box of receipts, diagrams of floor plans, and even photographs documenting events that happened at these feminist restaurants, cafés, and coffeehouses. In order to understand the impact of feminist restaurants, I built original databases and maps, which showcase the locations and years of these feminist restaurants and cafés operation.

4This article relies on two methods, in particular: oral histories and digital ethnographies of the social media website, Facebook. After using online searches to locate Facebook groups and pages associated with feminist restaurants that were founded in the 1970s and 1980s, I identified myself as a researcher to the members of these Facebook pages and groups. I described my research project and asked members if they consented to participating in my research. I then posed questions to the online communities, asked participants if they consented to my quoting them, and also followed up with individuals interested in participating in longer interviews. This method of digital ethnography builds on the work of sociologist Dhiraj Murthy who argues that “balanced combination of physical and digital ethnography not only gives researchers a larger and more exciting array of methods, but also enables them to demarginalize the voice of respondents” (2008).

The Making of Community

  • 5 This assertion comes from the paucity of articles written about feminist restaurants and by the fac (...)

5Although less attention has been given to American feminist restaurants, the businesses were part of a larger movement in which feminist activists created women only and women-centered spaces for political organizing, recreational activity, and commerce.5 Each restaurant and café embodied its feminist ideals uniquely, yet all of these feminist restaurants and cafés challenged the status quo of the food service industry, cooking, and consumption. Examining feminist restaurants and cafés provides a new way to understand feminist and lesbian feminist activism during the second half of the twentieth century by prioritizing the role of space. Women studies scholar, Bonnie J. Morris, in The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture, expressed her “concern that as we advance further into the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the almost flippant dismissal of recent, late twentieth-century lesbian culture, particularly the loss of physical sites such as women’s bookstores and women’s music festivals and their material legacies (books, journals, albums, tapes, magazine interviews with artists)” (2016). Likewise, scholar and lesbian activist, Maxine Wolfe, argues that one of the most persistent political struggles for lesbians has been their societal, historical, and spatial “invisibility” (1997). Geographers such as Julie Podmore and Line Chamberland, however, have challenged this lack of visibility for the lesbian community (1997). Yielding to Wolfe, Podmore, Chamberland, and Morris’s calls to re-center lesbian and feminist culture, this article takes seriously the contributions of feminist restaurants and cafés. This article looks at feminist community spaces both created and frequented by women across lines of class, race, age, and sexual orientations, yet shows that these communities focused on the needs of certain groups over others.

6Feminist businesses, including feminist restaurants, founded in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s served a unique function for feminist community building that has not been replicated and their absence is palpable for their former clientele. Kristen Hogan, author of The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (2017) and former feminist bookstore co-manager and book-buyer herself, has reflected on how she is constantly asked if she will open another feminist bookstore. She remarks that in asking the question, the people who pose it either denote their own desire for the establishments that were so vital to the formation of their own identities or they are younger questioners longing for the creation of spaces that once existed and now have disappeared. Similarly, sociologist Kristen Liddle in More than a Bookstore: The Continuing Relevance of Feminist Bookstores for the Lesbian Community (2005) argues that these spaces were more than places to buy books. Instead, they were central to the formation of lesbian, feminist, and lesbian feminist communities. Anthropologists Ellen Lewin in Inventing Lesbian Cultures in America (1996) and Deborah Goleman Wolf in The Lesbian Community (1980), as well as historian Martin Meeker in Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s-1970s (2006) further these arguments about the importance of feminist bookstores and other feminist businesses that acted as community centers in an American context. Becki L. Ross extends a similar line of examination to the Canadian context in her The House that Jill Built (1995). While the literature has focused primarily on feminist bookstores, I proffer that the sustained desire for feminist restaurants also represents much more than mere nostalgia for halcyon days. In the words of Joan Antonuccio, co-owner of The Brick Hut Café:

Women-owned spaces had huge value. We found safety and strength in numbers. We drew others to us and were able to engage in educational debates: about classism, racism, economics, and to carve out a niche in a world where we were either vilified or invisible. I was interviewed several years ago and was asked what made The Brick Hut a women’s space. My answer was: Because we say so. We decide everything that happens or does not happen on our side of the door; we determine the atmosphere, the ethics, essentially the culture that exists in our space, and those things are based primarily on respect for ourselves, each other, and our environment. In those days, there were women-owned bookstores, other cafés, some record companies and a lot of bars. I believe women-owned spaces still have value, but very few exist anymore. This is the last year for the Michigan Women’s music Festival, the Montclair Women’s cultural Arts Club and we just saw the closing of the last remaining women’s bar [in San Francisco], the Lexington. To this day, I am approached by women who say, "I wish there was a Brick Hut.’ My usual reply: ‘There was’ (Antonuccio, personal communication, June 9, 2015).

