Book Review: Food, Feminisms, Rhetoric by Melissa Goldwaithe
Historically, the study of women and food has been deemed unworthy of scholarly attention. Melissa Goldwaithe turns this on its’ head with Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. In the past feminist scholars have been reluctant to study the intersection of gender and food. Goldwaithe acknowledges this at the forefront and opens by setting the stage for the importance of this topic in the studies of rhetorics and feminism. She grabs the reader in the first paragraph, inviting them to take a deeper look at the symbolism of food and food-like materials around them. She references ‘Hungry-Man’ frozen dinners and ‘Skinnygirl’ products to introduce the rhetoric of foods on the shelves of every grocery store, but the average consumer hasn’t paid much attention to. She then invites the reader to think even deeper…what formed their beliefs about food? What foods did they grow up thinking were good? Bad? The reader is immediately immersed in a deeper level of thinking of food and representation. Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics sets out to critically examine the historical and rhetorical significance of women and food.
First off, note the plural of both the words ‘feminisms’ and ‘rhetorics’. Goldwaithe purposefully uses the plural versions of these words, acknowledging that there are multiple types of both feminisms and rhetorics. The book is divided into four parts: (1) “Part I. Purposeful Cooking: Recipes for Historiography, Thrift and Peace” (2) “Part II. Defining Feminist Food Writing” (3) “Part III: Rhetorical Representations of Food-Related Practices” and (4) “Part IV: Rhetorical Representations of Bodies and Cultures” (pp 5-8). Food, Feminisms, Rhetoric contains essays written by a variety of feminist scholars with varying viewpoints. While in the past scholars focused primarily on food disorders and feminists were reluctant to cooking and eating because they were linked to women’s oppression, however, there seems to be a renewed interest in the topic and we’ve seen more works focusing on women, food and rhetoric. Food, Feminisms, Rhetoric explores a wide range of topics, providing a forum for both new and established scholars. The topics covered range from the visual rhetoric of women during the Holocaust to the cultural appropriation and appreciation through food writing to widening the definition of a rhetorician to include housewives who hand-wrote recipe cards and handed them down through the generations.
Part I. contains essays paying attention to cookbooks as feminist historiographies, the “embodied rhetoric” of hand-written recipes handed down by generations of women, the political rhetoric of war-time recipes and thrifty shopping and food preparation. In Writing Recipes, Telling Histories: Cookbooks as Feminist Historiography by Carrie Helms Tippen, she makes the argument that rhetoric requires a redefinition to include women as practitioners of rhetoric (16). Tippen posits that cookbooks serve as a feminist hysterography and places the women authors in a position of the rhetorician. She uses the cookbook, Sweets: Soul Food Desserts and Memoriesto situate women not only as rhetoricians but historiographers. Using the example of “My My’s Pound Cake” (Pinner’s grandmother) she illustrates how recipes not only provided a narrative for women but also contributed to the development of southern identity. Sweets served not only as a cookbook, but a memoir and alternate female narrative of the Great Migration, in which African Americans moved from the south to the north for a better future. My My uses the recipe for a pound cake to tout her southern pride, stating “Pound cakes are a truly Southern dessert,” (19). Pinner also writes about the re-creation of the southern kitchen and food social practices that migrated with her My My from the south to the north, demonstrating the importance food has on family and culture.
In The Embodied Rhetoric of Recipesby Jennifer Cognard-Black, the reader is brought into the nostalgia of Cognard-Black’s family kitchen, complete with the food-stained recipe card for “Date Puffed Rice Balls”. Cognard-Black argues that handwritten recipe cards serve as the embodiment of rhetoric, giving a three-dimensional voice to women who pass the recipes down through the generation. The hand-written recipes embody the physical aspect of the author, down to their skin cells brushed onto the card, leaving remnants of their actual body, but also situates the author in place and time. She uses the example of her grandmother’s “Date Puffed Rice Balls” recipe. This one 3X5 index card represents the voice of women in America in the 1950s. How you may ask? She gives us several examples, first, the ingredients list calls for ‘oleo’ which is short for ‘oleomargarine’ which fell out of use in the United States in 1949. Afterward, the term ‘margarine’ was used, but we can tell that this recipe was written when the term ‘oleo’ was still widely used. The name on the card is attributed to her grandmother’s friend, ‘Florence Anderson’. Quick research on the name will provide compelling evidence that most likely this is the name of an Anglo-American woman who migrated from England to the United States and was born between 1880-1940 (36). We also know that this recipe was written in a time when sugar was readily available and desserts in ball form were in vogue. All of these facts help provide a living body to the recipe. The author also states that she makes her grandmother’s butterhorn recipe with her daughter every year. Although her daughter never met her grandmother, she has a piece of her through the recipe she’s handed down. What I love most about this essay is my own personal connection to this topic, as my most valued possession is the hand-written recipe book my mom gave me on my wedding day. I’ve always felt a personal connection to her when I flip open the book and follow her directions for making her famous fudge or chili. I run my finger over the pages, feeling the imprint of where her pen left an impression. I still chuckle when I see that she re-wrote her mother-in-law’s recipe for sweet potato casserole because she felt that her handwriting was too messy and she didn’t approve of the amount of butter she used. I laugh at how she wrote her name on the top of the recipes she provided as if I didn’t know that the chili recipe was “mom’s”. And tears come to my eyes as I picture the many nights of my childhood, sitting across the table from her eating her chicken n dumplings and chocolate oatmeal cookies. I’ve always felt closer to her when preparing her recipes and Cognard-Black helps put words as to why.
