THE BLOG

Kitchen Conversations: Food Studies and Food Writing

01/28/2014 05:20 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

In an ever-growing number of Food Studies classes, college undergraduates are reading blogs like 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 are analyzing the values embodied in recipes, cookbooks, food-related memoir, fiction and film, in cooking programs -- from the French to the Iron Chef -- and in the dining section of The New York Times. They keep food journals, write food memoirs, start their own food-related blogs, and for the first time in history, are being urged to "please eat in class!" Food Study classes often end with potluck suppers.

One result of Food Studies' increasing popularity is that the academic audience for food blogs and food writing is expanding -- so much so that if you're an author of a food memoir or a work on food writing, you might do well marketing yourself and your book to professors of food studies. I came to this conclusion myself when I discovered that a former colleague at my university was teaching from 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 my work could show up on a college syllabus.

Another result of the explosion in Food Studies courses is that food bloggers and food writers are being read through different sets of lenses. Courses are taught in food studies programs (there are nearly two dozen worldwide); in American, women's, ethnic, and cultural studies; and in English, linguistics, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, nutrition, and agriculture, to name a few.

Food blogs, food memoir, and journalistic food writing, however, are most often taught in "food and culture" courses, courses that focus on the emotional meanings of food and on how food helps define identities, communities, and power relations. Some of the questions always posed in approaching food blogs and memoirs for analysis have to do with the gender, sexual, class, and race relations the blog or memoir acknowledges and/or supports.

Will academic studies have an impact on the way that food blogs are written? If you never read academic work (and I did not during the three years I was writing my food memoir -- not wanting to sound professorial in a personal piece), you could argue that it will have none. But since students are now being required to set up their own food blogs and since some are hooked on the experience, different kinds of food conversations--those that also touch on gender, race, sexuality, and class as well as on sustainability, fair labor practices, food activism, multiculturalism, global politics, and corporations--may become more common and more popular in the food blogging world. See, for example, the food-related blogs of Juliana Rodriguez, Emily Contois, and A. Breeze Harper, all of whom studied or study food. The press, moreover, is busy reporting on the food studies front, disseminating its ideas and conversations.

Food bloggers, in repeatedly linking home cooking to creativity, self-expression, comfort, and the formation of community -- values that, according to Emily Matchar's 2013 Homeward Bound, often inform the most popular food blogging sites -- are intersecting with and perhaps exerting influence over academic studies. (As a former academic I can testify that one is frequently altered by the material on which one does research.)

A recent development in women's studies, for example, 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 always enforcing a conservative status quo. Some academic feminists 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. Janet Flammang's 2009 The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society is particularly commanding on these points. (Since, according to Matchar, women still prepare 78 percent of home-cooked dinners, getting men into the kitchen more often is part of Flammang's vision. See Michael Pollan's 2013 Cooked, which acknowledges her influence. )

Many women of color, of course, have long seen cooking as a form of creativity and power and as a means of creating community solidarity in the face of ongoing struggles against racism, colonialism, and other forms of domination. (See Gloria Wade-Gayles's 1997 Laying On Hands Through Cooking. Now, white feminists (academic and not) are also writing about home cooking as a retreat from, but also an implicit criticism of, the uncaring values of the world of work.

Indeed, a "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 and time-consuming 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. (See, for example, Joanne Hollows's Domestic Cultures and Holly Ann Stovall, Lori Baker-Sperry, Judith Dallinger's "Cooking Up A Theory: Feminist Practice in the Kitchen."

If Food Studies is bringing new lenses to the study of food writing, food bloggers, and other popular food writers may be expanding the ways that academics conceptualize the role of home cooking in our lives. Both realms, of course, are part of a much larger movement to put critical conversations about food and kitchens on the map.

(A version of this essay first appeared on Dianne Jacobs's Will Write for Food.)

Judith Newton's Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen was first published in March 2013 with She Writes Press.