In this article, Molly Mann juxtaposes women's suffrage cookbooks with contemporary women's food blogs, and she asserts that both find limits in their reification of "the chaste, white body."
keywords | suffrage cookbooks, food blogs, gender, race, digital humanities
abstract | This essay examines women’s articulation of hunger across a range of texts from women’s suffrage cookbooks of the Reconstruction and Progressive Eras in the United States to current women’s food blogs. It argues that these forms attempt to leverage food’s power to connect and empower women, but find their own limits within what Kyla Wazana Tompkins identifies as the reification and reproduction of “the chaste, white body” in Racial Indigestion (2012). Though two seemingly disparate forms, both suffrage cookbooks and food blogs feature women writing to other women about food and communicating a set of aesthetic and cultural values through the experiences of cooking and eating.
Both The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (c. 1886), edited by Hattie Burr, and The Suffrage Cook Book (1915), edited by L. O. Kleber, were compiled and circulated in support of women’s voting rights. Through the recipes included in these texts, the women who contributed to them simultaneously express hunger for delicious food and for a political voice, two orally-driven desires. Although written and shared for personal enjoyment rather than explicit political ends, women’s food blogs also continue to articulate hunger for nourishment as well as community. Across both forms, the desire to express both physical and political hungers is limited by a simultaneous need to impose order around the embodied experience of eating and sharing food experiences.
Tompkins’s reading of Sylvester Graham’s prescription of health as eliminating food items that would disrupt the intact body, and by association, a white social order, along with Minh-Ha T. Pham’s theory of “taste work” and “racial aftertastes” in Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet (2015), provide a theoretical lens through which to read these texts and their circulation of gendered, classed, and racial values. As modes of writing that satisfy a deeper hunger for other women’s experiences, the suffrage cookbooks and food blogs limit their own potential to engage food as a tool for connection and empowerment by inhabiting a subject position of uninterrogated whiteness and class privilege.
Hunger is a mode of physical engagement with the world beyond one’s own body, a way to articulate desire for what is outside oneself. According to feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, food is a source of both horror and fascination because it requires a disruption of bodily boundaries, and, so, hunger, as the articulation of desire for those boundaries to be breached, is equally fascinating and horrible. Articulating hunger is a radical stance for women, because it also requires them to voice desire for a specific kind of bodily disruption through ingestion. Yet, the written expression of hunger through various food media carries limitations that curb its full radical potential. In this article, I examine women’s writing about food in suffrage cookbooks from the Reconstruction and Progressive Eras in the United States alongside current food blogs to show how authors of these texts find their own limits in engaging food’s potential to connect and empower women across racial and class boundaries by reifying and reproducing what Kyla Wazana Tompkins refers to as the “chaste, white body.”
Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, women in the United States shared community cookbooks—recipe pamphlets printed in small batches and distributed personally, often for charitable purposes—to reify their own domestic roles, to connect with other women, and to advance social movements. I focus particularly on suffrage cookbooks published from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century; these works established community among women advocating for the vote and helped them raise money in support of their cause. While I acknowledge black women’s role in the suffrage movement, as well as the development of women’s suffrage from the movement to abolish slavery in the U.S., my essay addresses the dominance of white and affluent women’s voices in suffrage cookbooks and hunger strikes, as well as how these forms of activism depend upon an engagement of racial anxieties to be effective.
Food blogs have grown exponentially as a central component of the contemporary media landscape and cover a wide array of topics from homemaking to fitness to niche diets like veganism and paleo. The clear majority of these “lifestyle” blogs are written by white women for consumption by other women, as shown by their popularity on the BlogHer network. The network, which began in 2006 as a way for women bloggers to receive ad revenue for their sites, feeds more than 25,000 blogs and includes over 2,500 affiliated bloggers, targeting over twenty million unique readers. According to sociologist Laura Norén, 85 percent of award-winning food bloggers throughout the internet are women. Yet, women of color and queer women continue to be underrepresented in the food industry and in food blogs, prompting cookbook author Julia Turshen to launch the site Equity at the Table (EATT) in April 2018 as a response to “the blatant gender and racial discrimination that plagues the food industry.” Of the “32 Must-Follow Food and Nutrition Blogs” listed by style website Greatist in 2016, all are white women. While no data are currently available on the socioeconomic position of these women bloggers, the time commitment required to maintain a website and the cost of ingredients and products they feature in their recipes suggest that their authors possess sufficient means to allow them the time and materials required for blogging. In Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet (2015), Minh-Ha T. Pham argues that the free labor required to blog is historically constructed by whiteness and resources. Her critical study of Asian style blogs and theory of “racial aftertastes”—taste preferences that underscore the limits of racial tolerance—challenge assumptions that the internet operates separately from the racialized structures that dictate off-line interactions.
