Food is loaded.
It is political, cultural, sometimes privileged sometimes not. It speaks of personal memories and sentiments, but also upbringing, attitudes, race, and class. We are judged by what we eat and we judge others by what they eat. Having a food blog is also a loaded thing, and I am still trying to figure out how to navigate it. Here are some things I try to consider.
part 1: moralistic nonsense “healthy, clean and natural” – diet culture – on eating better
part 2: identity & culture authenticity & authority – appropriation – valuation of food – representation & gender norms
part 3: food is at the intersection of everything
part 4: okay let’s write about food now writing about food – plus a bit on food photography
I first started collecting links and rambling thoughts for this page in 2017 and I’ve been occasionally added bits and pieces since then. In early 2022 I finally got to work trying to organize it so I could actually publish something vaguely coherent. This page is still a work in progress and will be for as long as I keep learning and coming across thought-provoking articles. I’ve tried to center this page around quotes and resources, though I do give a bit of an introduction for most sections depending on what comes to mind. I also know that I am not applying everything I put here to my blog itself (for instance, do I toe the line with cultural appropriation?, do my attempts at food photography promote classism by aspiring to the bright and propped style of the food photography I admire on social media?, etc) and that is also an area I need to think hard about and work on. If you would like to share something you think could be added, definitely let me know!
“healthy, clean and natural”
“[We have] associated delicious food with depraved indulgence. Anything that tastes good has got to be bad for your body, soul or both. […] Marketing departments have seen the power of this and promoted “guilt-free” snacks and treats. This promises an escape from self-recrimination but simply reinforces it by suggesting that eating the “wrong” kinds of foods does and should make you feel guilty.”“Clean eating and dirty burgers: how food became a matter of morals” by Julian Baggini
When we turn our personal food choices into a public performance complete with moralization, we create a construct by which people are then judged and often shamed and stigmatized for their food choices, that ignores both context and personal choice. This disproportionately affects the poor, people with health issues, and people from cultures and religions that are considered different than the “mainstream” (by which I mean the culture doing the judging.) It also affects fat people since our current paradigm of size bigotry suggests that fat bodies are public property and our choices are up for public comment. It can also contribute to disordered eating and eating disorders, the understanding being that genetics “loads the gun” by predisposing some to developing eating disorders, and environment- like one in which food choices are constantly put under a social microscope and it can seem that no choice is ever healthy “enough” – pulls the trigger.“The Food Morality Thing” by Dances with Fat
Individual foods have taken on decades of racist and classist connotations—much of which is naturalized under the rhetoric of health. One of my newsletter readers recently related to me a story of a student asked to fill out a worksheet similar to my childhood one. They classified kale as “healthy.” But collard greens—those, the student marked as “unhealthy.” They’re both varieties of brassica oleracea; they’ve just accumulated different connotations, largely alienated from their actual nutrition.
Now, I know how a policer of the food hierarchy would defend this categorization: collard greens, a staple of soul food, are often prepared with bacon or a ham hock. But listen: Kale is often coated in Caesar dressing, sautéed in generous dollops of olive oil. The real differentiation is rooted in race and class: The food largely associated with bougie white people is “healthy”; the one associated with Black people in the South is “unhealthy.”
[…] Whatever the reason you eat what you eat—and no reason is more valid than any other, including and especially deliciousness—it has no correlation with your value as a person. It does not make you a worse person to eat “junk food,” and it certainly doesn’t make you a better person to eat whole grains. Contrary to what those worksheets might tell us, food does not have moral character, and consuming it does not influence or infect our own character. Food is delightful, and food is fuel, and food is culture. It becomes shadowed with shame—often, the sort that can distort our eating habits for years to come—not when we eat it, but when we restrict it, and attempt to spread that shame to others who do not.“There Is No Such Thing as “Junk” Food” by Anne Helen Petersen (Bon Appetit)
Food, nutrition, diet, health and virtue are inextricably linked in much of Western culture. When some foods are described as “healthy” “clean” “natural,” a distinction is created that other food must then be “unhealthy” “dirty” or “processed.” In fact the use of these terms such as “natural” or “clean” has more to do with how society and mainstream media depicts and views these foods than actual intrinsic characteristics.
These terms come with a clear moralistic leaning and suggest individual diet choices reflect a person’s health, self restraint. As such, one of the most normalized ways of describing food in western society involves guilt. (Random google search in the adjacent image shows some of the ways we love to use this term.) It strongly implies exactly how we should be feeling for eating certain foods and shapes our societal values of restraint.
Even when so-called “dirty” food is celebrated, this usually does little to subvert the overall narrative of virtuous-vs-non-virtuous food choices, often due to the connection to guilt. Take for instance how the first sentence of this glowing review on a book of “dirty” food reads ““dirty” evokes guilty pleasures and secret shames.”
