Carol Brock, a food writer who helped women advance in the male-dominated culinary world by starting an organization called Les Dames d’Escoffier New York, died July 27 in Manhasset, New York. She was 96.
Her death, at North Shore University Hospital, was caused by respiratory failure, her son Brian said.
As a veteran food journalist at The Daily News in New York, Brock saw what she called a “Pyrex ceiling” limiting women in the food, beverage and hospitality industries. So in 1976 she formed Les Dames as an offshoot of Les Amis d’Escoffier Society, a mostly male gastronomic club named after French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935).
The parent organization, however, struck her as narrowly concerned with consuming great food and wine, and talking about it. Brock saw a need for something more. Her group would provide scholarships, educational programs and networking opportunities for women. Les Dames is now international, with 45 chapters and 2,400 members.
When Brock started the group, “men were so disdainful of women in the industry,” chef and television personality Sara Moulton, who received one of the organization’s first scholarships, said in a phone interview.
“To be with a group of people who appreciated you was huge,” she said.
Brock could be haughty or bubbly, driven “to make things happen, to make life meaningful, especially for women in our industry,” said restaurateur and chef Lidia Bastianich, a close friend and member of the organization.
“She was the life of the party, dancing away,” she added. “She would make connections with new people and use every one to generate new ideas.”
Carol Jean Lang was born Dec. 14, 1923, in Queens, the only child of Charles and Helen Lang. Her mother was a homemaker; her father ran a butcher shop after losing money in real estate during the Great Depression. Carol grew up in Beechhurst, a mostly affluent waterfront neighborhood in Queens. She earned her bachelor’s degree in home economics at Queens College before getting a master’s in food science from New York University.
At 20 she married Emil Andrew Brock, an accountant, and went to work for Good Housekeeping magazine as the hostess editor. Her son Brian said, “She’d do a lot of entertaining for prominent people who’d come to Good Housekeeping,” including the publisher, William Randolph Hearst, and his powerful associates.
In addition to Brian Brock, she is survived by another son, Craig. Her husband died in the 1990s.
Brock remained at Good Housekeeping for 23 years, was the food editor of Parents magazine for three years and moved to The Daily News in 1971. She wrote and edited articles about food for the newspaper for 15 years.
It was during this time — the mid-1970s, the heyday of second-wave feminism — that she formed Les Dames. “I wouldn’t call her a feminist, but as a founder of Les Dames she was instrumental in trying to achieve recognition for women in the field of food and wine, both professional and recreational,” Florence Fabricant, a food writer for The New York Times, said in an email. “Wine and food societies back then were old-boys networks, and she felt women deserved a seat at the table.” (Fabricant was an early member but left, she said, to avoid journalistic conflicts of interest.)
Les Dames welcomed members from all corners of the food world: historians, wine professionals, cooks, journalists, restaurateurs. Members had to have at least 10 years of food experience, which — along with the $235 in annual dues (reduced to $160 this year because of the pandemic) and the high prices for many Les Dames events — closed the organization to newcomers, except as recipients of the group’s annual scholarships.
When Brock asked Moulton to create a junior chapter for these less-experienced women, the board rejected the idea. “She was more forward-thinking than the organization she founded,” Moulton said.
It was Brock who pushed the organization to expand nationally, then internationally.
As the food world changed, no longer beholden to French haute cuisine, Brock and her organization changed with it, said Sharon Franke, president of the New York chapter. Before the pandemic hit, Brock was organizing a dinner to explore Native American cooking.
“What I liked was her great spirit, her ebullient, positive attitude,” said food writer Mimi Sheraton. “She was never catty. She seemed very kind, if that’s imaginable. There are not many kind people in that profession.”
Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of food and nutrition at New York University, credits Brock with diversifying her group’s membership beyond restaurant kitchens so that women in different fields could meet and collaborate.
“Everybody was siloed; women didn’t know who else was doing what,” said Professor Nestle, who writes about the politics of food production. Les Dames, she said, “broke down those silos.”
“I have no doubt that hundreds of stories of collaboration came out of this,” she said.
After leaving The Daily News, Brock reviewed restaurants for the TimesLedger chain of weekly newspapers in Queens and coordinated culinary education programs for adults in Great Neck, New York.
She swam regularly in Little Neck Bay, near her home in the Douglaston section of Queens, until about 10 years ago, when she switched to a community pool and, finally, a neighbor’s pool, Brian Brock said.
“I think that’s what kept her going,” he said. “She’d swim before and after work, to relieve the stress.”
If she had one more secret to a productive life, perhaps it was this: At home, her husband did most of the cooking. “He cooked quite well,” Brian said.