Pham’s theory of racial aftertastes also helps us understand the cultural forces at work in food blogs. These blogs form a growing discursive community that requires greater critical attention, and I argue that we must consider them in the context of a long tradition of women’s food writing in the United States to gain a deeper understanding of women’s food blogs and the hungry subject position that they assume.
Anne Bower’s study of community cookbooks—or fundraising cookbooks as they are also known—has opened up these texts as a field of literary inquiry, revealing how they are “readable” and have “served the communication needs of women.” Janet Theophano traces the origins of the community fundraising cookbook back to the early modern period in Europe but observes a ubiquity of these texts in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States. Among the recipes, Theophano locates identity formation, collaborative writing, and activism on social and political issues ranging from temperance and religion to women’s suffrage and education. She describes women who exchange recipes and tips on household management as “hungry” not just for the meals themselves but for “details from other women’s stories.” According to Theophano, writing about domestic concerns allows women to share details of their own lives within a culture that discourages them from writing directly about themselves. For women suffragists writing cookbooks to support their cause, recipes also provide a space to discuss politics while strategically aligning themselves with domestic concerns.
The first women’s suffrage cookbook published in the United States—The Woman Suffrage Cook Book, compiled by Hattie A. Burr c. 1886—argues for the “elevation and enfranchisement of women” in the public sphere while reinforcing the primacy of traditional white gender roles and re-establishing domestic space as women’s sole domain of authority. For its readership of white, New England women of means, the cookbook makes the case for political rights as aligned with, rather than in opposition to, women’s domestic roles. A second text, The Suffrage Cook Book, compiled by L. O. Kleber in 1915, also weaves recipes between celebrity endorsements for women’s suffrage. Janice Bluestein Longone notes that these cookbooks, which would have been sold mostly at fairs and at women’s society meetings, helped women to network and develop skills in publishing, advertising, and sales while helping to raise funds for the suffrage cause. They also serve as a response to opponents of the suffrage movement who considered suffragists to be neglectful mothers and housekeepers. The recipes contained within these texts, as well as the endorsements from prominent politicians and writers (including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, Jack London, and the governors of several states) allow their contributors to establish greater economic independence in support of women’s political rights without giving up an identity rooted in domestic and culinary ability. Although the women writing recipes for suffrage cookbooks were already in relatively powerful racial socioeconomic positions—as indicated by their photographs (see Figure 1) and the fact that they wrote recipes for entertaining guests—the cookbooks provide their authors greater mobility between the domestic and public spheres.
Through recipes, these women contributors acknowledge pleasure in food, often with notes on how the dishes taste. In her copy of Kleber’s volume, for example, Carrie Chapman Catt placed a check mark next to the recipes she liked best, noting cranberry soufflé and strawberry shortcake among her favorites (see Figure 2). Within the recipes themselves, contributors editorialize that a baked ham is “fit for the greatest epicure” or that “on a crisp winter morning a dish of nut scrapple is very appetizing.” Yet the recipe form itself requires quantity and prescription, placing rhetorical limits around the imagined pleasures of food consumption these texts describe. Recipes are, as Tompkins describes of Lydia Maria Child’s popular American Frugal Housewife (1832) cookbook, a “textual struggle against disorder,” a way to choreograph raw ingredients into a finished dish that appeals to both physical and social needs. Once those ingredients become quantified and directed through the recipe, however, the possibilities for enjoying them become limited by what is printed on the page.