This sort of thinking and categorization about food is so ingrained in Western culture it’s hard to escape. I know I’ve fallen into this trap a number of times on the blog – “It’s not too hard to finish [the gougeres] on the first day though; after all, they are literally half, if not more, air and hence easily inhaled. (Or so I excuse myself after eating half the batch.)” I say in a post on gougeres, implying that I should have to confess and repent to assuage my guilt for eating a pile of cheese puffs. I am not religious but wow Puritanism really did a thing on me there. While this might reflect how I felt, I still shouldn’t subject others to my socially programmed food moralizing.
I would suggest that, at minimum, perhaps it may be best to avoid the use of these moralizing terms altogether, particularly those involving guilt. I’m not sure about my personal stance on the use of “healthier” as the term is more subjective than we tend to give it credit: it has racial bias in it’s common usage, can be subject to the changing whims of nutritional science (such as reductionism), and very prone to moralistic connotations … but I also know it can be a helpful shorthand descriptor. Perhaps, as often people may have specific dietary concerns, restrictions or preferences, these can be communicated through specific and (slightly) more value-neutral terms such as gluten-free, refined sugar-free, whole grain, etc. Otherwise, maybe we can let food be the food? Try out letting it stand on it’s own.
To end on one of my challenges: making lower sugar and less sweet desserts is one of my goals in this blog due to my personal taste preference for less sweet desserts, as well as diabetes and pre-diabetes concerns in my family. Less sweet is generally a matter of taste, and lower sugar I usually mean in comparison to a typical recipe (the two don’t always go hand in hand.) So far my way of handling this has been the strategy I’ve mentioned above: to describe it in the most neutral terms I can think of – just as “lower sugar” or “less sweet.” However, I don’t know if I manage to explain this as a personal preference without judgement or moralizing … or if the entire project is already flawed as “low sugar” is already pretty much fully sewn into the concept of “restraint” and “less guilt!” hence it may also be moralizing.
- “There Is No Such Thing as “Junk” Food” by Anne Helen Petersen (Bon Appetit)
- “What Is ‘Natural’ Food? A Riddle Wrapped In Notions Of Good And Evil” by Alan Levinovitz
- “Clean Eating and Dirty Burgers: How food became a matter of morals” by Julian Baggini (The Guardian)
- “The Food Morality Thing” by Ragen Chastain
- “How Racism Shapes Our Perception Of Healthy Food” by Priya Fielding-Singh
- “We Have to Stop Thinking of Being ‘Healthy’ as Being Morally Better” as a primer to healthism, the idea of health being the product of individual lifestyle
- Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health by Charlotte Biltekoff
- “Do What You Wanna” – an episode of the Racist Sandwich podcast featuring Ruby Tandoh
Fatphobia is one of the last systems of oppression that, in Western countries, is not socially (nor legally) condemned by the majority of the population.“Fatphobia, a pervasive and socially accepted discrimination” Grow Think Tank
Studies continue to show that like other marginalized groups, fat people experience discrimination in employment, education, the media, politics, interpersonal relationships, and especially healthcare. Yet, despite the fact that fatphobia in the US has always been intimately connected to other systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, those of us engaged in social justice work so often fail to acknowledge that fat is a social justice issue, too […] because unlike other marginalized identities, we think of fat as a “choice,” and, more to the point, we think of fat as a bad choice. This is due in large part to the pervasiveness of several health myths that so often go unquestioned in our culture. Some examples include: (1) we are in the midst of an “obesity” epidemic in the U.S.; (2) people who are “overweight” have higher rates of mortality than people who are “normal weight” or thin; (3) “obesity” causes a host of other diseases and illnesses, many of which are life-threatening; (4) to lose weight, all people need to do is eat less and exercise more; and (5) anyone can lose weight and keep it off if they just try hard enough. To understand how these myths originated and why they remain such deeply held beliefs in our culture requires an understanding of the ways fat has been pathologized and medicalized in the US.“Fat is a Social Justice Issue, Too” by Laurie Stoll
[T]he obesity epidemic, and its tendency to dignify obsessions that equate thinness and beauty, is hugely profitable, contributing, by some estimates, to a one-hundred-billion-dollar-per-year weight-loss industry that distributes specialized products and services apart from the money made on bariatric and cosmetic surgery.“Can’t Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made me want to eat Cheetos” by Julie Guthman
Mainstream diet culture and public health policy that stigmatizes weight and focuses on weight loss are flawed and downright harmful. The justification is based in the myth that health = weight, and weight = lifestyle + individual choices. However this itself is based in myths (more myths here) and uneasy science linking weight to negative health outcomes. Any connection between these factors is far more indirect and complex than the rabid focus of diet culture, weight loss and obesity epidemic fear-mongering would have us believe. Weight is a product of genetics, socioeconomic status, mental health, life circumstances, medications, health conditions and so forth. People of all weights can be healthy. Finally, nothing gives any credence for weight stigma as no one should ever be shamed for their body – the consequences of anti-fat bias are undeniably severe.
