Post by Maria Godoy, The Salt at NPR Food (4/3/13)
What is the essence of a life? Is it our career accomplishments? Our devotion to friends and family? Our secret little talents and foibles? Is it, perhaps, our killer recipe for beef stroganoff?
That question underlies a controversy burning up the Twitterverse in recent days over an obituary of Yvonne Brill published by The New York Times. Brill was a pioneering American rocket scientist in the 1940s — at a time when "leaning in" meant bending over the stove to prepare dinner for hubby. And yet, in its original form (it was later edited), the Times' obituary led off with a quite different description of Brill. It began:
"She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said."
It's easy to see why the choice to lead off with evocations of domesticity set off accusations of sexism around the Interwebz, prompting the Times' public editor to weigh in. As Mary Elizabeth Williams succintly summarized the outrage in Salon, "If one day Stephen Hawking's obit kicks off with what a great husband he was or Leonard Susskind's leads with his amazing brownies, then sure, we'll all have a good chortle."
And yet, we here at The Salt approach every aspect of life through the lens of food — from how it affects our health to its importance now, and long ago, in culture and our environment. And so we can sort of understand what Douglas Martin, the Times reporter who penned Brill's obituary, might have been attempting to accomplish — clumsily and ultimately, unsuccessfully — by beginning his tale of an extraordinary life with a reference to a very ordinary dish.