Where they include dishes influenced by other cuisines and cultures, the cookbooks assimilate these dishes into an overall aesthetic of whiteness. For example, Kleber includes recipes for “Chop Suey,” as well as one called “Delicious Mexican Dish,” featuring sweetbreads and oysters. Burr’s volume includes a “Chippewa Indian receipt” for broiling whitefish. While the contributors credit other cultures for the import of these dishes, those cuisines are appropriated into an overall white repertoire of meals alongside many recipes with Graham flour. Tompkins reads Sylvester Graham’s nineteenth-century dietary reforms—which emphasized vegetarianism, temperance, whole grain flours, and an avoidance of spices—as encoded with racialized meaning. The avoidance of spices in particular, Tompkins argues, suggests that foreign cuisines were considered “dangerous or luxurious.” According to Tompkins’s reading of Graham’s argument, people of non-white races and culture—by their association with spiced food—could potentially disrupt both the individual white body and, synecdochally, the white body politic of the United States. Contributor Mary J. Safford, M.D., expresses a Grahamite mistrust of spice in her “Protest Against Pepper” from The Woman Suffrage Cook Book. She declares pepper “an abomination to the sense of every normal stomach,” constructing those who tolerate and enjoy pepper as cultural outsiders. Safford also adds that, if a person is “so abnormally constituted as to desire [pepper], it can be added ad libitum,” using a Latin cognate for libido that mimics Graham’s equation of gustatory and sexual desire, according to Tompkins’s reading of his work. For Safford and the Grahamites, a taste for spices was a non-normative desire with the potential to disrupt normative white bodies and, consequently, the dominant white social order in the U.S.
The inclusion of Graham flour in a cookbook supporting women’s suffrage is also ironic because of Graham’s views about the role of women in domestic culture. In his Treatise on Bread and Breadmaking (1837), Graham argues that women’s place is in the home and that the focus of their labor should be primarily in baking bread for the family. According to Tompkins’s reading of this text, Graham connects the interior spaces of the body to the nation’s political future and argues that women’s most important role is to care for the health of bodies in their own families by preparing meals at home. For the suffragists, who were advocating for political rights and, by printing these cookbooks, actively exercising their own labor and economic rights in public, an espousal of Graham’s argument about bread and inclusion of his “Graham flour” is at odds with their stated intent. Kennan Ferguson argues that, even as community cookbooks align their authors with the kitchen and its traditional roles, they allow women to organize themselves as collectives and establish “communities of gustatory independence for women.” Even so, the suffragists’ collective organization around their cookbooks is considerably undermined by the inclusion of Graham flours and endorsement of Grahamite principles against spice.
The women’s suffrage movement in both the U.S. and United Kingdom is bookended by two extreme stances in relationship to food: the suffrage cookbooks that promoted enjoyment in eating and the hunger strikes during which suffragists starved themselves for the cause. In the U.K., Parliament passed the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, or “Cat and Mouse Act,” which allowed for the temporary discharge of suffragists weakened by hunger striking, although the women’s imprisonment resumed after they were considered restored to health. The “Cat and Mouse Act” was a response to public outcry against the force-feeding of suffragists but did not end the practice. Members of the National Women’s Party in the U.S. began a hunger strike in October 1917 after their leaders, Alice Paul and Rose Winslow, were arrested for picketing the White House and declared themselves political prisoners. One month later, during the “Night of Terror,” November 14, 1917, thirty-three women, including Paul, were released after the White House protest, returned to prison, and beaten by guards; those who went on hunger strike were sentenced to solitary confinement and force-fed. While the forced feeding may have nourished their bodies, the suffragists’ “hunger” for public attention on their cause was left unsatisfied, and their harsh treatment at the hands of prison guards stood in stark contrast to the pleasurable eating experiences imagined in the suffrage cookbooks’ recipes.
Part of what made the force-feeding of suffragists such a spectacle was their status as white women of means. As Tompkins notes, at the center of the project to protect and reproduce the “chaste, white body” is the “erotic and political life of the mouth.” Through her close reading of nineteenth-century novels, Tompkins identifies blackness as a force that “enters into and upsets the white body and therefore the white body politic in all senses of the word.” In order to be effective as a political stunt for women’s enfranchisement, the force-feeding of suffragists depends upon a perception of white women’s bodies as fragile and especially vulnerable to the kind of disruption that force-feeding makes visible at the porous site of the mouth. In the context of what Tompkins calls the “anxious formation of white racial dominance” in the postbellum U.S., the public disruption of suffragist bodies through force-feeding evokes the vulnerability of the white body politic. The suffragists engaged this dynamic—consciously or otherwise—to rally support for their cause, but its effect was limited by their dependence on racial anxiety to influence public opinion.
