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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.

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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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Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution

“Gender, race, and class compose the holy trinity of feminist studies, or so we used to joke,” wrote Eileen Boris in 2013 in the Journal of Women’s History. “However,” she continued, “Class remains evoked and assumed rather than explicated, often folded into other identities and processes, and rarely addressed as the central concern.”

Food studies scholars are reliably quick to draw upon Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the formation of taste and status in the structuring of social hierarchy (and inequality), but an exciting new book gives social class the spotlight, demonstrating how it explains today’s foodie mania.

In Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, published in April 2017 by Rutgers University Press, S. Margot Finn asserts that “the ideals of the food revolution gained traction due to class anxiety” (15). With a satisfying clarity, Finn distills the ideology of the food revolution into four ideals:

  1. Sophistication / gourmet food 
  2. Thinness / healthy food + dieting for weight loss
  3. Purity / natural-and-organic food 
  4. Cosmopolitanism / “ethnic” food 

She argues that “the unifying characteristic of the food revolution’s otherwise incompatible ideals is their association with the elite” (36), and how they compose a discourse of “aspirational eating.”

Bringing an important historical foundation and point of comparison to questions about today’s foodie culture, Finn begins with an analysis of these four ideals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era—the time period from 1880 to 1920, when these ideals first emerged and reached social salience. According to Finn, these ideals began to decline around 1930 and atrophied over the course of the twentieth century to such an extent that they seemed wholly novel when all four re-emerged in the 1980s.

Finn boldly asserts:

“The shifts in mainstream food culture parallel these shifts in inequality. During periods of greater income inequality, the middle class relies more on symbolic distinction of taste to distance themselves from the lower class. When the middle class as a whole is doing well materially and the upper class isn’t claiming as much of the nation’s wealth, the cultural politics of taste shift” (76).

For example, the foodways of the 1930s and 1940s shifted to idealize “simplicity, frugality, reliability, and familiarity,” while foods considered “gourmet, diet, natural, or foreign” were “increasingly viewed with suspicion and disdain” (79).

To support her claim that these undulating food views are based on class anxiety, Finn dissects and works to debunk alternative explanations for today’s food revolution:

  • “the myth of the discerning palate:” that gourmet food tastes better, when in fact taste education has significant limits and “there is no such thing as objective taste”
  • “the uncertain and elusive health benefits of thinness:” that thinness is meritocratic, when in fact dieting hardly ever results in lasting weight loss and fat people live longer than thin people
  • “the fallacies in the local and organic orthodoxy:” that natural foods are better for the environment, when in fact neither local nor organic food may be any more sustainable, and ethical animal products may not be any more beneficial
  • “the misguided pursuit of authenticity and exoticism:” that authentic food is real, when in fact it Others people and cuisines.

Next, Finn explores how the four ideals of the food revolution circulate (often in ambivalent and contradictory ways) in media representations of food. Studying the texts as well as their audience reception, Finn examines notions of meritocracy, snobbery, and the ascetic trifecta of sacrifice, pleasure, and virtue. Among her media texts, she explores the films Ratatouille and Sideways, the reality TV show The Biggest Loser, a polemic Slow Food USA campaign, the Salon article, “Hipsters on Food Stamps,” and this well-known Grey Poupon commercial:

Chapter 5 on food snobbery also includes several fantastic pages historicizing and analyzing “foodies,” an often contested term that emerged in the early 1980s, not coincidentally tracking the most recent surge in income inequality that Finn seeks to situate.

In the end, Discriminating Taste provides a provocative and historically-informed answer to how the current mainstream definition of “good food” came about. Finn asserts that today’s emphasis upon gourmet, healthy, natural, and diverse foods are not the result of culinary enlightenment or decline, but of class anxiety, rooted in income inequality and its attending correlations with various types of capital.

Finn also demonstrates why this definition of good food matters: it misdirects the economic, cultural, and social energy of the middle class, while further denigrating the lower classes. Finn proposes that the true food revolution lies in more critically examining Brillat-Savarin’s maxim—often reduced to the refrain “you are what you eat”—taking into account the forces of inequality in all its forms.

Celebrating 5 Years Blogging & Why Other Academics Should Too

This month, the blog is turning five years old! I’ve reflected before on why I blog (here and here), and it feels like time to check in with myself again.

5 (More) Reasons Why I Blog

1. It’s a social justice issue.

More and more, public scholarship is why I feel called to blog about my research (like these posts on men and Weight Watchers and healthy food blogs and hyper-femininity and Vegemite marketing in the US) and to live-tweet conferences and other academic events that I attend (like the #OXYFOOD17 conference or the recent workshop on Capitalism and the Senses.)

Knowledge produced in the academy should not stay in the “ivory tower” and should not be solely available behind a paywall. Blogs and social media provide more democratic, low-to-no-cost, and widely accessible spaces for dissemination, translation, and discussion.

2. It opened doors I never imagined existed + helped me learn new things.

EVERYTHING from the “In the News” section on this blog—being interviewed by journalists, being on podcasts and local TV, and being invited to give the keynote at Hot & Healthy Habits 2017 Retreat (which was SO MUCH fun!)—would not have happened without the blog. I had no idea any of these opportunities would come my way. Admittedly, none of it was because of my first few posts either.

I talked recently on a panel about not being afraid to learn in public, whether it’s blogging, tweeting, or gramming for the first time as part of one’s academic persona. I didn’t know how this worked when I started. I learned as I went along, and things got easier and better with each post and every blog redesign.

3. It gave me space to practice reflexive teaching + prepared me for public humanities projects.

I’d been blogging for a few years when I started teaching my own courses, so it gave me a platform to share what we were doing in the classroom, like teaching and learning with cookbooks and developing dietary guidelines informed by critical nutrition studies.

Blogging myself also ensured that I was comfortable with WordPress, making it logistically easy for me to incorporate class blogs into the syllabus, like our final projects: Food + Gender in U.S. Popular Culture and What Is American Food? It’s also given me enough tech savvy to test out new technologies in the classroom, like using Pinterest and Google apps for class activities or FaceTime for snow day office hours.

