Nothing Here But Us Servantless American Chefs: Food Blogs and the Democratization of Culinary Culture

Topics discussed in essay: Walter Benjamin, Food Porn, fixated bloggers, our contrary relationship to gastronomy, gentrification

By Jean Railla, 2007

Without the Project I was nothing but a secretary on a road to nowhere, drifting toward frosted hair and menthol addiction[2]. – Julie Powell

Julie Powell is embarking on a domestic quest–to cook, bake, braise and soufflé her way through Julia Child’s eponymous Mastering the Art of French Cooking[3] over the course of one year and to document the entire process online in the food blog entitled  The Julie/Julia Project.  Or as she puts it:

Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in The Julie/Julia Project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment. [4]

Writing in the frank, self-deprecating, ironic style of self-published zines, novels by Douglas Copeland and the lyrics of 1990’s indie rock band Pavement,[5] Powell leads her readers through a whirlwind of Foie de Veau à la Moutard and Potage Parmentier, with forays into the brilliance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, navigating friendships and troubles in her marriage.  There are crepes that don’t flip, lobsters needing sacrificing and copious amounts of alcohol consumed.  Powell not only struggles with each dish, but also through a malaise of bohemia trapped in a secretary’s cubicle:  who am I and what does it all mean.

“This is where I fuck it all up – but I maintain it isn’t entirely my fault.  Yes, Eric was mixing the vodka tonics very strongly that night, and I was drinking them up pretty good…”.[6]  writes Powell on February 1, 2003. She has been invited to cook dinner at her friend’s Upper West Side apartment.  Not only is she an hour late arriving, having been detained by her job for a department of the local New York City government, but she “fucks up” the recipe. While the beef was to be sautéed and then topped with a red wine reduction, Powell, feeling stressed and intimidated by another guest she refers to only as The Redhead[7], misreads Child’s directions and places the beef directly into the sauce, creating more of a stew than its intended outcome.  In the end, it tasted fine, but Powell had been humiliated.  “I was embarrassed.  I’d fucked up the meal, I was a lousy cook, and the Redhead saw.”[8]

Profanity and intoxication aside, the Julie/Julia Project is hardly the stuff of standard food journalism. Powell inhabits a purposely low-rent world as compared to the glossy perfection of Gourmet, Food and Wine, or any of the other magazines devoted to “fine living.”   Rather than food treks through Emilia Romagna[9], Powell writes about water pipes going bust, a dumpy Queens apartment, her dead-end job and the difficulty of procuring innards in the outer boroughs.  Powell is both emotionally and physically messy, and like many American women, she struggles with finding meaning in the home and the workplace – something that is often edited out of your standard Gourmet writerly fare.

While Julie Powell is a compelling writer and the blog was touted on NPR[10], the NY Times[11] and other venerable intuitions, it is not merely the words on the screen that create the allure.  Equally engaging is the immediacy of her notes, the daily updates on her personal and culinary progress, and the instant feedback she receives from users the world over.  In fact, her book, which garnered a six-figure advance, failed to capture the social zeitgeist and media attention of, as Powell affectionately calls it: The Project[12].

The reason is this:  when Julie Powell writes as an amateur blogger, as opposed to a published author, the audience feels a kinship.  Her non-professionalism and lack of culinary pretension offer minty-feshness to a food culture rich with precious, rarified, overpriced exaltations.  Consider this opening paragraph from a recent Gourmet article on Sardinianian cheese:

I stare as Anonello Cossu opens his resolza – a traditional jackknife with a handle made from a ram’s harm—and drives the enormous blade into the deep-brown, bark-like rind of a round cheese. He excavates a chunk with the knife and offers it to me.  It is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted:  pungent and dry, crude and delicious, and so tangy that it stings the roof of my mouth.[13]

While many Americans interested in food and cookery enjoy this sort of arm-chair culinary adventure (I myself have been seduced enough to subscribe for the past ten years), the stories in Gourmet rarely, if ever, reflect the reader’s actual experiences with food and cookery. Most of us are too busy working and keeping house to go traipsing off to Sardinia with Señor Cossu for the “pungent and dry, crude and delicious” cheese.  It’s enough to find a decent Brie– rarer still to be able to organize the house and kids for a dinner party with four courses.  And while the proliferation of recipes that can be cooked in under thirty minutes speaks to the harried quality of the modern family, feature articles in food magazines don’t quite address our complex, often contradictory relationship to gastronomy.

