Foodnotes: Women’s Food Studies 101

rndmh3ro, Creative Commons

May 24, 2017

I am a food enthusiast. That means I read food blogs and cooking magazines, bake to relax, and have strong opinions about food-related TV shows. I am also a historian of food and hunger. But living those two different parts of my life — epicurean on a budget and historian — is sometimes more challenging than I ever anticipated.

Early on in my academic career, I’m not sure I really considered what it meant to be a woman who cared about both. I’m writing this essay now, in part, as a promise to myself not to care anymore about the stereotypes that people associate with those roles, and also as a rumination about how to combat all the misconceptions.

Based on my own experiences, I would say that women in academe whose research relates to food and hunger regularly have to fight assumptions that they: (a) work on "fun" nonserious topics, (b) focus solely on other women (the horror!), and/or (c) allow their hobbies to distract them from their research. Let’s examine each stereotype in turn.

Food is not a lightweight, trivial topic. In graduate school, I got used to fielding skeptical questions about why I studied food. Some people seemed to think that meant the research would be easy.

Maybe Your Mom's Sugar Cookies, With Lemon Icing

Note: I've used U.S. brands in the following recipe but any readers in Britain can use the UK products listed in parentheses instead.

Cookie dough:
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 stick or 1 cup Crisco (or Trex), at room temperature
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup light corn syrup (or Golden Syrup)
1 Tablespoon vanilla
3 cups flour, plus more for rolling
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

2 cups powdered sugar (250 grams icing sugar)
2 lemons

1. Put the sugar and Crisco (or Trex) in a large bowl. Beat the two together at medium speed until well blended. Add the eggs, corn (or Golden syrup), and vanilla, and beat until well-blended and fluffy. This process might take several minutes.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. While the mixer is running, add these dry ingredients gradually to the shortening mixture, and mix until the flour has disappeared. You may need to scrape down the bowl with a spatula once or twice.

3. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, and put each one on a large sheet of plastic wrap. Using the plastic wrap to cover your hands (the salt from your hands can make the dough tough), shape each ball of dough into a flat disk. Cover each disk with the plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

4. Preheat your oven to 375*F/190*C (for British readers: I find that it doesn't make much difference to distinguish between a fan oven and a gas oven when the baking time is very short, as it is here). Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour on a large sheet of waxed paper. Take one disk of dough out of the refrigerator, and place it on the floured paper, flattening it slightly. Turn the dough over, and cover it with another sheet of waxed paper. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Remove the top sheet of paper, and cut the dough into desired shapes. I usually use a cookie-cutter that's about two inches in diameter; when I was a graduate student I used a sturdy drinking glass.

5. Place the cookies 2 inches apart on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Bake the cookies for 5-7 minutes, watching them closely. Take them out of the oven when they're just starting to look golden, let them sit for a minute or two on the tray to set, and then remove them to a cooling rack. Repeat until the cookies are finished, or put a few disks into the freezer as a present to your future self.

6. While the cookies cool, zest one lemon, and squeeze the juice into a small bowl. If your powdered sugar is at all clumpy, you should sift it so that your frosting doesn't have lumps. Combine the zest with the powdered sugar, and stir in the juice of one lemon. The frosting should be thin enough that it pours smoothly off the spoon, but gooey enough that the back of your spoon stays coated.

7. When the cookies are completely cool, frost them. If you have a favorite method for how to frost cookies, then use it. I take a single cookie, place it face down in the frosting, and give the cookie a 180-degree turn to coat it. I then lift it up and hold it vertically so that the excess frosting drips off of it, sometimes using a spoon to scrape off the extra frosting before putting the cookie back down on the cooling rack, or on a long sheet of foil that I've laid down to prevent mess. The frosting will take about an hour to set -- if you can wait that long.

In reality, I spent a lot of time chasing down primary sources on food and hunger — which could be found everywhere and nowhere. There were few published source collections about food, so my dissertation research was always going to involve a lot of time and fellowship money spent traveling to archives. The research in my book is based on 18 archives I visited in 17 towns and cities. It was hard to do research on food, and even more difficult to write about it. Of course the Annales School of the everyday existed when I entered grad school, and historians mentioned food in passing in their books. However, food studies was still a nascent discipline, and I didn’t have a methodological framework I could follow for my dissertation.

I made a decision a long time ago to write publicly about the time and work involved in my research. I aggressively applied for grants to visit archives, and spent a year on the road to do it. It took even longer to figure out how to write about my topic.

Gradually, I’ve come to realize that my research is fun — but not because it’s easy. It’s fun because it challenges me and holds my attention. Life is too short for research projects based on obligation.

Along the way I sought out strong feminist mentors — some of whom work on food and hunger and some of whom just offered good advice about presenting myself and my work. I still tend to give research talks that try to anticipate the skeptics and foreground my answer to the "so what" question. Sometimes I plant noticeable gaps in my presentations so that I get asked additional questions that let me justify my approach.

I also adopted a "no food puns" policy in my scholarly writing. I like food puns as much as anyone, but including them in my book chapters and articles undermines any claims I might try to make about the rigor of the work. Maybe that stance will change when I feel like less of a junior historian. Maybe not.

On women, plagiarism, and food history. The challenge of being a female academic who writes about food is compounded by the role of women in food history and in the food-blogging profession. When I first began my dissertation research, most people I spoke with about it asked if I worked with cookbooks, possibly because it’s easy to associate women-authored cookbooks and recipes with food history.