Alternative approaches to diet culture have emerged; some of the more influential ones include Health at Every Size (HAES), intuitive eating and mindful eating. HAES is weight-neutral in its approach to health, focusing on balanced eating, physical activity and body acceptance sans a focus on weight. Intuitive/mindful eating emphasizes a focus on the experience of eating and internal hunger/fullness cues as a guide as opposed to restrictive guidelines.
HAES and Intuitive/mindful eating are in many ways paradigm-breaking, but may not be completely inclusive approaches for everyone. Some of the most eye-opening work I’ve read has come from Lucy Aphramor, who has outlined some of the best critique I’ve seen of these movements and how they have fallen victim to the status quo of white supremacy and lifestylism. One of the challenges Aphramor identified with intuitive/mindful eating is assuming a universal experience of intuitive appetite and fullness when in fact it can be affected by many things, such as disability, trauma, and neurodiversity. HAES employs the slogan “health is not a moral obligation,” meant to free individuals from judgment on lifestyle and weight. Aphramor points out how the phrase ends up continuing to attribute health to an individuals choices and lifestyle instead of recognizing that health is shaped by “structural oppression, disability and climate injustice, and inter-generational trauma” – for which there is a moral imperative that these to be remedied. (Further critique of HAES is here.) We shouldn’t focus on the narrow scope of behavioural or individual life choices, especially when that obscures the systems and inequities behind poor health. Instead, our focus should be on actual public health issues like poverty, racism and anti-fat bias.
(I think there are still things I can learn about the flaws of diet culture from HAES or intuitive or mindful eating so there are links below which do reference those eating movements!)
- As a primer to anti-fat bias: “Fatphobia, a pervasive and socially accepted discrimination” by Camille Cottai, Jeanne Pavard & Marion Sanchez and “Fat is a Social Justice Issue, Too” by Laurie Stoll, a professor of sociology, and “Fat Is Not the Problem—Fat Stigma Is” by Linda Bacon, scientist, and Amee Severson, registered dietician
- Fearing the Black Body: the racial origins of fat phobia by Sandra Strings – Strings explains the links between fat phobia and white supremacy and anti-blackness, you can hear her talk in an episode of Food Psych podcast or on NPR.
- “The Truth About Diet Culture with Emily Contois” – an episode of Food Psych podcast
- “In Obesity Research, Fatphobia Is Always the X Factor” Virginia Sole-Smith (Scientific American)
- Lucy Aphramor’s writing
- “Addressing weight stigma and fatphobia in public health” (University of Chicago Illinois)
- “I’m a Fat Activist. I Don’t Use the Word Fatphobia. Here’s Why” (Self)
- “Real Men & Real Food: The Cultural Politics of Male Weight Loss” by Emily Contois (Nursing Clio)
on eating better
It’s very comforting to think we’ll be able to solve America’s nutrition crisis by building more grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods and educating low-income families on how to cook healthy, nutritious meals. But the unfortunate truth is that more grocery stores and nutrition education (while helpful to some people) doesn’t address the larger problem — which is that eating is expensive.“Why Judging People for Buying Unhealthy Food Is Classist” by Wiley Reading
The typical arguments, based on anecdotal evidence, were familiar: Poor people can afford to eat healthy if they know how to cook from scratch. Senior citizens are the most vulnerable Canadians when it comes to hunger. Community gardens and kitchens reduce the need for food banks. But what Tarasuk’s research came down to is this: Food security is not a food problem. It’s a money problem. […] “It’s not about a soda tax, or access to food, or better nutrition labelling. Community kitchens don’t solve it. Gardens don’t solve it. There’s arguments for all that stuff. But it’s not going to move the needle on food insecurity,” says Tarasuk. “We just want basic income. That’s it.”“The Poor Need a Guaranteed Income, Not Our Charity” by Colleen Kimmet
Some people, regardless of age, need more salt in their diet, not less; some people need more fat, or caffeine, or dairy, or none at all. And others just need more things in their lives that are delicious—that remind them of the true bounty and delights of being human.
But all of those beautiful peculiarities of bodily need and preference get erased by food hierarchies dividing junk from everything else—which are, in truth, sorting mechanisms. They’re a way of categorizing people by class, education, race, and size without saying you’re categorizing them by class, education, race, and size. And they are almost entirely maintained by those with the privileges and preferences that place them at the top of the hierarchy itself. In practice, that means the privileged foods cost the most, take the most time to produce, and have the least calories—regardless of those foods’ taste, actual nutritional value, or cultural significance. And those cheap, convenient snacks labeled “junk” foods are often the only food available for immediate purchase in food deserts, which are largely populated by Black and brown communities.“There Is No Such Thing as “Junk” Food” by Anne Helen Petersen (Bon Appetit)
The bottom line: food insecurity at its root is a poverty and equity issue. If we focus on eliminating poverty and take the right to food seriously, things can change.
