This e-journal is the result of our semester-long efforts in the course, “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture,” at Brown University. Together, we’ve endeavored to understand how gender is constructed, performed, and transgressed in and through food. We’ve explored sites across the U.S. food system, including farm fields, supermarkets, home kitchens, restaurants, and the ever-expanding food mediascape, from food TV to blogs and Instagram. Along the way, we’ve brainstormed, theorized, historicized, and critiqued the conventional gender binaries attached to foods and flavors, appetites and ways of eating, cooking practices and perceptions, and bodily ideals.

We began by considering how cookbooks “speak” and how they construct gender. In this e-journal, America Lopez explores how Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982) reimagines and perpetuates an inherently classist Victorian domestic ideology in our current historical moment, while Julia Christensen examines how Rosanna Pansino’s The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook (2015) both thwarts and adheres to such ideologies as the author bakes “Periodic Table Cupcakes” and “Wifi Cheesecake.” Analyzing these themes in Jeanne Lemlin’s Quick Vegetarian Pleasures (1992), Kelsey Fenn asserts that the text depicts the balancing act between workforce and domestic labor in a way that is not only falsely effortless, but also distinctly privileged in its orientation.

Learning to “read” cookbooks. Photo credit: Emily Contois, February 2016

We also considered how food advertising both reflects and shapes definitions of femininities and masculinities. Adeline Lerner draws from Susan Bordo to examine how food advertising incites anxiety among female consumers by depicting women as having “naturally” irrational cravings (that mimic their purportedly finicky feminine emotions), which must be constantly resisted and controlled.

In addition to these food texts, we also investigated various food practices, including shopping, cooking, feeding, and eating—and dieting as well. To learn more about why individuals cook and how it shapes gender identity, we interviewed and profiled cooks close to us: our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.

In her essay, Helya Azadmanesh-Samimi ponders how her Iranian father renegotiated his masculinity when he became the primary family cook after he retired and his wife entered the workforce fulltime. Examining the intersection between gender and her Dominican heritage, Emely Vargas reflects upon her own aversion to cooking, while her brother embraces culinary matters with unexpected enthusiasm. Jenna Chapman describes how her mother’s best friend hates to cook, but does it any way because “Who else is gonna do it?” While some women resist cooking, Sonia Mittal shares how her Indian mother found it an outlet for empowerment and personal expression. And Zoë Wohlgenant chronicles how her mother’s life experiences transformed her cooking views; most intriguingly, how she developed a love for food while working as a cook’s helper at a hunting camp in Wyoming during her late teens.

While these interviews survey how cooking is a site of power and resistance at home, we also explored these themes within restaurant kitchens. While women are commonly expected to perform most home cooking (often with little fanfare or appreciation), they face considerable challenges reaching culinary heights, as female chefs occupy less than 20 percent of executive positions in the United States. Bella Du Mond writes of her mother’s experiences as a chef, businesswoman, and mother, arguing that the missing ingredient in “the recipe for Great Female Chefdom” is respect.

The structural challenges women face in the food industry were also made apparent when we dined at Clean Plate here in Providence, where we heard directly from chef Susan Alper about the roles of gender and sexuality in her decades-long career in the industry. Annabeth Burgess, Katie Luchette, and Kevin Morales each reflect upon their experiences at Clean Plate, infusing food criticism with their thoughtful critique of gender and food labor.

Chef Susan Alper sharing her experiences in the food industry. Photo credit: Emily Contois, April 2016

While our primary lens of analysis has been gender, we have continually studied how it intersects with other significant cultural categories—particularly race, sexuality, and class, as well as nationality, citizenship, religious affiliation, age, and occupation. Drawing from an interview with her mother, Nicole King investigates how the presence and absence of convenience foods at her family dinner table articulate the dynamics of gender, race, class, and generational differences. Entering into debates about the Thug Kitchen blog and cookbooks, Maclaine Lehan demonstrates how the 2015 Party Grub cookbook operationalizes both gender and racial stereotypes. Taking a historical view, Kudrat Wadha reveals how across the twentieth century, wartime propaganda and food advertisements alike endorsed peanut butter in ways that evoked heteronormativity, whiteness, and middle class status. And Michelle Zabat articulates the transnational media pathways  Filipina women employ as they reshape the American foodscape and conventional gender roles through their cooking.

As millennial eaters ourselves, we also pondered the claims that we are a “food obsessed” generation whose consumer desires are reshaping the food industry and the future of food itself. Amanda Yan poignantly captures how her 24-year-old sister’s love for the Food Network and obsession with healthy cooking are a form of resistance against her mother’s Chinese cooking and her father’s firmly patriarchal presence. Considering the foodways of her 24-year-old brother, Alexandra Kaye argues that although millennial men grow up aware of conventional food and gender norms, they casually transgress them. This is a generation of men unafraid to buy “Organic Girl” brand kale and who know how to prepare it with aplomb. While kale has experienced a millennial-fueled moment of culinary celebrity, Rebecca Blandón examines the rise of the avocado in U.S. popular culture, from Super Bowl guacamole to a full-fledged food icon.

This journal represents just a taste of what we’ve read, written, and discussed on the topic of food and gender this semester. We hope you enjoy it and welcome your comments.

Emily Contois, Brown University
May 2016

Enjoying experiential learning at Clean Plate. Photo credit: Emily Contois, April 2016

For more information about our class or this e-journal, please email the instructor at emily_contois [at] brown [dot] edu.