DIY Feminist Archive: Writing in the Cookbook’s Endpapers #FemRhet2019

I was recently invited to present at the upcoming Feminisms and Rhetorics conference (November 2019), so I figured I would share with you my proposal (unedited, although I received some fantastic feedback for improvement from the anonymous reviewers). I am excited, both for the conference which I’ve been told is outstanding and because this odd little project is one very close to my heart. I’ve lately been exploring an obsession with paratextual material, inspired long ago during a Renaissance drama class (shoutout #700R!). While this particular presentation looks at marginalia as its own form of paratext, it is absolutely an extension of the early work, and just goes to show how often seemingly disparate areas of study weave themselves into contemporary projects.


This presentation examines the marginalia and ephemera of cookbooks, published between 1870-1920, housed in the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. By attending to the minutiae of these voices, I suggest the marginalia writers are feminist archivists themselves, using the cookbook’s endpapers to write their own herstories. By rejecting the pre-formatted spaces for writing within the cookbooks and in conjunction with the lessons about economy and household management included by the cookbook’s authors, these writers were creating spaces for their own intellectual practice, and in doing so were also working, consciously or not, to protect and archive their intellectual property.


While paging through the 400-plus cookbooks housed in the Browne Popular Culture Library, I heard voices. Every time I opened a new volume, I found a different voice, a different set of handwritten notes and ephemera. I found a different history, one that was often at odds with the published advice of the cookbook’s author. While the printed recipes were rarely different from each other, the marginalia turned each book into a record of a life, and a record of the activities of women who were responsible for taking care of other lives. This presentation will bring those voices to light by close attention to their marginalia and ephemera, in effect seeing the cookbook as feminist archive. Women wrote—and wrote a lot—sometimes filling the endpapers with so much writing that they were squeezing their words along the edges of the page. Instead of filling out the many blank spaces intentionally included in the middle of the books to collect recipes, these women authors make use of the endpapers, often extensively and exhaustively, to write. I theorize that this writing stems from a desire to claim their authorship by rejecting the preformatted places in favor of their own blank page. These writers have hacked their cookbook, turning it into a repository for their own creative endeavors, and in doing so have created their own feminist archives.

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.