Some thoughts about sexual normativity in food writing

I’ve mentioned my love of cooking (and food in general) many times before. I read quite a number of food blogs and recipe sites regularly (I love David Lebovitz’ writing, for instance and his ice-cream recipes tend to be glorious; it was thanks to his blog that I started experimenting with inverted sugars and glucose to achieve the ever elusive creaminess in homemade ice-cream).

However, I am intensively irked by the normative nature of much of food writing and how it has somehow displaced (and appropriated) the rhetoric of sexual hygiene and discipline. First there are the health claims (“eat x because it’s good for you” or “I love x because it’s so healthy!”) which veer into ableist territory with a hyper focus on the “goodness” and “nobility” of some products in detriment of others (with no mention or better said, a willful ignorance of socioeconomic factors and issues of cultural or social heritage associated with certain foods). In this food writing, the topic seems to be an extension or an instrument to continue a certain Puritan tradition associating food and body functions to a sort of “superior state of being”. Certain desserts are an “indulgence”, chocolate is “a treat”, butter is “permitted” and even those writers that define themselves in opposition to the Puritan rhetoric (think of those that focus on these foods like pastries, cakes, elaborate dishes, etc) are still defined by those restrictive values, if not by their own writings or approach, certainly by the comments people leave on their sites (“oh this is such a treat!” or “OMG I love to indulge in X” etc).

Since food preparation remains a very gendered territory, it’s also interesting how so much of its focus remains on the restrictive side. Even when the writers are men (like the aforementioned Lebovitz), many of the commenters are women that continuously bring up issues of restriction, refrain and claims of moderation. While certainly moderation is wise in some ingredients (as in, how much butter could one safely consume in a day? for instance), moderation and refrain are topics that keep coming up even in the most inane of recipes (like here in the comments of, all things, kale chips!). I cannot help but see the similarities around sexual normativity and the policing of women’s sexuality. Food, it seems, is the territory where women are kept in a bind. I am not saying anything new in terms of the association of food and sexual policing as the rhetoric of the diet industry is well documented in that regard. However, the food sites that focus on recipes and gourmet discussions are not about diet restrictions, which makes the extension of this policing all the more noticeable.

Another thing I find quite irritating is the abundance of heteronormative ideologies that permeate the field of food writing. There is a nearly constant reminder of nuclear families (“me and my family love this recipe” or “my husband loves this” or “my family prefers x”) and many of the most popular food writers have made a career out of this heteronormative nuclear family narrative, where the devoted mother makes stunning meals, beautifully photographed and later on enjoyed by the husband and children (I am looking directly at The Pioneer Woman here, though she is certainly not the only one). The food, it seems, becomes an extension of this happy nuclear family, the way it should be according to the heteronormative social mandate; with the woman writer only achieving fame and/ or wealth through her pursuits because they are at the service of the family (and not because she is deserving of the accolades in her own right; it’s the combination of cooking/ photography skills and traditional motherhood that makes this business model successful). Of course I am not being original if I point out that food blogging/ food writing remains a field where trans people are practically invisible (I’d say not practically but completely invisibilized) and I suspect that this hegemonic sexual and gender normativity is most likely the reason. 

Fine dining and celebrity chefs are almost all male or, better said, the ones rewarded with media attention are. However, food blogging is a field where women are a majority not only as writers, but as blog commenters as well. It seems that, as in any other field where women need to be “kept in their places”, heteronormativity and sexual politics come with the package.

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