Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards Knows That Food and Activism Are Inseparable

Cecile Richards and Julia Turshen at Cupcake Café. Photo: Liz Clayman

This week, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards published her memoir (co-written with Lauren Peterson) Make Trouble, recalling her life in activism. It’s a story about leading the charge for social justice, at a politically tumultuous time when women, minorities, and the LGBTQIA community are fighting harder than ever to make their voices heard. In addition to her work fighting for women’s reproductive rights, Richards is an avid cook and baker, and a self-confessed pie fanatic. She spoke with Julia Turshen — the celebrated author, whose own book Feed the Resistance matched recipes with ideas for activism — about the role of food in her life and how it can propel people to action.

I heard that your memoir was originally going to include recipes. Could you tell us a bit more about the role cooking and baking plays in your life?
Growing up in Texas, everyone would congregate in the kitchen. With four kids, my mom was constantly making a meal, and more often than not, we helped out. That’s how I learned to cook. Holidays were the best. Thanksgiving at our house is always epic. We plan menus weeks in advance, down to the jalapeño cheese grits recipe my friend Jill dictated to me on a notecard 25 years ago. Lately I’ve been really into making homemade pasta — I’m on a quest to make the perfect cacio e pepe. Cooking and baking keep me sane. I may not be able to control what the president is tweeting or what’s happening in Congress, but there’s nothing like the feeling of getting that cherry-pie crust just right!

You recall in your book that your mother, Ann Richards, often reminded you that she wasn’t “a baking-cookies kind of grandma.” If not from her, where did you get your love of baking?
Growing up in Dallas, before she had the chance to work outside the home, Mom said if it was in the glossy magazines, she was doing it — down to every last recipe. She would throw dinner parties at the drop of a hat, and cook dishes that were exotic in those days in Texas, like flaming crêpe Suzette!

Food is always so closely tied to specific memories. How has this love of food and cooking informed the way you look back on your own activism and organizing?
While I was writing this book, some of the clearest memories that came rushing back were of what was simmering on the stove or baking in the oven — from the chocolate meringue pie my mother used to bake on special occasions when I was growing up, which I can still see cooling on the counter, to the frozen enchiladas I survived on while getting ready to testify before Congress back in 2015, to our running family-text thread with my kids where we always seem to be trying to figure out who has the salsa verde recipe. I remembered my declaration in seventh grade that I wanted to become a pescatarian — which was unheard of in Texas, especially at the time. It was one of my earliest political stands, though of course I didn’t see it that way at the time. And, of course, there’s pie — a food group I fell in love with back in my organizing days in Tyler, Texas — which deserves its own whole category. As we say, nobody doesn’t like pie.

What is it about our dinner tables, or any place that we share meals, that is so conducive to organizing? How can we best take advantage of our meals to move us to action?
For me, cooking and organizing have always been about community and bringing people together. They go hand in hand. There is nothing like gathering a whole bunch of fellow travelers over a meal to strategize, share ideas, and give everyone a boost of inspiration to go out and change the world. I also think it’s easier to have a conversation over food, and get to know each other. One thing we could be doing more of is listening to each other, and that’s a lot easier over a home-cooked meal.

Food has played a role in movements for as long as there have been movements. Look no further than Leah Chase, Fannie Lou Hamer, Georgia Gilmore, and Dolores Huerta. What do you think food’s role is in the moment and movement we’re currently in?
It’s huge! Recently I had the honor of eating at Dooky Chase in New Orleans and meeting Leah Chase, who recounted the days of feeding the Freedom Riders upstairs, including a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. And today, just look at José Andrés, someone who embodies the idea that food and activism go together like pie and ice cream. He’s served thousands of meals in Puerto Rico, as one example. Especially now, when the rights of Dreamers and immigrants are under siege, and our country is having this existential debate over our culture and our values, food is a political statement.

You’ve dedicated so much of your life to protecting women’s rights, especially when it comes to our bodies. One way of asserting control over our bodies is deciding what, how, when, and where we eat. How would you describe the role of food in the fight for, and protection of, women’s rights?
I was at a lunch the other day with Gloria Steinem, and she made a point she often makes, which is that all of these issues are about bodily autonomy — from reproductive rights to LGBTQ rights to the right to live in safe communities free from gun violence or police brutality. That goes for food, too. On a macro level, that’s what we’re fighting for: the right of everyone to be healthy, and live their best life, on their own terms, and determine what they do with their body.

Cecile Richards and Julia Turshen on Food and Activism