7In the opinion of the women interviewed for this article, these spaces fulfilled an important need that has yet to be fully taken up by another facet of society.

8Feminist restaurants and cafés, more than feminist credit unions or even bookstores, encouraged socializing and community building as patrons chatted over refreshments, nibbled treats while discussing the poetry readings or performances happening in the space, and sipped beverages as they chatted about the feminist art decorating the walls. As food studies scholars such as Arlene Voski Avakian and Barbara Haber (2005) and historians of lesbian and lesbian feminist communities, such as Nan Alamilla Boyd (2003) have made clear, food is useful for community building. While studying gay, lesbian, and queer bar culture in San Francisco until 1965, Boyd emphasizes the importance of spaces that centered on food and drink for simultaneously prompting political organization and forging a sense of community. Food enables a particular kind of community formation. As theorized by philosopher Michel de Certeau, marginalized individuals and communities rely on tactics to claim space for themselves, and food can be a useful tool to aid this pursuit. De Certeau writes: “The place of the tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety . . . It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to its circumstances . . . Whatever it wins it does not keep”(1984: xix). Professor of women’s studies, Agatha Beins continues that people, “without a proper place—without a place that is secured in some way—are thus relegated to a position in which they temporarily take a space (e.g., a street, a living room, a place owned by someone else) and use it as best they can to meet their needs” (2014). Feminist restaurants enabled women, particularly lesbians, to access a community space centered on food.

  • 6 Depending on the study and depending on how “Jewish identity” is defined (whether the study include (...)

9The women who began feminist restaurants were not a uniform group; however despite geographical differences, feminist restaurant owners were primarily white, lesbian, working and middle-class with some external way to access capital or utilize intense sweat equity. They were also between the ages of twenty-five to forty at time of starting the business, English-speaking, and a disproportionately large percentage, relative to the general population, were Jewish.6 Radical feminists, radical lesbian separatist feminists, or socialist feminists owned most of the restaurants. Of the restaurants where details about the owners are known, the majority of the owners were white. There were a few notable exceptions to this description, for example, the owners of the Black women’s restaurant, the Philadelphia Mahogany Black Women’s Club (Horn, 1984). At The Brick Hut Café of Berkeley, the entire collective of lesbians were white except for Sharon Davenport who was the only woman of color, identifying as half-Philippina, though often passing as white. Joan Antonuccio of The Brick Hut Café also added in 2015 email correspondence that a few of the collective were middle-class and a few members were working-class and that “race and class were regular discussions among ourselves and in the broader community.” Beginning a restaurant required significant financial investment and thus economic barriers impacted who was able to participate in creating these spaces; this resulted in the ownership of these restaurants reflecting the demographics of whom within the greater lesbian feminist community had greater access to capital, split along racial divides. Ownership also impacted customer demographics, affecting who was included and excluded in the feminist restaurant communities.

  • 7 For more on these divisions, see historian, Alice Echol’s Daring to Be Bad (1989) and Kathy Rudy’s (...)

10Feminist restaurants and cafés founded in the United States during the 1970s and the 1980s created important women and lesbian centered spaces, in which women were the target clientele, yet they were not without their problems. To be clear, this article does not seek to romanticize the history of feminist restaurants. As I have addressed in other work, there was infighting amongst founders, staff, and customers about whom these spaces were for and who was allowed to participate on the basis of sex, gender, race, class, and sexual orientation (Ketchum 2018). Although a full discussion of these issues is outside the scope of this article, debates ranged from whether or not men and transpeople should be included or excluded, whether or not the space was welcoming to women of color, and how to navigate issues of class.7 Furthermore, clientele demographics shifted over time. As Sharon Davenport of The Brick Hut remarked, “The customers changed as the times changed” (2011). However, while there were divisions within the feminist restaurant communities, for the communities that these spaces ultimately served, these restaurants played an important role in their lives. The goal of this article is to emphasize the remarkable impact these restaurants had even after their closure. If the quotes appear to romanticize the spaces, it is because the people maintaining and participating in the Facebook groups and pages cherished their memories of these restaurants and they use these virtual spaces to connect with others who think of these spaces fondly.