Considered as two parts of the same political movement, the suffrage cookbooks and the hunger strikes reveal how much of women’s social and political identity is connected to food and the mouth as a site of both consumption and expression. Whereas the cookbooks emphasize the mouth’s potential for pleasure in preparing and tasting delicious food, the hunger strikes rely instead on the painful discipline and consequent disruption of the mouth’s refusal to accept nourishment through any means but force-feeding. The hunger strikes and force-feeding also place an image of vulnerable white women at the center of a movement toward women’s independence and political rights. The contradictions between these two political orientations toward food—the cookbooks and the hunger strikes—emphasize how a perceived vulnerability of white women’s bodies is fraught with racialized anxiety. To leverage that anxiety for their activism therefore undermines the suffragists’ agenda of enfranchisement and antidiscrimination by limiting these rights for only white women of means. Both powerful ways of expressing desire through food, or through its refusal, the cookbooks and hunger strikes are cultural tools through which suffragists assert their own agency and bodily autonomy against a political system that would keep them disenfranchised. However, the very act of articulating political and bodily hunger through cookbook recipes and hunger striking engages racialized anxieties that limit the potential for these activist measures to secure rights and freedoms for women who are not white and affluent.
As tools to advance women’s suffrage, The Woman Suffrage Cook Book and The Suffrage Cook Book provide spaces for women to organize themselves for political ends, while remaining securely attached to their domestic roles. As Ferguson and Theophano collectively argue, the cookbooks intensify community and identity while also satisfying women’s desire for accounts of other women’s experiences. Yet, along with the hunger strikes, the suffrage cookbooks undermine their own potential to advance freedoms for all women because they align themselves with white female bodies of privilege. Not only do the suffragists, through their use of food as a platform for activism, engage racial anxiety to advance their own cause, they rely on a nineteenth-century discourse of white women’s bodies as especially vulnerable and, through their use of Graham flour, a belief that the health of U.S. society depends on women containing their purview within the home.
While there are notable differences between the suffrage cookbooks and today’s food blogs, these two seemingly disparate forms of women’s food writing uphold the “chaste, white body” as they present women’s hunger, especially for white women of means. The food blogs, like the suffrage cookbooks, articulate orally-driven desires for both food and voice, as well as keen appetite for accounts of other women’s experiences. Through their recipes and aesthetic features, I argue that food blogs contribute to a food culture that (re)produces whiteness as normative. Pham’s study of Asian style bloggers and the “taste work” they perform, as well as her theory of racial aftertastes, provides a helpful lens through which to read food blogs by women, which do similar taste work by rearticulating gender, race, and class as aesthetic values in the globalized capitalist online realm. Where Tompkins examines how nineteenth-century language related to hunger and appetite emphasize racial difference, Pham defines racial aftertastes as taste judgments that reveal limits of racial tolerance in a digital environment of perceived “postracism.” Reading present-day food blogs together with suffrage cookbooks provides a historically-situated understanding of how the bloggers build narrative around taste, perform taste work as labor, and how race, gender, and class are bound up with food tastes.
Because food blogs encompass a wide range of sites with varied concerns—including “healthy” or “clean” eating, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, and gluten-free blogs, to name just a few—I have focused this article on multi-award-winning, well-sponsored sites that engage a wide readership. Although not all of the blog features I discuss will apply to every blog mentioned here, or all food blogs in general, my aim is to identify a set of discursive practices that characterize food blogs by women, to identify key tastemakers in food blogging (as Pham does for elite Asian fashion bloggers), and to understand how some of the most popular women food bloggers perform taste work.
