thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

I Cook/Blog, Therefore I Am

In Food on May 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

Sarah S.

When I was in college one of my favorite professors researched women’s cookbooks, particularly the ones created by churches, societies, and other clubs (as opposed to famous chefs such as Julia Child or giant publishing houses). This work was classic feminist recovery in the era of cultural studies, moving from highlighting forgotten women authors or figures and into celebratory analyses of women’s lives. If I recall, this professor focused on themes within the recipes (region, culture, etc.) and items such as decoration, fonts, purpose of the cookbook (usually some form of fundraising or cultural record).

Since that time, our cultural relationship to food has changed considerably. From celebrity chefs to locavore activists to foodies such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, we have removed food production from the realm of Betty Draper and into…where exactly? If nothing else, our televisions, bookshelves, magazines, politics, and national conversations.

Another thing came to prominence during this time—the web. One thing it encouraged was a flurry of recipe sharing sites, in many ways not unlike the cookbooks my professor studied, and formal recipe sites such as Epicurious.com, similar to the fancy, all-encompassing cookbooks. But the internet also created something that I’m not sure really existed before, a merging of recipes and life narrative: cooking as autobiography.

These things of course start with blogs, whose journaling origins encourage a chatty, narrative-based genre. They also create a forum for home cooks to share their recipes, and this has often led to hybrids of autobiography and cook”books”. GLG’s own Chelsea has a blog in this vein. There are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of others but two of my favorites are The Smitten Kitchen and The Sprouted Kitchen, both of which have brought their narrative-based recipes beyond the web and into beautiful books.

it's here!: the smitten kitchen cookbook

The creators of these blogs/books use stories to earn their stripes. They’re not trained chefs or restauranteurs (or writers or photographers) so they frame their recipes in experience: the funny or frustrating failures and missteps; the party for a friend that inspired this cake or that cocktail; the cultural or familial history that surrounds a dish.

But in so doing they also reveal how essential cooking and eating are to culture, and in such a beautiful way. On one hand, we cook because we have to eat (not eating not being a viable option for long). But for something so quotidian and necessary we surround it in an awful lot of creativity and ritual and love. It’s easy to forget that, to forget how essentially we need the production of food to sustain not only biological life but also social, familial, and individual life. By telling the tales of food, alongside sharing the how-tos of the food itself, these unique storytellers remind us.

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  1. […] And in related news, check out my new Girls Like Giants post: “I Cook/Blog, Therefore I Am.” […]

  2. Sarah,
    I think this is right on, and speaks to the rejection of the idea that food blogging – whether it’s taking pictures of something you ate at a restaurant or waxing on in flowery detail about the cookie you just bit into warm from your oven – is somehow trivial. For me, more and more, cooking becomes a metaphor for writing: I put together basic blocks of meaning (flour, sugar, raisins, eggs) and come up with something more than that in the form of, in this case, a (very weird) cookie. And then, because cooking – unlike writing – rarely remains in the void, I share it with someone and forge a connection. So cooking reinforces our relationships and traditions, and that reinforcement is made even stronger when we use words to share it.
    Your comment about the blending of food and culture and narrative reminded me of Laurie Colwin – the cookbook/memoir writer from the generation (or maybe generation and a half?) before Perelman and Forte. Taylor sent me two of Colwin’s books this past year, and they are an intriguing and lovely blend of life story and the food that happened along the way. You thought, years ago, that my blogged description of chicken salad was mouth-watering? Wait till you read Colwin’s!

    – chelsea

  3. Sarah, I’m late in responding because for some reason I didn’t get it or overlooked it (unlikely) in my RSS feeder — remember when you taught me what that means practically? I’m sure I know the professor that you speak about, her works on quilting and women’s history informed a whole chapter of my life. I especially loved the line, “a merging of recipes and life narrative: cooking as autobiography.” An anniversary of a big loss is coming up and I’ve decided to celebrate it with as many recipes and stories that I know. Both of which are/were? very important in my family.

    Blessings, Ann

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