4. It allowed me to share resources that have helped other graduate students.

Some of the most emotionally moving emails I’ve received as a result of the blog have been from grad students who’ve read a post—like how to find the right PhD program for you or write a statement of purpose or find a food studies program or conference like a rockstar—and had it shape the direction of their career.

I shared these resources in the hopes that they’d make some of the hurdles of academia more transparent and manageable, but the two-way communication that the blog opened up was an unexpected and truly wonderful surprise. Every one of them brings me to happy tears. Which is to say, if you’ve ever read anything on this blog and enjoyed it or found it helpful, I would genuinely LOVE to hear from you.

5. It’s (still) fun.

After my first year blogging, the fun factor rounded out my list of reasons for blogging. I still feel that way. I don’t scrapbook or knit (anymore) or bake (all that often). Blogging isn’t just part of my academic work; it’s has become one of my hobbies. From the design aspects to learning to do my own photography to practicing more creative styles of writing, blogging has been a very enjoyable creative outlet for me, especially during some of the more difficult chapters in the PhD process.

I recommend blogging to all academics, but especially to grad students seeking a positive and constructive space for experimentation and professional development—in addition to Instagramming your progress as part of #phdlife, which works wonders too.


5 (Older) Favorite Posts

I ‘ve written 144 posts to date, so as a final way to celebrate these five years blogging, I scrolled through the archives and found 5 posts from my early days of blogging that were worth bringing to the surface again:

  1. What Does the Fridge Say? A Historical Photo Essay (February 2014)
  2. Tofu & Tapenade? The Unspoken Food Rules of Football (January 2014)
  3. When Theory Actually Applies: Starbucks is to Bourdieu as Dunkin’ Donuts is to Foucault (January 2013)
  4. Curating the History of American Convenience Cuisine (October 2012)
  5. Chewing on the ‘Last Supper’ in “Drive” -OR- Viewing Ryan Gosling Through a Food Studies Lens (September 2012)

Ruminating on Capitalism and the Senses

When two trendy areas of scholarship collide, one hopes that fascinating discussions will ensue. That was exactly the case at the Capitalism and the Senses workshop, organized by Ai Hisano as part of the Business History Initiative at Harvard Business School—a gorgeous and sprawling 48-acre campus just across the river from Harvard’s main campus.

Taking place on June 29, 2017, the event explored the relationship between capitalism and the senses, considering how the market manipulates sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Such discussions involved nods to Marx and modes of production, but also to various, alternative, and overlapping capitalisms. Food emerged as a key commodity for thinking through these systems and their associated “sensoria.” Presenters also considered the look and feel of fibers and fabrics in fashion and interior design; sound and music in the independent recording industry; and both scents and the construction of expertise within the perfume industry.

Notably, as Ai Hisano mentioned in her presentation, business practices have been employing and exploiting the senses since at least the mid-nineteenth century. The workshop provided a history for today’s much discussed “sensory marketing” techniques.

The workshop program featured an enthralling and international set of speakers:

capsenses program.png

I live-tweeted throughout the event and have gathered them here as an attempt to summarize the fascinating presentations and discussion that took place throughout the day. My heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Ai Hisano for hosting such a thought-provoking event as she concludes her postdoc at Harvard Business School!

Reflecting on #OXYFOOD17, a Dream Food Studies Conference

Good conferences are sources of community and reflection, affirmation and critical discussion, exhilaration and satisfying exhaustion. #OXYFOOD17, the 2017 annual meeting and conference of the Association for the Study and Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS), was all this and so much more.

Hosted at Occidental College in Los Angeles, #OXYFOOD17 was the result of more than a year of planning by the conference team lead by John Lang. The writable walls in Johnson Hall welcomed us upon arrival (with a food pun), “All your wildest dreams have come to fruition.”

The event brought together hundreds of scholars from around the world, many motivated by the conference’s theme, Migrating Food Cultures. As ASFS President Krishnendu Ray remarked in his Presidential Address, the conference theme spoke to many of the most pressing food issues of our time, including food chain labor—not coincidentally the topic of the conference’s plenary panel, hosted and moderated by Evan Kleiman—and food policies, as articulated by Sharon Friel in her keynote address on how trade and investment affect food, nutrition, and health.

The conference theme and papers presented also addressed global flows of peoples, politics, ideas, knowledges, statuses, and identities. To pursue food studies and food systems now is to engage with these key concerns in all their plurality—to grapple with their stakes in our research, our teaching, and our service to communities both inside and outside of the academy.

With tools like the conference social media guide and resources from the “Social Media for Scholars” roundtable that I co-hosted with Katherine Hysmith and Fabio Parasecoli, our ASFS Twitter presence grows stronger and more lively each year. As a result, I’ve been able to craft more (and more dynamic) Storify stories from roundtables and panels throughout the conference in order to archive our event—here are the stories from last year’s conference, for reference.

Below are stories for sessions that I particularly enjoyed and learned from, but there were so many others. Check out #OXYFOOD17 on Twitter for the full feed of tweets. And if you create a post-conference Storify or blog post, please let me know and I’ll happily add it to the list!

Beyond incredible panels, discussions, events, and networking, #OXYFOOD17 was also a lot of fun, full of delicious meals, gorgeous California weather, and friends old and new.

I already can’t wait for next year’s conference and hope you’ll join us at the University of Wisconsin, Madison!

Listening to the Voices in Historic Cookbooks

“Listen to these cookbooks, to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. They are real voices.”

So declared Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, an eighty-five-year-old expert of culinary history and databases with a literal twinkle in her eye. Since 2009, she has taught the Reading Historic Cookbooks: A Structured Approach seminar at the Schlesinger Library in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University—a women’s and food history treasure whose collection includes 25,000 cookbooks, 4,500 culinary pamphlets, and the papers of famed food figures like Julia Child, Elizabeth David, and M.F.K. Fisher.

I had the pleasure to spend last week there with Barbara Ketcham Wheaton and a baker’s dozen of seminar participants from around the world: professors, graduate students, bakers, historians, and cookbook enthusiasts. Together, we studied digital copies of hundreds of cookbooks from the 1390s to the 1920s from England and the United States, geographies limited only to keep the language requirements of the seminar accessible.

Group

Participants in Reading Historic Cookbooks, 2017. From left, first row: Paula Fujiwara, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Jeri Quinzio, Michael A. Denner; second row: Juliet Tempest, Emily Contois, Merit Hondelink, Pamela Cooley; third row: Maryellen Burns, Ali (Mary) Sharman, Katie Sampeck; fourth row: Tom Nealon, Marzena Keating, Audrey Faber. Not pictured: Kate Helfrich.

Cookbooks speak of more than what people ate or how they cooked in a particular time and place. Even as we began studying at the micro-level of ingredients, Wheaton remarked, “We’re looking at small details, but they tell big stories.”

Cookbooks tell us about joy and sorrow, feasting and fasting, the quotidian and the spectacular. These are stories of nature and humanity, seasonality, locality, and geography; of trade routes and global relationships. These are histories and transformations of religion, philosophy, medicine, and technology; of literature and literacy, markets and marketing.

Cookbooks also reveal much about identities and politics, such as the role and rights of women. During the early centuries of cookbooks, these texts were written by men and for men, most often the managers of court and estate kitchens, not for cooks themselves and certainly not housewives. The audience, tone, style, and content of cookbooks changed over time.

Cookbooks

A small selection of the English and American cookbooks from 1390s-1920s studied during the seminar.

From reviewing her massive corpus of digitized cookbooks, Wheaton estimates that the first cookbook published by a woman was in 1596 in Germany—home to the printing press and a Protestant country where literacy was promoted more democratically than throughout Catholic Europe. As a result of these dynamics, cookbooks published by women would not appear in Spain or Italy until the nineteenth century. In England, Hannah Woolley started publishing cookbooks in the 1660s. Female-published cookbooks wouldn’t appear in France until the 1820s. Compared to these histories, women in what would become the United States were recognized as literate cookbook authors and readers from the beginnings of European settlement.

Acknowledging their vital position in history writ large and long, how does one read a historic cookbook?


The Structured Approach

Having conducted culinary research for more than fifty years, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton developed her “structured approach” when researching her book, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983) and in her efforts to develop a comprehensive database of cookbooks from around the globe. For her, a structured approach is about teasing apart the strands within a cookbook and developing a process of classification so one can see the whole, rather than just lists of ingredients and techniques.

Within the scope of the seminar, Wheaton broke down a cookbook, spending a day each on:

  1. ingredients
  2. the kitchen and everything in it
  3. the meal and menus
  4. the cookbook as a book and publication
  5. the cookbook as a socio-cultural object

As we began examining the ingredients within our day’s assigned cookbook, Wheaton prompted us to consider a robust series of questions: What ingredients appear regularly, and more rarely? How often would they have been available at the time of publication considering seasonality, life cycles, and trade routes? How would the ingredients have been procured: grown within the household, purchased at a market, bartered or traded for? What ingredients and flavors are combined together? What spices are used—and where would they have come from; how expensive might they have been? What were the ingredients’ sensory and nutritional properties? What would it be like to cook with them? To eat them? What ingredients don’t appear? What do these absences tell us?

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We mostly read from digital copies, but were lucky to view a few texts, shared with the seminar by Tom Nealon. Photos: Emily Contois

When we considered the kitchen, we catalogued everything in it. Drawing from details in our cookbooks, we pieced together the kitchen’s size, location, and organization, as well as its equipment, appliances, tools, and furnishings, taking note of their materials like cast iron, copper, wood, tin, aluminum, linen, and paper. We paid attention to what fuel sources were used and how a cook attended to cooking temperatures and times.

While teasing out these details usually requires closely reading a cookbook line by line, page by page, Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, published in London in 1851, clearly listed in great detail a perhaps aspirational (and decidedly promotional) batterie de cuisine:

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The batterie de cuisine outlined in The Modern Housewife, 1851

A master promoter whose previous book, The Gastronomic Regenerator had sold more than 15,000 copies, Soyer also used The Modern Housewife to advertise Soyer’s Modern Housewife’s Kitchen Apparatus, describing it as the central instrument in a well-outfitted kitchen.

KitchenApparatus

Soyer’s kitchen apparatus, 1851

Moving on from kitchens, we read cookbooks that devised menus and meals. We considered examples for how to live on very little (such as Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife, 1835, 16th edition), as well as how to spend it all and eat lavishly, like the menu of a feast for Richard II in 1387 that called for 1,100 eggs, as well as the slaughter and preparation of 2,500 live animals.

As we analyzed cookbooks as objects of publication, we examined their size, shape, design, paper, and processes for printing and binding, transport and sale. We were fortunate to have Tom Nealon of Pazzo Books (and author of Food Fights and Culture Wars) among the seminar participants, who let us touch, smell, and generally fawn over several rare cookbooks.

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Tom Nealon of Pazzo Books sharing rare cookery books with seminar participants; Photo: Emily Contois, 2017

Lastly, we pondered cookbooks as social and cultural documents, ones that link “the writer, reader, cook, and eater.” Wheaton encouraged us to explore: Who wrote cookbooks, why, and for whom? Who published and sold cookbooks, and at what cost? Who owned these cookbooks, and what would it have been like to cook from them?


Thinking on Historic Cookbooks

While our approach to studying cookbooks was well structured, the seminar itself also included a lovely amount of unstructured time, a week spent around a table with a group of experts, available to answer any number of questions like: What is a bustard? (A big bird, sort of like a turkey.) A pippin? (A type of apple). Or a breame? (A freshwater fish.)

Especially with such unfamiliar ingredient and dishes, Wheaton reminded us that recipes, such as those from the fifteenth century, were not written for us and must be judged on their own terms. Reading for silences is also an important task, as what is left out in a cookbook often reveals details that were so commonly known they needn’t be recorded. At the same time, reading historic cookbooks results in many presentist giggles over apple-less apple pies, cakes that call for thirty eggs and fifteen egg whites, batters to be vigorously beaten for two or three hours (#armsofsteel), and vegetables to be boiled for a full hour, if they’re included on the menu at all.

While historic cookbooks contain some recipes we’d rather not cook and taste, there are many recipes that have stood the test of time or deserve to be revived. I’m quite tempted to try this recipe for Fairy Butter from Mrs. Frazer’s The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Pickling, Preserving, etc., Edinburgh, 1795:

Fairy butter 1Fairy butter 2

Or this one for pop corn in Cookery As It Should Be, Philadelphia, 1856, which calls for seville orange juice:

Pop Corn

All in all, the way I’ll treat cookbooks in my research and teaching has been forever enriched. I wholeheartedly encourage others to apply for the seminar should it be offered in future years.

For more cookbooks, recipes, photos, and general commentary on the Reading Historic Cookbooks seminar, check out #readingcookbooks17 on Twitter.


Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2017

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Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste

Whether crispy, creamy, or juicy, texture makes taste. Changing a food’s texture can also remake its taste—to eaters’ detriment or advantage. These gastro-scientific transformations have significant consequences when considering how to make healthy diets interesting, challenging, tasty, and appealing.

These are the insights of Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, a new book published in February 2017 by the Danish team of molecular biophysicist, Ole G. Mouritsen, and chef, Klavs Styrbæk, who wrote together Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste in 2015. Mouthfeel was translated into English, revised, and adapted for a broader audience by Mariela Johansen. The final product from Columbia University Press is a beautifully executed text packed full of relatively accessible food science, stunning full-color photographs, and thought-provoking recipes.

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Mouthfeel is a gorgeously produced text with high-gloss pages and many full-color photographs and images. / Photo credit: Emily Contois

Fans of Gordon Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters (also from Columbia University Press) will find much to love and think with in Mouthfeel, and with a welcome focus on the culinary.

Of interest to me as researcher in food studies and critical nutrition studies was Mouritsen and Styrbæk’s assertion that foods that engage all of our senses provide not only gastronomic pleasure, but also a potential path for eating well and healthfully. While Mouthfeel addresses these points in its introductory and concluding sections, the bulk of the text reads more like a textbook than a monograph making a critical argument.

Nevertheless, Mouthfeel very usefully articulates a set of common definitions and understandings for terms often used erroneously and interchangeably:

  • Taste is the recognition of taste substances by the taste bud.
  • Flavor is a complicated, multimodal, and multidimensional impression that engages all five senses (including mouthfeel), which are rooted in the nervous system.
  • Mouthfeel is a part of the somatosensory system that senses the physical stimuli of food’s textural properties, which arise from food’s structural elements. Mechanically, mouthfeel involves the lips, tongue, saliva, teeth, jaws, and nerves, as well as tactile sensations of the eating process like the feeling of food, breathing, chewing, and swallowing.

Building upon these definitions, Mouritsen and Styrbæk attest that mouthfeel has been the most neglected contributor to the experience of flavor, but one that ought to be recognized and understood.

Mouthfeel and Cooking

Cooking transforms mouthfeel and by extension flavor as well. The authors argue that foods with appropriate and pleasing textures can be prepared with less fat, sugar, and calories, and thus positively promote healthy eating patterns. Think the positive opposite of the food industry trends chronicled by Michael Moss in Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us or by former FDA commissioner David Kessler in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

Recipes throughout the text make these food science transformations more tangible. The recipes range from pesto, instant churned butter, and caramelized potatoes to grilled beef heart, apple “fudge,” jellyfish “popsicles,” and chewy almond-milk ice cream. Some recipes are suited for the home kitchen and average cook (albeit one with some leisure time on her/his/their hands), while other recipes better serve as inspiration and aspiration.

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Recipe for and image of “Parmesan-Flavored Smoked Cheese with Dried Radishes.” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

The Language of Food—and Mouthfeel

Drawing from Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, the text also codifies a descriptive vocabulary for naming mouthfeel with words like “crisp,” which happens to be the most frequently used word to describe texture in the United States and in much of Europe. Classifications of texture, and the language that describes them, consider food’s mechanical, geometric, culinary, and nutritional qualities:

  • soft
  • firm
  • hard
  • creamy
  • juicy
  • tough
  • crunchy 
  • crackly
  • brittle
  • gummy
  • soggy
  • dry
  • tender
  • leathery

Playing Around with Mouthfeel

Nearly 200 pages of Mouthfeel unpack various food preparation methods as ways to “play around with mouthfeel.” Sections address the properties of heat and temperature, gels, gums, bubbles, and glassy glosses, as well as the characteristics of specific ingredients and foods—milk, eggs, beans, grains, and vegetables, along with soups, breads, seafood, and desserts.

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Photographs in Mouthfeel depict “eggs, twelve ways.” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

Along the way, call-out boxes in the text include numerous entertaining stories and examples that bring the science of texture to life:

/ Fascinating for scholars of gastronomy, the authors credit Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste for identifying in 1825 “a rudimentary theory of taste” that in many ways holds to the present.

/ The authors demonstrate how chocolate’s deliciousness is due, in part, to its special mouthfeel, a result of the specific melting properties of cacao butter.

/ Chapter Five includes the recipe for and story behind physicist Amy Rowat’s “perfect American apple pie.” One of the “secrets” for improving the mouthfeel of the crust is to cut up the butter into pieces of different sizes that resemble both almonds and peas. The large pieces create necessary air pockets, while the smaller pieces ensure that the butter is evenly distributed throughout the dough.

/ Chapter Five also includes ethnographic accounts of the hardest food in the world (katsuobushi, a fish fillet that is dried, smoked, and then grows a fungus) and the softest food in the world (konbu, large brown algae), which are both specialties of Japan.

/ Chapter Six decodes mouthfeel in every dish of an eighteen-course lunch at Nerua, located in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.

Conclusions: The Future of Food and the Perfect Meal

Mouritsen and Styrbæk conclude pondering why we like the food that we do, positing that the answer is more personal than universal and as complex as the science of sensation itself. In the final chapter, they consider how to create “the perfect meal,” citing the work of Charles Spence, who argues that such an effort requires a deep interdisciplinarity, drawing from experimental psychology, design, neuroscience, sensory science, behavioral economics, marketing, and the culinary aspects of chemistry and physics.

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In their concluding chapter, the authors consider, “Why do we like the food that we do?” / Photo credit: Emily Contois

As Mouritsen and Styrbæk imagine the future of food, they disavow a meal in a pill or a tube. They assert,

It is quite possible to get by with food that is mushy, provided it has the right nutritional content. However, it is hard to imagine that one would like this kind of food for an extended period of time.

They argue instead that the solution to feeding the world lies in efficiently harnessing the power of mouthfeel. While Mouritsen and Styrbæk would surely reject Soylent, they find food system solutions in interesting vegetables, aquaculture, and plant proteins with meat-like texture.

All in all, Mouritsen and Styrbæk provide a fascinating account of food, eating, and cooking that novelly places mouthfeel and texture at the center of the equation. Their work sets the record straight regarding the contribution of mouthfeel to flavor—as well as to gastronomy and health.


I was fortunate to receive a review copy of  Mouthfeel from the publisher. Mouthfeel is the newest publication in Columbia University Press’ Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History series, which includes Nicola Perullo’s Taste as Experience (which I reviewed here), among a host of other fascinating books.

Photo credit: Emily Contois, 2017

Sports, Gender & Society…and Food?

On Friday, April 7, I was fortunate to catch the webcast of the Radcliffe Institute’s fabulous conference, Game Changers: Sports, Gender, and Society. Why was a food studies researcher jazzed to learn more about sports? Well, the more I’ve studied food and masculinity in media and consumer culture, the more salient sports and athletic themes have become in my work.

As conference presenters emphasized, sports in American culture do much to create and sustain the gender binary, to subordinate and marginalize women, to construct conventional masculinity, to maintain notions of male superiority, and to uphold existing hierarchies of power that privilege white, male, able bodies.

This is why sports are repeatedly invoked in the dude food, men’s cooking, and manly dieting that I research. It’s why Coke Zero ads incorporate and run during March Madness, and why Oikos Triple Zero yogurt features the NFL seal on every package and NFL quarterback Cam Newton as the face of the product. It’s the reason Guy Fieri had a cooking show solely dedicated to tailgate food. It’s why Charles Barkley, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw have each served as spokesmen for men’s commercial weight loss programs. Despite Title IX, despite the successes of women in sports, despite general social trends toward (at least somewhat) increasing gender equity, sports remain strongly ingrained as masculine in the American imagination. As a result, food makers and marketers invoke sports to negotiate masculinity in and through their products.

This is but one way that the themes of this conference apply to food (and my work), and there are certainly others. For example, the struggles of female athletes for access, resources, media coverage, and (well deserved) glory also mirror the challenges faced by female chefs for recognition and advancement. And in her comments, sportswriter Kavitha Davidson directly called upon advertisers to recognize female sports fans, noting (rightly) that women often not only consume the products advertised during sports broadcasts, but are the ones who purchase them. In many cases, these are food and beverages—and in the campaigns I’m researching, advertisers very frequently employ distinctly misogynistic messages that not only alienate female consumers, but also uphold and reinforce gender hierarchies.

Leaving food studies out of it, the conference panels, discussions, and remarks were fascinating in their own right and provide space to think about identities and justice more broadly in American society. I tweeted throughout the event and have gathered them here:


Top image credit: Emily Contois, 2017

Addressing Labor Across the Food System at the Just Food? Forum

The Just Food? Forum on Labor Across the Food System, held on April 1 at Harvard University, delivered a complex, layered, and expansive view of the challenges facing workers throughout the U.S. food system—addressing farm fields, dairies, meat processing plants, and fisheries; undocumented farmworkers, beginning farmers, restaurant managers, labor organizers, and food law experts; wages, worker living conditions, and the right to unionize (or not); sexual harassment, discrimination, racism, and threats of deportation; immigration reform, public health, and food justice—as well as what we as academics, citizens, and eaters can do to help and advocate for change in these areas.

As more and more eaters focus on what they eat, where it comes from, and how it is produced, we must all be just as deeply concerned for the rights and livelihoods of those who grow, process, transport, prepare, cook, serve, and dispose of our food.

 

I tweeted throughout this thought provoking event and have gathered them here as a recap:

This event was a collaboration of the Harvard Law School Food Law Society and Harvard Food Literacy Project, cosponsored by the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. For more information, see the program website.

Food Waste, Recovery & Insecurity: The Role of RI Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities are untapped resources for fighting food insecurity. So said Becky Spritz of Roger Williams University on Friday, March 31 at a panel on food waste, food recovery, and food insecurity in Rhode Island, a state where 12% of households are food insecure, many of whom are working, but still suffering from poverty. This panel addressed the unique challenges and opportunities for colleges and universities to intervene in these issues.

Sponsored by the Providence Public Library, the Roger Williams University Honors Program, and the RWU chapter of the Food Recovery Network, the panel was moderated by Sue Anderbois, RI Director of Food Strategy and a Council Member for the RI Food Policy Council, and featured comments from:

From their insightful comments and those from audience participants, two main themes stood out to me:

While nearly universally embraced as “the right thing to do,” food recovery and food donation to food-insecure eaters requires navigating a series of tensions. 

A significant tension lies in that food recovery efforts must abide by food safety standards, requirements, rules, and codes. In some cases, these safeguards are onerous and worth revising or streamlining. In many cases, however, food safety remains an important consideration and one that often requires infrastructure that does not yet exist in some states and areas— like apps that immediately track available recovered food and route it to areas of need, as well as a team of refrigerated trucks with food safety certified workers to transport the food.

In addition, even food businesses that morally want to donate excess goods to feed the hungry must balance this imperative with their own fiscal responsibility and efficiency. A supermarket or restaurant donating lots of food each day, week, or month runs the risk of being perceived as, or actually being, irresponsible in their inventory planning, prep, and management.

Lastly, food business efficiency, food waste, food donations, and the needs of food insecure populations can represent competing goals and needs. Although food businesses increasing efficiency and reducing food waste are positive actions, they also reduce food donations, while food bank needs remain the same or, given recent economic conditions, even increase. If our current federal food programs and charitable feeding efforts remain constant, where will the food needed to feed the hungry come from if/when institutions meet their food waste reduction goals? Donald Ferrish of RWU proposed that in the college environment, administrators could transparently engage students in efforts to reduce food waste, pledging to donate funds gained from increased efficiency to the food bank so to contribute to the ongoing needs of food insecure populations.

As institutions and populations, colleges and universities pose specific challenges and opportunities for fighting food waste and food insecurity and promoting food recovery. 

Andrew Schiff commented that colleges have excess resources perfect for fighting food waste and food insecurity with student energy, knowledge, and empathy. Indeed, interest, activism, and volunteering among a select group of students often fuel food recovery efforts in university settings. Even if supported by engaged students, however, food recovery must constantly cope with the inevitable turnover of the student population.

Panel members also acknowledged the challenge of engaging the broader student body in sustainability and food waste reduction efforts. Steven Mello, director of dining services at URI, further elucidated the cultural nature of these challenges, arguing that students today arrive at college more demanding consumers and eaters, having grown up surrounded by food media. From dining services, they no longer seek a substitute for “mom’s home cooking,” but rather a buffet of options that rival restaurant fare, which increases food waste.

A final challenge lies in that while institutions of higher ed are poised to aid the food insecure in the surrounding community, colleges and universities are increasingly identifying, acknowledging, and addressing issues of student food insecurity. Much like how the United States balances food aid efforts internationally and domestically, universities must play a role in addressing these issues within their immediate campus population and their surrounding city and state community.

– – – – – – – – –

In the end, panelists emphasized that fighting food waste, ending food insecurity, and promoting food recovery require collaboration, coalition building, and culture change, which is slow and at times challenging, but urgent and worthwhile work.

“Lose Like a Man:” Gender & the Constraints of Self-Making in Weight Watchers Online

I’m pleased to share my newest article, “‘Lose Like a Man:’ Gender and the Constraints of Self-Making in Weight Watchers Online,” which was published in the spring 2017 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, edited by Melissa Caldwell.

As a scholar of food studies and American studies, I find that analyzing the public faces of commercial diet programs gives me a way to examine and interpret American identity through what you could call an inverted foodways approach—not through what we eat, but through what we aspire so vehemently to limit and avoid. A nexus of discourses on food, bodies, health, and cultural ideals, dieting encapsulates the paradoxes and conflicts at the core of American identity: abundance and restriction, freedom and containment, aspirations and expectations.

Founded in 1963, Weight Watchers has been one of the most popular, long-standing, and financially successful commercial weight loss programs in the world. As an institution and a cultural force, Weight Watchers not only sells diet products, but also communicates, represents, and manipulates gender—more than ever with the launch of Weight Watchers Online for Men in 2007, a program “customized just for guys,” marketed with the tagline “Lose Like a Man.”

In this article, I demonstrate how Weight Watchers constructs masculinity and femininity—and what “Lose Like a Man” really means—by conducting a side-by-side comparison of the 90-second “How Does It Work?” videos for Weight Watchers Online and Weight Watchers Online for Men, which depict program “success stories” Bonnie and Dan. I first argue that Weight Watchers engages aspects of hegemonic masculinity as they endeavor to construct “masculine” dieting as wholly unique from “feminine” dieting through contrasting depictions of food, the body, and technology use—and binaries like masculine/feminine, rational/irrational, unhealthy/healthy, satisfaction/restraint, and public/private.

For example, the videos depict the meaning of weight loss differently for men and women, which variably represent the body. At the beginning and end of her video, Bonnie is depicted alongside her “before photo,” and her motivations to lose weight are framed around personal aspirations and concerns for her health. Dan, on the other hand, never appears in the same frame as his fat body, and his weight loss motivations are presented as central to his career success, and as a military sergeant, to the health of the nation state as well.

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Bonnie and Dan depicted with and without their “before photos” at the beginning of their “How Does It Work? videos. Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

These videos also reinforce food gender stereotypes as normalized aspects of men and women’s eating behavior and weight loss efforts. While Bonnie uses program cheat sheets to dine out at a restaurant and make “healthy choices,” Dan eats out at a stereotypically masculine location—a sports bar, filled with round, high-top tables, backless stools, and flat screen TVs—and orders tacos and pizza. The videos also depict Bonnie shopping for and preparing “healthy” foods in traditionally domestic spaces like the supermarket and kitchen, while Dan is shown “on the go” at a convenience store (buying chips) and grilling his favorite food (steak) outdoors.

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Bonnie and Dan using cheat sheets in different ways to dine out and “stay on plan.” Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

Bonnie and Dan also discuss Weight Watchers’ online tools in entirely different terms. Bonnie engages these tools intensely. She literally sits at a desk before a computer as if at work, while Dan says, “The tools are kind of like a video game.” For men, weight loss tools are part of a game, creating distance between the work, effort, and self-discipline of weight loss.

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Weight Watchers depicts the work of weight loss differently for women and men. Images from weightwatchers.com (2013) and weightwatchers.com/men (2016).

Analyzing the difference in the weight loss experiences that Weight Watchers Online promises reveals that Weight Watchers not only reinforces a strict gender binary, but also makes limited types of self available to women and men. While acknowledging the constant dietary and physical surveillance Weight Watchers requires of women, I argue that Weight Watchers also portrays female dieters on a difficult but actualizing and empowering journey toward a new and better self. Conversely, Weight Watchers depicts male clients losing weight easily, even effortlessly, but retaining a stable and immutable masculine selfhood throughout the process. While a complicated and ambivalent distinction, this constraint upon self-making exposes how patriarchy subordinates even the men assumed to profit the most from its power, as the male weight loss promise withholds transformative potentials.

If you have access to Gastronomica, I hope you’ll read the entire article and, as always, I’d love to hear what you think. I also hope you’ll check out the other fascinating pieces in this issue:

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My Food Studies Students Designed Dietary Guidelines, Here’s What Happened

For the past two weeks, my students in Food in American Society and Culture at Brown University have been diving into critical nutrition studies, an emerging field that approaches nutrition science as a cultural construct, a product of history, and inextricably linked to notions of morality. I wondered how students might view food advice differently after learning the basics of this field of thought. Beyond that, how might they reimagine dietary guidelines?

Critical Nutrition Studies

Critical nutrition studies questions the assumptions that form the empirical truth and presumed objective authority of science, as well as the connections between science and food, the body, and human health. To varying degrees, critical nutrition scholars examine, critique, and reject the primary role of nutrition science in how eaters (and stages throughout food systems) relate to food and eating. They endorse moves to decenter nutrition and destabilize its hierarchical position within food knowledge production. This creates space for aspects like food production quality, degree of processing, and truth in marketing, as well as heritage, tradition, culture, identities, gastronomy, taste, and pleasure—to name but a few. [For a far more complete definition of critical nutrition studies, read Charlotte Biltekoff’s “Critical Nutrition Studies” in the The Oxford Handbook of Food History, published by Oxford University Press in 2012.]