The event of eating, when presented through media, becomes a “situated bodily practice” that, like fashion, articulates an individual’s embodied experience of everyday life. Food blogs written by women build narrative and perform taste work through situated bodily practices, like the fashion blogs in Pham’s study, and most food blogs produced within the past five years feature hyperlinks, affiliated marketing advertisements, graphics interchange format (GIF) images, photographs, and videos to create a multimodal and multidimensional narrative, all of which is centered around the blogger’s embodied food-related experiences. For example, the blog post trend “What I Ate Wednesday” (#WIAW), in which the blogger documents everything she ate for that day, includes photographs of meals along with accounts of the bloggers’ life through each event of eating. Images are typically framed to show other aspects of the bloggers’ life in the backdrop, as well as to include a top-down view of her body and clothes (see Figures 3 and 4). Although the depicted plates of food are often lush and overflowing, the blogger shows herself in the image as slim, white, well-dressed, and often, surrounded by her expensively furnished home. In “‘How Beautiful Women Eat’: Feminine Hunger in American Popular Culture,” April Davidauskis argues that the ideal woman is one who is always already eating but to whom food does not attach itself as weight on the body: someone who engages the erotics of food’s oral—and therefore radical—power while still maintaining the chaste, white body. The event of eating, then, is one of public, not personal, consumption. Food blogs engage this pressure by presenting eating as a digital spectacle—one that is captured in photographs and discussed in the comments section—rather than the private satisfaction of individual desire. Emily J.H. Contois, in her study of healthy food blogs, also shows how bloggers construct authority while simultaneously containing that authority within a hyper-feminine domesticity, one that reifies the chaste, white body. As with the suffrage cookbooks, food serves as a platform for establishing a voice that transcends the boundary of the home, while also situating bloggers within traditionally gendered domestic roles.
Whereas the suffrage cookbooks are limited by the printed page, food blogs completely immerse readers in a set of aesthetic values that accompany and are reinforced by the recipes themselves. The interactive reader comments feature of most food blogs also allows for a multidirectional, asynchronous, and collaborative experience in which the division between producers and consumers of aesthetic knowledge collapses and the blogs generate a convergent replication and reification of taste. Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen blog, for example, features a lively comments section in which readers provide feedback on recipes and offer their own ingredient or technique variations, as well as their eating experiences. A recent recipe for zucchini ribbons with pesto and white beans features this exchange:
Anita (reader): I agree that a lot of the things that taste good on pasta taste good elsewhere so I have been experimenting with new uses for pesto as well. In the past week, I’ve found that pesto is great on roasted potatoes and stirred into a quinoa salad.
Rebekah (reader): I concur! I made a pesto butter that’s going on toast and eggs and pasta and anything else I think of.
Deb (blog host): Okay now I really want pesto butter. Great idea.
The recipe’s taste work continues through the comments section as readers rearticulate and reproduce the blog’s affluent, white aesthetic by describing ingredients like pesto and quinoa that are generally associated with health-conscious eaters of means. Quinoa, in particular, is a favored product among the professional middle class and its mention here situates these reader/commenters in a privileged position within a racialized and global power dynamic. Nearly all quinoa consumed within the U.S. comes from Bolivia, where the international demand for this product has made it unaffordable to Bolivians, who previously relied on it as a staple crop. Through their commentary, these blog readers reveal that they inhabit a position of racialized and classed privilege, and rearticulate that position as part of the blog’s taste work practices.
Pham identifies bloggers’ self-fashioning as a form of taste work, describing “the blogger’s construction of the self” as a “social and interactive practice that is constituted alongside audience practices of reading, responding” and engaging with consumer products. The purchased products, in the form of kitchen equipment or recipe ingredients, are “material representations of the blogger’s taste” that communicate social and cultural practices. While a select few women food bloggers, like the vegan blogger Ella Woodward at DeliciouslyElla, sell their own products through their websites, most display their product consumption in exchange for ad revenue or as sponsored content. Through another post meme, called “Friday Favorites,” all the blogger’s recommended products are listed for readers to buy and link to further (branded) content. Friday Favorites posts on popular blogs, such as Iowa Girl Eats, Sweet and Strong, and Carrots ‘N’ Cake, feature recommendations for recipes on peer blogs, branded food products, and styled clothing items modeled by slim, white women. These posts perform and circulate communal taste practices by linking to other blogs with similar aesthetic presentations and by creating a brand of associated products that articulate the blog’s gender, racial, and class status. Pham notes that, although it appears to operate outside of capitalist influence, blogging itself is unwaged labor and bloggers present themselves as “hyper consumers,” rather than creators of new knowledge. Yet taste work and blogging produces and reproduces the social order that supports capitalist production. The suffrage cookbooks function similarly by aligning food choices and housekeeping practices with a political cause, thereby articulating a set of values and taste practices; however, the digital, immediate nature of blogs, which allows their respective authors more easily to circulate text, images, and product hyperlinks, amplifies the taste work of food writing.
