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.