Musings on the Conference Proposal

I was recently accepted to present at the Graduate Association of Food Studies (GAFS) 2018 conference, and it got me thinking more deeply about what the purpose of conferences are in this profession, especially for those of us who anchor our study in multidisciplinary work. The best conferences I’ve attended have been food-focused, and I don’t think that’s simply because the snacks are always delicious. There is an openness to discussion beyond the presentation, one in which the language doesn’t center simply on what research is being published, but on the ways in which it’s reaching beyond the boxed-in approach of singular disciplines. I’ve had professors of English question my interest in food studies, seeing it as a distracting gimmick as opposed to a thoughtful and nuanced field of study. This seems to be a dying trend, as more and more humanities departments embrace the broader “cultural studies” addition to their department titles.

All of this is just to say that in writing a conference proposal, I try to think about why this matters outside of my own life. I don’t want to present on work for vanity’s sake, nor do I want to only consider conferences as important additions to my CV (an all-too real sentiment that gets passed around in graduate studies). Instead, I try to think of conference proposals as the first step in a long march towards sharing my work with the public. If I can write 250-500 words on a topic and my dad can understand what I’m going to talk about, then I’m heading in the right direction.

To illustrate what I mean, I want to give you two samples. The first, below, is the initial draft of the proposal for the work I was doing that ultimately became my submission to GAFS. This proposal was for the seminar essay that would become the conference paper and it contains a lot of material particular to the class, but not really related to the larger work I wanted to do:

Drawing from a variety of sources, including literary memoir by a self-named “Geechee Girl,” successful food blogs written by women, feminist scholars and female cookbook writers, this essay aims to make connections between a theory of embodied composing as evidenced by Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense and the interconnected and diverse ways women, in particular, compose in, around, and through food. By no means glib, this work focuses on women writing in and around the kitchen, not as a metaphor for domestic drudgery but as a powerful space that women occupy and utilize for their own purposes.
I draw on theories of invention that position remix culture as a tool for the oppressed, seeing in food blogs how women are utilizing remix to counter, debate, or simply bear witness to issues within the food production system as a whole. This work builds on that of other theorists, specifically Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s work on remix, as well as concepts like Lawrence Lessig’s remix as a “re-expression” of cultural work. Besides Melissa A. Goldthwaite’s collection, Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, much of the scholarly discussion on food writing has only focused on the food itself.
My work, then, picks up the mantle from Goldthwaite in exploring the relationship between feminist writing practices and food. While Goldthwaite’s collection focuses on how food writing engages women, specifically, in a social practice, I want to expand that idea of social practice to include the composing process; that is, the book examines food writing as a social form legitimized by feminist scholars, yet does not go far enough in its considerations of feminist composing practice.
To undertake this project, I specifically examine Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s sections on writing in the kitchen in her memoir Vibration Cooking, as well her concept of vibration cooking and its relationship to felt sense. From there, I want to consider how women writing in the twenty-first century kitchen (and blogging about it) articulate their own composing practices, as well as their particular positions within a feminist framework of remix culture.

I hope you didn’t read all of that. It’s long, somewhat boring, and it’s trying so hard to justify itself through language that distances the work under discussion from the real project I wanted to pursue. As I wrote the actual essay, I dropped a lot of the concepts mentioned above because they just weren’t useful. In doing so, I focused more on what was actually important—the primary work of Smart-Grosvenor. From there, I expanded outward, considering the ways in which her writing about the kitchen echoed the sentiments of black feminists like Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde (founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press). In doing so, I started to see the image of the kitchen table as foundational to black feminism, yet it is an object that hasn’t been consciously linked across the works of these writers (at least in all the research I’ve done thus far).

Thus, the revised work led to the revised proposal, in which I am able to broach the divide of written and visual language in a way that’s more fitting for my own scholarship yet wasn’t possible when I was only thinking through the singular discipline of English. It’s also way shorter (double-plus) and easily understandable:

This presentation investigates how the kitchen table functions as a symbol of resistance in black women’s art through diverse texts such as Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s cookbook Vibration Cooking, the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems, or Barbara Smith’s mission statement for The Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The kitchen table has a long history as an object of domestic labour; women, then, who consider the kitchen table as a writing space are engaged in resistant cultural work on a surface charged with meaning—a surface embodying past and present, popular and literary, personal and political. Around that table I hear bell hooks touting “the importance of homeplace in the midst of oppression and domination, of homeplace as a site of resistance and liberation struggle.”