This blurring of boundaries between waged labor and “passion projects” is characteristic of today’s “creative class,” according to Pham. The most popular bloggers receive indirect ad revenue and sponsored content, but blogging itself is unwaged and self-managed; according to Pham, it “embodies an implicit ideological assumption about the democratic and even liberatory properties of creative work” that understands success as “fueled by individual drive and intellectual capacity rather than capital.” Although managing even the most basic blog requires some level of code knowledge, bloggers construct their own “labor subjectivities” around the idea that they blog for the love of sharing food experiences, not for any direct compensation from readers or product sponsors. Several bloggers describe their own transition into digital food knowledge work from a prior corporate job as empowering, but Pham argues that this empowerment is conditioned on the willingness to work at all hours of the day for little to no money as part of a “gendered labor economy supply that embraces the conditions and forms of economic precariousness that is endemic to digital media economies.” Perelman’s “About Me” section in Smitten Kitchen describes “previous iterations of her so-called career,” during which “she’s been a record store shift supervisor…an art therapist and a technology reporter. She likes her current gig—the one where she wakes up and cooks whatever she feels like that day—the best.” Although Perelman makes her blogging work seem like a vacation from structured, waged labor, the carefully coded and curated nature of her blog, its perfectly staged and lit photographs, and the frequency with which she responds to reader comments attest otherwise. Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt describes her transition from pastry chef to food blogger as one between work and family:
Fast forward five years to an entirely different sort of dinner service. One that begins its rush at 5 pm rather than 8 pm. My patrons are one husband and three young children who are rarely as patient and well-mannered as the Beverly Hills elite I served prior to this new gig. Feeding my family is the most satisfying and delightful job of my life.
Rodriguez presents her current blogging work as the equivalent of staying home to care for her family, with no mention of the time she spends writing, coding, photographing, testing recipes, and performing all the labor that is bound up with the seemingly simple task of posting a recipe. Yet the blurred boundaries between domestic (unwaged) and public (waged) labor, as well as the changing nature of work in online environments, make these other labors invisible. Though bloggers on the most popular sites receive income through ad revenue and sponsored content, this money is not presented to them or to their readers as direct compensation for the actual work—writing, photographing, coding, and responding to readers—of blogging. The bloggers themselves, by presenting their labor as a hobby, passion project, or commitment to family time, constitute a digital gendered work force that embraces economic precarity as a central feature of its labor subjectivity.
Contributors to the suffrage cookbooks perform what has been socially and historically constructed as unskilled labor—cooking, housekeeping, and the nutritional care of a family—to create a product (the cookbooks) and raise funds for their cause. Not only do these women advance women’s voting rights through their work, they also help to rebrand women’s unwaged work as a commodity. Even though the suffragists I examine did not benefit directly from the commodification of their labor, they exercised agency over the use of generated capital. Food bloggers, who are also predominantly white women for whom free labor is an option, similarly commodify gendered and “unskilled” labor, but this commodification is both amplified and troubled by the digital media economy’s collapse of the boundaries between immaterial and physical labor, producers and consumers, and paid and unpaid work. The embodied nature of food blogging and its aesthetic, textual, and visual representation of bloggers’ situated bodily practices simultaneously reinforces “the naturalization of feminine skills and knowledge” while rationalizing their “devaluation.” The product of these blogs is the representation of women’s bodily experience of food, which makes invisible the work that goes into its aesthetic presentation so as to appear natural. Yet, it is work, and whereas the suffragists made gendered labor visible through their cookbooks, women’s food blogs—situated as they are within a digital media economy—depend on that labor’s invisibility.
Free labor is not just a gender issue: Pham argues that it is historically and mutually constitutive of whiteness. Toni Tipton-Martin and Psyche Williams-Forson both show how African American women produced and circulated food knowledge in the U.S. from the era of slavery to the present. Just as these women and other women of color are not represented in the suffrage cookbooks’ printed recipes, women of color continue to be underrepresented in food blogs that privilege affluent white women. Food blogger Angela Davis of The Kitchenista Diaries attributes this gap to a “stigma surrounding service jobs” for black women, who “fought for decades to get jobs outside of domestic work.” Pham argues, however, that blogs do not contribute to a perceived “postracism of the digital era” so much as engage modes of taste production that are historically constructed by race, gender, and class. Rather than being diminished by the internet, the roles that race, gender, and class play in structuring opportunities within “informational capitalism” are instead evolving. Because identity work and taste work are linked practices situated on and within the body, food blogs—like fashion blogs—produce the blogger’s own body as a site of identity and taste work, and gender, race, and class positions (which determine how bodies publicly engage with consumer products) are articulated as aesthetic values that undergird the project of self-fashioning.
