Food Studies at Universities Now Includes Blogs, Memoirs and Recipes

Jun 252013
 

Food Memoirist Judith Newton was surprised to learn her book is studied in university classes. (Photo by Eliot Khuner)

A guest post by Judith Newton

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. Her recent food memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen won an IPPY (Independent Publishers Award) in May. She blogs at Tasting Home and the Huffington Post.

In American Food Studies classes, college undergraduates read the food blogs Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, Pinch My Salt, and The Pioneer Woman Cooks with the keen eyes of anthropologists studying the customs of an unfamiliar land.

They analyze the values embodied in recipes, cookbooks, food-related memoir, and fiction. They also study film, cooking shows from classic French to the Iron Chef, and the dining section of The New York Times. Students keep food journals, start their own food-related blogs, and for the first time in history, are urged to eat in class. Food Study classes often end with potluck suppers.

Food Studies’ increasing popularity means that the academic audience for food blogs and food writing is expanding. So if you’re an author of a food memoir or a work on food writing, you might do well marketing yourself and your books to Food Studies professors. Bloggers might announce their availability as classroom speakers on food-related topics of all kinds, including the varied nature of food blogging itself.

I came to these conclusions when I discovered that a former colleague at my university was teaching memoirs by Julia Child, Julie Powell, Molly Wizenberg, Gillian Clark, Kim Severson, and (to my surprise) myself. Despite being a retired academic, I had written my memoir for a general audience. It had never occurred to me that it could show up on a college syllabus.

Lots of Ways to Interpret Food Writing

Another result of the explosion in Food Studies courses is that students are reading food bloggers and food writing through different sets of lenses. Aside from Food Studies programs (there are some 23 world wide), they can take courses in American, Women’s, Ethnic, and Cultural Studies; and in English, linguistics, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, nutrition, and agriculture, to name a few.

Most often, however, classes covering food blogs, food memoir, and food writing are part of “food and culture” courses that focus on the emotional meanings of food and on how food helps define identities and communities. Some of the questions posed in approaching food blogs and memoirs for analysis have to do with gender, sexual, class, and race relations.

New Food Blogs Emerge

Will academic studies have an impact on the way that we write food blogs and stories? If you never read academic work, you could argue that it will have none. But since students are now required to set up their own food blogs and since some are hooked on the experience, different kinds of food conversations’97those that also touch on gender, race, and class as well as on sustainability, fair labor practices, food activism, multiculturalism, global politics, and corporations’97may become more common and more popular in the food blogging world. See, for example, the food-related blogs of Juliana Rodriguez, A. Breeze Harper, and robobby, all former Food Studies students. Even media reports on the Food Studies front disseminate its ideas and conversations.

Food writing, in turn, shapes academic studies by linking home cooking with creativity, self-expression, comfort, and the formation of community. These are values that, according to Professor Paula M. Salvio (as quoted in the blog Scenes of Eating), often inform the most popular food blogging sites.

Feminists Reclaim the Kitchen

One related development in Women’s Studies has been an effort to reclaim the kitchen and, in the process, to modify the tendency of some feminists to frame cooking and other forms of domesticity as inherently oppressive to women and as enforcing a conservative status quo. Many are now rethinking cooking as a vital form of emotional labor that nurtures and humanizes all of us, prepares us for civil society, and lays the groundwork for political community and social movements.

Feminists are also writing about home cooking as a retreat from the uncaring values of the world of work. Indeed, “mindful cooking,” one that takes into account the values of sustainability, economic justice, community, and caring labor is being theorized as a crucial feminist activity. Even labor intensive projects like fancy baking are newly valued as a means of expressing or redefining the self, of bringing intensity and joy to living, and as a form of resistance to the relentless pace of life in our work-obsessed culture.

Food Studies are bringing new lenses to the study of food writing, while food bloggers help expand how academics conceptualize the role of home cooking. But dialogues are needed between food writers and academics. If you’re a food blogger or food writer, are you interested in having them? What do you think about the connections or lack thereof between these two worlds?

(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.)

 

  41 Responses to “Food Studies at Universities Now Includes Blogs, Memoirs and Recipes”

  1. I think it is incredible that colleges are embracing food blogs and using them in all types of studies. It goes to the simplest basic need that we all have to eat. How that experience relates to all of us can vary tremendously. I am very interested in dialogues between food writers and academics. There is so much to learn from the vast amount of traditions, viewpoints, methods, and people preparing the food we need to survive.

    • I so agree, Renee, and exploring differences and parallels among groups and cultures is one of the most popular lines of investigation in food and culture courses. It is tremendously interesting to students who are often asked to analyze their own cultural group through its food. They also enjoy eating in class!

  2. What a great piece Dianne and how very heartening to see blogging taking yet another step towards being viewed with more legitimacy as both food writing and as a valuable resource on food and culture. Clearly, bloggers have something to offer in this discussion as we are already out there talking about food, our memories of it, our feelings about it, our relation to it, it’s impact on our lives and those of our friends and families. I think these dialogues are slowly beginning to occur everywhere and can only enrich food studies in general.

  3. [...] Food Studies at Universities Now Includes Blogs, Memoirs and Recipes [...]

  4. My future food blog will be focus on preserving many of my favorite recipes along with stories about those who share the recipes. A legacy, of sorts. It’s exciting to know that it might inspire students, in addition to casual readers on the web. Thank you for writing about this, Judith. Thanks for hosting the article, Dianne. I love your blog, as you already know. :) -er

    • You’re welcome, Eric! The kind of legacy project you describe is very popular as a paper assignment. Good luck with the blog. If I hadn’t retired I’d be teaching one of these classes.

  5. I’m so interested in reading the article about feminist theory and food studies, is there a way we could get a hold of it?

    • Hi Kaluz, Do you mean the paper that theorizes cooking as a feminist practice? If so, I wrote Holly Ann Stovall, one of the co-authors, who is in Women’s Studies at Western Illinois University. Here is the link which will give you her email: http://www.wiu.edu/cas/womens_studies/contactinfo.php. The paper is called Cooking up a Theory: Feminist Practice in the Kitchen. If this isn’t the paper you mean, let me know.

      • Thanks Judith! I’ll e-mail Holly and asked her for the paper. I studied women’s studies and I love food studies as well.

  6. Hi Judith,
    How incredibly exciting for food writers, bloggers, and academics. I’d mentioned to Dianne in a recent post that I was curious to see where food writing and blogging go in the future. This seems like a fine way to approach food, memoir, blogging, and literature.

    To your question as to the lack or connection from academics to food writers, I think there is a big gap to fill. I mention this after attending the Sustainable Foods Institute at Monterey Bay Aquarium last month where science was paired with media. And all parties agreed-the need to pair creative with scientific is crucial for our future.

    On a personal note, I’m thrilled the dialogue is changing from a feminist perspective. I spend most of my time in the kitchen and home office, a huge change from working decades in a competitive, male dominated industry. There are times I struggle with the changes I made, even though I’m healthier, more creative and have the time to write about sustainable fish, not necessarily a “mainstream” blog topic, but important nevertheless. The struggle comes from being a child of the feminist era, especially regarding the workplace which defined my formative years.

    Thank you for the stimulating information and all the resources in this post. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

  7. I love that Food Studies class is now being taught at universities. When I started writing The Hakka Cookbook, I wanted it to be accessible through food. It’s what I know and what everyone can relate to. I was surprised to find that the Hakka diaspora had been the subject of anthropologists and I read many of their papers. However, I am not an academic and although the facts were useful and interesting, it was very hard to digest the information. Many academics write in a very dry style. I think that is why memoirs and blogs are so popular. Since the book came out, I have been so touched by follow Hakka who have related to the stories and recipes in the book. People connect through food.

    • Dear Linda, I’m hoping that Food Studies and dialogue among various food based communities will drive some academics at least into using more accessible language! Academic jargon has always bugged me even when I was an academic! There is a big space to fill–thoughtful, critical writing on food and its relation to a whole host of identities, social relations, and institutions that is accessible to a wide audience. Memoirists and bloggers, please step forward.

  8. Dear Maureen, , Thanks so much for writing. I think it really important that all kinds of home based labor, like cooking and writing about sustainable fish, be seen as the emotionally, economically, and socially indispensable work it is. Someone who is really eloquent on this is Janet Flammang in The Taste for Civilization. I especially like Chapter 7. (I trace my own relation to home cooking in “Reclaiming the Kitchen” which you can find on Huff Po under my name. )

  9. Food blogs are a great place to see the trend and peoples attitude towards food, recipes and how they go about the kitchen. It makes sense that it would be included in studies of this kind. I would really like to see what the study/studies reveal. :-)

    In many ways it can impact the future of a lot of what we do in the kitchen. How exciting. It will interesting to see where this all takes us.

    • I agree on all three counts. And there is so much writing now about the importance of what gets done in the home kitchen, not just by women but by men and children too. Michael Pollan, though not the first to say it, is right when he says that cooking transforms nature and culture as well as the cook.. (This is from his new book, Cooked.)

  10. This is truly great to hear, Judith. Whenever I hear of or from a young adult who isn’t able to find work, or is concerned about a future ability to find work, I always advise starting a blog! Whether it’s a food blog or otherwise, write about something that interests and inspires you’97and about which you are driven to learn more. Start laying the groundwork for later work, even if you decide to shift gears over time. In the words of Seth Godin, rather than waiting for someone else to “pick” you, pick yourself. I’m thrilled to know that academic studies, at least in the food world, are attempting to catch up with real life.

    Nicole

  11. I love the way Food Studies anchors us in a material world and in everyday practices like home cooking, practices often dismissed as unimportant (largely because of their association with women). I’m passing on your great blog advice to my daughter, who is struggling over how to shape her future!

  12. This is so wonderful to hear. I have often found more research and studying going into a food blog. I do depend upon food blogs more than books to learn about heritage and culture of a region. My own food blog started as a search for my own roots via the culinary heritage of Bengal. And I ended up unearthing a treasure full of recipes and food stories that have unfortunately been divided over geographical boundaries of what is today Bengal in India and Bangladesh. Recognition in universities is only a small of appreciation for such hard work that goes behind these blogs. It makes me really happy.

  13. Hi Judith,

    Thank you for linking me in your piece. As a former TA and current food culture writer, I too am very interested in the growing conversation about food and how it can be taught in the classroom!

    I think it’s worth mentioning, though, that Paula Salvio’s article about food blogs is quite critical of them; it might be more apparent in my follow-up to my post that you linked, but her article argues that such blogs offer a problematic nostalgia for simpler times when a woman’s primary role was as nurturer. I think it’s more complicated than that, of course; the idea that home cooking can offer an outlet for creative expression is not part of Salvio’s argument, but it is part of mine.

    Additionally: in an odd instance such as this, where you wish to link to an article that is not available online (Salvio’s) but that is quoted in a blog post (mine), it might help avoid confusion by adding something like “quoted in Scenes of Eating” in parenthesis after alluding to the unavailable article.

    • Hello Sara, it’s Dianne Jacob here. Judith wrote the guest post. I loved the two pieces you wrote as inspired by Salvio, and now I must buy that Gastronomica back issue to read what she said about food blogs. Thank you so much for your perspective. I will add the quote comment.

    • Hi Sara, Thanks for joining in. Well, this is the problem when you have a strict word limit as I did. Yes, Salvio is critical, but at this point in the essay I have turned from the critical questions that are often posed in food studies classes about values and about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc and am onto a different point about parallels between some food blogging and some new feminist writing about cooking. I was using Salvio to support the idea that values of “comfort,” “self-invention,” (a form of creativity), and “sociality,” a form of community, characterize a number of mainstream blogs. These are qualities she names and in the case of self invention and sociality finds mildly ok. I find them positive on the whole and and I see them being espoused in some femininst writing about cooking. I see this doesn’t tell the whole story about her argument but I wasn’t interested in doing so at that point in the essay . I wanted to make a different point about some overlaps between some blogging and some new academic work on domesticity.

      I spent some time trying to figure out how to handle the citation of her piece.. The article is available online if you have a service through your university, which is how I got the copy I read. It is also available in libraries that carry the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica, which is what I linked to, and it seems to be available if you set up a JStor account. Perhaps your solution would have been best.

      I really enjoyed both your pieces but wish I had linked to the second. I couldn’t link to both and in my haste I linked to the first one. Thanks for providing the link to the second part above.

  14. Hi, Thanks for adding that. In my note above I forgot to mention that you can almost always buy a back issue through the publisher of a journal. (For other sides of the argument, I’m hoping folks will also look into Domestic Cultures by Joanne Hollows and The Taste for Civilization by Janet Flammang. )

  15. A brief note on further reading for those who might be interested. Although written for a 2005 book, the introduction to From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies, edited by Arlene Voski Avakian and Barbara Haber, has a nice, multicultural and accessible overview of feminist work on food prior to 2005. You should be able to read it here. http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=umpress_fbc..

  16. This is a great and interesting post and I thank Judith for writing it and Dianne for posting it. I will go back and reread it a few more times and follow the links. I think it is so wonderful that food blogs and food-related memoirs are making it into both food courses and writing courses but to tell you the truth – and my gut reaction to just this post – is that I am sorry that a course such as this turns to the too-obvious blogs which may not specifically be written by writers, no matter how interesting the story. There are so many better writers out there writing food blogs, truly incredible, talented writers. I wonder if they were selected based upon success/popularity or the quality of the writing? And are they being taught as being models of success or models of great writing?

  17. Hi Jamie, I think these particular blogs showed up on syllabi because they were popular and because the popular is always up for critical analysis. Ie what’s going on here Profs are fond of asking. What values is this popular phenomenon instilling? What do we think of those values? How do those values relate to what else is going on in our culture at this moment? My impression is that the writing is not the focus.

    Memoir, excerpts from memoir, and short pieces of food writing were taught more often according to the syllabi I studied, and there was more variety. The selection was far more multicultural, for example. I might have taught some of these for their writing.

    But it’s a rapidly evolving field. There’s so much out there! The selection is so vast that anthologies of food writing, some taken from blog posts, could play a role in shaping course syllabi in the future.
    .
    Will Write for Food , btw, was being taught in several courses!

  18. This was an eye-opening article, I hadn’b4t realised food blogging was part of curriculum now.
    One one hand this is brilliant and a recognition to the diverse and wonderful food blogging community.
    On the other hand it makes me wonder if there is an essential need that people at any time need a connection to food knowledge, cooking, great food memories. In the past it was the home cooking and children grew up knowing how to cook. Since the home cooking had sort of been replaced by ready made food the people are finding other ways how to re-create that connection to the pleasure of eating good food either by writing about it, taking pictures of every meal and posting them on social media inviting others to the great food experience one is having or bringing food back to the curriculum, in a modern way that suits the current generations.

  19. HI Kaili, I think you’re spot on about this. And it’s the connections and emotional associations with home cooking that they are also longing for.

  20. The Boston University gastronomy program offers a food writing class that discusses blogs and online material, and, last year, the program offered a special topics class specifically about food memoirs.

  21. Good to know, Cristin. I’m putting them on my list.

  22. Hello Judith. I loved you article on food studies. I am one of those food studies people so I come at this from a somewhat different perspective. I got my Master’s in the NYU program back in 2000. In 2010 I published a book called Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We’ve Been (Praeger, 5 stars at http://www.amazon.com). The idea grew out of a paper I wrote for a Food and Culture class. Storied Dishes includes 50 women from different cultures writing the stories behind one favorite inherited or not recipe. The book is very consumer-oriented with no academic language. I have been wanting to do both a website and a blog for Storied Dishes, and I have located on online course for this purpose, but the book, published only in hardcover, sells on Amazon for a whopping $32.47, $19.25 for the Kindle edition. My question: Are these prices (typical of small semi-academic presses) going to preclude the kind of sales that would make it worthwhile for me to go to the time and trouble of developing electronic media? Thank you so much.

    Linda

  23. Congratulations, Linda, for growing that paper into a book! I’m not expert enough to answer your question with any certitude. My practice with the memoir, however, has been to try things and see what happens. Blogging led me to places I didn’t expect. If you enjoy it, I’d give it a try. I also hired consultants to give me ideas about what to do with my memoir. Check out She Writes at http://www.shewrites.com/page/getting-started-2#advice.

  24. Judith, Dianne, thank you so much for the comprehensive observation and the analysis.
    The piece answered my question of how a simple blog like ours, based in Indonesia,
    http://www.omarniode.org/blog.php, could be listed on a blog about food writing in one US university.

    Amanda

    • It seems incredible, doesn’t it? Just shows you how “the world is flat,” as Thomas Friedman would say.

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