What kind of blog am I? Response to “Dishing It Out,” Part 1

I’ve been enjoying my new subscription to Gastronomica—I have it in print, the better to leaf through on the subway and let vivid photographs, astonishing stories, and delectable trivia light up a dreary commute. But the website has some exclusive online content, so check it out.

It’s too bad that Paula M. Salvio’s “Dishing It Out: Food Blogs and Post-Feminist Domesticity” (Gastronomica Vol. 12. No.3) isn’t included in the online content, because I would be very interested to read response from other food bloggers to Salvio’s critique. I’ll get to the meat (so to speak) of her article in the next post, but first I have a semantic quibble. Salvio’s article begins:

 “Food blogs gave burst forth on the worldwide Web as a genre strikingly close to the memoir. Many of the most widely read blogs intersperse personal anecdotes about preparing food with travel notes and other displays of primarily middle-class status. . . . Arranged on sidebars and embedded in diary entries in the blogs are photographs of food being prepared, perhaps with pricy imports. . . . Recipes are for upgraded comfort foods or trendy and exotic dishes” (31).

She goes on to specify that she selected about twenty popular food blogs written by women for the purpose of analyzing their ideology and consumer styles, a text and topic that haven’t received much scholarly attention.

True enough. But if we’re going to pay more scholarly attention to food blogs, that analysis would benefit from more specific terms. A food blog very likely has autobiographical elements—mine certainly does—but the ratio of practical to personal and the purpose of deploying anecdata varies greatly among different types of blog.

  • Quite a few of the blogs mentioned in “Dishing It Out” are centered around recipes. They may be adorned with (and adored for) narrative snapshots of  a quirky and lovely but messy-like-yours kind of life and bright sunlit photographs of carefully prepared food, but the primary content is the recipes. If the blog leads to a book, the book will be shelved under cookbooks.
  •  Some of the blogs extend their narrative and instruction past the practices of food preparation and ingredient acquisition, and showcase travel or home and garden care, or recommend books or local shops. I first thought to designate this set “review blogs,” thinking of how much I enjoyed following Gastronomy when the blogger lived in Philadelphia and gave a reliable account of our everchanging restaurant scene; however, after a quick glimpse of the blogs named in “Dishing It Out,” it may be more accurate to go with the increasingly popular title of “lifestyle blog.” These blogs may include recipes, but cover a broader scope: the elements and practices of a particular way to eat, cook, consume, or be.
  • Food culture (and/or history) blogs, like those listed in my sidebar (and my own space), are in the business of #longreads. Food culture blogs may or may not have images and only infrequently have recipes; they may dip into the personal to make a point or a contrast, but more typically the object of each post is to draw a generality or open up an inquiry from historical fact or social observation or aesthetic analysis.

These categories are not comprehensive—it’s the way of the internet to seek out new and ever more particular niches to establish readership, and one could classify and subclassify all night long without exhaustively naming all currently existing niches.  Nor are the categories defined here mutually exclusive. Surely these literary recipe blogs veer into food culture and history territory, particularly those that recreate dishes of novels and authors past. The review blogs I’ve encountered certainly post recipes from time to time, and, as noted in Salvio’s quote above, the recipe blogs absolutely project a style of living and consuming.

So why make distinctions? Three reasons.

One, specificity of terms is at least a nod to the myriad, if overlapping, kinds of food texts that proliferate online. A selective portion of high-profile single-author lifestyle blogs cannot be denoted by the term “food blogs” any more than “women’s fiction” can be used to refer to the best-selling novels of Janet Evanovich, Jennifer Weiner, and Stephanie Meyer.  Finer distinctions are warranted.

Two, the kind of blogs I’ve characterized here serve different narrative purposes, and so may be considered different kinds of text. For example, while the main character of a well-known lifestyle blog may be the blogger herself—particularly if she has landed a TV spot or book deal—the star of a recipe blog is the recipe collection. The plot resolution—that moment the recipe came together after all the preparation, or the moment of intimacy between cook and the family or friends who enjoy the meal, or the imaginative association of the bibliophile cook with the dish that reminds her of her favorite poem or author—is echoed by the transmission of the recipe from blogger to reader. This is a substantively different reading experience than browsing a famous blogger’s tips for picking perfect tomatoes or scanning long descriptions of historical brewing practices, and the shape of the text ought to inform the analysis of it.

Finally, if we name the difference in aesthetics and characteristics of these different food narratives, then we can think about how and why they work, and how and why they affect other kinds of food discourses.  For example, my research has often brought me into contact with scholarly journals or monographs that share the aesthetic of lifestyle blogs: vivid photography, savvy design, vignettes and anecdotes.  One might argue that both share common ancestors–the coffee-table-ready cookbook, the glossy magazines that now serve as domestic manuals–but it is worth interrogating what purpose the recipes and food stylist photos serve in scholarly texts. . . and whether that affects our understanding of how the same design elements function in recipe and lifestyle blogs.

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