The embodied nature of food blogs and the situated bodily practices they exhibit through text and photography also work to reify an idealized white feminine subjectivity, especially in blogs that touch upon ideas of “clean” or “healthy” eating. Echoing the Grahamites’ presentation of health as the elimination of certain harmful foods like meat, alcohol, and spice, blogs that discipline eating by accounting for meals through photographs (#WIAW) or emphasizing a diet that avoids meat, gluten, or some other food articulate fear of disrupting the social order by focusing on the intact white body. Even those blogs not explicitly oriented toward health or overtly disciplined eating achieve, by their circulation of recipes and aesthetic principles of eating, Tompkins’s “textual struggle against disorder.” Perelman’s blog, with its carefully composed photographs and lower-case fonts, creates a minimalist aesthetic often described as a “clean look” (Figure 5). In My Name is Yeh, Molly Yeh also features a minimalist font and color scheme, as well as photographs that are lighted and composed to effect simplicity (Figure 6). Both blogs use white backgrounds as a central focus of their minimalist appearance, engaging a cultural understanding of whiteness as the absence of any elements that would disrupt the blog’s curated aesthetic—although both women are Jewish and Yeh is half-Asian. Where Grahamites promoted the intact white body, food blogs—both artistically and nutritionally—adopt a set of values that privilege “clean” eating, minimalist presentation, or both. Whiteness and clean eating constitute racial aftertastes and reveal the limits of racial tolerance in food blogs, although these blogs do not explicitly engage a discussion of race.
Tompkins shows how the protection and reification of the “chaste, white body” circulates throughout nineteenth-century texts as their main project, and women’s food blogs perform similar work in the online realm. Like the suffrage cookbooks I address, food blogs express orally-driven desires alongside a Graham-like emphasis on the intact (white) body. Reading these blogs together with the suffrage cookbooks provides a historically-situated understanding of the taste work that these blogs perform, how that work is valued, and the racial aftertastes they engage.
Both the suffrage cookbooks and women’s food blogs leverage food’s power to connect women, yet both forms also continue to circulate an ideal of intact white bodies—and, concomitantly, an intact white social and economic order—through the taste work they perform. Across both forms of writing, the potential for women to satisfy their orally-driven desires for food, shared experience, and political voice or economic power are undermined by a reification of white female class privilege.
As activist texts advancing women’s suffrage, The Woman Suffrage Cook Book and The Suffrage Cook Book effectively organize women around their political goals, while allowing them to remain securely situated within domestic roles. Especially when considered alongside the suffragist hunger strikes, these cookbooks appear to limit their goal of freedoms for all women to white female bodies of privilege only. The suffragists, through their use of food as a platform for activism, engage postbellum racialized anxieties to advance their cause and rely on nineteenth-century discourses—Grahamism, for example—that argue for a limited domestic sphere of influence for white women.
Despite a range of differences in period, medium, content, and form, both the suffrage cookbooks and food blogs discussed in this paper uphold the “chaste, white body” in presenting women’s hunger, especially for white women of means. Across both genres, women authors articulate orally-driven desires for food and accounts of other women’s experiences. Using Pham’s theory of racial aftertastes as a critical framework, I argue that these blogs contribute to a food culture that (re)produces whiteness as normative, articulating and rearticulating taste judgments that underscore limits of racial tolerance in a digital environment often perceived to be postracial.
As critical attention to both blogging and food studies continues to expand in scope and depth, reading food blogs alongside community and suffrage cookbooks helps us see the cultural forces at work in women’s food blogs as part of a longer tradition of women’s food writing in the United States. This historically-situated reading provides a better understanding of how bloggers build narrative around taste and perform taste work as labor, as well as how race, gender, and class are bound up with food tastes in current U.S. digital media culture.
Molly Mann serves as Assistant Dean in the Graduate Division of St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, where she is also a PhD candidate in English and has earned a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree. She received her BA in English summa cum laude from Adelphi University. Mann’s research interests include domestic fiction in the long nineteenth century, American modernism, women’s labor and its literary representations, food studies, and the digital humanities. Thanks to her library science background, she works at the intersection of archival studies, digital scholarship, and literary studies.