In my work, I’ve taken a rather unexpected path toward critical nutrition studies. As an undergraduate, I studied the liberal arts, but also took the prerequisites to become a registered dietitian. I ended up studying Public Health Nutrition, and as I completed my graduate course work, I taught Introduction to Nutrition six times as a Graduate Student Instructor, believing myself—and quite literally indoctrinating hundreds and hundreds of students—in a perspective that I now readily question, unpack, and deconstruct. It was in my years working in worksite wellness that I began to seriously question whether we in public health should be telling people what to eat at all. Finally, pursuing an MLA in Gastronomy, hearing a roundtable discussion on critical nutrition studies at the 2012 ASFS conference, and attending the Critical Nutrition Symposium at UC Santa Cruz in 2013 each drew me into a critical nutrition studies perspective.

Furthermore, my current research not only engages food studies and critical nutrition studies, but also how they both intersect, inform, and contradict another emerging field—the history of nutrition science, a fascinating subfield of the history of medicine, that grapples with the histories of this “young” science. [If you’re interested in these histories too, join our new H-Nutrition network.]

Learning with My Students

As is often the case, working through these difficult concepts and questions with my students has been wholly satisfying. Over the course of two weeks, we read selections from several influential critical nutrition studies texts:

We were very lucky to have Charlotte Biltekoff in class with us to answer questions about her work. Using her comments and these texts, we also critically read primary sources offering dietary advice:

Students also contributed their own primary sources that answered the prompt:

Many sources within our foodscape tell us what we should eat—and as we’ve discussed through the aphorism “You are what you eat,” in effect tell us who we ought to be as well. Find an example of a source offering dietary advice and analyze it in 100-250 words, using Charlotte Biltekoff’s Eating Right in America as a point of reference. Consider: What dietary advice does your source offer? What and/or how does it say we should eat? How does the dietary advice and its author establish authority and expertise?

A few possible sources to get you thinking: family food advice, food advertisements, nutrition facts, food packaging, government dietary guidelines, magazine/newspaper articles, blogs, etc.

Students unpacked how sources as diverse as government dietary guidelines and food guides, BuzzFeed articles, Coca-Cola campaigns, Spoon University, fitness bloggers, diet books, and advocacy organizations each communicate dietary advice and expertise in ways that illuminate the complicated cultural politics of food and health.

Students’ Dietary Guidelines

Next, students accepted the challenge of designing dietary guidelines, informed by critical nutrition studies and aiming to make their dietary advice as inclusive, factual, and balanced as possible. Admittedly, this required accepting a set of assumptions, including the idea that we should tell people what to eat and that guidelines are a worthwhile tool, even if they can be moralizing and paternalistic. It was an experiment. We might fail, but we were going to try it out.

In groups of three or four, students titled their guides, set dietary goals, and drafted a set of recommendations, using a PowerPoint template I designed, so all design flaws and shortsightedness are mine.

Here’s what they came up with, shared with their permission:

As a class, we noted common themes that each set of guidelines endorsed and areas where they diverged, as well as the challenges inherent to designing guidelines in the first place:

Populations and Personalization

Students cared deeply about the challenge of making population level dietary guidelines that still made space for individuals: personal identities; ways of eating; bodies of various shapes, sizes, and abilities; levels of access and capital; and senses of self. They thought it was important for individuals to consider dietary information, but to make it meaningful to their own selves and circumstances, emphasizing themes of education, adjustment, and customization. Students cared about listening to one’s own body and learning what felt good on an individual level without judgement. At the same time, students struggled to create recommendations that were specific enough to be clear and meaningful without being exclusionary in at least some way. Furthermore, students acknowledged that writing pithy and concise goals and recommendations is a difficult task. In the end, many students felt like their recommendations ended up too vague to create an impact, developing a newfound respect for nutrition communication.

Joy, Pleasure, and Social Connection

Most groups endorsed the idea that food was a source of enjoyment, pleasure, and social connection, aspects worth emphasizing just as much as variety and portion control. At the same time, they struggled with identifying language that wasn’t moralizing. For example, even the recommendation, “Allow indulgences,” grew complicated. Students intended for it to endorse moderation in a positive way, but the very word indulgence incited debate, as it invoked a framework of good/bad and even redemption/sin that we didn’t want to support, but, at the same time, struggled to leave behind entirely.

Transparency and Inclusiveness

Students cared about what is in food, as well as where food comes from and about easily accessible and understandable information about food production and provenance. Charlotte Biltekoff’s message of “dietary literacy” resonated with them deeply—as did her clear claim that dietary advice embodies social ideals and by its very nature marginalizes and creates “unhealthy others.” More than anything else, students wanted their dietary guidelines to limit not certain foods or nutrients, but to limit paternalistic judgement and the moralization of foods, eaters, and bodies.

In the end, we might have ended up exactly where Charlotte Biltekoff in Eating Right in America said we would: that in questioning dietary advice, we end up in “a place of disorientation about what dietary advice is”—a first step to redefining and reimagining it. Here’s what we accomplished in two weeks. I’d love to find out where we might end up if we spent an entire term on these topics…


Have you engaged critical nutrition studies with your students or in your work? I’d love to hear about and learn from your experiences!


More about my food studies teaching:

What Is Food Studies?

In my editor’s note in the fifth issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies, which launched online today, I considered how to define food studies, inspired by definitions put forth by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik in Food and Culture: A Reader and by Jeff Miller and Jonathan Deutsch in Food Studies: An Introduction to Research Methods. What follows is a selection from that piece. You can read the entire essay here, and we hope you’ll enjoy the complete issue, here.


When tasked this semester to define food studies for my students, I proposed the following:

Food studies is a burgeoning, interdisciplinary, inherently politicized field of scholarship, practice, and art that examines the relationship between food and all aspects of the human experience, including culture and biology, individuals and society, global pathways and local contexts.

I explained that our discipline is young, pointing to the emergence in the 1980s of texts now considered nearly canonical, such as Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change, as well as the pioneering work of Mary Douglas and Carole Counihan. I declared food studies an interdisciplinary pursuit, one that is thrilling and innovative, if sometimes nebulous. I further clarified food studies’ scope as an academic field of research, writing, and teaching, but just as importantly, a field dedicated to building bridges between scholarship, practice, and art. Food studies is a field built on the connections between researchers and communities, addressing resources, assets, dilemmas, and solutions. I attempted to summarize the vast inclusiveness of our object of study, pointing to dynamics between culture and biology, individuals and society, global and local processes.

And I felt called to emphasize that our field is inherently politicized. Food studies scholars often assert that food—food culture, food access, and food sovereignty—is a human right. Food studies examines how food constructs identities. And food studies analyzes how governments shape and control food through food systems regulation, food labor policies, food and feeding programs, and support (or lack thereof) for food-related research and artistic expression.

As a result, food studies matters, now more than ever. I hope that this issue of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies incites critical thought, inclusiveness, and hope as we define and enact food studies in our current political climate.

Healthy Food Blogs: Creating New Nutrition Knowledge at the Crossroads of Science, Foodie Lifestyle & Gender Identities

I’m delighted to share that my article, “Healthy Food Blogs: Creating New Nutrition Knowledge at the Crossroads of Science, Foodie Lifestyle, and Gender Identities,”* was recently published in the thirty-sixth edition of Yearbook of Women’s Historya special issue titled, “Gendered Food Practices from Seed to Waste,” edited by Bettina Bock and Jessica Duncan, available for purchase here.

My article explores the intersection of nutritional and foodie discourses within a selection of popular “healthy food blogs” in the United States. This subgenre of food blogs combines health-conscious recipes, nutrition education, and the theme of “clean living” with the stylized preparation, plating, photography, personal narrative, and consumptive lifestyle that typically characterize food blogs.

Through content analysis and close reading, I analyzed twelve blogs that were featured in Shape Magazine’s online list, “Our Favorite Healthy Food Blogs,” published in summer 2014. Google searches for “healthy food blogs” confirmed these blogs’ relative popularity among readers, and several blog authors have published cookbooks based on their blogs, placing them among a select group of well-known and financially successful food bloggers. This list of blogs also makes a useful sample because the Shape feature included interviews with the bloggers, which provide additional pertinent data of a nearly ethnographic quality. For example, these interviews summarize how each blogger conceptualizes “healthy food” and “good nutrition,” as well as how they position their own food blogging in relation to nutrition science.

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Thumbnail images from the healthy food blogs Shape featured.

These blogs create new knowledge about food, eating, and health. Principally engaging Gyorgy Scrinis’ concept of “nutritionism,” I examine how nutrition knowledge on these blogs—positioned at the crossroads of competing paradigms—is constructed, disseminated, and consumed, as well as how it might be renegotiated. I demonstrate how these healthy food bloggers construct authority and expertise through variable combinations of professional credentialing (for example, as registered dietitians or certified health coaches) and life experience growing, cooking, and eating food, as well as experience following a particular diet, losing a significant amount of weight, or mothering. I also explore how blog content aligns, contradicts, and/or renegotiates conventional dietary advice, such as government dietary guidelines that until recently promoted lower fat diets. This comparative analysis reveals the ongoing contest for the authority to speak for our bodies and to define a “healthy” diet and identities.

In the case of healthy food blogs, this authority is intertwined with the construction of a hyper-feminine domesticity that is distinctly white, middle class, and heteronormative, which potentially limits the transgressive potential of these media forms. I build upon past analyses of “food porn” to apply the concept of food pornography to the representation of bloggers themselves.

I investigate the role food porn plays in producing and sustaining food inequalities and the social politics of inclusion and exclusion. I thus consider not only spectacular representations of food, but also the highly curated aesthetics of food bloggers’ appearances, bodies, and social relationships. Just as food blogs display food porn through photography and presentations of unrealistic and remarkable food lives, these blogs also depict fantasies of hyper-femininity through Hollywood-esque friendships and courtships, dream weddings, blissful marriages, slim and “healthy” bodies, and perfect motherhood. Just as food porn renders food and cooking seemingly out of reach for many consumers, these representations of healthy food bloggers similarly limit “successful” performances of femininity, containing it within hyper-feminine, heterosexual, white, and relatively affluent bounds.

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Thumbnail images from the healthy food blogs that Shape featured.

Although these healthy food bloggers resist, negotiate, and transform conventional nutrition education and dietary advice, these representations of hyper-feminine domesticity are inherently part of the food, nutrition, and health knowledge that they produce. It remains to be seen if the highly curated pages of food blogs may also be a space for postfeminist action. This sample of food blogs reveals significant tensions between progressive and regressive representations of femininities, which curtail the socially transformative potential of these new food knowledges, even as they effectively decenter nutrition science’s dietary hegemony.


Acknowledgements

For their most helpful feedback, comments, and support of this article, I thank the organizers and participants of the 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance graduate student conference and the Graduate Association for Food Studies‘ Future of Food Studies Conference, as well as Fabio Parasecoli, Suzanne Enzerink, Lukas Rieppel, the reviewers, and the editors, particularly Jessica Duncan.


About Gendered Food Practices from Seed to Waste

This fascinating issue dedicated to the topic of food and gender contains ten articles and one showcase interview with Johanna Maria Van Winter, author of Food and Nourishment in Medieval Europe and Spices and Comfits: Collected Papers on Medieval Food, among many others. As mentioned in the special issue’s title—from seed to waste—editors organized the articles within the structure of the everyday food cycle starting with food growing before processing, selling, and serving; buying and cooking; and eating; then concluding with cleaning and disposing.

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Cover image of Yearbook of Women’s History 36.

The editors write, “The collection of papers contained in this Yearbook showcase that food practices have important implications for gender identities, social norms, socio-economic positions, relations of power, and bodies” and form “a curious, complex, and compelling picture.” It is available for purchase here.


* Yes, I’ve learned my lesson about giving articles titles that are way too long. I’ll never do it again. Learn from my mistake.

Featured image: Shape.