- “How Do You Save Four Million Canadians From Hunger? […] we need to start thinking of food as a human right.” by Raizel Robin (The Walrus)
- “Can’t Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made me want to eat Cheetos” by Julie Guthman
- “Michael Pollan has no answers: Yet another patronizing appeal to “cook real food” won’t solve our broken system” by Sonia Saraiya
- “Jamie Oliver, you haven’t tasted real poverty. Cut out the tutting” by Alex Andreou (The Guardian)
- “The Poor Need a Guaranteed Income, Not Our Charity” by Colleen Kimmet (The Walrus)
- Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food by Graham Riches – I wrote a review and summary of the book here
- “A cook who can’t feed herself at times” from Aho’s Homemade Food Blog – not quite on topic, but something I think we should all read. On being compassionate regarding why people may eat the way they do – or not eat at all.
authority & authenticity
If BIPOC food writers decide to share our heritage in our work, the outcome is typically molded by external assumptions. We are seldom the gatekeepers, the creative directors, the publishers with the power to assign, shape, and promote the piece. By these others, our food is systematically relegated to a mercurial trend. Or else, our personal narratives are required to justify the food’s value. What’s more, those reminiscences are obliged to embody preconceived notions of our cultures—a performance of ethnicity. There is less interest for us to exist outside broad stereotypes. Our food is sold on conjured emotion rather than granting these dishes the same deferential study we allow “classical” cuisines of Europe, no matter if our traditions stretch back further.
Until very recently, a non-Indian colleague would be lauded as open-minded for embracing even a sliver of Indian cuisine, their endorsement framing the dish as accessible instead of strange. Or, as happens more and more, a non-Indian writer might pluck and repackage elements from the culture and spin them as wellness miracles made palatably exotic and easy to digest. In both cases, the writer stays arm’s-length from the topic, unless they choose otherwise.The Color of My Skin Is Sometimes Confused With the Scope of My Talent” by Tara O’Brady
[T]he experiences of the immigrant’s Americanized children [are] particularly head scratching. We’re appreciated for our usefulness in giving our foodie friends a window into the off-menu life of our cuisines, but the interest usually stops there. When I tell white Americans about the Maggi-and-margarine sandwiches and cold-cut rice bowls that I used to eat, they tend to wrinkle their noses and wonder aloud why I would reject my grandmother’s incredible, authentic Vietnamese food for such bastardizations. What I don’t tell them is, “It’s because I wanted to be like you.”“Craving the Other” by Soleil Ho
- “Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on ‘ethnic’ cuisines?” by Lorraine Chuen – wonderful writing accompanied by data analysis on the writers of “ethnic” food recipes in prominent food media sources.
- “The Color of My Skin Is Sometimes Confused With the Scope of My Talent” by Tara O’Brady – on the dangers of being pigeonholed as a racialized food writer
- “Why do Indian recipes always have to come from some mythic grandmother?” by Sejal Sukhadwala (The Guardian) – on the high bar for “authenticity”
- “Chinese Food Is a Celebration of Time and Place” by Clarissa Wei (Bon Appetit) – on what meaning does “authenticity” even have?
- “Craving the Other” by Soleil Ho (Bitch Media) – on appropriation, valuation, and authenticity
- “The Triumph of Third-Culture Cooking” by Hetty McKinnon (Bon Appetit)
- “How Viral Recipes Shut Out BIPOC Food Creators” by Reina Gascon-Lopez (Food and Wine)
- “The Table Stays White” by Hannah Giorgis (The Atlantic) – on whiteness in and controlling food media
- “Garden and Gut” by Matt Hartman (The Awl) – on Southern barbeque’s origins in black culture, appropriation and policing of authenticity
appropriation – who makes and benefits from what?