The concept of homeplace stands in opposition to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which called for women to demand writing spaces outside the kitchens’ walls. As scholar Hannah Rule suggests, those spaces require “social capital—and a lock—to literally block it from domesticity.” Thus black women have reclaimed the kitchen, challenging the notion that writing needs to happen, or that it only happens, in a locked room. In doing so, they negotiate the tension between domestic practices and writing practices on a surface—the table—that empowers all women. Much like the multidisciplinary nature of food studies scholarship, the women working at this table gather multiple perspectives, disciplines, and rhetorics to challenge a myopic view of what qualifies as feminist practice.

All of that is to say I don’t think I would be the scholar I am without the multidisciplinary approach supported and celebrated through food studies, and I am SO excited to meet similar scholars at #GAFS18 this October.

Composing at the Kitchen Table (a draft)

This last month has been busy, what with two conferences, final essays, and all the end-of-semester meetings and tasks that somehow always pop up at the worst possible time. However, I want to share the start of a new project (born out of work I’ve done this semester in a class on Composing Practices). For now, I’m sticking with the ambiguous title of this post, “Composing at the Kitchen Table.” What I’m sharing with you today is the opening to that essay, which is both an intensely private moment from my life and a deeply moving experience that has certainly shaped my academic career. I look forward to writing and sharing more of it as my work progresses.


Growing up, I don’t remember ever having a kitchen table. The kitchen itself was a room barely larger than my small bedroom, and the only space for me to sit was in the doorway. I would lounge with my back against the doorframe as I watched my mom cook dinner. If anyone in our family hovered around her while she was cooking she would shoo us away, especially the the two cats always milling about her feet. She did not like to be hemmed in by too many hungry mouths in the kitchen.

After being married for a few years, she convinced my dad to renovate, turning the tiny kitchen into one of the biggest rooms in our small suburban home. I remember she spent months planning it out, reading books on kitchen design and sketching renderings of possible layouts. Not one to be outdone, she had a convection oven brought in (a new machine for the home cook at the time), a double-wide sink added, a new refrigerator that made ice that always tasted salty. I learned it was important to establish the triangle of stove-refrigerator-sink; books made it dance-like as they emphasized how the cook moved about the kitchen.

“Our successive living spaces never disappear completely; we leave them without leaving them because they live in turn, invisible and present, in our memories and in our dreams. They journey with us.
In the center of these dreams, there is often the kitchen…”
(Michel de Certeau, Pierre Mayol; The Practice of Everyday Life, volume 2, pg. 148)

The one constant in her renderings, though, was a space to sit; stepping over me in the doorway was probably getting old. She added a bar onto the backside of the far kitchen counter, creating a space where we could sit but still be out of her way (but close enough to grab samples of dishes left unobserved for a few seconds). While not the kitchen table of my imagination (something old and wooden, with deep scratches from years of use) it was a space where I wrote thank-you cards and to-do lists, where I watched her cook and asked her questions about life and love and the proper way to cut an onion (use frozen was her suggestion).

It was also the place where my dad and I sat most often while she deteriorated from cancer, and it was where we were sitting the morning after she died. It’s where we sit still, perhaps because the matching armchairs in the living room remind us too much of what’s missing. The difference now, though, is that I’m the one cooking while my dad and partner sit at the counter.

I share this personal story as a way into understanding the value of the kitchen as a powerful, moving space; it functions as a central figure in our lives, especially in moments of crisis. It wasn’t until I started to grieve the loss of my mother that I realized how integral that space was to my life, and especially to my life as a writer and an academic. My love for food and my deep-seated desire to understand the many ways in which women like my mother survived hardships only known to women (and in particular women who lived through the 1950s) was born in that space. It was at that counter that I learned more than how to cook; it was where I learned strength, resilience, how to assert my own voice. Yet, until recently, I had never considered it as a space of resistance to all that women have endured at the hands of a toxic culture divided by gender, class, and race. I had never before considered how what I wrote in that space, including work during my Master’s, was made profoundly political by association. Indeed I wasn’t sure if the kitchen was considered off-limits for feminists after Virginia Woolf’s assertion that we needed rooms of our own. If the kitchen had ostensibly always been ours, did it still count as a place in which to do important work, or were we simply trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools?

As I’ve matured I’ve come to a better understanding of my own practice; if I write in the kitchen and I’m a feminist, of course it can be and is a feminist writing space. But I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling the tension that circulates around writing in the kitchen.

[Update] Recipe Blogs as Remix

This past weekend I presented “Recipe Blogs as Remix,” a project that’s been kicking around my Google Drive (and this blog!) for awhile now. I had a lot of fun reworking it for the Popular Culture Association’s annual conference, especially since writing just for reading out loud is a luxury I don’t get to experience very often. But, all that notwithstanding, I wanted to share the written & revised version here.


How many of you read food blogs?

How many of you go online to find a recipe for something?

How many of you would say those are two very different practices?

Well, I want you to consider for a moment today a new kind of writing, a form that hasn’t been given much scholarly attention nor, I would argue, legitimization from the foodie world at large. I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say its a form that’s practiced mainly by women, read, again, mainly by women, yet, strangely, it is a form that conceptualizes a space, an ontological way of being, that is disruptive, powerful, loud, and occasionally angry. When we consider the blog, and specifically the food blog, we are not only considering the memoir-esq form of writing that typifies the genre as a whole. We should also be considering, especially in the case of food blogging, what these stories are telling us about our own culture, and especially about our own relationship to the industrialized food production system in America.

As of March 30th (I checked this morning), in the top 10 of ranked food blogs, according to american food bloggers, seven are blogs written by women, and of those 7, six have a strong focus on vegetarianism, “clean” eating, or “real” ingredients. The top blog is serious eats (written by a man, so note that “serious”) and the second-highest rated is “budget bytes,” which catalogues ways to eat on a budget. The third is Pioneer Woman Cooks, which is in no way a force for feminist protest but at this point more of a shill for Ree Drummound’s brand, but that’s a whole other essay at this point.

Anyway, the sort of feminist analysis I’m proposing stands in the face of the small body of work that has been written about food blogs. The tone of the majority of the critical analysis thus far seeks to redefine the boundaries in feminism that divide the “domestic” woman from the “non-domestic” woman. Yet, scholars like Andrea Newlyn and Wendy Wall have established the importance of cookbooks as repositories of female history stretching back to the Renaissance. Newlyn draws on theorists like Roland Barthes, underscoring how culture itself can be read as a text, and how cultural “artifacts” or myths (from Mythologies, yes?) contain a system of signs both semiological and ideolgoical. I ask, why should food blogs, today’s 21st century cookbook, be any different?

Now, I don’t want to say that all food blogs are problem-free. Far from that, I see in many ways the writings of women like Deb Perlman, Molly Wizenberg, and especially Ree Drummound recreating many of the same problems of second-wave feminism (specifically the exclusion of people of color as well as the assumptions about class status and access). HOWEVER, I do think we see a form of writing that in and of itself can be exceptionally revolutionary and conducive to change.

To do this, I want to consider food blogs not just as genre texts, but instead as inventive forms of remix, a powerful tool that’s been used by marginalized groups of people to express their status as subaltern, all the way back to the music remixes of DJs in New York and Jamaica in the late 60s and 1970s. Lawrence Lessig (who I have my own issues with in some ways) defined remix as “what we do when we mix together culture or knowledge, and then give others the opportunity to re-express that which we have mixed… culture is remix, knowledge is remix, politics is remix. Remix is how we as humans live and everyone within our society engages in this act of creativity.”

