Locating the Both/and in recipe blogs: Response to “Dishing it Out,” Part 2

(Continuation of my response to “Dishing it Out: Food Blogs and Post-feminist Domesticity” by Paula M. Salvio, featured in Gastronomica Vol.12 No.3. Part 1: What kind of blog am I?)

Concerning the blogs selected by Salvio for critique—namely, recipe blogs written by women, usually married, often stay-at-home moms—Salvio seemed to be of two minds. On one hand, she argues, the blogs facilitate “a female community of writers and readers that is mutually supportive and who enjoy corresponding with one another about making food they love, caring for family, friends, and themselves.” (34) Many historians who study old cookbooks say the same thing of their texts: recipe books were made by women for themselves and other women, shared and embellished between families and friends, a written record of female camaraderie and domestic artistry. But at the same time, Salvio writes, “the solidarity generated on these blogs is built by evading the social and economic disparities between men and women and maintaining firm distinctions between their tastes that systematically privilege male power and re-eroticize power relations between men and women.” (34)  The blogs generate a “postfeminist” discourse, in which bloggers wink at their conformity to normative gender roles, but the wink does not erase their complicity in perpetuation those norms.

I do not entirely disagree with this critique. While there’s nothing troubling about a stay-at-home wife and mother who blogs about her culinary forays, blogs from the white-middleclass-mother perspective arguably dominate the discourse, often with an idealistic narrative of domestic felicity and culinary perfection ( and beautifully sunlit photos) that amplify existing pressures on women to perform to this ideal. (Emily Matchar, too, considers the impact of the domestic revival at New Domesticity.)  Salvio does not claim to make an exhaustive study of food blogs, but even if we do include the significant online presence of recipe or lifestyle blogs written by men, queer men and women, food bloggers whose means and milieu might not be called middle class, food bloggers who resist the trappings of middle class and blog toward affordability and sustainability, food bloggers who speak and cook from the perspective of ethnicity, food bloggers who speak and cook from the perspective of disability, etc., we would likely still observe that the white, middle-class, stay-at-home female bloggers seem to land a few more book deals, a greater online following, and so forth. The bloggers investigated in “Dishing It Out” are not offering “specialty” cuisine; they are be considered mainstream, and it is worthwhile to critique how and why this is the case.

But cooking, as ever, has a complex relationship with feminism and femininity. Salvio never quite resolves the tension between the empowerment of a feminine domestic sphere and the indoctrination of postfeminist discourse. . . but is the capacity for productively arguing “both/and” not a cornerstone of feminist discourse?  Arguably, these mainstream food blogs present both a problematic vision of femininity and domesticity and offer modes of resistance and agency to women adapting to conventionally feminine domestic roles.  I think it is more productive to accept both/and than to suggest that the former forecloses the latter.

Like Salvio, I won’t claim to make an exhaustive investigation; in fact, I will take only a single case study. Of all the recipe blogs critiqued in Salvio’s article, Smitten Kitchen is the only one I follow; indeed, until quite recently, it was the only recipe blog I followed at all.  I don’t usually have much use for recipes, being a rather reckless cook. But I have been receiving all of this site’s updates through my feed reader for at least two years–which may not be true of Salvio, as I barely recognized the blog in her quotation and critique of it.

Smitten Kitchen is a recipe blog (as defined in the the previous post) through and through. Wherever the narrative ambles–from New York street fairs to raising a toddler to birthday cakes for friends–the anecdotes or musings or trials-and-errors always lead to the revelation of a modified, transferable recipe. Which is probably why it doesn’t bother me too much that in terms of domestic lifestyle, I don’t have a lot common with Smitten Kitchen’s blogger, Deb: she’s married, raising a small child, and has urges to bake the way the rest of us have urges to eat baked goods; I’m working full-time and in school, non-monogamous and childfree, and will never be the person in my peer group that bakes everyone’s birthday cakes. (However, I cheerfully assist the friend who is; I get to lick the spoons before they go into the sink.)

