In her latest publication, Ingredients for Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses, Dr. Alex Ketchum outlines a systematic study of the history of over 230 feminist and lesbian-feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses that existed in the United States from 1972 to the present day. Recounting these key sites of cultural and political significance, Ketchum shows us the important role these trail-blaizing institutions played in several social justice movements including women's liberation, LGBTQ equality, food justice and the training of women workers and entrepeneurs.
Following on the heels of the publication of Engage in Public Scholarship! in June 2022, Ingredients for Revolution, published by Concordia University Press in November 2022, is Ketchum's second book to be published.
We spoke to Dr. Ketchum about the work and research that's gone into bringing her latest book onto bookstore shelves.
Q: What inspired you to do this research and write this book?
I’ve been working on this book in various forms over the past 12 years. Early research began in 2011 while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I was a co-organizer of the university’s Long Lane Organic Farm, founder and house manager of the food politics centred living community Farm House, and I needed to write an honours thesis project. I wanted to bring together my interests in food and feminism.
A friend mentioned Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian Restaurant and Bookstore in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut so I convinced a friend to give me a ride there and was immediately interested in learning more about feminist restaurants. While the topic of feminist restaurants only occupied a few paragraphs of my undergrad thesis, I wrote my MA History project on feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses in Canada and my PhD dissertation was on the history of Canadian and American feminist restaurants.
In 2018, I published a zine with Microcosm about creating how to start a feminist restaurant. My new book, Ingredients for Revolution (Concordia University Press, 2022) focuses on the American history of these spaces.
Q: “Ingredients for Revolution” coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the Mother Courage restaurant. What is a “feminist restaurant’ and what did the Mother Courage restaurant represent?
Mother Courage was the first American feminist restaurant, founded in 1972 in New York City. Feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses served as cultural and social centers for feminist, lesbian feminist, and queer women’s communities. These restaurants provided economic opportunities both for the people working there and affiliated businesses and artistic and cultural ventures. The owners of these businesses wrote cookbooks and produced other cultural ephemera. Importantly, they flipped the narrative of the kitchen as an inherent site of women’s oppression and showed the empowering potential within cooking.
As I did not want to be prescriptive in my definition, I analyzed any restaurant, café, or coffeehouse which the owners or founders called “feminist” in their title, documents, or advertising.
Q: Your podcast, “Feminist Ingredients for Revolution” also examines the concept of “feminist food”, and you talk about how food in general is gendered, raced and classed. Why is it important to think of food in this way?
Food is social, cultural, and political. The labour practices surrounding food, the cooking and preparation of food, the sourcing of ingredients, and even the presentation and rituals around eating food are all impacted by gender, race, and class.
Q: You conducted extensive research in the form of archival research and interviews. What surprising discoveries did you make while conducting your research?
I utilized over 19 archives for this project across the United States and Canada and interviewed more than a dozen individuals. When I first started this project, I didn’t expect to find so many feminist restaurants. As part of my work, I created a publicly accessible directory of these spaces and maps, all available at my website thefeministrestaurantproject.com.
I’d like to note that there is an absolute joy and pleasure in doing archival work. I am so grateful to the many archivists who helped me find documents, pulled boxes from storage, and encouraged my research.
Q: Your book looks at how women succeeded in establishing businesses despite institutionalized sexism such as banks making it difficult for unmarried women to obtain bank loans. What other examples of institutionalized sexism did you come across during your research?
There’s so, so, so many… but something I want to emphasize is that while my research addresses the sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic, and transphobic challenges that the founders, operators, and workers within feminist restaurants, cafes, coffeehouses have faced, I am more interested in the history of how they overcame those challenges to creates spaces that worked towards a more socially just world.
Q: Since the book’s publication, you’ve done several book events. What conversations and feedback have you been receiving from your readers, your colleagues and your students?
Book events are a fantastic way to connect with folks. I genuinely love speaking with folks within and outside of academia. I like to pair events that I do on university campuses with ones at local independent bookstores or libraries. I’m interested in how everyone seems to find different aspects of my research that they connect to. Especially when dealing with the topic of food, people relate on such a personal level.
I really love when people tell me about an experience that they had at a feminist restaurant, café, or coffeehouse (I should note that this happens at events where I am speaking about Ingredients for Revolution or my other book Engage in Public Scholarship).
Q: What’s next for you in 2023?
I’m working on my third book project, tentatively titled Recoding Feminisms: Algorithmic Resistance, Resilience, and Liberation (1956-2022), which seeks to historically contextualize the relationship between feminist ethics and AI.
I’m also finishing up some articles about the histories digital queer activism and cyberfeminism. Disrupting Disruptions: the Feminist and Accessible Publishing, Communications, and Tech series will recommence in January 2023.
Since 2019, I’ve organized over 69 events for this SSHRC Connection Grant- funded series and I’m excited for January 2023 to mark the start of the 5th season. I’m excited to continue my book tour in the spring as I love the opportunity to chat about my research with the broader public. And of course, my teaching! As per usual, I’m teaching 6 courses. For the winter term, students can take GSFS 300: Feminist Research Methods, GSFS 401: Feminist Futurities, Technologies, and Worldmaking, and GSFS 495: Honours Research Colloquium. I always look forward to working with students in my lab, the Just Feminist Tech and Scholarship Lab. So it’s looking like another busy year!
Dr. Alex Ketchum is a Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies of McGill University. She is the Director of the Just Feminist Tech and Scholarship Lab. Her research focuses on the role of technology, food, feminism, and environmentalism in 20th century social movements in the United States and Canada. Dr. Ketchum's doctorate from McGill's Department of History was supported by the FRQSC (Fonds de recherche du Quebec). Her dissertation focused on feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses in the United States and Canada from 1972-1989. She has an MA in History and Women and Gender Studies from McGill University and an Honours BA in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Wesleyan University.