Physical closure

11While issues over creating an inclusive community led to debates within feminist restaurants, banal business difficulties mixed with changing ideas about feminism led to closures. Rising rents and operating costs made difficult the financial maintenance of feminist restaurants, which typically had extremely low profit margins due to decisions to make the food as inexpensive as possible to aid accessibility (Ketchum 2017). Changes in feminist politics with the rise of postmodernism, the development of queer theory, and critiques of radical separatist feminism shifted how communities operated and chose to spend time.

  • 8 It is outside the scope of this paper to explain the different development of gay male bars and bus (...)

12Journalists such as Lauren Oyler (2015) believe that feminist restaurants are a “dated concept” and remark that the society that brought them into existence differs from today. She and other critics are correct that the social and political landscapes of the United States have shifted since the 1970s and 1980s, but the historical narrative is not one of total progress. Despite the shift in specific issues, sexism, classism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of social injustice remain problems. Feminist restaurants and cafés were never utopias. Patrons and collectives holding differing political opinions, matched with interpersonal conflicts, led to discord. While these institutions had their own flaws and problems they provided the opportunity to navigate the world in new ways. The rise of postmodernism and poststructuralism also changed the landscape of what it meant to operate lesbian feminist space. The rise of queer theory’s prominence in the late 1980s and the subsequent move away from identity politics made it such that some of these spaces no longer seemed useful. Michel Foucault’s poststructuralist writings (1984) influenced theorists such as Judith Butler to challenge essentialist ideas about gender and sexuality (Butler 1990). Queer theory furthermore challenged ideas of fixed identities. These writings influenced the ways that activists decided to organize their politics, moving away from a politics built on identity towards affinity. The push for queer space has meant that younger lesbians in particular socialize in all gendered spaces, yet gay male bars continue to flourish.8

13The loss of women’s space has meant a loss of community history and mentorship. Physical space can enable chance encounters between patrons of different generations in which stories and information about the community can be shared. Older customers are able to guide and educate new community members about community practices and the exchange can be mutual. However, feminist restaurants have not completely disappeared. They survive in the digital realm and also have spawned a new generation of feminist food businesses.

Virtual space and memory sharing

14The previous communities that congregated in feminist restaurants now continue to socialize on online forums such as remembrance pages on the social networking site, Facebook, and Facebook groups decades after the closure of the brick-and-mortar businesses. While the rise of Internet usage in the 1990s and twenty-first century has allowed lesbian, straight, and queer women new places to network, the loss of physical space is noticeable. The hierarchical power differentials that exist in the physical world are often replicated in the digital realm. Furthermore, while the Internet is useful in connecting queer identified peoples and feminist activists that may be physically isolated, users must know what they are looking for to begin the search and have access to that technology. This question of online/offline communities and even questioning that binary distinction has been analyzed by media scholars such as Ann Travers in “Parallel Subaltern Feminist Counterpublics in Cyberspace” (2003), Amy Jo Kim with Community Building on the Web (2000), and John Coate in “Cyberspace Innkeeping” (1997). The general consensus is that the idea of communities remains consistent but the tools used for communication influence the makeup of the communities. For Facebook feminist restaurant communities, the Internet serves as a way to preserve memories of the impact the physical spaces had on users’ lives.

15Social media plays a vital role in remembering spaces, allowing an existing community to last decades beyond a building’s physical closure. Although the practice of restaurants maintaining an online presence during their years of operation has become common practice and review sites such as Yelp preserve lingering comments on now closed spaces, the creation of new sites and pages for restaurants that closed over thirty or forty years ago is notable. Unlike sites like Yelp and websites and social media accounts of operational restaurants, these remembrance pages are not built to garner attention for the financial gain of the restaurant owners. The remembrance pages maintain a fairly steady membership, consisting of members who both want to connect with former customers and staff who also have Facebook accounts. The Remembering The Brick Hut Café Facebook group page, as of January 26, 2016 had 179 members and 193 members as of February 13, 2019. The stability in membership indicates that the community remains similar in size. Most of the members are middle-aged or senior as they went to the space during its years of operation and now participate in the group to share memories.

16The simple post about hash browns with which this article began led to more than a discussion about clarified butter. Commenters reflected on how The Brick Hut Café had changed their lives. One poster on July 7, 2016 remarked on the role of the restaurant in providing her with a space “where capable women supported one another.” The commenter later confided on December 3, 2016 that “it was a place I could be me, a proud butch.” This opinion was seconded with a different respondent posting below on July 8, 2016, “Here … The food, the friendships, the networking...everything. Sure miss it.” Another poster remarked on how important The Brick Hut was socially and politically for the local community. Former customer, Jose Maria, wrote on January 9, 2009: “I think the breakfast was good but the sisters were the best thing in the history of our neighborhood. I felt always welcomed and loved by the crew and that is what they got back. I remember marching with those sisters for so many causes all of them important and urgent. I wish something like that will happen again.”