A spate of female writers published cookbooks during the period after the American Revolution — the main historical event I study. I imagine it’s easy to assume that, throughout history, women did a lot of the cooking, and men did a lot of the farming, because that gendered division of labor is the most familiar image associated with food in the United States.

Yet many of those assumptions are inaccurate: Male chefs were the people who recorded some of the first written recipes of the medieval and early modern periods, and cooking and farming roles in early America were pretty fluid. Native American men tended to hunt and women tended to farm, for example, and colonists of both sexes in New England contributed to the labor of food production.

Misperceptions about women’s roles in food history have pushed me to think about the sort of historian I want to be when I grow up — specifically, the topics I want to write and teach about, and the sources I need to examine to do so. I don’t study cookbooks as a research topic, but I do like teaching about them. Cookbooks from the era I study usually offer students a sense of how authors were involved in trying to create a collective sense of nationalism or patriotism.

As a cook/baker and as a person who writes and reads about food, I’ve developed opinions about what makes for a well-written recipe, and I continue to find recipe genealogies interesting for the issues they raise related to other aspects of my scholarship. For instance, the historian in me knows that people in the 18th and 19th centuries borrowed from one another’s recipes in ways that today might constitute plagiarism. The historian James McWilliams, for example, argues that insecure Americans after the War for Independence essentially took British recipes and cooking methods and slapped American-inspired names on them, like "Independence Cake."

At times, the line between stealing ideas and riffing on them is gray today, too. While one of my favorite food bloggers, J. Kenji López-Alt, went on an attack against BuzzFeed for copying his recipe for Halal Cart Chicken, I could regularly read another favorite food blogger, Deb Perelman, to see how she’d taken a recent magazine or blog post recipe and hacked it to make it simpler.

I grew up thinking of my mom’s recipe for sugar cookies as, well, hers. In fact she got the recipe from my grandmother, and also received a copy of it from my grandma’s cousin in Iowa. A Google search for the ingredients revealed a very similar recipe called Crisco’s Ultimate Sugar Cookie. On Crisco’s website, you can find a recipe for the Ultimate Sugar Cookies but it lists slightly different quantities of ingredients from my mother’s. I grew up decorating these cookies with sprinkles at Christmas, but in graduate school I began icing them with a combination of lemon juice, zest, and powdered sugar. Since moving to England, I’ve had to find a replacement for Crisco altogether. I’ve decided that it’s OK to riff on recipes, though I try to be clear when a recipe isn’t entirely my own.

Food bloggers’ claims about the originality of their recipes have led me to reflect on old recipes, and that, in turn, has informed my thinking about my own approach to writing food history. It’s interesting that López-Alt cares so much about claiming a recipe as his own, while Perelman is happy enough to say that she’s refined an extant recipe. Similar to Perelman, I’m happy to admit that my scholarship borrows from a number of fields — food studies, food history, diplomatic and military history, imperialism, and Native American studies.

On hobbies and work/life balance in academe. I cook and bake because they allow me to achieve a better life balance while doing work that I love. Yet cooking as a hobby leads to the most insidious of all of my food-related career woes.

I baked a lot in grad school. I remember frequently bringing cookies or brownies to seminar. That behavior, I realize now, may have unintentionally conveyed a number of unfavorable impressions: That I was not spending enough time reading; that I was not taking graduate school seriously; that I was trying to nurture my fellow graduate students.

It’s absolutely crucial to be kind to people in graduate school, but impressions of kindness become problematic when they are linked to doubts about your scholarly dedication and productivity. Nowadays, I try to be clear about when I’m writing about food for work, and when I’m writing about food — or cooking it — for fun.

Like many academics, I’m not always as rigorous as I’d like to be in policing my boundaries between work and life, and cooking is mandated downtime. I don’t usually start cooking if I still have work to do for the day. When I start cooking I’ll often put on a podcast or music, pour myself a glass of wine or make a cocktail, stop responding to emails, switch off the 24-hour-news cycle, and focus on meal prep. Usually, cooking acts as my dependable endpoint to the workday, and a temporary pause in my connections to the outside world. Some people bike to relieve stress, some people knit, some watch sports. I bake. I cook because I feel I’ve been productive enough for the day, not because I’m avoiding my work.

I’m also more aware of the messages that I send when I write about food, or bring it to the campus to share with colleagues and students. A recent Twitter conversation made clear that many academics — especially women — worry about this issue, too. I make a point of writing about the things I eat and drink that are not necessarily perceived as feminine, like bourbon or rabbit. I link my cooking to the amount of writing, editing, teaching, or grading I’ve done. I tend to save the baked-good distributions for later in the semester, when I’ve already built a good rapport with my students.

Sometimes, I share baked goods before asking students to complete class evaluations. Studies have proved that teaching evaluations are gendered, anyway, and they’ve also shown that students rate your classes higher if they fill out evaluation forms while eating treats. So if I’m going to be reduced to a stereotype, why not make the most of it?

I refuse to give up my cooking and baking hobbies, and I’ve stopped feeling insecure about pursuing them. In part, I’ve managed to achieve this sense of balance because I’ve figured out what sorts of history I want to write — at least for my first book project. For the second one (and all the others), there are cookies that will help me get through it.

A final note. I’m going to be writing a regular column here about food and academe, called Foodnotes. My to-do list includes essays on strategic-conference eating, cheap eats for food-enthusiast graduate students, and on food for slow scholarship — with a recipe in each column. Let me know in the comments below if there are topics (or recipes) you’d like to read about.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. lecturer in early modern American history on the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton. Her first book No Useless Mouth: Hunger and the Revolutionary Atlantic is under contract with Cornell University Press.