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.

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