WHAT WE MOST OFTEN REMEMBER from Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own are her thoughts on real estate: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Yet Woolf also recommends something that’s less commonly cited, but no less important—a good meal. She writes, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
As a member of the modernist Bloomsbury Group—a collection of leading thinkers and artists of the early 20th century—Woolf certainly dined well, enjoying long lunches filled with philosophical debate and salade parisienne. While she employed cooks, Woolf came to enjoy baking later in life. Her specialty was a traditional British double-layered cottage loaf. “She could make beautiful bread,” recalled cook Louie Mayer, who worked for Virginia and her husband, Leonard, during the last years of Virginia’s life.
But Woolf’s journey into the kitchen was complex. She also harbored disdain for domestic labor and the women who performed it. “She initially, like the children of the class she belonged to, would not enter the kitchen,” says Francesca Orestano, a professor of English literature at the University of Milan, who has researched Woolf’s relationship to cooking. According to Alison Light, whose book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants chronicles Virginia’s relationship to domestic labor, this contradiction—between wanting to liberate herself from gender and class hierarchies, while perpetuating them—characterized much of Woolf’s life and work. Light says Woolf’s interest in cooking likely sprang from a desire to become independent—from patriarchy, from illness, and from a reliance on domestic workers. “That’s partly why I think she’s so joyful and exuberant when she learns to cook simple dishes.”
Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured image: Reina Gattuso for Atlas Obscura.