Saved from Moosewood-Hell
From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food
Edited by Arlene Voski Avakian and Barbara Haber.
Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, 283 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Rayna Green
Food is hot. From farmer's markets to restaurants to upscale groceries, Americans are paying beaucoup bucks to hunt and gather genetically unmodified, organic, locally grown veggies and free-range, grass-fed critters, prepared according to the latest regionally or technologically grounded food craze (Campania, North Vietnam, sous vide, foam). Writing about food—cookbooks, food and wine magazines, chefs’ cookbooks—is, if anything, even hotter than food itself, almost as hot as food TV. Even food science and culinary history are hip, with best-selling books on historically relevant, big-ticket items such as sugar, salt, potatoes, chocolate, and peanuts. And as Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber demonstrate in this new anthology, the craze has spread to the academy. More schools are giving food studies degrees every quarter, and some of those degree programs have resurrected the home ec. departments and ag. schools where they had been consigned to an early pillsburial.
These days, even feminist scholars can study food, a topic once believed inappropriate for feminist scrutiny unless one was examining women's food-related pathologies—anorexia, bulimia, obesity, and the like. In the editors’ introduction, Avakian recalls how her women's studies colleagues dismissed her earlier collection on women and food as a "cookbook”; while Haber testifies to the contempt with which feminist scholars treated her cookbook collection at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, which is devoted to the history of women in America. In the 1970s and 1980s, being politically serious about food meant serving your consciousness-raising group wheatberries-en-casserole. Those of us who’d been saved from Moosewood-hell by our sustained interest in ethnic grease (the food of our grandmothers) or by Julia Child’s enthusiasm for butter were treated with amused tolerance by our feminist sisters—although they could not always supress their enjoyment of our dinners.
But things have changed, Avakian and Haber say, and Martha Stewart notwithstanding, women can now embrace food and food studies. (Even Martha is not beyond the pale: marchers were spotted carrying “Free Martha” signs in the spring 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC.) Back to the future, that seems to me, because women—writers, cookbook authors, and scholars—have been central to the food and food studies movement starting in the late 1930s, when the deservedly near-beatified MFK Fisher taught us to equate food, women, and sensuality. And Julia Child, though notorious for her refusal to use the word “feminism,” fought for the inclusion of women in the pantheon of great chefs, TV stars, and writers from 1963 onward. Although some of the biggest, most legitimizing volumes in food studies during the past 15 years have been written by men—Sidney Mintz, Warren Belasco, Harvey Levenstein—most of the names on the mastheads of new, serious food publications and books, including cookbooks, are women’s: Darra Goldstein, Marion Nestle, Margaret Visser, Laura Shapiro, Doris Witt, Jessica Harris, Ruth Reichl. Class, capital, race, ethnicity, and gender are central to their analyses. Haber and Avakian feel ready, in this volume, to go one step farther, to explicitly feminist, critical food studies.
Their introduction, a good old-fashioned, dissertation-thumping review of the food studies literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is, as it ought to be, almost the best thing in the volume. Precisely and nicely, it does what a critical review of the literature ought to do: orient the audience to the style and substance of what has been attempted to date, as well as to what is missing. Together with the bibliography, it gives readers a catalogue they can thumb through and draw their own conclusions about the condition of feminist food studies. In fact, ideally, readers should begin their forays into food studies by acquiring a working knowledge of these “classics.” Starting with this book would leave one with only a frail grasp of the field.
The editors have an agenda—to stake out the turf for feminist food studies within critical studies—but with no uniform "fit" between the disparate pieces they have gathered here, that agenda gets more than a bit lost. Some articles have been reprinted from other works, and the retrofit is not always seamless. Even the commissioned pieces are more often directed toward the author’s own discipline than to food studies. This sort of problem can of course arise with any anthology, especially with one so interdisciplinary that I had to keep reminding myself of the putatively common theme. Avakian and Haber have divided their incredibly complex subject matter into sections on "The Marketplace,” "Histories,” "Representations,” and "Resistances.” A couple of the writers they include—Darra Goldstein and Nancy Harmon Jenkins—have—gasp!—written cookbooks in addition to food histories. Other writers, academic and popular—including Goldstein, Haber, Laura Shapiro, and Carole Counihan—helped invent food writing and history as we now know it. All the writers take a cross-disciplinary approach and include class, race, gender, sexuality, colonialism (pre-and post-), and identity in their discussions. Amy Bentley writes from the perspective of her field of food, nutrition, and public health, while Laura Linenfeld and Beheroze Shroff come out of film and media studies. Sharmila Sen’s piece on food-centered women's discourse is the only one actually bearing the flag for critical studies. The remaining writers are primarily rooted in the social sciences: Carole Counihan in anthropology; Goldstein, Haber, Jan Whitaker, and Jenkins in history and sociology.
The shifting vocabularies, rhetorical strictures, and approaches to the already complicated topic of food require a remarkably agile readership—although anyone trained in the relevant interdisciplinary fields popular from the seventies through the nineties is probably comfortable with the dabbler's passion to include a little bit of everything in substance, style and method. Still, figuring out how it all adds up to “feminist food studies” is not easy.
In fact, the collection’s subtitle, "Critical Perspectives on Women and Food," is probably a better description for what it provides than “feminist food studies.” Simply acknowledging gender, race, ethnicity, class, colonialism, and capitalism from piece to piece is not enough to make a coherent feminist curriculum for food studies—at least, not yet. Alice Julier's finely crafted essay, “Hiding Gender and Race in the Discourse of Commercial Food Consumption” and Laura Linenfeld’s glorious exploration of food (and race, sexuality, class, and self) in “Women Who Eat Too Much: Femininity and Food in Fried Green Tomatoes” come closest to the art and the analysis that we must demand of food studies if those works are to be useful to critical (or feminist) thought. Yet, we need not demand that every useful work be relabeled out of the evocative power of the not-yet-canonical.
Planting writing on food and gender in the formal garden of critical studies may be a worthwhile goal—but unfortunately here it leaves out some of the most exciting writing, and even some of the most salient issues, in food studies. While Leslie Land’s nicely written piece on women, consumerism, and the development of modern stoves fills in some of the holes for work on consumers and the material culture of food—big issues in the field these days–there’s so much more.
Missing from this collection are the kinds of truly inventive iterations, mostly not by food writers, included in Avakian's earlier anthology Through the Kitchen Window: Women Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking and as well, the evocative heroines of writing on women and food such as MFK Fisher or Ruth Reichl. If we lose the “joy of cooking,” the sensuality of food, the sexuality of women, the fierceness of their struggles with/over/for food, and their histories with food, what can we possibly understand? Some of the language and modes of analysis in this book of “critical perspectives” are the readerly equivalent of a return to Moosewood-hell in their analytical joylessness.
Finally, one doesn't ordinarily dish the book cover in a review—but a folk-arty graphic of apparently Indian women surrounded by fruits, vegetables, and spices arrayed in bowls and baskets, perhaps in a market? The image makes the book look like a traditional ethnographic treatment of women and food, exactly what it does not want to be. Instead, this book is a solid, legitimizing contribution to writing about women and food. Add it to the growing list of such writing, as represented in the editors’ bibliography. But first open some MFK Fisher to read tonight in bed. As Julia used to urge us, before we tackled her 22-page recipe for French bread, “Above all, have a good time.”
Rayna Green is a curator, writer, and filmaker at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Best known for her many works on American Indian women and American Indian material culture, her newest exhibition is "Bon Appétit: Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian."