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Q&A with Adrienne Rose Bitar on Diet & the Disease of Civilization

I moved across country this summer, a process that necessitated packing and unpacking all of my books, including titles other academics might find odd: dozens of cookbooks (like my microwave cookbooks!) and a number of diet books (yes, some for men).

Luckily, Adrienne Rose Bitar, a postdoctoral associate in history at Cornell University, can relate to my collection of weight loss texts. She surveyed four hundred U.S. diet books for her recent monograph, Diet and the Disease of Civilization. Focusing on four diets and their associated locations—Paleo (the cave), Eden (the Garden), precolonial (“primitive” paradise), and detox (preindustrial world)—Bitar demonstrates how each diet depends on the same “Fall of Man” story, which she asserts forms “the narrative backbone of our national consciousness.”

I recently had the chance to chat with Adrienne, one dieting scholar to another, in my latest for Nursing Clio. Our conversation covers the research challenges of studying diet books, what detox diets can tell us about American culture, how Adrienne managed to go from dissertation to book in just two years, and how and why she sees a message of hope in diet literature.

Why I’m Still Blogging After 6 Years & Being Trolled

I started this blog turned something-maybe-slightly-bigger in July 2012. Most years around this time, I take a moment to reflect on why I blog as an academic and why others might want to as well. Past reasons—which I wrote about in 2013, 2014, and 2017—still resonate with me. Blogging builds an audience of readers, collaborators, friends and fans, mentors and mentees. Blogging also builds bridges. Blogging helps my writing, especially if and when I feel stuck. It has opened doors I didn’t even know to knock. And it’s been fun, year after year.

This year, however, I have some different things to reflect on.

What does it mean to be a public scholar, to blog, and to share my work, perspective, and life, after being trolled quite unpleasantly, for weeks? (You can read more about that in my Nursing Clio essay, “I Was Trolled, Here’s Why I’m Turning It into a Teaching Opportunity.”) Seeing this happen to me has made some fellow scholars and friends even more hesitant to start blogging. To that I say, no. Now is the time more than ever to be public scholars and to be scholars in public. 

To begin, the outlets that picked up the story about my Feminist Media Studies article, those who wrote the stories, and the folks who read them, commented on them, tweeted me, and emailed me, weren’t at all interested in who I am or what my research is actually about. All of that information is freely available and easy to find here on this site. So, blogging about my research did not invite or incite any of this vitriol.

Furthermore, my research could have been attacked even if I didn’t have an online presence, which would have left me with fewer avenues to claim, own, and drive the narrative of this situation as it unfolded. Similarly, because I already have an established online presence, a Brietbart article isn’t the first thing online searches return for my name.

A more important point, at least for me, was that being a public scholar meant I didn’t have to face this experience alone. People who I had never met or even spoken to before, who had been reading my work over the years, reached out to me with words of support at moments when I needed them, for which I’m unceasingly grateful. Without my online presence, I might not have had as many generous and kind folks on my side as this experience transpired.

But what made me most uncomfortable in all of this wasn’t the mean tweets or being called offensive names or having my happy corner of the Internet poisoned—perhaps forever, which I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with. It was the sustained antagonistic sentiment against social scientists, humanists, and feminists; against scholars, academics, and professors; against the academy and higher education.

I know that I’ll likely never convince some (or maybe even very many) folks, but I also hear and see and acknowledge that there’s a lot of confusion about what academics do and why it matters. That’s part of the reason why I share publicly some of what I’m working on in the classroom with my students, like teaching with cookbooks, designing dietary guidelines, defining American food, or writing on food, gender, and popular culture. It’s why I’ve blogged about how my Instagram is full of visual representations of what my work life of research, writing and revision, class prep, conferences, etc. (etc.!) looks and feels like. It’s why I blog my research publications to make them more accessible, so they’re not just behind a paywall or too full of jargon.

Sure, part of me is utterly heartbroken that I’m starting my academic career at a time when my professional field is widely misunderstood, attacked, and maligned. But for me that’s all the more reason to stand up for what and who I believe in, to weather the storm(s)—(with help and support!), to not stay silent, and to be a public scholar with all the grace, resilience, and empathy I can muster.

What Jonathan Gold Taught ASFS Food Scholars

The 2017 ASFS/AFHVS conference at Occidental College included a writing workshop with Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold, one of our most important food writers, one devastating to lose.

As but one tiny way to honor him—his words, writing, perspective, impact, and legacy—here are live-tweets from the workshop, “Dessert is Not an Ending: Food Writing in the Age of Instagram.”

More a gorgeously meandering, quirky conversation than a linear lecture or a task-oriented workshop, Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold pondered with us—a group of food studies academics—our current food moment, taking in the power of place and people, definitions of authenticity, social media’s impact, the art and labor of writing, and the still untapped but ripe and exhilarating potential that exists where academic theory, deep context, visceral detail, and food writing meet.

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An incredible honor to meet and learn from Laurie Ochoa and Jonathan Gold.

Much will be, and should be, written about Jonathan Gold in the days and weeks to come. Reading his words and those written about him will be one way to process our grief, but I am also moved by Gustavo Arellano’s call in his op ed in the Los Angeles Times:

Don’t mourn his passing too long. The best way we can honor his legacy is by living in the Southern California he wanted all of America to know: a big ol’, multihued, ever-delicious bowl of stew. Or plate of fessenjoon. Or giant taco. So eat.

 

 

 

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Pondering & Archiving #foodstudies18: AFHVS/ASFS Conference at UW-Madison

Since its first meeting in 1987, the annual Association for the Study of Food and Society conference has provided a space for critical, interdisciplinary exchange on food studies research and practice—one with a strong sense of community, which is perhaps best articulated by ASFS members themselves:

That sense of community is alive all year long through the peer-reviewed journal Food, Culture & Society, in the ASFS newsletter, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and much more. Our community spirit also takes root on a new campus each year at the annual conference, which has been co-hosted with the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS) since 1992.

This year’s meeting took place on the gorgeous lake-front campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison upon land acknowledged as the traditional territories of the Hooçak Nation. (Please see page 6 of the conference program for the full land acknowledgement.)

As we learned in the conference program, Madison is home to myriad co-ops, farm-to-table restaurants, CSAs, community gardens, bike paths, parks, and 13 farmer’s markets, including the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest in the nation. (Check out Katherine Hysmith’s Twitter thread photo tour if you weren’t able to visit it in person.)

The agri-food energy of Madison inspired and transformed the conference theme of “the agroecological prospect,” as panels, roundtables, workshops, keynotes, and meals each examined the politics of integrating values, food, and farming. Our thanks and congratulations to the Program Committee co-chairs, Michael Bell and Michelle Miller, and the members of the various planning committees who put on an outstanding conference.

Our #foodstudies18 live-tweeting efforts (including our pre-conference How To Guide) are one way that we seek to make the conference proceedings accessible to folks outside the organization and for members not able to attend this year’s conference.

We’re happy to hear live-tweeting was helpful this year for those not able to attend in person—and for those in attendance who struggled to choose between all the great session options.

To build a digital archive of this year’s conference, below is a catalogue of Twitter threads and Twitter moments that offer highlights from some of the sessions. It’s worth noting that we doubled our Twitter coverage of full sessions this year thanks to the help of a growing team of live-tweeters.

Check out #foodstudies18 for even more coverage—and we hope to see you at next year’s conference: #foodstudies19 at the University of Alaska, June 26-29, 2019!

#foodstudies18 Twitter Threads and Moments

For more information: Please see the final program for presenter names, affiliations, and paper titles. Check out the interactive online program, which also includes abstracts.


You can also check out past conferences by following the hashtags:


Feature Image Photo Credits: Emily Contois and Katherine Hysmith, 2018 

How I Pack for Summer Academic Conferences

Friends have asked me for this for years, so here goes: a post on how I pack light for summer academic conferences!

Note: this is not the post where I defend fashion within professional academic contexts as a feminist issue, though I have lots of thoughts on said topic.

I leave for the 2018 AFHVS/ASFS Conference tomorrow (yay!), so here I present my three outfits for attending sessions and four outfits for casual receptions and sightseeing—though there are many more combos to be had here!

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Beyond these separates, I packed pajamas, a top and bottom for working out, underthings, makeup, and toiletries—all in my fav weekender bag, with space leftover to bring a few new books home!

A few tips:

  • I have good luck with A-line or tube-shaped skirts in stretchy fabrics. They pack tiny, don’t wrinkle, mix and match a million ways, and keep your legs out and cool, if your conference is somewhere toasty.
  • Wear a cardigan/sweater and a scarf/wrap on the plane, so you’ve got layers if you need them during the conference without taking up space in your bag.
  • Choose a few pieces in a base, coordinating color like black, white, grey—you get the idea. That’ll make it a bit easier to mix and match.
  • Use jewelry, belts, and/or scarves to accessorize and make similar combinations look quite different, so you can squeeze more looks out of just a few pieces.
  • Find a pair of flats you love that are crazy cute and comfy and just wear them with everything. (Even then, pack blister bandages. Always.) That said, pack a pair of sneakers so you can go for walks and/or exercise, if you want to.
  • Embrace leggings as pants. They’re way more comfy for traveling in, and if you need to pack them, they take up hardly any space.
  • Roll everything for packing so it takes less space. Note: This requires fabrics that are wrinkle-resistant. That’s often a good thing anyway, y’all.

Just for fun, here are some of my past conference adventures in packing light: AAHM 2017 in Nashville on the left, and ASFS 2017 in Los Angeles on the right.

And here’s my greatest challenge to date, two weeks in Europe (including a fabulous history of nutrition conference in Venice) all packed into a regular-sized backpack and a tote bag:

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Do you have tips to share too? Happy packing and conferencing, y’all!


All photo credits: Emily Contois 

Presenting My Students’ Final Project: Defining American Food

This spring I’m co-teaching Food in American Society and Culture with Professor Richard Meckel for the second time. We’re joined by a new group of eighteen students from various concentrations, years of study, and areas of the country and world—unified by a common interest to study food seriously, critically, and with all of our senses. In addition to a number of classic food studies questions (which you can peruse in our course bibliography), we also asked:

How do we define American food and how does food define Americans?

This is a complex, contradictory, perhaps impossible, and notably polemic question. For example, our student, Charlotte Senders describes efforts to define American food as “a frustrating pleasure in attempting to uncover what it is exactly that’s in that great American melting pot,” while our student Dorinda Fong writes, “American food in a sense is undefinable, in the same way something is priceless, not meaning that it has no price but that it’s simply not possible to pinpoint a specific one.” Embracing this complexity, our student Solina Powell writes of American food: “Its definition is fluid and changes not only for individuals of different identities, but transforms as those individuals’ own identities develop over time.”

The first time we taught this course (read more here), our final class project examining this question was comprised of essays that drew from our class Pinterest board, on which students posted throughout the semester examples of “American” foods, ingredients, techniques, restaurants, personae, characteristics, values, problems, and contradictions. (Check out the final result here.)

This year, we tried something a little different. Students could choose one of two essay options to conduct, write, revise, and include on our class blog.

In the first, students wrote a restaurant review that reflected upon how the chosen establishment defined American food in whole or in part through elements like its menu, flavors, techniques, chef/cook and staff, décor, service, and mission.

Using food studies scholar Warren Belasco’s culinary triangle of identity, convenience, and responsibility as a framework, Halle Katz reviewed By CHLOE., considering how the vegan chain endeavors to redefine American fast food. Praveen Srinivasan reviewed his favorite Providence restaurant, Apsara Palace, arguing that the restaurant’s approach to fusion cuisine—marked by the coexistence of aspects like jasmine tea and Justin Bieber—defines American food more broadly. Seeking to understand the popularity of the Cheesecake Factory, Audrea Holt argued that its portion sizes, abundant choices, and middle class attractiveness exemplify American cuisine.

Jacqueline Doan reviewed Emporium Pies in Dallas, considering how its “American” blend of modern and traditional elements is deeply influenced by conventional gender roles, from the menu to the decor to the shop’s marketing. Miranda Villanueva dined at The Beef Barn in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, which prompted her to examine the assumptions of whiteness that undergird typical definitions of “all-American” food as “steaks, fries, and apple pies,” despite how delicious she found them at the restaurant.

Reviewing her morning coffee at Blue State, Julia Christensen explored how the shop operationalizes patriotic consumer citizenship, as it synthesizes the personal, local, global, and political on its menu, in its decor, and through its mission. Considering the Dominican menu at D’Canela Cafeteria in Providence,Jesse Beller asserted that the infectious joy, abundance, and sense of home resonating on the menu, in the kitchen, and throughout the unassuming restaurant represent the best of American food.

In a second option, students conducted an interview with a person of their choosing in which they discussed views, perceptions, and definitions of American food.

Accompanied by beautiful black and white photographs of her family, Solina Powell interviewed her mother, asserting from her title onward that immigrant identity is “the key ingredient to American food.” Curious to explore the role of her Asian-American heritage, Dorinda Fong interviewed her father, arguing in the end, “The line between distinctly American food, hybrid/fusion food, and Americanized ethnic food is simultaneously extremely fine and incredibly blurry.” Cynthia Kyin interviewed her mother on her experience as a Filipino immigrant, concluding, “The ability to afford food and to be full encapsulated America as an ideal for my mom. It was a glimpse into the larger picture of why she came to America. This experience is also reflected in the stories of many other immigrants,” such as those we read together in Hasia Diner’s Hungering for America.

In her powerfully titled interview, “Working Hard and Hardly Cooking,” Desiree Acevedo argued that American labor practices—particularly working class conditions such as low wages, long commutes, and holding multiple jobs—spawned the often derided American food values of convenience, cost, and accessibility. Also investigating convenience, Marina Hyson argued in her interview that convenience forms a bridge between two halves of American food culture that simultaneously embrace innovative, fusion flavors and the simple blandness of processed foods.

Erin Miller spoke with her grandmother, who despite living in Puerto Rico, India, and China, defines American food as the midwestern fare she grew up eating—”hamburgers, cheese, and potatoes”—but with a deep respect for the “good food” of other countries. In an interview with her father, a nutritional epidemiologist, Talia Curhan discussed how the abundant choices that define American cuisine can be both liberating and overwhelming for eaters.

Nicholas Moreno scored an interview with television chef, restaurateur, and author, Michael Symon, who defined American food by its multiculturalism, abundant natural resources, and the consumerist quest for specific and often novel foods, asserting that American food will “just keep getting better and better.” Waylon Jin interviewed Philadelphia restauranteur Marty Grim, concluding that globalization, commercialization, and a diversity of perspectives have most influenced American food, and that “the whole of American cuisine is felt and is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Owen Parr interviewed a friend—who happens to be a recent Brown alumna and food studies student—discussing together the dynamics of power inherent in defining American food and its ongoing processes of borrowing, adapting, appropriating, and reimagining cuisine. In an interview with her roommate, Charlotte Senders explored: “the ways that American values might (or might not) map onto the ways we grow, produce, and distribute food. Perhaps we are what we eat, but we are most definitely also where what we eat comes from, and how it was produced.”

I hope you enjoy reading these talented students’ full essays on our class blog to see how they each tackled the complicated question of defining American food.

9 Writing Productivity Tips from Food Historian, Ken Albala

With several fellow writers at Brown University, I sat down to discuss writing productivity advice with Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, who has authored or edited 25 books in the last 16 years. With a publishing career spanning academic monographs, encyclopedias, edited volumes, and cookbooks—as well as articles, chapters, essays, public writing, and dozens of media appearances on television, radio, podcasts, and in print—we can all learn a thing or two from what has worked well for this prolific writer:

1. Let projects choose you that you genuinely enjoy.

Ken’s single greatest piece of advice is to choose a field of study in which you’re “completely driven by intellectual curiosity. You have to love what you’re doing and want to spend time on it.” As a food studies scholar, Ken shares that he loves cooking, shopping for food, and thinks about food all day. He gets to use that energy when he writes: “My research gives me somewhere to put all that.”

Similarly, Ken recommends working on research and writing projects that you truly enjoy. Then you’re less likely to procrastinate or to get (or feel) blocked. “It’s your attitude,” Ken says. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, it’ll be drudgery. Don’t turn your writing into a chore. Think of it as your reward, as in ‘I get to write!’ Then, it’s not an effort at all.” Such a perspective shapes the writing process, as well as the final result. “Don’t write from a sense of having to,” warns Ken. “Then the writing has no verve to it. A lot of very serious academic writing is tortuous that way.”

2. Plan out your writing projects. Balance them with teaching and service.

Ken uses a hand-drawn calendar, charted out three or four months at a time, setting incremental goals and tracking his daily word count. To balance writing with teaching and grading, Ken recommends “grading in a deluge,” such as assigning longer mid-term and final papers, rather than grading numerous, smaller assignments throughout the term.

3. Write quickly.

Although perhaps not a feasible goal for all writers, Ken writes at a rapid pace. He wrote his dissertation (which would become his first book, Eating Right in the Renaissance) in about a month. He wrote his most recent book, Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession, at a one-week writing retreat. Ken’s approach to writing ensures his speed, which he describes as “throwing thunder bolts…I write the same way I throw pottery and the way I cook—I throw it all out there.” In order to stay in the writing zone, Ken adds footnotes after he completes the writing itself.

4. Don’t belabor sentence-level revisions.

Ken says, “I don’t immediately revise and belabor every sentence. Get the ideas there first.” He explains his approach with a pottery metaphor: “If you poke at it too much, the clay won’t hold. Your writing won’t either.” Ken also writes in much the same stye and voice as he speaks. “I hate jargon and technical obscurity, which helps with writing this way” he says.

5. Research slowly (and by hand).

Although Ken writes very quickly, he researches for “as long as it takes.” He may have written Noodle Soup in a week, but he researched it everyday for three years. While he does not outline chapters, Ken sketches a chapter map. He takes careful notes by hand throughout the research process, arguing, “The physical writing out of the sentence burns it into your head,” paving the way for your own writing later.

6. Trust in the process of writing.

In defense of not outlining or doing lots of writing pre-work, Ken repeats the advice of one of his college creative writing instructors: “The ideas come in the process of writing.” Writing for long stretches during the day, Ken remarks, “You get in the zone. You forget time and space. Everything goes away. I don’t like to stop. I like to keep the kettle boiling.”

7. Be open to saying yes, even to happy accidents.

Ken has never said no to a project. “If I’m doing it,” he says, I’m doing it because I want to.” He recommends such an approach to others too: “If it’s fun, you might as well do it.” At the same time, Ken assures, “It’s fine to write things and not publish them.”

8. Write with confidence. Don’t let negative reviews affect you.

Ken shares, “Everyone has self doubt: Is this any good? Will anyone like this? You ignore that.” For dealing with, and moving on from, negative or unhelpful reviews—a constant in any academic’s writing life—Ken says, “Sometimes you ignore the reviews too. Convince yourself that person is a moron and keep going.”

9. Take time to rest and relax.

Despite the pressure for academics to work all the time, Ken never writes in the evening and takes weekends off. “Go home,” he says. “Leave the work there. You need a place away from it.”

Top photo credit: Emily Contois, 2018 

A Bit from the Dissertation: Acknowledgements + Abstract

Writing a dissertation can certainly be reduced to “an academic exercise,” but I was fortunate to experience it as a stimulating and satisfying intellectual process, thanks to the contributions of a great number of people.

To begin, I wrote an honors thesis at the University of Oklahoma on the language of the dieting industry as a way to make sense of myself and my world. And so my thanks begin with Julia Ehrhardt for her guidance of that first attempt to understand the intersections of food, bodies, and health in media like chain restaurant diet menus, women’s magazines, and diet books. I also thank her for her decade of support since then.

I returned to this project years later, while studying in the Boston University Gastronomy Program with Rachel Black. My thanks to her and to Warren Belasco and Carole Counihan—who Rachel rightly and fondly referred to as the grandfather and grandmother of food studies—for guiding my development into a food studies scholar. Warren and Carole served as the advisor and reader for my graduate thesis, which deepened my study of American diet culture and expanded it to focus specifically on masculinities. They remain unending sources of encouragement and advice. I am deeply grateful for them.

At Brown University, a supportive, responsive, and brilliant committee of American Studies faculty members guided my work from very early on during my time on campus. A trio of historians, they richly transformed my methodological approach for studying the present.

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With Deborah Weinstein, I began my studies in the history of medicine and read a field in women’s history and gender and sexuality studies, which provided the theoretical framework for my dissertation. A beautifully consistent and critical reader of my work, she challenged me in all the right ways—and provided very useful advice on other topics as well, like wearing comfortable shoes during campus visits, the importance of which cannot be underestimated!

With Richard Meckel, I read a combined field addressing both food studies and the histories of medicine and public health, working to identify the points of connection between them. In addition to my research, he supported me as a teacher. Together we twice co-taught, “Food in American Society and Culture,” a most rewarding experience that would not have been possible without him.

With my dissertation director Susan Smulyan, I read a field in twentieth-century cultural history through the lens of consumption, popular culture, and media studies. Starting this reading birthed the expansion of my project from one focused on commercial diet programs and the representation of identity to one that addressed how the food, advertising, and media industries have constructed masculinities through food, cooking, and dieting in the twenty-first-century United States. Susan enthusiastically supported my ideas and her critical feedback guided the project at multiple key moments. Far beyond pushing my words on the page, she also facilitated my first foray into archival research and my first return trip to my birth country of Australia to present at a conference. She has helped to shape not only my scholarship, but also my life.

In addition to my committee, I thank Matthew Guterl, who championed my work and me from my first semester in the PhD program. I also thank Jeff Cabral, our department manager, whose aplomb and unfailing good humor fueled the logistics of my traveling to various conferences to present this research, processing teaching grants for my classes, and handling the financial details involved with the Food Studies at Brown Speaker Series.

I am also grateful for the members of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS). Sharing my research at the annual conference over the last six years—experiences always met with enthusiastic energy and thoughtful questions—affirmed my confidence at moments when I needed it. After I defended my dissertation, current ASFS President Krishnendu Ray referred to me as “a pillar for food studies.” I can only hope that my career lives up to such kind words.

I also thank the five endlessly talented and always kind women who make up my PhD cohort—Alyssa Anderson, Felicia Bevel, Kate Duffy, Suzanne Enzerink, and Diza Rule—who I made this journey with: reading, writing, reading more, writing more, tea parties, dinners, drinks, puppy sitting, and party hats all round, even if I sometimes refused to wear them on my head.

As silly as it may sound, I am also thankful for my dog Raven, a rescue pup who taught me much about trust, love, and resilience and who snuggled beside me as I typed every word of my manuscript.

I also thank my family: my sister, my father, and especially my mother, who has quite literally read every word I have ever written. She and I recently discussed how we are a family without a distinct ethnic entity, certainly not one to be observed or felt in our family food culture, something I’ve often pondered as a food scholar. She proposed that perhaps what my grandparents passed on to us was an identity centered on the open and joyful exchange of ideas, the pursuit of learning, and a genuine passion for creating and sharing knowledge. Watching over us from their final place of rest, they would delight—I think and hope—in me embarking upon a life in the academy.

Lastly, I thank my husband, who has been present for every step of my academic journey, from the moment we first locked eyes in a Latin translation course during my first weeks of college. He has moved across the country three separate times for me to complete the various stages of my graduate education. I recognize how lucky I am and how much he has given of himself and his career to support my dreams. I may never be able to thank him enough, but I will try, everyday, for the rest of our forever.

Abstract

The Dudification of Diet: Food Masculinities in Twenty-First-Century America examines how the food, advertising, and media industries have constructed masculinities through food in the twenty-first-century United States, particularly when attempting to create male consumers for products socially perceived as feminine. Employing the tools of critical discourse analysis to examine food, dieting, and cooking, I consider a diverse array of media texts—including advertising campaigns, marketing trade press, magazines, newspapers, industry reports, restaurants, menus, food criticism, blogs, and social media. Case studies include diet sodas (Coke Zero and Dr. Pepper Ten), yogurts (Oikos Triple Zero and Powerful Yogurt), weight loss programs (primarily Weight Watchers), and food television (namely Food Network star, Guy Fieri).

More than just companies jockeying for market share, these food phenomena “for men” marked a moment of heightened gender anxiety and the rise of a new gender discourse—dude masculinity. Partly created by the food marketing industry, dude masculinity sought to create socially acceptable routes into and through the feminized terrain of food and the body. As a gender discourse, it celebrates the “average guy,” while remaining complicit in hegemonic masculinity’s overall structure of social inequality.

Beyond gender performance, dude masculinity articulates apprehension for how consumption reconfigures notions of citizenship, bodily surveillance, and nationhood. Dude masculinity tells a larger story of the United States’ very recent past, one rooted in perceived social chaos, concerned with terrorism, border control, immigration, same-sex marriage, race relations, new media, and neoliberalism. Despite decades of resistance and progress toward gender equality, these recent social shifts have resulted in the reactionary shoring up of gendered categories, a complex and contradictory sociocultural process that I read through dude masculinity, food, and the body.

Previous scholarship has treated these areas of culture separately and considered food and gender largely in terms of femininity, domesticity, and care work. I synthesize feminist studies of media, food, and the body and apply them to masculinities, centering discussions of power. Bridging theory and practice, this dissertation also informs how entities like advertising campaigns, food packaging design, public health programs, and weight loss studies can rewrite gender scripts to promote equality and justice.

Canned Food History with Anna Zeide + Some Oklahoma Thoughts

Four years ago when we were both graduate students, Anna Zeide and I exchanged emails based on our mutual interest in food history, a common ground easy for us to discover despite being on campuses across the country from one another because we both had research blogs. So that’s one moral of this story, one I’ve said many times before: if you’re an academic, buy your domain name and share a bit about yourself and your work. Making new, smart friends is another amazing benefit of being a public scholar.

Fast forward to January of this year when I saw an announcement that Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry was soon to be published—and by none other than Anna Zeide. A quick search through my email confirmed, yes! I know this fabulous person! And a Google search revealed that Anna is now Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University, just about an hour’s drive from the University of Tulsa where I’m thrilled to be joining the faculty this fall in Media Studies. I’m already dreaming of our potential collaborations.

I share this story because you never know how a random email can blossom into something big and beautiful—to start, a fun conversation with Anna on Nursing Clio about her fab new book.

I’ve also been thinking lately about all that had to happen for me to end up in Oklahoma in the first place as an undergraduate. My college search was perhaps foolishly guided by my desire to minor in ballet. I’d decided to go to college instead of joining a company, but I still wanted to dance and in some official capacity.

I’d identified the University of Oregon as where I wanted to go. I was admitted early. My family and I traveled to campus for “Duck Preview.” It was the first time we’d flown on a plane together since moving to the United States from Australia when I was four years old. It was a big deal. The dorm rooms were shockingly tiny, but everything else had us hooked. This was where I was going for college. We were going to be Ducks, even though my mom worried what derogatory rhymes the opposing team might chant.

Then, months passed without the scholarship letter we were depending on. Despite college savings, paying out of state tuition would be impossible. And 18-year-old me really wanted to get out of Montana.

Then, a miracle of sorts happened.

A postcard arrived in the mail…from the University of Oklahoma.

I’m sure we still have it somewhere. An unassuming little card that changed my life. It said it wasn’t too late. If I marked the University of Oklahoma first on my National Merit ranking, I was guaranteed four years of support.

I’d never thought of Oklahoma, beyond the musical, which I’d seen dozens of times. (The Dream Ballet is incredible, until it’s terrifying). My Montana friends, as in love with mountains as I was (and am), gave me confused looks. “Oklahoma? But it’s flat there.” Nevertheless, the university website boasted one of the top ballet programs in the country, a stellar honors college, and an expansive set of majors and minors to choose from. The scholarship ended up coming through from Oregon, but by then, I’d fallen for OU. I took the risk and said yes. Without having ever set foot on the campus, in the state, heck, even in the region.

Things worked out. I was fortunate to have a truly transformative college experience, one that fuels my desire to work in higher education for the rest of my life. After those four years in Oklahoma, I spent four years in the San Francisco Bay Area, two years in Boston, and five years in Providence. Now, by the strange magic that is the academic job market, I’m returning to Oklahoma.

So, yes, when the PR team at the University of Tulsa asked me what brought me to TU, I had to say, I think part of it might be fate!

Garrett Broad Q&A on More Than Just Food: Food Justice & Community Change

I recently had the chance to chat with Garrett Broad, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, about his 2016 book, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. Broad writes that the food justice movement emerged as a response to not only the injustice of the industrial food system, but also that of the alternative food movement, which all too often does little to address racial and economic exploitation in its approach to promoting “good food.”

Although food justice employs some of the same strategies as alternative food—community and school gardens, produce markets, nutrition education—these efforts are situated within more expansive social change efforts led by and for low-income communities of color. These are the communities most profoundly affected by the inequalities embedded within our current system of food production, distribution, consumption, and waste management. Embracing the important premise of the movement, Broad set out to critically examine how food justice actually functions: its limitations and contradictions, as well as its strengths and potential for truly changing the food system.

Read our conversation in my latest for Nursing Clio.

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2018

Q&A with Janis Thiessen, Snacks: A Canadian Food History

I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of my long time Twitter buddies, Janis Thiessen, Associate Professor of History and Associate Director of the Oral History Center at the University of Winnipeg, about her new book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History.

I’ve never had the chance to taste many of the salty and sweet treats Snacks covers, though we can agree that dill pickle potato chips are delightful. There’s no wonder why they’re Janis’ favorite snack food. Tangy crunchiness aside, I was drawn to Janis’ enthusiastic study, most notably for how it centers the perspectives of labor, producers, and small, independent companies within the more common narrative of the global, corporate, industrialized food system.

My most recent contribution to Nursing Clio captures our conversation about the history of snacks in Canada and what it reveals about both food production and consumption. I hope you’ll read it—and Janis and I would love to hear your thoughts on snacks. 

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2017

Writing on Retro Microwave Cookbooks (& more!) for Nursing Clio

I’m realizing that I never formally announced on the blog some big and happy news: I’m now a regular contributing writer at Nursing Clio!

A peer-reviewed, open access, collaborative blog project, Nursing Clio publishes histories meant to inform present day events and debates, very often at the intersection of medicine, gender, and sexuality, asserting “the personal is historical.” For me, it’s a been an amazingly supportive and generative space to continue my writing on the histories of food, nutrition, health, bodies, and gender. I hope you’ll read my work there and that of many other fascinating scholars, who are taking the extra (and as you know I think very important) step of making their academic work publicly accessible.

So far, I’ve written on Helen Atwater (a figure in the history of nutrition, domestic science, and home economics often overshadowed by her famous father, Wilbur Olin Atwater) and the cultural politics of male weight loss, drawing from my dissertation research. Yesterday my newest essay was published, “Microwave Cookbooks: Technology, Convenience & Dining Alone,” which explores a small corpus of retro microwave cookbooks from the 1970s and 1980s, considering them alongside the mug meal and mug cake trends of recent years.

I hope you’ll read it, and I’d love to hear what you think!

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2017

Asking “What is American food?” with My Students

In the course I co-teach, “Food in American Society and Culture,” we ask and work to answer the polemic, complex, and contradictory question, “How do we define American food and how does food define Americans?”

Toss out the this question to just about any audience and you’ll get a slew of responses. You’re sure to hear at least one person scoff that the United States has no food culture. Someone else might pipe up that a culinary tradition like barbecue is a unique American cultural food product, one that communicates a multiethnic history and both local and regional identity. Others will insist that the food traditions of New England form the culinary roots of American cuisine. Others will point to McDonald’s and similar fast food joints known for selling burgers and fries as quintessentially American in taste, presentation, and capitalistic expansionism. Still others will argue that the United States is a “melting pot” of cuisines brought by old and new immigrants. Perhaps our food culture has been on a low simmer for hundreds of years, ensuring that all the food here in some way represents, absorbs, and communicates an “American” food culture.

Our students grappled with these various possibilities over the course of the spring 2017 semester, resulting in a series of essays published on our class blog in which students took unique approaches to defining American food.

Many of their essays emphasize how the history of immigration to the United States defined our food culture, particularly the proliferation of hybridized and fusion cuisines and dishes. Such foods incite complex discussions about community engagement, empowerment, and collaboration, as well as power, appropriation, and food justice.

Students also identified American food culture as one that is constantly reinventing itself and adapting. They see American food rooted in qualities like freedom, abundance, and limitlessness, as well as the forces of mass consumption, the latest food trends, and food media and marketing.

Students both indicted and celebrated American food culture for the ways it has embraced convenience and indulgence. Students also analyzed the contradictions inherent to American food culture, such as the commingling of abundance, hunger, and obesity; the oppositional relationship between freedom and restriction; and the preoccupation with both nutrition and decadent eating. Students analyzed what, how, when, where, and with whom we eat—and how it represents the complexity of “American food,” as well as “America” and “American.”

We’re excited to teach this course again in spring 2018, so I’m thinking of new ways to have students explore these questions of identity and a new public humanities class project to go along with it. We’ll look forward to sharing the results here in the coming months!

Till then, you can read all about our spring 2017 class, check out our course reading list, and read the students’ essays.

Top Image Credit: Emily Contois

Author Q&A with Andrew Ruis, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States

School food is often framed as a “food fight” between a host of contenders: federal and state governments, policy advocates, public health officials, the food industry, teachers, parents, and children themselves. In his fascinating, new book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States—out this July from Rutgers University Press in their Critical Issues in Health and Medicine series—Andrew Ruis reminds us that school food debates stretch back more than a century.

Andrew is a researcher in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and a fellow in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—and he was kind enough to chat with me over email about his new book.

Emily: To start, how did you come to this project? What got you interested in school lunch?

Andrew: School meal programs, at a fundamental level, are public health programs, and they emerged in the United States in response to growing concerns about the health and well being of poor children. The National School Lunch Program, which began in 1947 and continues today, is the longest-running public health program for children in U.S. history. Yet when I began work on this project about 10 years ago, historians of medicine and public health were paying very little attention to issues of food, diet, and nutrition. And school meals, though they have become a somewhat mundane feature of modern schooling, are extraordinarily complex systems. I knew that at some point in the past, they were revolutionary, and I wanted to know more about how they became an integral part of so many children’s lives.

E: I like the title of your book, Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat, especially after I read the introduction, where you explain: “Health and education authorities had envisioned a national program in which children would eat to learn but also learn to eat, yet they managed to secure only the former” (p. 10). How did you come to this pithy summation of the origins of school lunch programs?

A: School meal programs first began in the United States in part because so many teachers recognized that hungry, malnourished children could not fully benefit from schooling. They also connected many of the problems exhibited by schoolchildren—inattentiveness, misbehavior, poor academic performance, lethargy, and so on—to a lack of sufficient (or sufficiently nourishing) food. So in that sense, early meal programs were feeding children so that they could learn. But most advocates also recognized that supplemental feeding without nutrition education, coordinated health and social work, and other measures was at best a band-aid, because children needed to eat well outside of school as well. Thus, it wasn’t enough for students to eat to learn, they also had to learn to eat, so that they would develop and maintain good nutrition well after leaving school.

SchoolLunchPoster

World War II Poster, 1942 – 1945, cropped. (Source: National Archives)

E: Your book tells the longer history of school lunch, in the decades before the passage of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. And your key case studies are telling local, municipal stories rather than the federal ones you emphasize in later chapters. I so appreciated the scale of this history. You calculated that at least 46 cities already operated regular lunch programs in at least some of their schools by 1913. Figuring that out must have required an intensive research process. What archival work did you undertake in order to tell this complex set of local histories?

A: The research for this project was extremely difficult, due in part to the fact that no early meal programs kept consistent records and in part to the fact that what records were kept were often scattered, destroyed, or lost. School board and superintendent reports provided something of a backbone, local newspapers were a good source of anecdotes and lived experience, and some private organizations (e.g., women’s clubs, philanthropic groups, etc.) kept records as well. But the process was very much one of collecting disperate pebbles from which I might be able to build a small hill. But the book was also shaped by what I could find. I was lucky in that New York City and Chicago both had fairly good records, and the two cities—representing the two largest school districts in the country—happened to provide an excellent contrast in approaches and concerns. However, I really wanted to write about southern meal programs, given how important the southern states were to the passing of the National School Lunch Act, but I just couldn’t find enough material to build a case study around a southern city or state. Time and again, I would contact or visit a collection only to find that their earliest school lunch materials dated to the mid- or late-1930s, which was far too late for understanding how local programs began.

E: You and I have been thinking a lot about the multi-disciplinary intersection of the histories of medicine and nutrition with food studies and food history. Your book shines well in this space, as it examines hallmark challenges of public health and social medicine: about the divides between public, governmental intervention and the private rights and responsibilities of individuals. Food studies and food history folks will love this book not only for its historical assessment of school lunch programs and policies, but also for the culinary details you include. For example, my favorite chapter is on the lunch programs in rural, one-room schoolhouses in the upper Midwest. You write of beans cooked on an outdoor stove, potatoes baked in the ash pan of the sole indoor stove that heated the school, and meals heated up via the “pint-jar method:” individual servings placed in jars in a rack and heated on the stove in a boiler with a little water. How do you think about the intersection(s) of the histories of medicine and nutrition with food studies and food history, in this book and in your ongoing research agenda?

 A: I was trained as a historian of medicine, but this book benefited substantially from work in food studies and history, particularly work on immigrant food cultures and changes in American foodscapes from the late-19th century to the Second World War. Yet I have always been surprised by how little overlap there is between the history of medicine and the history of food, diet, and nutrition. That is starting to change, but I think there are a few key intersections where considerably more work could be done. One area is in the history of understandings of nutrition or of what it meant for a food/diet/cooking technique/etc. to be healthful. That is, of course, partly about medico-scientific theory, but it is also about food traditions and cultures and the ways in which different people at different times understood health and well-being with respect to food. Another area where more fruitful overlap could yield critical scholarship is in the cotemporal rise of big food, big pharma, and big science. If there are any grad students reading this who are looking for a project, contact me. I’ve got a list of possible topics as long as my arm!

 E: That’s great news! Beyond these intriguing and important intersections—and the rich potential for more research in this area—I also wanted to discuss how you emphasize the complex nature of nutrition knowledge itself, which you argue is a “fundamentally social process,” rooted in variable understandings of “which foods are healthful (or not), what constitutes a meal, how foods should be prepared and consumed, and even what counts as ‘food’” (p. 6). You further assert these “are not empirical questions to be answered in labs or clinics but social questions continually addressed through the combination of scientific, cultural, and political—but also historical—processes” (p. 6). How does this understanding of nutrition as socially constructed and deeply historical guide your work? How do you hope such a perspective might shape other scholarship related to nutrition?

A: An important realization I came to in researching and writing this book was that at no point in this period (and I would extend this assertion to the present, though with perhaps a little less confidence) was there a stable, consistent sense of what it meant to be well nourished. Nutrition is an extraordinarily complex science and a positively Gordian social construct (without the Alexandrian solution)—it’s one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating as a historical topic! But at the same time, the teachers and social workers and others who saw hungry and malnourished kids on a daily basis had no doubts about the presence of serious nutritional problems. So on one hand, you have undeniable evidence that a lot of kids needed more and better food, but on the other, it was impossible to define with any precision how such kids should be identified and what the best way to solve the problem was. And it’s the discussions of the problem and possible solutions that really reveal how people were thinking about food, nutrition, and health, and those discussions happened both in professional circles—e.g., in medical journals and scientific reports—but also in schools and newspapers and other public venues. I think a lot of the best work on the history of nutrition really engages with both.

Lunch Carts

Lunch carts on Broad Street, New York City, c. 1906. Note the lunchroom on the second floor of the building in the background. (Source: Library of Congress, LC–D4–19577)

E: I couldn’t agree more. Similarly, I so appreciate that you provide rich details about what students ate as part of school lunch programs, but also about what students ate when school lunch program weren’t in place in urban schools: pickles, pies, donuts, pretzels, and candy, purchased at nearby restaurants, corner stores, bakeries, and street vendors. I love how you write, “To the urban worker or schoolchild, street foods offered seemingly endless variety, exceptionally low prices, and a hot meal even away from home. But to the nutritionist or health officer, street foods—often adulterated, contaminated, and lacking in nutrients—were a substantial risk to health” (p. 30). You write very convincingly about how meal programs (then and now!) face the challenge of providing nutritious, tasty food that children will eat and enjoy, alongside fiscal restraints and kinks in supply chains. How do you situate school food historically, and maybe now as well, within this broader foodscape and these systemic issues?

A: School meals were developing at about the same time as many other innovations in the history of food, including lunch carts, commercial canning, pre-prepared meals, and so forth. In large part, that is because all of those innovations were responses to larger social forces. Industrialization, for example, led to large numbers of workers eating a mid-day meal away from home, necessitating whole new ways of thinking about what, where, and how to buy, prepare, and eat food. And yet food is also deeply personal and cultural—there are few choices so difficult to regulate as the choice of what to ingest, and that goes for children as well. Thus, school meal programs were (and in many cases still are) often in competition with other dining options. Selling food to children is enormously lucrative—as it was a hundred years ago—and whenever there’s a lot of money involved, there will be those who fight to gain access to consumers. Indeed, this tension underlies much of what I write about in the book.

E: Yes! With all these issues at play, school food is often a hot topic today. I’d love to get your historically informed take on two recent big stories on school lunch programs. The first is the many articles and posts (rightfully) critiquing lunch shaming, that is, giving children an alternative lunch, like a cheese sandwich, if they have an unpaid lunch bill. A 2014 Department of Agriculture report found that such practices are widespread and common practice in nearly half of all school districts. From your research in lunch programs across the country, are there historical precedents for these sorts of practices or the thinking that lies beneath them?

A: The resurgence in lunch shaming is truly appalling, and I cannot fathom why any human being would do such a thing to a child. While there is, of course, a long history of such practices, they were not as common in the past, largely because early lunch programs were mostly philanthropic in nature. In fact, most cities quickly moved to a ticket or token system, so that poor children receiving lunches paid for by charitable donations and children who paid for their lunches with their own pennies would all “pay” for their actual lunch using a chit. While there was some support for free meals for all students, most advocates argued that children who could afford to pay should pay, which reflected larger Progressive views about social order and capitalism. Yet they also worried about the shame poor children would feel about accepting handouts, and so the ticket or token system was a way to construct meal programs around financial transactions but also preserve the dignity of all children.

School-Lunch-at-PS-40-1919

School Lunch at PS 40 in New York City in 1919. (Source: NYPL/Manuscripts and Archives Division)

E: Lastly, it was recently announced that New York City is moving to a universal lunch program in their public schools, feeding all 1.1 million children free lunches, a policy move that other food scholars—notably Janet Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America—have supported and advocated for. In your book, you write quite convincingly that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was “in many ways the legislation that early reformers hoped for, but failed to enact” (p. 164). Given the research you did on early school lunch programs, particularly in New York City, how do you think those early reformers would react to this new and exciting development? And what are the historical lessons that New York City officials should keep in mind as they implement this expansion in school lunch programming?

A: It’s a huge move. New York City already provides universal free breakfasts, but the lunch program is (I believe) quite a bit bigger. And yes, it’s the kind of thing that many early advocates hoped for, in that it is a clear sign that the state is taking responsibility for the health of schoolchildren. In many ways, this is logistically a smaller step than it sounds, as so many schools in New York City already qualified for community eligibility. But in the policy arena, it will make the city something of a bellwether, and people will be watching carefully for evidence of both successes and failures. As far as lessons go, the history of school meals suggests that the most successful programs: provided meals that were warm, fresh, and culturally appropriate; worked hard to generate community buy-in and engage both the children themselves and their parents; and made the lunch not just a meal but an integral part of the eductional program. This is something a lot more schools have revived—including many schools in New York City—and it promises to make school meal programs much more effective, as effective as the reformers of a hundred years ago knew they could be.


Andrew Ruis’ Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States is available in paperback, hardcover, and as an eBook from:

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Eating Disorders, Food Studies & Me

Over the last decade, I’ve researched dieting and weight loss in American culture, but I’ve rarely written about the personal histories that led me to this topic, to study food and bodies from the viewpoint of anxiety and contradiction.

I tell part of my story in a review essay, “Food Culture at the Margins of Consumption: Two New Books on Eating Disorders,” published in the fall 2017 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Cultures, which considers Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik’s From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia alongside Karen Eli and Stanley Ulijaszek’s edited volume, Obesity, Eating Disorders, and the Media. The essay opens with a more personal framing, which I’ve excerpted here:

Every year growing up, my grandmother labored in the kitchen alongside my mother to cook our Thanksgiving meal, but when she joined us around the table, she never enjoyed the bounty spread before us. Instead, she ate a Lean Cuisine meal—piping-hot from the microwave, thin wisps of steam escaping from an anemically shallow, black plastic dish. From an early age, I understood that food was a complex source of joy and conflict, freedom and control, pleasure and shame. 

To be clear, my grandmother was an incredible woman, an esteemed geologist invited at one time to run the department at Vassar College. She chose instead a life in “the big sky state” of Montana, where she returned to university for additional training, spending much of her career teaching high school mathematics. She was a voracious global traveler, an exacting presence, a brilliant mind, elegantly fashionable, and exceedingly thin.

When we had my senior portrait photos taken in high school, my mother gasped at the results. As you can see in the photo above, it turns out I look a lot like my grandmother when she was young. I resemble her in a lot of ways, including her struggles with food.

On an episode of the Food Psych Podcast with Christy Harrison (out today!), we talk about what I’ve lived and learned, researched and discovered about diet culture. We discuss the history of dieting in America, my work on men and Weight Watchers (and dude food), the role of guilt in American eating, the history of nutrition science, and so much more.

We start, however, by talking about my own relationship with food, where it’s been, how it’s changed, and how the academic work of analyzing the dieting industry was a key part of my recovery.

FullSizeRender-7

Me, dancing, 2002

The many years I spent seriously training in classical ballet were wonderful, but conflicted. Dancing was the first great love of my life, but also a difficult experience, in which my body was viewed as one that deviated from the discipline’s aesthetic norms. Ballet wasn’t the only reason for the eating disorder and years of disordered eating that shaped my youth and young womanhood, but it is all part of how I came to the work of studying bodies and identities, dieting and weight loss more generally, food and health ideals, culture and media.

This is just one way of starting a critical conversation about food, or as I wrote in Gastronomica:

My experiences and revelations are far from unique. Food anxiety is about as American as apple pie. Scholars and writers from Harvey Levenstein to Michael Pollan declare the current state of American food as “our national eating disorder.” What then can we learn about “our” food culture from studying at the margins of consumption?

I’ve learned much from studying dieting and the borders where it blurs into disordered eating, through a sort of inverted foodways approach: analyzing the public faces of commercial diet programs so to illuminate American identities, not through what we eat, but through what we aspire so vehemently to limit and avoid.

I hope you’ll listen to and enjoy the podcast, as well as Food Psych Podcast’s many other great episodes.


Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2016; my grandparents at a formal dance in the 1940s 

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