  • 9 The Bay Area Lesbian Archive Project is one of several efforts in the United States and Canada to b (...)

17Posts are infrequent but users appear to find the page a meaningful space to connect and reflect on their experiences. Old friends use the space to catch up. It also allows people who have never interacted in the space itself to connect with each other. The site facilitates members’ posting information about upcoming remembrance projects, like the recent Bay Area Lesbian Archive Project, to which they can contribute.9 The page thus enables users to connect their experiences to the larger feminist and lesbian communities of their region. This online forum has allowed users to retain their sense of community and speak across time and place.

18Ruby’s Café of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was founded in 1985 and sold in 1995, likewise has an online community on Facebook. The page started by the family of Ruby’s owner, Mary Banheman, also has a collection of posts by former clientele. As the remembrance forum is not a private group like The Brick Hut Café’s, but rather a public business page, the design of the page lends itself to fewer intimate posts, despite the invitation to “share your Ruby's story, photos, comments, favorites dishes HERE!!!” Still, one of the most touching posts on the page was by one man who remarked on October 8, 2014,

In early winter, 1993, my first serious boyfriend worked at Ruby's. I was newly out, newly divorced and had 2 young daughters. One Sunday we stopped into Ruby's for breakfast; my youngest, …(who was 3 at the time...) found my boyfriend working up in the lofts and waiting on a large table of ladies...she wrapped her adorable self around his legs while he was balancing a tray and announced "YOU belong to my DADDY!" The "AWWWWWWWWW" rising from the table was deafening… And it’s all because of Ruby's!!!!

19Ruby’s Café served the larger gay community of the Twin Cities region and was located near Lorne Park where the Pride events happen. Its presence not only served the men, women, and gender non-conforming individuals of the Twin Cities but also fostered the community itself. The virtual network allows that impact to extend beyond the Twin Cities.

20Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Café also has a Facebook page but it functions differently as the restaurant is still open. The page invites customers to give reviews, enables the owners to advertise upcoming events, and also links to their website. The site enables the owners and customers to create and maintain the current community while simultaneously remembering its over forty-year history. Furthermore, the page facilitates economic opportunities for Bloodroot by advertising upcoming events and promotions. This page then serves three purposes: it records memories, makes users feel connected to the space and each other, and then uses the freely provided remembrances as testimonials to bolster the current business and allow the community to continue thriving into the future. Selma Miriam, co-founder of Bloodroot, will readily note that the goal of creating Bloodroot was never about money, but rather creating the community itself. Bloodroot was a way to financially support a feminist community center (Miriam, personal communication, December 13, 2011). Bloodroot, for over forty years, has drawn people from around the world into its doors. Many of the patrons who are unable to travel again to visit the restaurant due to time, financial, or health constraints use the page to remark on how much they miss the food, the women, and the specific feelings that they felt in a woman-centered space. Even when spaces are physically accessible, their web presence allows those geographically elsewhere to participate in the community.

  • 10 Private access was granted to the author to Selma Miriam and Noel Furie’s personal correspondence c (...)

21Documenting how these feminist spaces affect individuals’ lives is not a new phenomenon, but present technologies change the impact. Over the decades, Bloodroot has received thousands of fan letters, including some from famous feminist figures like Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, and Carol J. Adams.10 Despite passing years, the letters continue to be similar, all praising the food and the feeling of the community there. The online forum now allows not just the owners to see the positive reviews but for anyone to access the memories—perhaps reminding them of their own.

22Of course, while the Internet has expanded access to some, transitioning the emphasis on building online communities instead of physical spaces excludes people who do not have the financial resources to access these technologies. While web literacy has increased over the past few decades, not every person is computer literate or accesses Facebook. Furthermore, desires to maintain personal privacy dissuade some individuals from creating Facebook accounts and thus they are excluded from participating in these forums. Trolling practices, or the process of making intentionally offensive or provocative online posts, can demoralize users and discourage participation in online forums (Mantilla, 2013). In the case of the above examples, the pages are highly monitored and troll comments are rare. Researchers like Dhiraj Murthy remind us of internet exclusivity and the imperative for mixed methods when researching online behaviors (Murthy 2008 and Kahn 2012). I, thus, do not presume I am able to access all people who want to access these spaces by looking at the Facebook pages but I am able to show that people are missing these spaces beyond when they closed. The Internet is not a utopia; it is a tool and, like any other tool, it has its usefulness and its problems. For businesses like Bloodroot that still maintain a physical presence, the internet is able to expand that space to widen participation and accessibility, as well as a customer base, although some people will still be unable to fully participate.