It’s not that you can’t cook another culture’s food. It’s the lack of examination of the complex power structure that surrounds that appropriation that’s unsettling. There’s a pervasive lack of respect and deep cultural exploration that often goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation. There’s also an even more pervasive lack of activism in the food world against racial and ethnic discrimination. Let’s not pretend this is just about cooking food. It’s about money, power, agency and advancement. It’s about the blatant usage of intellectual and emotional labor sourced from developing nations in order to create capitalist profit in highly-industrialized nations.“We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation” by Dakota Kim
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did. […] They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
The problem, of course, is that it’s unclear whether the Mexican women who handed over their recipes ever got anything in return. And now those same recipes are being sold as a delicacy in Portland.“These white cooks bragged about bringing back recipes from Mexico to start a business” by Jamila King
Exact definitions of cultural appropriation vary – from a general and neutral description of “the usage of elements of one culture by another culture” to the more often used negative connotations along the lines of “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission” often juxtaposed against “cultural appreciation“. And, as with all things, it’s also involved in food. Semantics aside of categorizing whether something is appropriative or not, perhaps the most productive focus is on the impacts. This involves thinking beyond the immediate effect of ones actions and choices, considering who benefits, and who does not, and the social implications of how and why you can make this choice. The clearest and more significant situations involve gaining material benefit at another’s expense (take the common example of knock-off “Indigenous” souvenirs taking livelihoods away from Indigenous artisans and artists) or disrespectful use of culturally significant symbols/traditions (common example being Dia de los Muertos, a day to honour deceased loved ones, used as a Halloween costume) – note that both of these examples are also at the expense of groups that historically and currently face discrimination and marginalization in North America. Many other situations – blurrier.
For some thoughts from a free content creation perspective, start with “2 TikTok Food Bloggers on Why the Cultural Appropriation of Asian Food Is Personal” and “How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Food Writing.”
Further reading on experiences and occurrences of appropriation:
- “Breaking Bread: Appropriation or Appreciation? The Case of Mexican Food” by Phylisa Wisdom (Render Magazine)
- “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining: Exploring the line between shared history and appropriation” by Hillary Dixler Canavan (Eater)
- “Dear Shawn, We Need to Talk” by Michael Twitty – on appropriation of Gullah cuisine by white Southern chefs as shared by an amazing figure, Kosher Soul (aka Michael Twitty)
- “Craving the Other” by Soleil Ho (Bitch Media) – on appropriation, valuation, and authenticity
- “We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation” by Dakota Kim (Paste Magazine)
- “How the Rage for Sage Threatens Native American Traditions and Recipes” (Atlas Obscura)
Further reading on avoiding cultural appropriation:
- “2 TikTok Food Bloggers on Why the Cultural Appropriation of Asian Food Is Personal” by Yerin Kim (Popsugar)
- “How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation in Food Writing” by Nandita Godbole
- “The Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative” by Rachel Kuo (Everyday Feminism)
judgement & valuation of food
[F]oods once eaten by the poor have been co-opted & fetishized by the rich, sometimes to the point that they’re no longer accessible to the people who once relied on them. The lobster on a silver platter, the caviar in a lustrous spoon: These foods only became extravagances once taken out of context & presented as novelties for people who neither lived where they were harvested nor had any role in procuring them, beyond waging war, like the czar, or handing over a fistful of cash; who didn’t have to depend on proximity to furnish their feasts; who could pay the price to have anything shipped from anywhere, in any season, & make the world (mad phrase) their oyster.Ligaya Mishin
Sarahlynn Pablo Yeah, it’s like a validation, you know? Like, no. We don’t need outside validation. You should understand that knowledge to cook an oxtail or knowledge to be able to use things like balut or sisig or pig’s head, that is real cultural value. And so I think when people say things like, Well, Filipino is just cheap food, then I kind of counter with like, No, it’s not, because you have to have real knowledge to be able to make these things. Is it easy to make a rib-eye? Yeah, it’s totally easy. Everybody knows how to do it. But, do you know how to make an oxtail? That’s a completely different story.
Soleil Ho This narrative that I think y’all are speaking to right now, actually, within food writing and the food media, where Filipino cuisine is constantly cast as this underdog, as this thing that’s about to hit it big or that’s been unappreciated, right? I think I first read about that sort of sentiment in Food & Wine magazine around the time of that typhoon. And I was like, this is weird, this thing that is happening. But it almost seems like an extension of colonialism, that narrative.Sarahlynn Pablo and Soleil Ho in “The State of Filipino Cuisine” episode of the Racist Sandwich Podcast
What is fascinating about food is that it is a commodity, and we are constantly assigning value to it. For instance, which foods are considered gourmet, or what cuisine is currently “in” or cosmopolitan to eat, as depicted in food media or other media sources. Often the judgements run along entire “ethnic” cuisines. This ranges from being popularized – which may have economic benefits for restaurants serving that type of food, but can also increase prices and reduce access to foods for those who traditionally ate them. Like gentrification, people can be priced out of their food. On the other hand, some cuisines have faced distaste and marginalization to straight-up racist conspiracies, which have sunk into the mainstream consciousness:
At the heart of the popular association between Chinese food and adverse reactions to MSG was the assumption that, while MSG was a common food additive, it was more likely to be misused by Chinese cooks. […][T]he idea that Chinese chefs were using “bizarre” quantities of MSG built upon long-held suspicions that Chinese culture and practices were somehow unclean, excessive, or inscrutable. From the late nineteenth century on, rumour and fear-mongering about supposed Chinese drug use, sexual mores, living conditions, and ‘deviant’ practices like serving unsuspecting patrons meat from dogs and cats were frequently invoked to justify everything from limiting Chinese immigration, preventing restaurateurs from employing white women, to limiting Chinese businesses to Chinatowns and other designated areas. While this kind of racial discourse tended to move from the level of official government policy to rumour and popular culture in the post-WWII era, the rapid spread of the Chinese restaurant syndrome – along with similar scares over the safety of barbecued meats in Vancouver’s Chinatown, despite no proven incidence of illness – suggests that such ideas likely continued to inform popular understandings of Chinese culture and practices.“Revisiting the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”’ by Ian Mosby
I still see products proudly advertising “NO MSG!” as a sign that the ideas from this part of history are still present.
- Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution by S. Margot Finn (read an interview with the author on Vox here)
- “How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy” by Ruth Tam (The Washington Post)
- “An Open Letter to the White Food Blogger Who Just Discovered the Middle Eastern Staples Which Have Kept Me Alive For the Last Two Decades” by Raya Machaca (McSweeney’s)
- “The Food Chain: Perpetuating Poverty and Classism Through the Cultural Appropriation of Food” by Sydney Lawson
- “The Cost of Kale: How Foodie Trends Can Hurt Low-Income Families” by Soleil Ho (Bitch Media)
- “#FoodGentrification and Culinary Rebranding of Traditional Foods” by Soleil Ho (Bitch Media)
- “Revisiting the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”’ by Ian Mosby
representation & gender norms
As a reader who is well-educated but not white, I have trouble finding spaces to truly represent diverse ways of living in terms of femininity and domesticity. Instead, I find they seem to create a rather constricting “traditional” ideal of what home or family mean. These [examples of popular food bloggers] represent the majority of female food bloggers in that they are in heterosexual marriages, have meaningful white-collar jobs, and are the primary provider for their children. They juggle their multiple roles as mother, wife, and working woman but still have the privilege to wander through farmer’s markets, eat organic food, and go on family vacations.“To Bake a Hummingbird Cake: Female Food Blogging and Whiteness” by Alana Dao
As the above quote points out, many prominent food bloggers tend to be more affluent white women. I don’t think it is bad for people to be themselves, of course! But it reflects underlying disparate privilege afforded to different groups. While the lack of gatekeeping compared to traditional food media, such as newspaper columns or magazines, likely makes food blogging more accessible to anyone with an interest, it still requires access to material and cultural privilege in terms of time, internet access, disposable income for ingredients, sometimes photography equipment and props, and production of aspirational blogging content. The more successful and professional the food blog, the more so. As food blogs become an established form of food media, this means that there can still be a bit of a dominant lens through which we see food (more on that in part 2!).
I’m not suggesting we should stop people from blogging when it is a personal endeavour of course. And I do think food blogs have also been a vehicle for people of underrepresented groups who might be shut out from traditional media to gain more equitable access to an audience. But perhaps we should be cognizant of what makes popular blogs popular (some thoughts in the food photography section, perhaps) and how to support diversity in blogging so the popular blogging community is reflective of society at large.
What I have also been finding interesting, given how women-dominant the blogosphere is, are some analyses regarding how popular food blogs can reflects gender norms from broader society. Or how the expectations placed on women show up again in food blogging – for instance, bloggers demonstrating enjoyment and indulgence in food, may need to accompany this with demonstrations of “self-restraint” and maintaining a “balanced” diet. Unfortunately, what this can also do is reinforce dominant notions of femininity and domesticity back to readers:
Having the capacity to afford a variety of foods, as well as the time to create impressive meals with multiple homemade components, are taken-for-granted aspects of food blogs that normalize a middle-class relationship to foodwork.[…] These food ideals are appealing to many readers, but they inadvertently cast a wide net of failed femininity that includes working-class women who may be uncomfortable around “fancy” food, time-strapped moms who use processed ingredients, wives who do not make every meal “special” for their families, and weight-conscious women who feel unable to successfully balance restriction with indulgence. Put differently, the food femininities exhibited on popular food blogs may work to implicitly shame women who lack the resources to perform foodwork at this level; if cake mix is deplored, then the woman who finds herself with a box in her cupboard may doubt her capacity to care through food.