I want to place emphasis on that phrase “re-express” as I find food blogs particularly exceptional in how they promote this kind of practice among its readers. As feminist rhetoricians like Carrie Tippen argue: “a feminist historiography might not look like a linear timeline of events; rather, it might resemble an atlas with overlapping zones of influence” (16). Food blogs don’t just catalogue a linear narrative, but instead engage with readers across timelines. A prime example is Deb Perlman, who answers queries from her readers even on recipes posted years before. She is also known for going back and revising recipes, making notes and comments along the way. There are never fully-finished works; there is always room to change. Beyond that, Perlman (and others) also posts their failures, reminding readers that not every souffle comes out perfectly. This acknowledgement of the uncontrollable atmosphere of the kitchen stands in direct contrast to a patriarchal grand narrative which seeks to create an account of history’s winners through the perfect conquest.

Not only do food blogs disrupt linear timelines, they also make judicious use of hyperlinks. As “Add Rhetoric and Stir: A Critical Analysis of Food Blogs as Contested Domestic Space” asserts, “it’s… the emergence of hypertext… that makes blogging such a compelling form in the post-postmodern era, when… authority has long since been decentered [and] voice has long since registered as polyglottal.” These works speak to each other, quite literally, and expand on each other through re-expression of particular recipes.

But to distinguish a good remix from a bad one requires an examination of intention and addition, or in other words, from appropriation and composition. If the intention of the recipe is only to document one particular individual’s experience recreating a dish, that’s not a clearly delineated inventive process. If you engage with food blogs only by scrolling past the written work to get to the recipe at the end, you are not engaging in the remix. You are just mimicking it.

This is true as well when one examines the comments left on a food blog. The majority are compliments, observations, or questions about measurements. Readers of blogs like smitten kitchen and pioneer woman don’t offer critical questions so much as positive reinforcement of what’s there. They simply want to mimic the process. However, if we gaze upon these comments with an eye towards re-expression, we begin to see a remix happening. Cooking is a grand activity for untangling this concept, as it inherently involves an individual’s own capacity for adaptation. If a recipe needs to be adapted for high altitude, for a finicky oven, for a vegan, then we begin to see how others’ interpretations also influence and affect the food blog. This is very much a polyglottal voice at work.

In addition to those elements, many food blogs have pictures, and not just pictures for step-by-step processes. Indeed, an entire subfield—”food porn”—has been built around these images. Yet, they aren’t included simply for the sake of a pretty picture. As Tisha Dejmanee argues, “By substituting food for the body, female food bloggers are able to displace the disciplinary postfeminist gaze from their bodies and direct it toward their creative and entrepreneurial capacity.” These spaces are primed for feminist analysis, especially since women themselves are utilizing these spaces not only to question how food is made, but how food is represented as well.

SO, if the individual is taking a recipe and creating it within their own particular set of limitations—whether that’s altering, adding, or subtracting something—then the argument should stand that the remixed product and the documentation of that process is a form of invention, a literary output, a remix. We see, in the words of Paula Silvo, a “hybrid form” that can be read as a “gesture of self-invention that establishes a degree of self-determination from having created a lucrative writing career. By securing an income for domestic labor, many of the most popular female bloggers who market a post-feminist subjectivity can also be read as challenging the status quo of gendered domesticity by fracturing the split between the public and private spheres.”

Not only are these women fracturing that split, they are doing so on a scale that is reaching out to the public at large. Even Ree Drummound, in her own southern way, is asking for individuals to be more conscious of their food and their food choices, even if those choices are to make a casserole with a pound of velveeta.

By situating this discussion in the context of academic analysis, I am pushing the “low-brow” art of recipe-writing into the realm of scholarship. We see this happening with the growing work around historical cookbooks, ones that suggest, as Wendy Wall has, that the marginalia in cookbooks aren’t just madwomen scribbling but instead the marginalia functions as records of spaces where women were practicing their literacy skills alongside other women. In examining food blogs (and their respective comment sections) I say we see the exact same thing happening. Beyond that, we also see individuals especially concerned, exceedingly attentive, to their food choices. And in many ways that sort of attention to eating creates a powerful disruption that tries to negotiate the food chain in fascinating ways.