  • 11 The legacy of these restaurants lives on through archives. A scattering of former business document (...)

23The Internet forums may have formalized remembrance and memorializing, but the feminist restaurants’ legacies live on in archives11 and in the minds of the former patrons. Flavia Rando, who cooked a weekly meal for the Women’s Coffeehouse in New York City of 1973, speaks about how women always talk about the Women’s Coffeehouse and how much they miss it. In her discussions with friends and acquaintances, Rando notes how these women remark that there is no space that has replaced it (Rando, personal communication, March 7, 2015). Likewise, when I present my research at academic conferences and in activist communities, afterwards I am usually greeted by women telling me about their own experiences at the local feminist café or restaurant that they used to frequent in their youth and how much they miss that space. Bryher Herak, co-founding member and former owner of the Wildrose Tavern in Seattle, Washington receives hundreds of messages every year from former customers saying how much the restaurant bar meant in their lives. Reflecting on the importance of the Wildrose’s prominence during the 1980s in the wake of the Orlando massacre at Pulse Nightclub in June 2016, Herak noted:

I have heard over and over “it changed my life” and “it was the first time I ever felt safe.” We were so scared and we fought through that and went ahead and did the things they did [in starting a women’s restaurant and bar] knowing that at any time some person could blow us up… there was always that fear of that kind of homophobia…What the Rose was, was a sanctuary. People say about the Wildrose, “thank you, you made a safe place where we could have fun and could cruise.” It was a sanctuary and a refuge (Herak, personal communication, June 16, 2016).

24These restaurants, cafés, and coffeehouses were far more than just a place to eat, acting as sanctuary and refuge to homophobia and fear. For some customers and staff, these spaces served as a home and provided family after their biological families had rejected them. These restaurants fostered community and granted the people, who used them, feelings of security. Although unlike the Internet forums, it is difficult to document these reflections and informal storytelling without a written record. While discussing their experiences either on or offline, almost all of the interviewees remarked on how important these spaces were to the formation of their own identities, their social lives, and their later life paths.

Generations of feminist businesses

25These spaces have had lasting impacts beyond just the customers that went there; their legacy helped inspire another generation of feminist businesses. The owners mentored younger women, imparting the skills they had learned from their own businesses. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, these businesses were steeped in a culture of mentorship. Beginning a business as a woman or a collective of women in the 1970s in the United States was extremely difficult due to governmental policies that made it challenging for women to get credit and a lease. Often feminist restaurants and cafés existed within a nexus of other businesses. For example, Bread and Roses, a feminist restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was part of a community of feminist businesses that included the Feminist Health Center, New Words Bookstore, and the Women's Credit Union (Boston Herald). These businesses could bolster each other financially and help build a community of customers and a network of support.

26Feminist restaurants also supported similar businesses outside of their own regions. Joan Antonucccio of The Brick Hut Café spoke of how she mentored a woman who was interested in starting a feminist business. She remarked that some people were surprised that Antonuccio might be helping her competition but Antonuccio saw them as part of a community, adding “I was asked if I felt nervous or threatened by new women-owned businesses. Really? I said there is always more room for them” (Antonnucio, personal communication, June 9, 2015). Of course Antonnucio, and other feminist restaurant owners, wanted their businesses to succeed. However, success was about more than profits; no one opened a feminist restaurant in order to get rich. Success meant fostering women’s businesses and strengthening their lesbian and feminist communities. Selma Miriam spoke of visiting other feminist restaurants when they were just starting Bloodroot and that they knew about Mother Courage in New York City and Bread and Roses in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Miriam and Furie, personal communication, December 13, 2011). The Bloodroot Collective later mentored other younger women in their businesses, such as Lagusta Yearwood, to continue the cycle of support. Crucially, the mentorship from the previous generation of feminist restaurant managers has inspired the creation of new feminist food businesses.

27Vegan anarchist-ecofeminist chocolatier Lagusta Yearwood is part of a new generation of feminist business owners. Her shop in New Paltz, New York serves vegan, organic, fair-trade feminist chocolates named after two inspiring ecofeminists: Vandana Shivas (after the scholar and activist), and Noel Furie’s Furious Vulvas after the co-owner Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant. These are part of her chocolate line named, Bluestocking Bonbons, after the New York City feminist bookstore Bluestockings (http://www.lagustasluscious.com/​shop/​bluestocking-bonbons).

