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This Consciousness-Raising Cafe Wants You to Eat Like a Feminist

Alicia Kennedy

Alicia Kennedy

While the cultural definition of feminism has changed considerably since the 70s, the ethos of Bloodroot Restaurant and Feminist Bookstore has not.

All photos by the author

Back in the 70s, when women wanted to have their consciousness raised, they met with a women's group. These communities provided the safety and comfort necessary for frank discussion of gender politics and liberation. But after years of attending such groups, Selma Miriam wanted to take the money she'd saved from her landscape design business and start her own women's center. A bookstore seemed a clear model, but she loved cooking and wanted to add a restaurant. That was how she ended up opening Bloodroot Restaurant and Feminist Bookstore in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1977.

All photos by the author

"My friends said it should be vegetarian if it was going to be feminist, so I'd make vegetarian food and then go home and cook chicken," she told me on a quiet Saturday afternoon between lunch and dinner service. Eventually, she became vegetarian herself, and now strives toward veganism.

Without formal culinary training, she set upon creating recipes that would be easily made by all who worked there. Bloodroot isn't run in the hierarchical manner of a formal restaurant—there is no one who goes by the title of "chef"—and so everyone who runs food, takes orders, and helps in the kitchen also works the stove. She's liberal with giving out recipes, having published five cookbooks since 1980, so they're all easily made by home cooks as well. The kitchen itself is a marriage of the professional and domestic, with dishes stacked high on shelves and spices tucked into a corner. Customers place their order at the desk, bring their check to the kitchen counter, pick up their food when it's ready, and then clear their own table.

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The food and the collective nature of how the restaurant is run are meant to evoke comfort, to promote consciousness and community. Stepping into Bloodroot means stepping into a home, quite literally. It is a renovated residential house on a quiet block, with a backyard that overlooks the Long Island Sound. The chairs and tables in the big, open dining room are mismatched, framed pictures of women line the walls, and blankets bought on travels are draped over the ceiling beams to soften both an echo and the room's look. In a place where you bus your own tables, such intimacy is necessary to keep customers coming back. It also, according to the co-owners, keeps away those who are more entitled.

Bloodroot is the last restaurant of its kind, according to Alex Ketchum, a former Bloodroot regular who started The Feminist Restaurant Project as part of her doctoral research at McGill University. Thirty-eight years after it opened during a tiny boom of second-wave feminist bookstores and restaurants, it's surviving—for three reasons, according to Selma: "We work in a very pretty place; it's not a busy spot, but we're needed. We also really like cooking. And also, the way we're structured." It began as a collective, but now Selma and Noel Furie are its sole owners.

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Customers regularly travel to the restaurant—"Those women came from Albany," she said, gesturing to a full table. "When they don't come, we worry about them." It's a place not just to eat, but to immerse yourself in the kind of political space that's difficult to find nowadays. Above the counter, a sign says, "Because all women are victims of Fat Oppression and out of respect for women of size, we would appreciate your refraining from agonizing aloud over the calorie count in our food." It is a restaurant that is unabashed in its politics, and in its demands on its customers to also adopt its principles while within its walls.

In keeping with their sign against calorie-count discussion, Bloodroot, in its food, has always fought against the health-food ideology that plagues vegetarian cooking. Selma recently gave a talk at a local library in which she went through all the diet fads that have come and gone since the restaurant's opening. Their timeless focus on global home cooking and whole foods has kept them relevant, whether people were avoiding fat, carbs, or gluten. They also strive to be an antidote to junk-based meatless eating. "American vegan food is ghastly," Selma said.

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On this summer Saturday, the menu, though, was almost completely vegan. Highly recommended was the jerk seitan and tofu, a recipe brought in by a woman from Jamaica named Carol. The hunks of grilled seitan were incredibly spicy and juicy—the latter an adjective you can rarely apply to seitan—and served with rice and beans and baked sweet potato, both of which serve to balance out the intense jerk flavor. I paired it with a sorrel-hibiscus juice that Carol also brought onto the menu, which was floral and sour, sweet and cooling.

Selma showed me how she makes "the best" pie crust, which uses melted coconut oil and is based on a recipe for one made with lard that she'd read in the Times. It requires only a fork and a bowl, meaning it's achievable for anyone, but does require some finesse to get into the pie plate because it's extremely temperature-sensitive.

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With it, she made a blueberry pie for that night's dessert menu, which also included raspberry mousse, chocolate pudding, a hot fudge sundae, and brown rice pudding. It's dessert as your mom would make it, a quaint reprieve from the splatters and spoon swooshing of most restaurant plating.

Their cookbooks, too, are an anomaly, with political essays in the front that recommend the work of feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. The Second Seasonal Political Palate, published in 1984, has a blurb from famed lesbian poet Adrienne Rich. If you can't stifle your colloquial tic of referring to everyone as "you guys" despite their writings on its insulting male-centeredness (I could not), they politely ask to be referred to as "women." They remain staunchly second-wave in a third-wave world.

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When asked how they feel about the recent upswing in the Beyoncé-sponsored brand of feminism, Selma and Noel roll their eyes. "We tread more carefully," Noel notes. They took down a poster against high heels that had been in the bathroom, and now don't feel as free to discuss fashion or beauty ideals.

bloodroot-backyard

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.