The persistence of structural gender inequality is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in these blog pages. Male partners and children seem to sit idle while wives and mothers cook delicious meals; any references to these imbalances are obscured, laughed off, or justified on account of the inherent pleasure associated with cooking […] If the joy of cooking provides its own rewards to women, it may seem unreasonable to argue about who is carrying out the labor of daily meals. When foodwork is framed as pleasurable, leisurely, and a matter of choice, any tension surrounding gender inequalities is rendered invisible. In this way, traditional gender roles that situate women as disproportionately responsible for a family’s social reproduction remain unchallenged and further entrenched within a postfeminist context where change is not seen as urgent or even necessary. Repositioning foodwork as a response to one’s preferences and tastes hides the gendered nature of this work.“The Online Domestic Goddess: An Analysis of Food Blog Femininities” by Alexandra Rodney et al.
I realize now, with my more feminist sensibilities, that there is not anything wrong with enjoying feminine activities. The problem is that in the food blogosphere, unrealistic standards and reinforced patriarchal gender norms are left unchallenged.“Navigating the Food Blogosphere: Finding a Place for Feminism in a Highly Feminized Blogosphere” by Jenna Hanson
- “To Bake a Hummingbird Cake: Female Food Blogging and Whiteness” by Alana Dao (Dilettante Army)
- “7 ways you can be an ally to black food bloggers” by Jaylynn Little
- “The Online Domestic Goddess: An Analysis of Food Blog Femininities” by Alexandra Rodney et al. – on the depictions of gender in food blogs (paywalled on the journal site, but you can download the article for free from ResearchGate at this link)
- “The politics of “dude food”: Food scholar Emily Contois’s new book explores the intersection of masculinity and marketing.” by Rachel Sugar – not specifically on food blogging, but shows the “masculine” side of food perceptions
food is at the intersection of everything
“Sean, we, the descendants of these Africans are dying. We are dying of stress and chronic health ailments rooted in diet and quality of food and access. We are in need of economic opportunity and food is such an important gateway for that. We are dying of police bullets and terrorist bullet and many don’t really give a fuck. We are joining our Ancestors faster than we should and as our Rome burns other people’s Rome rises. This is why I’m hot. This is why I cook. This is why I insist on my right of return as the descendant of Charleston’s enslaved and of the rice growers that gave the Lowcountry a story to sell. The South shall rise again, but will we? We need economic development, food justice—and most of all we refuse to be put at the periphery of our narrative when we should remain at its center. I know that you know this is what I’m fighting for sure as BJ and many others have for years.”“Dear Shawn, We Need to Talk” by Michael Twitty
The above categorizations were a bit artificial. The perception that lifestyle and choice is responsible for health informs moralizing about food, diet culture and weight stigma, all of which are also influenced by gender roles. What we mentioned in the health section was also about poverty, racism and classism. The concerns about appropriation are much like the concerns of white authority on “ethnic” cuisine, all of which blends into the valuation of different cuisines. These evaluations all happen in the back drop of colonization, our industrial food system, white supremacy and white-washed history, and a growing wealth divide along class and racial lines. These are in discussions of food and food is everywhere in discussions on these social issues. Some other topics that might be of interest, below:
- “Does Bannock Have a Place in Indigenous Cuisine?” by Zoe Heaps Tennant (The Walrus) – About the complication and colonial history of bannock.
- “Turning Food into a Weapon in the Battle against Colonialism” by Missy Johnson (The Tyee)
- ““Hunger was never absent”: How residential school diets shaped current patterns of diabetes among Indigenous peoples in Canada” (CMAJ)
- “A Taste of Dutch Colonialism” in Untold Stories
- “What is Food Sovereignty?” (Food Secure Canada)
- Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico by Alyshia Gálvez
White veganism – at the intersections of race, femininity, appropriation, authority
- “Decolonizing Veganism To Make It More Accessible And Less Racist” by Gloria Oladipo (Afropunk)
- “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color” by Khushbu Shah (Thrillist)
- “The Problem with White Veganism” by Juliana Yazbeck
Za’atar in the Israel-Palestine conflict
- “How Za’atar Became a Victim of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” by Ronit Vered
- “The Memory of Za’atar and a Free Palestine” – episode of the Racist Sandwich podcast
finally: what about writing about food?
The pupusas here are soft and thick, their curves comfortingly inexact, patted into shape by hand. Patches of bronze testify to crisping on the comal. Break off a corner and the cheese inside oozes and stretches, refusing to let go.Ligaya Mishin
I think good food writing, the writing which really captures my imagination, doesn’t feel overwrought, vague or cliched. I am not a good food writer, but here is some of what I aspire to.
Ligaya Mishan is one of my favourites – I chanced upon her instagram account one day. She writes simply, but evocatively. Things are not just “are,” but they happen. She gives her food verbs and life; I think the quote at the beginning of this section exemplifies how the pupusas she describes are active participants, not just sitting there, passively waiting to be described. Below, food can be transformative, (notice how much we are put into the scene):
With every bite, you start to speak a complicated language of salt and smoke; lancing sourness; sweet never without its partner, bitter. You breathe garlic.Ligaya Mishin
I love adjectives, perhaps more than I should. Creative adjectives in food, ones which move beyond cliche, star below, along with an easy conversational style and a way of bringing out the meaningful experience of making and eating a simple(?) semifreddo without being overly contrived.
