On Sexism and Cookbooks and the Aspirationality of Food Media

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and today is the 50th anniversary of the US’s spectacularly ugly version of Bloody Sunday. Civil rights and equality are very much on the mind at the moment. Yesterday, Helen Rosner at Eater (the website that used to write my paychex) posted an enormously thoughtful essay on sexism in cookbooks — more specifically, sexism in cookbook criticism.

The impetus for the essay was a minor brouhaha (sorry Raphael) in the food writing world, the long-and-the-short of which is this: a food website asked a very good writer to compare two very good cookbooks. The writer liked one more than the other because the other felt phony. The author of the phony-feeling one felt the criticism was slightly-veiled sexism. The author of the criticism disagreed.

In Eater, Rosner argues that they’re both wrong. Her full discussion is worth the 10 minutes (maximum) it would take to read it, but to sum: The author of the cookbook is wrong, because she thinks the critic was being sexist for judging the book on its pictures and aesthetic (what Rosner calls the “everything-else”), rather than just its recipes. The blogger is wrong because his criticisms are indeed rooted in subtly sexist values, which run much deeper than his own thinking and, indeed, are inescapable in the food world.

Everything Rosner says feels right to me. And it got me to thinking about related problems in the food world, which got me to thinking about why I left that world.*

The thing is, the Foodie Industrial Complex (otherwise known as the food media) is based on a sort of artifice, this idea that you, too, can be like the pros. This differentiates it from any other segment of the entertainment industry. A music album isn’t designed to convince you that you, too, can make beautiful music. It’s designed to make you Shake It Off. You don’t watch a movie to learn how to make movies; you watch a movie to be entertained.

With food, though, it’s all based on an aspirational ideal. You, too, can throw a glamorous dinner party in the Hamptons with all your best gay friends. You, too, can make authentic Italian food while pretentiously pronouncing “cilantro” with a rolled “R.” You, too, can live a glamorous life in Paris surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful food, or you, too, can be like the most bad-ass of bad-ass Southern chefs. That’s what the whole field is about.

(And this is just talking cookbooks and food TV. The whole idea behind websites like Eater and Grub Street is letting normal people have the sort of insider-y  knowledge of restaurants usually reserved for, you know, restaurant employees.)

As Rosner points out, the whole damn thing is pretentious, but it’s the lady-oriented stuff from Martha Stewart of Gwyneth Paltrow or, in this case, Mimi Thorisson — stuff that gets shoved into the catch-all term of “lifestyle” writing — that’s more easily written off as such. Shows and blogs that let you live vicariously through Anthony Bourdain or John Currence or Sean Brock or Chris “Put Me On Every TV Show Plz” Cosentino are more legit and more respectable and, of course, more inherently masculine. But the basic aspirationality of this side of the food world is less easy to mock or dismiss**.

And that leads me to why I left the food world anyway. For me, food has always been less about Doing It Like the Pros or aspiring to a very specific, monied way of life full of travel and fine food and wine, and much more about understanding my own culture and others through the lens of food. For the overwhelming majority of people interested in food, though, it’s the opposite. Many of the consumers of food media are the lawyers and financiers who have the money to have all the coolest grilling and cooking equipment and can try to Do It Like the Pros. But they’re only Doing It Like the Pros when they’re not out four nights a week spending so much money in restaurants that they can claim to be friends with the chef, when in reality they’re usually just privileged white men really good regulars. Besides, I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get out of restaurants, thank you very much. Put simply, I never identified with the aspirational aspect of it, and after moving to New York City to try to make it, I ran out of money before I could figure out how to achieve the anthropological aspect of it. (Not to mention I ran out of patience with the anonymous commenters, the most vile of all the rich white guys who could afford to go to the restaurants I couldn’t and really, really wanted that sort of Do It Like the Pros insider knowledge that, as I’ve mentioned, was secondary for me.)

So bringing this back to the question of sexism, I guess my point is this: it’s only going to change as women continue to gain positions of power in restaurants (especially in the back of house) and in the sorts of food media that are now dominated by men. It’s going to take more people like Helen Rosner and Amanda Kludt at Eater, April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, and all the other Truly Badass Women who are doing awesome things, to show that the awesome things that we more often see men doing are not inherently masculine, and that women don’t have to strive for the Martha Stewart Ideal of Domestic Goddess.

*I’ve only left the food world inasmuch as I stopped food writing. After working the 2013 wine harvest and in restaurants over the last two years, I hesitate to say I truly (or ever will) have “left that world.”

**This goes way back, too. There have always been two dominant streaks in food media: the Do It Like the Pros world of James Beard and company, and the domestic goddess-ery of Martha Stewart et al. The two strands are related, occasionally opposed, but always co-existent.


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