28When asked about the impact of Bloodroot on her life, she replied “Truly, it changed everything about how I wanted to live, and how I felt I could live. It opened up new worlds of possibility to me” (Yearwood, personal communication, April 16, 2015). Noel Furie and Selma Miriam inspired her and mentored her. Yearwood reflected:

I bought a Bloodroot cookbook in college and fell in love with it. I wrote a fan letter to Noel and Selma and they wrote back, encouraging me to come visit. After college I went to culinary school and needed to do an internship, so I asked Noel and Selma if I could do it there, and they said yes. I loved the internship so much I continued to work there a few days a week for years, even though I lived three states away, in New Jersey…More than that, I wanted to work specifically at Bloodroot, because it was a place that was unapologetically political, and had a somewhat controversial politics that I was drawn to—radical feminism, ethical vegetarianism…Over time, we grew more and more close. They were not just bosses, but truly mentors in every sense of the word. The discussions we’d have while peeling potatoes or stirring soup not only taught me how to cook, they taught me how live fearlessly. They are both deep resources into new ways of being and models of fearlessness and creativity… Before Bloodroot I was involved in more traditional activism, mostly for animal rights: going to marches, working in traditional activist groups, etc. After Bloodroot my activism sort of became my career—I was determined to run a business in a thoughtful and “activist” style instead of working at any old job and doing activist things on the side. (Yearwood, personal communication, April 16, 2015)

29The influence of Bloodroot’s proprietors is evident throughout Yearwood’s business. Even the name of her business, ‘Lagusta’s Luscious,’ was the suggestion of Noel Furie. Like former feminist food business owners, Yearwood views her business as a way to financially support herself within a capitalist system. She sees her business as part of the continuum of feminist businesses but fears that they are dying out. Like the other owners interviewed throughout this piece, Yearwood thinks these women spaces hold:

Immense value. Women-owned and women-focused spaces have so much value as standing proudly outside a patriarchal culture that still says they are rare and difficult to attain and, largely, useless, because “feminism is over” because there is perfect parity between genders or because gender fluidity means they are not necessary (Yearwood, personal communication, April 16, 2015).

  • 12 In my larger project on feminist restaurants, most of the collectives faced insurmountable obstacle (...)

30Yearwood however runs her business differently than many of the feminist restaurants and cafés of the 1970s and 1980s that began as collectives. In studying most collectives, members tended to burn out or dissolve after about 18 months due to infighting.12 Lagusta Yearwood is the manager of her business because, as she admits, “I’m just not a collectivist, sadly. I’m a control freak with a strong vision for my business. I run it as collectively as possible these days, which is nice, though” (Yearwood, personal communication, April 16, 2015). Although she has chosen a different management style than that of many of the original feminist food businesses, she has taken on strategies that she learned from Noel and Selma to empower women in their environments. With changes in the global economy, labor conditions, and the influence of neoliberalism on ideology and lived reality, the new generation has taken the ideas of past feminist restaurant owners and altered them to fit current economic and social circumstances.

31Feminist restaurants and cafés inspired women in their communities beyond just those interested in entering the food industry. These spaces contributed to the greater nexus of feminist and lesbian businesses that allowed women to network. The owners would hire women professionals. Bloodroot (Miriam and Furie, personal communication, December 13, 2011), Bread and Roses (Patricia Hynes, personal communication, December 13, 2011), and Wildrose (Herak, personal communication, June 16, 2016), hired female plumbers and carpenters. Common Women Café of Northampton, Massachusetts worked with female real estate agents and lawyers (Parson 1979). Most of these restaurants and cafés provided a space for women artists to showcase their work and for female musicians to play. Some of these spaces were also bookstores like Bloodroot, Common Woman Books of Omaha, Nebraska, which had pastries and coffees. These restaurants and cafés sold more than feminist fare. They promoted other women’s empowerment in their communities economically, socially, and politically.

Forgotten and remembered

32What has become of these former spaces and what has become of the owners? The buildings are no longer occupied by women’s collectives and feminist businesses. The owners, many of whom are now in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, have continued to be leaders in their communities through graduate school, publishing, and continued industry involvement. Bread and Roses owner, Patricia Hynes, became a professor of Environmental Health for Boston University School of Public Health and has written and edited seven books, among them The Recurring Silent Spring (1989). Mary Banheman of Ruby’s Café continues to work in the food industry as a caterer. Dr. Flavia Rando is an art historian. Selma Miriam and Noel Furie continue to run Bloodroot. The women who started these spaces in their twenties and thirties carried their experiences in feminist restaurants with them as they propelled themselves into new careers.

