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.

The Women in My Kitchen

When I first looked at the Cincinnati apartment I would eventually move into, my (now) landlord gave me a tour. In pointing out the various features (built-in bookcases, a weird sink-closet in the bedroom) he lamented over the small size of the galley-style kitchen. After enthusiastically signing a lease (those built-ins!) I told him how much I like to cook. “But why take this place with that kitchen” he asked me. “Are you sure you really want the place?”

Yes, I really wanted the place. Small kitchen aside, the apartment had its charms (built-ins). Besides, I figured, I’ve lived in places with smaller kitchens, less well-organized kitchens. This would be just fine.

But, honestly, I didn’t expect it to be great. In reality, my kitchen has become one of my favourite places in the entire apartment. Its smallness obscures its functionality; its configuration belies perfection. Sure, it needs a dishwasher, a larger place for a trash can, a garbage disposal. But, it reminds me that not everything must be perfect to still be good. Just like me, the kitchen has its flaws; but it is overwhelmingly as unique and well-suited for its purpose as any kitchen I’ve ever lived with. Cooking in this kitchen comes naturally to me—it’s comforting, cozy, manageable. It feels like stepping into my own little world, a place where life mostly makes sense, where I know I will find the spice or spatula I’m looking for with ease, and where I feel good about what I’m doing (even when it’s occasionally a smoking-pan-of-dinner disaster). It is—in every sense of the word—charming.

Let me give you an example. On a whim recently, I decided to research the sink in my apartment’s kitchen. It seemed vintage, albeit in good condition, and I wondered if I could find out when it was probably installed. Never would I guess that it was most likely original to the building (1937) and that it was a top-of-the-line model that was also sold with a customizable mix of cabinets and drawers (all of which are still here). Somewhat shocked by my discovery, it led me to wonder exactly how many other women (or men) had stood in this same kitchen as I do every day—washing dishes, cooking, eating, staring out the window at the neighbor’s house. How many others were here before me, and what did they cook?

In a way, thinking about this makes me feel more connected, not only to the imaginary renters before me, but also to my mother. In some ways, I feel like I am reenacting her when I’m standing in my kitchen; I get these short flashes of what her life was like before me, but also of what our life was like when she was still here. Even though my childhood kitchen was very different (large, fancy, and also very 1990s), perhaps some of what I find so comforting about this kitchen is that very sense of connection I have to people across time, not only those I knew like her, but also those who will always remain unknown to me.


The sink itself: Whitehead Monel original