The fruits that work best are broad and brilliant: tart cherries, yes, but also fleshy nectarines, inky blackberries and late-August plums. Herbs are nice in an ice cream, where you can infuse them within the hot custard base, but think of a semifreddo as a simpler, less fussy cousin to all that. The messiness of ripe fruit, the decadence of something toothsome and cold, combined into a single pan and delivered in one slice as an antidote to whatever ails. It has been a long, hard year. Two of them, actually. Dessert can be easy. Sometimes, it should be.Hannah Selinger for the Washington Post
And while we’re talking about the actual process of making food – Nigel Slater writes with a rather romantic but accessible sensibility on cooking. I swear I have never wanted to make a roast chicken, ever, until this article. Now I want to roast a chicken. I even want to make gravy?!
Once the bird and its potatoes are out of the tin, we are left with a deeply savoury, shallow pool of chicken juices and a sticky, almost caramel-like goo of toasted sugars and aromatics. This is a concentrated essence that we can trickle over the meat as it is, or dilute with stock, wine or water to pour over the carved meat on the plate. Sometimes I stir in a glass of white vermouth or a dry and nutty sherry. Tarragon is the only soft-leaved herb I use in the gravy. About 20 large leaves is enough. This is also the only time I would add cream to the pan. Roasting juices, tarragon and cream being very much the Father, Son and Holy Ghost to a chicken.Nigel Slater for the Guardian
And sometimes, beyond just the food itself, the context is what deserves focus. Sribala Subramanian wrote this lovely piece on Kashmiri pink tea for Atlas Obscura. This is the sort of food writing I find the most impactful – this got me onto an hour long search into the situation in Kashmir, something which I am extremely ignorant of. Food may be universal, but the people, places, history and geopolitical situations behind it are unique. Here is an instance where I felt food was used as a gentle gateway to that.
Salty with a hint of bitterness, pink tea mirrors the current mood in Kashmir. A geopolitical turf war between India, Pakistan, and China has torn the region apart, making it one of the most militarized zones in the world. Following a terrorist attack last year, the Kashmir Valley lost its status as an autonomous region within India and was cut off from the outside world. Life in the valley ground to a halt. Kashmiris will readily admit that in times of uncertainty, they savor quotidian pleasures like tea breaks. Pink tea helps chase away the blues.
[…] More than just a daily beverage, pink tea is a state of mind. 15 years ago, the novelist Salman Rushdie wrote an allegorical tale about love and betrayal in Kashmir. In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie describes his ancestral land as “a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant’s teeth,” whose inhabitants were weary of never-ending war. All they want is azadi. Freedom, in other words, to worship as they please and to “drink salty tea.”Sribala Subramanian in Atlas Obscura
And if you’re wondering about the other part of food blogging – the sort of tangentially-ish (or not at all!) related anecdotes which precede each recipe. I say go for it! It’s your blog. And read this post:
- ““Recipe or Shut the F*ck Up”: Women’s Writing, Fandom, and the Art of Food Blogging” by Katherine McCain – on the gendered double standard and misogyny underlying loathing of anecdotal recipe prefaces by women food bloggers
And for the more literary-inclined:
- “The 12 Most Unforgettable Descriptions of Food In Literature” by Adrienne LaFrance (The Atlantic)
- an old blog post of mine about Brian Jacque’s Redwall series, the formative food writing of my childhod
and briefly, on food photography
[W]hen I think about race and class and gender with food photography, the focus is, to me, that it’s the absence of what is there. So, when I think of what I see online or what people hire me for, it’s usually Western food; it’s usually European. And so, when you do finally see something that’s Indian or Asian of some sort, there are things that are added in order to emphasize its culture. Whereas that doesn’t exist for Italian food or French food or anything like that. […]
My issue with minimalism is that it suggests a kind of privilege: The people who can choose to be minimalist usually aren’t in the position where they’re choosing minimalism because they have to. And so, getting back to food photography and food representation, minimalism in that extent, when you’re showing this great dish of pasta in minimalism, you’re choosing to show only that thing. Whereas people of other socio-economic backgrounds, they’re “minimalist” because they can’t afford more; this is all they have
So, I think food photography can be very classist in that way. A lot of things that are represented seem like they’re coming from middle to upper class homes. There are gluten-free ingredients, vegan things that are probably expensive and not accessible to other people.Celeste Noche in “What’s so Political about Food Photography?” an episode of the Racist Sandwich Podcast
Listen to the full episode: