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.)