What I do have in common with Deb is this: small apartment, small kitchen in a bustling east coast metropolis with easy access to farmstand vegetables. We live in the same grow zone, which means that Deb posts an easy recipe for corn hash right when my vegetable crisper is full of unshucked ears, and a preparation I hadn’t considered for asparagus while it’s still $2/bunch at the farmer’s market shortly before it disappears for the rest of the summer.  In other words, the point of coincidence between this recipe blog and my culinary practice happens at the recipe: the accessible ingredients and the instructions for preparation in an urban space.  (This is one of the reasons I think it’s important to read recipe blogs as a different kind of text than a lifestyle blog.)  So, despite not having much use for recipes, I’ve followed this blog for years because it’s an excellent reference for making the most of what I have.

Salvio quotes part of Smitten Kitchen’s blog description as part of a string of blogs that humorously downplay the blogger’s culinary expertise. From Smitten Kitchen:

“We don’t do truffle oil, Himalayan pink salt at $10 per quarter-ounce or single origin chocolate that can only be found through Posh Nosh-approved purveyors. We think food should be accessible, and are certain you don’t need any of these things to cook fantastically.”

Salvio compares this to the language of a 1960 cookbook that assures readers that cooking needn’t be too difficult or complicated; she also calls the line an “explicit rejection of all cooking that is overly complex, elaborate, or exotic,” which recalls her earlier argument that a different recipe blog specialized in “nursery food.” I’m not persuaded that the critique (oversimplifying? infantalizing?) is warranted in this instance.  What the blog description implies is that I rarely need to buy anything for Smitten Kitchen’s recipes; if I’m missing an ingredient, I can just walk outside and get it (or substitute something else, which Deb often recommends). Simplicity does not necessarily mean nursery food; for me, it means economic savvy, accessibility, relatively minimal prep time.

Walking to buy fresh ingredients that were made or grown just a few miles outside of your city is not retrograde. It’s not uncomplicatedly progressive, either–new polemics are issued on that topic about once a month–but my point is that this mostly-female domestic space carved out on the internet is integral to my practice as a self-sufficient and thoughtful consumer.

Cooking has always been—and will continue to be for some time—a politically weighted activity.  The pressure for women to fulfill the role of nurturer, and to be judged by how well they perform the role, is still present and problematic in media, advertising, discussions of sustainable and local eating, and beyond.  At the same time, it is increasingly evident that cooking offers considerable economic agency and empowerment; cooking can be cheaper, greener, healthier than buying prepared and prepackaged food. There’s no reason to let that element disappear in contemporary discussions of domestic practice: even if a particular lifestyle blog seems to yearn for postwar gender roles, it may nonetheless be in dialogue with current food discourse about sustainability, locavorism, food shortages, and so forth; even if the blog is festooned with all the idealized trappings of bourgeois home life, it operates concurrently with (not in spite of) those issues.

One last note: cooking doesn’t always happen for the nourishment and approval of a nuclear family, but even when it does, it doesn’t foreclose the possibility of pleasure. . .  and pride.  Eileen Bender nailed this duality decades ago in “The Woman Who Came to Dinner: Dining and Divining a Feminist Aesthetic”: it is possible to acknowledge both the restriction and pressure placed on women in the kitchen past and present, and the artistry, empowerment, and enjoyment that cooking may make place in their hands.

2 responses to “Locating the Both/and in recipe blogs: Response to “Dishing it Out,” Part 2

  1. I completely agree with your assessment of Smitten Kitchen in that her approach is about accessible foods, and she’s certainly not downplaying any culinary ability with her blog description. To be honest, I find the Food Network to be among the most egregious in the “dumbing-down” of culinary ambition, as everything has to be fast, easy, basic, and recognizable, as evidenced by how much they want The Pioneer Woman to succeed despite being dull television with mostly uninspired recipes. But you know what? Those are the kinds of recipes I consistently see repinned on my Pinterest feed because they are mostly mindless; anything else are so-called “healthy” recipes that are most likely posted to tell the world that not every day is filled with Oreos enrobed in cake batter.

    Thanks for writing this–it has definitely given me some much-needed food for thought, and I’m going to seek out that article because I really want to read it.

    • Thanks, elizabeth! The Pioneer Woman is one of the food blogs (sounded more like a lifestyle blog, though) that Salvio’s article lambasts, so you might enjoy the read for that reason as well!

      I have a subscription to Gastronomica, but I’ve seen it for sale in random places, like my local fish shop. Unfortunately I don’t think you’ll find the cited article online… I would have liked to link to it!

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