Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Food Networks: Gender and Foodways," the conference that I organized at Notre Dame ended yesterday. It was amazing. Our goal was to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to talk about food from many different angles. We had papers on topics as diverse as male cookbooks, Martha Stewart's magazine, suffrage starvation tactics, migrant workers, racism in food activism, student activism, Candy Darling, feminist critiques of Michael Pollan, Julie Child (she got a whole panel), Babette's Feast, Little House on the Prairie, food deserts and dollar stores, slow food, new Nordic cooking, and more. My panel was on Queer Food. I talked about The Gay Cookbook, a cookbook aimed at "the limp wristed" from 1965!

Interestingly, though, outside my panel and a paper on food insecurity (a polite academic term for poverty and starvation) among AIDS patients, the discussion of gender seemed to me to often stay within very heterosexual frameworks. Much of the discussion seemed to be about men/women, masculinity/femininity as if those terms were relatively stable. It isn't that people didn't have the capacity to think about queerness or the complexity of gender, not at all; it was, on the whole, a very sophisticated discussion. But, coming from gender studies, I was struck by the way in food and food issues did not seem to raise issues of transgender, say, or homosexuality, or gender parody, or camp (except in my panel). I think this may be because 1) people more or less take for granted that you know that they know that these categories are complex and do not feel compelled to spell it out, tiring perhaps of figuring out the full range of LBTG initials; and 2) food tends to bring people back to ideas about family, stereotypes of femininity, mothers, kitchens, etc. -- and there is a kind of reversion to old formulas in many discourses and representations of food and the papers reflected that, in a way. (Many papers mentioned or discussed the tendency on The Food Network, for instance, to schedule female shows in the daytime, male shows at night, with female shows presenting cooking as homely, everyday, care work and male shows presenting cooking as competition, gourmet fare, action).

While queerness was not on the plate throughout the conference, as it were -- or, not often explicitly -- it did come up in a very interesting way. One of our plenary speakers, Alice Julier, critiqued the mantra that you have to sit down and eat with your family -- she said there are other kinship systems. She did not put it in queer terms, but she was queering the table, and agreed with my characterization of her as queering food. Her comment made me realize the degree to which many food movements dovetail with "family values" and that I had bought into much of it myself. I will continue to sit down with my family to eat because I love the conversation, and I want my kids to think of food as an activity not a mindless intravenous feed. But I will recognize that there are other kinship systems, other "families," like friends, co-workers, and fellow travelers that should be at the table, too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In A "Best of" compilation of articles from Ms magazine, I came across one about housewives in the 1970s. It is called "Click: The Housewife's Moment of Truth." Here are some gems from it, outdated, yes, but still bizarrely on target:

On women being asked to place phone calls, get food for someone, make sure shirts are washed, in home and work environments: "In the end, we are all housewives, the natural people to turn to when there is something unpleasant, inconvenient, or inconclusive to be done."

On driving kids everywhere and coddling them through every aspect of their life: "Seizing responsibility from children has been women's way to compensate for their own lack of responsibility for themselves and it has resulted in two generations of non-adults."

On the distribution of chores: "Men will always opt for things that get finished and stay that way -- putting up screens, but not planning menus."

On getting stuck: "Empty one dishwasher and it leads to a lifetime of emptying dishwashers. Remember that nothing will ever get done by anyone else if you do it."

This article speaks from the assumption that most women are housewives,. even if, like the author, they also work -- as writers, sculptors, painters, and other "at home" jobs. It paints a picture of a much more divided world than ours, in which men do nothing, men are intransigent and threatened, and marriages are not partnerships. At the same time, much of what she describes is still kind of true, more true than I think she imagined when she imagined liberation. What she calls for is for women to become more independent, have an identity outside the home. But, she notes, and our lives confirm, that having a job is not a cure-all. Citing Russia where, she claims, 70% of the doctors are women, "women still do all the housework. Some revolution."