The chapter, “Promoting Peace, Subverting Domesticity: Cookbooks against War, 1968-1983” by Abby Dubisar was particularly intriguing, as the author provided examples of how women combined recipes with rhetoric for antiwar feminists. The opening quote, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber” by Velia Dean and Barbara B.J. Zimmerman in The Great Day Cookbooksums up this chapter (60). I had never thought of it in those terms before, but wow, how accurate. Using phrases such as, “Make in 10 minutes before rushing off to your WSP meeting” (67), “Italian exports are known the world over. If only PACEM in Terris was a popular as Italian Veal and Peppers. However, until that good day…” and “Spread sauce over chicken and serve. Sometimes (maybe due to nuclear testing) the sauce just won’t thicken enough to spread” (67) the reader can see how political rhetoric is interspersed with recipes. The authors appealed to their readers, women, by using a topic that appealed to their sense while interspersing political rhetoric.
The authors in Part I. all use different methods to articulate similar messages on the argument that cookbooks are indeed rhetoric and the women authors, rhetoricians. Regardless of the format, whether hand-written recipe cards, war-time cookbooks or a memoir with recipes, the writing of recipes serves as important documentation of history and provides women with a voice in a time when male rhetoric dominated.
Part II invites the reader to understand more about defining feminist food writing. Erin Branch conducts a critical analysis of M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing. M.F.K. Fisher was a gastronomical writer, ranked fifth on “The Fifty Most Important Women in Food”, claiming she “created” the genre of food writing (77). At the time, most women wrote about food not for pleasure, but in terms of household management. They wrote about practical topics, such as saving money, recipes and advice, but M.F.K. Fisher wrote about enjoying preparing and eating food. Branch argues that Fisher “provides a rich case study for feminist rhetorical practice” (79). Branch conducts a rhetorical analysis of Fisher’s works, discovering Fisher’s “feminine style” to argue that the pleasures of food are just as important as the other benefits. Branch coins the term, “gastronomical Kairos” as “the ‘fitness’ or ‘opportuneness’ of a given culinary experience’ (79). Branch describes the rhetorical significance of the kariotic moments, using the example of Fisher’s description of eating a peach pie, still warm from the oven, peaches picked straight from the farm and the cream fresh and cold, sitting in the local stream. This description places the reader in the moment and provides an emotionally powerful appeal, contributing to the gastronomical Kairos. In fact, Branch argues that Fisher’s gastronomical Kairos is the key reason why she’s so successful. What’s also interesting to note is Fisher’s use of initials rather than her first name, which she does as to not be identified as female in her writing. I see this in my workplace still, in corporate America 2019. I work with several women who refuse to use their first name in their email, signature or corporate directory listing. Instead, they prefer to be referred to by their initials. By removing their gender in written communications, they placed themselves on an even playing field as men in the industry, similar to what Fisher did. Branch also brings up an excellent point that readers are more likely to identify with a persona whose authority is derived from experience than education or other remote sources, which is part of the reason Fisher was so successful. Fisher dared to do what only other male food writers did at the time, write about the pleasure of food. Speaking of M.L.K. Fisher, the next author, Lynn Bloom, opens with a quote from M.L.K. Fisher, “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others,” (89). Bloom speaks of how our love of food is intermingled with our experiences, family and memories. She also discusses vulnerability as a rhetorical strategy, using Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef and chef/owner of Pruneas an example. Bloom discusses how Hamilton is a powerful force among female rhetoricians, with her controlling, authoritative and list-making style. She displays the dichotomy of ball-breaking chef and motherhood with Hamilton’s ‘to-do’ list she wrote when 39 weeks pregnant:
Train CR on a 2-man line
Call Roodie for fill-in?
Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic
Pick up white platters
Change filters in hoods
Figure out pomegranate syrup. (95)
By having ‘have baby’ as only one-line item on this otherwise, work-centric list, demonstrates the many balls Hamilton kept in the air.
In “From Street Food to Digital Kitchens: Toward a Feminist Rhetoric of Culinary Tourism (or, How Not to Devour Paris and Eat Your Way Through Asia)”by Kristin Winet, discusses culinary tourism, which is the consuming of foods while traveling. She outlines the problem, namely cosmopolitanism. Jennie Germann Molz notes, “the practice of cosmopolitanism is not theoretically considered to be negative, as it is most often associated with ‘a stance toward diversity itself’ through a demonstration that willingly wishes to engage with the Other in curious, appreciative ways – an orientation that is not at its heart, necessarily colonizing by design (103). The main problem Winet outlines is that many food writers are not culturally sensitive. She posits that there are consequences to taking a cosmopolitan stance, including inadvertently exploiting the “Other’s” culture at the expense of highlighting how ‘adventurous’ they are. The culinary tourist ends up being about the author’s bravery at trying new and exotic foods rather than appreciating and understanding another’s culture. This process ends up decontextualizing food by erasing the history of how the food came to be. Winet states, “This is, in some ways, the kind of Internet-based de-contextualization that celebrates global food without really understanding them” (106). In the south we way, ‘she means well’ or ‘bless her heart’ which is the sentiment I have towards these to unwitting food writers. In their attempt to contribute to the rhetoric on food, they end up devaluing the culture rather than demonstrating their appreciation.
Part III evaluates rhetorical representations of food-related practices. Abby Wilkerson writes the first essay in this chapter, “Not Your Father’s Farm: Toward Transformative Rhetorics Of Food and Agriculture” and provides examples of how the rhetoric of farming and agriculture paints a picture of the ideal farming family, which is white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual and traditional. She discusses Eileen Schells’ work, Rural Literacies, which calls for an ‘alternative agrarian rhetoric’. Schell extends Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric of persuasion to farming families and the marketing that reinforces the imagery of farm and family. This ‘family rhetoric’ results in indirect forms of exclusion, as LGBTQ, non-white and single farmers don’t fit the marketing images of the white, heterosexual family to sell their goods.
In “Baklava As Home: Exile and Arab Cooking in Diana Abu-Jaber’s Novel Crescent” Arlene Voski-Avakian discusses the importance of diversity in the rhetoric on food. She also portrays the dilemmas that Arab American feminist writers face. If they harken back to a “glorified past” they can be criticized because of the patriarchal dominant forces in the Arab world. However, if they explore the patriarchy of their cultures in diaspora, it can play into the Western assumptions of Arab culture. She also addresses the challenges in Arab American writers to represent Arabs, as this is a broad category of diverse people. They have the challenge to decide who’s in and who’s out. There are also sensitivities to not reinforce the Americanized trope that Arab Americans are terrorists with ‘their’ women having little awareness. However, Voski-Avakian posits that Abu-Jaber successfully navigates this rocky rhetoric in her work, Crescent. She uses food as the unifying object that brings people together and offers a way to connect people across their differences (136).
Winona Landis takes a similar approach as Voski-Avakian in the respect that she analyzes the work of a female fiction author. Landis explores the work, My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, which plays a significant role in gendered reproduction and global feminism (142). Landis states, “My Year of Meatsexemplifies the neoliberal project of identification across difference; that is, it relies on the production of positive feelings and the simplification of difference in order to promote inclusive political change,” (143). Landis expands upon Allison Carruth’s theory that “[Ozeki’s] fiction analogizes cultural diversity and biodiversity as a rhetorical tactic for rejecting ‘global economic exchange networks” by adding the emphasis on emotional reactions and identification (143-44). Similar to Kristin Winet, Landis notes the danger in representing cultural diversity as truly an appreciation of other cultures or reinforcing the mode of the United States at the center and American modes of consumption.
Sugar and Spice: Cooking with the Girl Poisoner by Sylvia A. Pamboukian offers a fascinating look into the imagery in children’s literature of the juxtaposition of the girl poisoner as innocent and celebrated from the woman poisoner, a witch and villainous. Pamboukian cites several examples in children’s literature, including Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter, Brave and The Secret Garden of the girl poisoner. I was particularly interested in this chapter, as this was a view I had never before considered. She extends ‘poisoning’ to include self-poisoning (The Secret Garden), cooking with less than fresh ingredients (Little Women) and deliberately poisoning ones’ family (Brave). Pamboukian posits that the ‘girl poisoners’ heroines treated as girls are read as naïve and enhances their likability. However, once a ‘girl’ becomes a ‘woman’ (as in marriageable or married women) she becomes unsympathetic.
Tammie M. Kennedy discusses the rhetoric of wine in Boxed Wine Feminisms: The Rhetoric of Women’s Wine Drinking in The Good Wife to discuss how wine and drinking has become commonplace rhetoric in today’s society. Kennedy specifically uses The Good Wife to exemplify how “drinking practices are inflected by gender ideologies that shape representations in popular culture” (171). Over the past ten years, wine has been portrayed as a substance that enables women to deal with the stress of balancing motherhood with a career and the pressures of everyday life. Kennedy makes the tie of this wine-drinking culture to feminism, stating that it is a form of female assertion. However, she recognizes there are contrary views on wine-drinking and feminism. Gloria Steinem is quoted as saying, “Alcohol is not a women’s issue”, while other feminists have touted how alcohol is an antidote to managing modern motherhood.
Part IV addresses what I’ve typically thought of when I think of women and food, the rhetorical representations of bodies and cultures. Consuelo Carr Salas opens up with The Commodification of Mexican Women on Food Packaging, addressing how Mexican foodstuffs are marketed. Walking down the ethnic food aisle, one may notice the traditional Mexican folklorico dress on the woman on the salsa jar or the woman in a simple blouse in front of a traditional kitchen setting (190). Salas critically examines this rhetoric, asking questions such as ‘who is this marketed to?’ ‘why do some companies choose to sell their product using stereotypical images vs. plain packaging?” (190). Salas found that scholars had conducted many studies on women in advertisements and found that while women are represented in more diverse roles now than in the past, food advertisement is more likely to depict women in gender normative roles. Salas’ call to action is to ask consumers to pay closer attention to the visual rhetoric of certain cultures in advertising and consider the way the stereotypes are perpetuated (195).
Alexis Baker tackles the sensitive topic of female rhetoric during the Holocaust in “Feeding the Self: Representations of Nourishment and Female Bodies in Holocaust Art.” What she found by exploring the paintings and artifacts from the Holocaust is that women used visual rhetoric to hold on to some semblance of normalcy and their life prior to being imprisoned in the concentration camp. Baker specifically looks at Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp, fifty miles outside of Berlin. These women and their children were starved to death, as food rations weren’t increased, even as the camp overflowed with more and more prisoners. To ease their suffering, they composed recipe books based on their lives prior to the Holocaust. Two of these cookbooks survived. This domestic rhetoric enabled women to maintain hope and mentally place themselves outside of the camp into a time when they were happy, healthy and with their families. Paintings also exist from this time, Baker evaluates this art, specifically Mother and Child by Halina Olomucki, and found that the mother and child are represented as being together, even in a time when children were torn from their mother’s arms, their cheeks were full, in a time when they were being starved, and their locks flowed over their shoulders, in a time when their heads were being shaved. This art demonstrates the power of visual rhetoric for these women to represent them identify not by their current reality, but in the roles, they held in the past. This rhetoric enabled them to present their identities “not as victims, but of strong Jewish women” (204).
“Evolving Ana” by Morgan Gresham explores the pro-anorexia website, House of Thin, and how the rhetoric plays a role in the discourse of eating disorders. The common belief of ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ (meaning promoting and encouraging the eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia respectively) websites is that they contribute to the dangerous rhetoric for young girls and women on eating disorders. Gresham seeks to better understand the complexity of the discourse on these sites. Pro-ana websites popped up at an alarming rate in the 1990s and early 2000s, with a variety of thinspiration quotes and images, advice on how to maintain and hide eating disorders and tips for losing weight. There are differing thoughts on these sites, as The National Eating Disorders Association and the National Association of Anorexia fought to have these sites taken down, as they believed them to be damaging and hindering recovery for those suffering from an eating disorder. However, other researchers recognized the value in these sites, recognizing the value of women with this disorder to connect with one another and develop a coping strategy for their illness. The audience for these sites is primarily women recovering from anorexia. These women face an interesting challenge, as third-wave feminist writers claim that overcoming eating disorders is being a feminist, but Gresham explains that recovery isn’t a one-step, or one and done experience, thereby plunging women recovering from the illness into questioning their allegiance to feminism.
Rebecca Ingalls discusses the important topic of grotesque rhetoric in the Skinny Bitchbook series. The authors of Skinny Bitch, Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, use foul language, harsh feedback and shaming language to persuade readers to adopt a veganism lifestyle. Ingalls likens this to ‘grotesque realism’, which is “excessive corporeality illustrated in artifacts depicting the carnival tradition but mean to be repressed in high culture” (223). Ingalls posits that Freedman and Barnouin use the image of the shameful female glutton and the horrible foods she eats as a rhetorical strategy to steer readers away from eating meat, dairy, sugar and refined carbohydrates and adopting a “clean” lifestyle to get skinny. The Skinny Bitch books serve as a stark contrast to the other diet books on the market that provide a sympathetic, understanding and caring view of a woman’s challenge with losing weight. Rather, Skinny Bitchtakes advantage of the “plight of a woman who has already hit rock bottom in a cycle of fad diets and weight gain and loss; what has she to lose with a little cut-to-the-chase advice about how she has failed to change her food habits?” (227). Ingalls compares the rhetoric used in Skinny Bitch to what Bakhtin describes as ‘billingsgate abuse’, at the core of grotesque realism. Compare Bakhtin’s urging to see the ‘affection’ in the insult to Freedman and Barnouin stating is ‘tough love’. Another interesting point in this article is the affirmations the authors use in Skinny Bitch to motivate the women to lose weight, it’s noted that the progression of mantras moves from “my ass is getting smaller”, “my thighs are getting thinner” and “my stomach is getting flatter” to “loving my body more” and finally “getting healthier and healthier”. This reinforces the focus on the importance of looks and only being able to love ones’ body AFTER one’s ass, thighs and stomach are smaller (235).
Moving from skinny bitches to fat ladies, Sara Hillin examines the rhetoric of the Two Fat Ladies television show in “Gusto and Grace: Two Fat Ladies and The Rhetorical Construction of Fat Culinary Ethos”. The ‘two fat ladies’ were successful and set out to “disrupt the dominate weight-normative discourse that exalted thin bodies” (238). Hillin posits that the ‘two fat ladies’ were forerunners in the “movement to combat fat oppression” and were activists, promoting self-love, size acceptance and being comfortable in one’s skin.
The plus-sized female is also explored in Elizabeth Lowry’s essay, “Deconstructing the Plus-Size Female Sleuth: Fat Positive Discourse, Rhetorical Excess, And Cultural Constructions of Femininity in Cozy Crime Fiction”. Lowry explores the relationship between personal and the political with fat positive discourse in the second-wave feminist movement, specifically by taking a deep look at novels portraying a fat female detective. While much of what Lowry explores is an interesting exploration into this genre of “chick-lit” (a term troublesome in itself), what I found the most interesting was her assessment that the fat female protagonist has to be careful not to indulge in ‘excess’ of other vices, which would reinforce the trope that overweight women are indulgent and lack self-control. Specifically, Lowry uses Flake’s Hannah as an example, citing ‘Hannah’s sexual desires are hinted at, but never quite fulfilled and her ambivalence about her own body is clear” (259). Lowry states that this is done to be careful not to play into the notion that overweight women are excessively grateful for male attention. Lowry’s concluding argument is one of mixed messages, stating that when writing about a fat protagonist, the author should be careful to celebrate excess, but not take it too far, embrace their body while also not focusing too much on their fatness. From Lowry’s analysis, it feels as if an author can’t win, if their female protagonist is overweight, but doesn’t talk about her weight, she’s “living from the neck up” (257). However, if she focuses on it too much, she’s reinforcing the stereotype that overweight women are not comfortable in their bodies.
In conclusion, Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics is an eye-opening collection of essays from feminist scholars with ground-breaking ideas, thoughts and conclusions. I gobbled up this book quickly and couldn’t put it down. Each essay is written superbly and offers a fresh new perspective on women and food. Given the variety in topics, from Grandmother’s handwritten recipe cards to the danger in cultural misappropriate a culinary tourism writer to the power of rhetoric and body image, each essay is well worth the read. The scholars offer well-researched viewpoints and extended the views posited by other researchers. I am inspired to take a deeper look at many of these issues, that previously I was not even aware. I hope that this work is the first of many works focusing on the relationship between food, feminism and rhetoric, as I believe this field is rich in content and we’ve barely touched the surface on this important topic. I highly recommend this book and I will be looking for additional works by Goldwaithe.
Goldthwaite, Melissa A. Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics. Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.