33One of the enduring legacies of feminist restaurants is how they changed the discussion about food, feminism, and social justice. Spaces like Bloodroot impacted the way that people within the food industry interacted with each other. As Yearwood remarked, “Noel and Selma create a culture unlike most jobs, where because there is pretty much no hierarchy and cooperation is valued, there isn’t the typical food-industry rancor between coworkers at Bloodroot” (Yearwood, personal communication, April 16, 2015). Feminist restaurants and cafés worked to dismantle the patriarchal values of the food industry. They were designed with windows that allowed people to see the workers in the kitchen and most disbanded waitresses as they wanted to upend the hierarchical relationships between the patrons and the workers. Furthermore, they altered ideas about whom restaurants were for. The Brick Hut Café, co-owner Sharon Davenport remarked:

34We welcomed everyone who was an ally in our common cause of social justice and inclusion. The weekend crowds spilled out into the street even after we built a backyard patio where we served a limited menu of blueberry muffins, coffee, and tea. We were a haven for lesbians and gay men, an information center for LGBT activists, an anchor for a diverse community that included working girls, bad-boys, suburban queens, transmen and transwomen. We were the Dyke Diner: the Lesbian Luncheonette: the Chick Hut: the Brick Hut. When AIDS hit a group of customers affectionately named the Shattuck Street Fairies (SSF) we became a refuge and an information outlet for AIDS awareness. Sometimes we were the last stop: as when Ron, one of the SSF housemates, was lovingly carried in on the arms of his friends for his last Brick Hut meal. We worked to maintain The Brick Hut as a viable business in spite of threats and intimidations. We invited all our customers to cross the demoralizing barriers of class, race, and gender differences, and join us at the community table (Davenport 2016).

35The restaurants were not perfect but they were havens, outlets, and “safer spaces” for their community members.

Conclusion

36Having a café was nobody’s dream, but it sustained us in our other endeavors. The Brick Hut was a place for us all to create a space in the world where we could be our complete selves. The food was the community, the edible fare was our way of bringing it all together, with love (Antonuccio, personal communication, June 9, 2015).

37Communities are constituted by a shared belief/understanding of membership (Anderson 2006). Online communities may not replicate the environment of the feminist restaurants and cafés, yet they do simultaneously allow for people to maintain and continue to build the communities that meant so much to them in these feminist spaces, while being able to remember the physical spaces themselves. Communities thus do not have to be physical in order to exist, yet as the Facebook remembrance pages make clear, the digital communities are not an equal replacement. In the case of both physical feminist restaurants and online communities, patrons simultaneously participate in the community and construct it. One of the greatest legacies then of feminist restaurants is that they gave women the ability to build the kind of world that they wanted, even if it could only exist within a single building. Knowing that women have created and can continue to create safe spaces is empowering when one endeavors to end social injustice on the global scale through incremental steps on a community scale.

38Despite their closing, these restaurant founders’ feminist aims live on through active memorialization and continue to inspire new communities in both physical and online spaces. Businesses have quantifiable life spans, but impact is hard to measure. It has been over forty years that some of these restaurants and cafés closed their doors and despite various controversies, people are still talking about them as these spaces were vital to the formation of lesbian and feminist communities in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. Their legacy lives on through the next generation of feminist businesses and through online communities. Feminist restaurants provided homes away from home. Though never utopic, for many women, they were a first entrance to the world of feminism – a movement that offered a vision for a more equitable world. These restaurants, cafés, and coffeehouses were places where they could meet other women to build lasting friendships, to engage in activism, and find purpose in their lives. For others, these spaces were places to meet lovers and explore their lesbian identities in a new way or in a first way. Their legacy persists because these were more than restaurants; they were centers of community.

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Notes

1 For a complete list of feminist restaurants and cafés, see www.thefeministrestaurantproject.com.

2 Part of the paucity of research on feminist restaurants arises from the difficulty of defining these spaces. This article examines intentional feminist spaces that were marked as “feminist” by their founders. Feminist restaurants challenged the entire process of food production. While women were typically associated with the kitchen, they were not typically paid for this labor, which accounts for, as food scholar, Barbara Haber writes, the understanding that when we typically think of feminism and food we think of the “feminists [who] disdained women's role in the kitchen, seeing it as a symbol of subjugation because of the persistent and repetitious demands made on women throughout history to fill the waiting maws of husbands and children” (2003).