Monday, January 23, 2012


My family and I have been watching the Harry Potter movies for the last few weeks, having missed them in theaters. I've been enjoying them tremendously, not least because of the role played by Hermione. It is great to see a smart, capable girl who is friends with the hero, with no hint of romance between them (though she and Harry each find romance in the Weasley family -- must be a red-head fetish). She is attractive but not fetishized, thin but not creepy. Often dirty. The gender equity never quite makes it up the chain of power, though. Harry's mentors and heroes are all men -- Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Remus (? the werewolf guy), Severus. Most of the female characters are only occasionally effectual -- like Maggie Smith's witch -- or evil -- like Helena Bonheim Carter's goth sister to Sirius. But what really annoyed me in the final episode -- and this is no spoiler -- is that at the height of a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, Mrs. Weasley suddenly dropped the first big swear in the franchise and it was, of course, "bitch," directed at another woman (Helena Bonheim Carter) under the guise of maternal protectiveness: "Not my daughter, you bitch!" This directly echoed the moment in Alien when Sigourney Weaver calls the alien "bitch," in another moment of maternal protectiveness. I suppose at these moments we are supposed to cheer and enjoy the woman-to -woman fight - "It speaks equality because women fight," or "Motherhood is powerful" -- but I just feel depressed. I don't think the good women and the evil women have to get along -- though Harry manages to reach out to his male enemies, Malvoy and Severus, and find common ground. But do they have to call each other bitch, and do they have to ask us to celebrate calling a woman bitch?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Back to School

They're gone. Dropped off at 8AM this morning. I was nervous, momentarily, because when we got to school we didn't see anybody else outside the school. I thought, for a second, that I had the wrong day. This happened once a few years ago. I got to school on the Monday after the holiday break and discovered that I was a day early. I had to take them to Indiana that day so I could start prepping my classes. Never has a mother resented her kids more. But this morning, there was school. Sure, my son was complaining of a sore throat, but I took that to be his unwillingness to go back to school, not a real illness. (I am not a monster. I did take his temp, and he seemed fine.) Still, I am dreading getting a phone call from the nurse, asking me to pick him up.

So, I have loads of work to do after two weeks of being a full-time mom. Honestly, it is easier than in the old days to get work done when they are on vacation. When they were little, I had to watch them and play with them every second. Now, I can hide in my office and they can amuse themselves pretty well. If anything, I have to wrench them away from video games and force them to acknowledge me and do something that does not involve a screen. Still, I did no work. Partly, I wanted to be with them, and we did some fun stuff together -- caught a few films, went skating, took a trip to Boston to see family. We also had a few sick days -- slight stomach flu. And I spent a lot of time the first week either taking them to play dates, picking them up from play dates, or hosting playdates at my house. Plus, the first week we did a lot of cooking for our Christmas Eve party, which also meant we did a lot of grocery shopping and shopping for gifts for party guests, plus other holiday errands. But, at some level, I just decided to let go, not try to work, not get frustrated, and just be a mom. All along, I looked to today as the start of my working break (I still have two weeks before I start teaching again). Over vacation, I talked to a friend who has kids at my kids' school and when I asked if she was eager for them to go back, she said it didn't really make a difference to her. I thought she was crazy! How could she not be desperate to see them back at school? Shouldn't we all be ready to throw them out the door and yell hooray?

So, now they are gone and what have I done? Well, first I had to go workout. During their break, I used the elliptical in the basement but nothing very vigorous. So, this morning I headed to Shred 415 where they offer a 60 minute class that alternates between the treadmill and floorwork -- weights, squats, sit ups, more weights, bands, etc. It is gruesome but good. Got home and showered. Put laundry in. Made some tea. Then had to synch my iPad, iPhone, iPod. Caught up on email. Did administrative stuff for my classes, which start in two weeks -- organizing class websites, DVD streaming, reserves, syllabi. And, oh gee, I guess I'm writing this. What about the article I need to write? It is 11:15 now. Soon, I will make lunch. Then at 2:45 I have to pick up one kid and figure out what to do with him until 5 when the other kid is done with band. That gives me a few hours to get started. But, gee, it is hard to get going, to switch gears. How do you change from mom-mode to writer mode? Why can't I have a work coach who will yell at me, like the instructor at the gym? "Get on the computer! Type notes! Write an introduction! Now, now, now!" My brain is flabby, my ideas lost in a fog. By the time I shake off the dust, it will be time to switch gears again and help with homework, get ready for dinner. Some days I think I need a wife. Today, I want a work-wife, someone who will organize me at the office , sort my priorities, and help me do the work I need to do. But really, I want to just linger in my non-work mode and enjoy. I almost miss the kids.