3 I assembled materials from nineteen archives around the United States and Canada, including The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Quebec Gay Archives (Les Archives gaies du Québec), the Canadian Women’s Movement Archives at the University of Ottawa, the University of Iowa Archives, the University of Minnesota Archives, the San Francisco GLBT Archives, the San Francisco Public Library Archives, Northeastern University Archives, Smith College Archives, New York University Fales Archives, New York University Archives of the Tamiment Libraries, John J. Wilcox Jr. Gay Archives at the William Way Center in Philadelphia, the San Diego LAMBDA Archives, the Lesbian Herstory Digital Archives, and Yale University Archives. I worked with English, French, and Spanish sources.

4 The process of locating interviewees grew organically. Locating the interviewees was made possible in two ways. The first method consisted of finding the name of a feminist business owner in a feminist periodical, advertisement, or in an archive. I would then conduct internet searches, scour old phone books, and use my connections to feminist Facebook groups directed at lesbian feminists in their sixties and seventies to post asking for help to connect with the women I wanted to interview. Occasionally, people would find me. After presenting my work in academic and non-academic settings and through sharing information about this research on the website “The Feminist Restaurant Project,” people would offer to be interviewed or connect me with their personal network of friends and former co-workers who had worked in these establishments.

5 This assertion comes from the paucity of articles written about feminist restaurants and by the fact that I often hear from people they have never heard of feminist restaurants when I am asked about my research. In fact, even within the academy, the historiography of feminist restaurants is quite small. The literature usually consists of one paragraph within a larger tome of feminist or lesbian contributions such as Warren Belasco’s work (2007). A. Finn Enke’s book is one of the only pieces to dedicate a significant about of space to the topic and they are focused only on the Midwestern United States (2007). More historiographical emphasis, however, has been put on the history of gay and lesbian bar culture. While histories of bars and restaurants both deal with the role of consumption in public spaces and in creating community, histories of bar culture differ from restaurant and café history due to their emphasis on crime. Still, studies of bar culture provide important models for how to understand the impact of feminist restaurants. Researchers have investigated the way that lesbian and gay restaurants were important for activism. George Chauncey’s work (1994) on gay male culture in New York from 1890-1940 looks at restaurants, cafés, and bars. His book is especially pertinent as he situates the creation of bars as central to the creation of a larger gay male world. Women’s studies scholar, Trisha Franzen’s writings about lesbians in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1993) show the important role played by restaurants and bars in the formation of the lesbian community. Most importantly, the places where Albuquerque lesbians chose to congregate from 1965 to 1980 said much about their social position, emphasizing class differences.

6 Depending on the study and depending on how “Jewish identity” is defined (whether the study includes being culturally Jewish but not practicing the religion), Jewish Americans comprised between 1.5 to 2 percent of the population of the United States US Census (1980).

7 For more on these divisions, see historian, Alice Echol’s Daring to Be Bad (1989) and Kathy Rudy’s “Radical Feminism, Lesbian Separatism, and Queer Theory” (2001).

8 It is outside the scope of this paper to explain the different development of gay male bars and businesses from lesbian bars and businesses. See Martin Meeker’s Contacts Desired (2006) for more information on this topic.

9 The Bay Area Lesbian Archive Project is one of several efforts in the United States and Canada to bring attention to the contributions made by lesbians. In their own words, “Lesbians in the 1970’s were at the forefront of the building of many community resources for women and lesbians, including women’s health clinics, rape crisis centers, women’s domestic abuse shelters, girl's camps and schools, women’s and LGBT centers, newspapers, presses, bookstores, bars, cafés and more. Lesbians were a major support to gay men during the AIDs crisis and were activists in the ACT Up movement as well. Despite all these contributions, Bay Area lesbian histories have remained largely invisible.”

10 Private access was granted to the author to Selma Miriam and Noel Furie’s personal correspondence collection and assorted letters.

11 The legacy of these restaurants lives on through archives. A scattering of former business documents and ephemera remains spread between university archives and LGBTQ community center archives. These archives also hold the feminist periodicals that wrote up reviews of these restaurants and the travel guides that mentioned them.

12 In my larger project on feminist restaurants, most of the collectives faced insurmountable obstacles and in-fighting over scheduling issues, burn-out, lack of funds, and members having different visions for the spaces. The average time before the structure changed was around eighteen months.

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References

Electronic reference

Alex Ketchum, « Memory has added seasoning », Anthropology of food [Online], Articles, Online since 26 April 2019, connection on 23 May 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/9904

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About the author

Alex Ketchum

historian, McGill University, Alexandra.ketchum@mail.mcgill.ca

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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