Food blogs offer an alternative to Gourmet and its cousins of professional food publications. We know from the moment we click on The Julie/Julia Project, that Powell has something different in store for us with the subtitle:  “Nobody here but us servantless American cooks.”[14] With a wink and a nod, Powell reminds us that running a household, cooking fine food and holding down a job is barely possible without a domestic staff.  Readers respond by logging on, reading the posts and adding their comments to the tune of up to 125 comments per entry.[15]

One example of the type of response Powell  receives can be found in the following message from Susan In Italy:

Yep, I totally agree about JC’s roast chicken recipe. I by no means have gone through the book like you did but that one disappointed me too. You’re right, roast chicken turns out much better if you rub some oil/butter on the top and leave it in the oven to fend for itself.[16]

While seemingly banal, it is, after all, simply referring to a chicken roasting recipe, the post symbolizes something deeper.  Unlike the Gourmet article on Sardinian cheese written to be consumed in between ads for Sub Zero[17] refrigerators and the sleep aid Ambien CR[18] and then forgotten, Julie’s post not only elicited a reaction, but the blog software allows readers to immediately reply and have their thoughts published for others to read. Julie Powell is not only mirroring real women’s lives on her blog, but by the nature of it living on the Internet, she creates a space for her readers to literally get involved.  By doing this, by being a part of The Julie/Julia Project with daily visits and publishing responses, the audience engages in a more democratic, inclusive production of food culture.  Julie Powell breaks through the fantasy of culinary allure spelled out in professional food magazines with its just-picked peaches, pricey cheese knives (can I just use an ordinary bread knife and call it a day?) and recipes for dishes like Farmhouse Sunday Soup[19] and therefor opened up for the rest of us, the tired, overworked masses for whom cooking is just another task – albeit a sometimes pleasurable one. And the software makes it possible for us to be there too.  The subtext of The Julie/Julia Project is this:  If a secretary living in Queens could start a blog and speak frankly about food culture, then maybe the rest of us could too.

The French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard would certainly enjoy  The Julie/Julia Project. It’s a very POMO moment  — everyday internet users respond to Julie Powell, who is responding and commenting on a culinary culture personified in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and reclaiming it.  In a word  — simulacra.  It’s one of those meta-moments that appeal to cultural studies students and barstool intellectuals alike.  And yet, it is the Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin, a modernist in every sense of the word, who offers the most interesting lens with which to consider the food blog.

Born into an upper-class Jewish family in late 19th Century Berlin, Benjamin was afforded a progressive education and limitless possibilities.  He wrote criticism and studied throughout World War I, but his writing really flourished during the relative peace in the years leading up to World War II, focussing on topics diverse as Jewish mysticism, Baudelaire, the Romantics, cultural criticism and Marxism.  A major influence in Benjamin’s intellectual and creative thought, the playwright Bertol Brecht was a close friend, as was the Marxist intellectual Theodore Adorno.  With the rise of the Nazis, Benjamin, heartbroken by the genocidal atrocities in his homeland, escaped to France and spent his final years in Paris. He committed suicide on the border between France and Spain, just as he was about to escape to the US.

For Benjamin, having lived through such horrifying times, theory was not some sort of abstraction.  Ideas, he learned from the Nazis, have real consequences. As clichéd as it sounds to our jaded 21st Century sensibilities,  he wanted to change the world and looked to different models that could achieve this goal, including socialism and communism.  Inspired by Brecht, he set about imagining a radical restructuring of culture based on the potentials of mass media.  He called for using the media of his era, newspapers, radios, books and theater to not only spread progressive information but to allow workers real access to creating their own culture.  Speaking to this notion of art, he stated in a lecture he presented at the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism in 1934:

What matters, therefor, is the exemplary character of production, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal.  And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is readers or spectators into collaborators.[20]

Benjamin is speaking to the role of the artist in a progressive future.  For Benjamin, it is not enough to write a beautiful essay or to paint the world’s most exquisite painting, but to write a beautiful essay or paint the world’s most exquisite painting in such a manner, using “the apparatus,” that this artwork, this culture, will, in turn, make space for others to also create, to be in touch with the aspect of themselves that is a creator, not merely a consumer of other people’s ideas and opinions – and most importantly under our current economic system—consuming ideas through the purchasing of products (Think of Nike’s ad campaign Just Do It).  Benjamin gets at the heart of our Enlightenment presumptions that an artist is someone who entertains and citizens are meant to only to consume their entertainment.

Although the examples Benjamin gave in his talk on ‘The Author as Producer’ centered around Soviet produced newspapers that made room for articles written by the workers themselves, he was not particular about which apparatus the artist/producer should use to change society.  If he were alive today, he would certainly find the Internet a most progressive media.

From political leaflets to “niche” magazines to fanzines, Americans have always been interested in amateur literary expression; blogs are the next logical step in this history of self-publication. When everyday citizens go online and post their thoughts on the latest episode of 24, it’s not so different than punks spouting off about the Dead Kennedy’s in the 1980’s fanzines (zines for short). Stephen Duncombe, in his study of these fanzines entitled Notes from Underground, describes a zine as a cross between  “a personal letter and a magazine.”[21]  Like blogs, zines were (and are) created by non-professionals and speak to a small community of fellow fans, or zinesters as they call themselves. While the content of blogs is often more mainstream–fanzines were created and consumed by subcultures of queers, punks, anarchists and oddball product fetishists—the impetus for both is the same: to communicate with the wider world about the culture around them.  Fittingly, the history of zines can actually be traced to the 1930’s, right around the time of Benjamin gave his talk in Paris, with the publication of little magazines that were created by and for fans of science fiction.[22] Although it wasn’t until the 2000 when blogs started to appear in enough numbers to have an impact,[23] it is clear that bloggers are not the first everyday Americans to put their ideas out in the world for others to consume.

A blog is quite simply, a web site where diary-like writings are entered regularly. Blogs became popular around the turn of the 21st Century and recent estimates place the world-wide total at over 28 million[24]. Large sites like salon.com and Blogger.com offer free blog space.  Unlike publishing in the pre-blog era where one needed certain technical skills and access to expensive equipment, blogs require almost no programming skills or expensive equipment, other than one’s own computer, something most families now own. Self-publishing, once a complicated process, is currently mind-bogglingly simple, instant and free.

Although the software used by bloggers imposes a structure that orders posts by date and time–not by subject manner, the content reaches beyond journal entries. The best blogs subvert the software to create a simple publishing tool to house their musings, thoughts and advice on a specific topic.  Blogs are written and maintained by a single person, but the impetus is most often communication with a wider audience than one’s circle of family and friends.  Whereas diaries are meant to be private, blogs are created with the purpose of providing entertainment, help, education and connection to others. In fact there is a network of bloggers, reading, writing and responding to one another, creating communities around various subjects, including food, drink and food culture.

As would befit Walter Benjamin’s progressiveness, blogs, either by design or by the limits of the Internet, are non-commercial, and for the majority of bloggers, a hobby rather than a vocation. The subject matter of blogs reflects an enthusiast’s obsessive detail. Blogs are often narrowly focused and can be dedicated to anything from queer knitting[25] to “Politics for people with dirty minds,”[26] or even adult doll collecting[27] This sets bloggers apart from mainstream journalists, who by training and professional ethics, must take on a dispassionate, more generalist focus to their subject matter, and bury their opinions and excitement in appropriate language and structure.  Bloggers, on the other hand, fixate and extol on their given subject manner.

There are a few well-known bloggers in the established media (Matt Drudge and Andrew Sullivan are some famous examples), however, most are anonymous, untrained, non-professionals.[28]  Blogs offer the possibility for anyone to get involved in media production and reveal ideas or thoughts not usually written about in the mainstream outlets. They also allow everyday citizens to “talk back” to professionalize culture, to criticize, add comments, herald and bemoan.

While there are thousands of blog categories, food blogs present one of the more cohesive and expansive examples of this new media. Food blogs are simply blogs dedicated to cooking, eating, recipes, food shopping, gastronomy, ingredients, food news, celebrity chefs and food politics.  They offer a unique glimpse into food culture and practices identified by the consumers themselves. Like other sources of primary documents related to food, such as professional cookbooks, collected cookbooks, grocery lists, personal diaries and home accounts, food blogs reveal not only what members of a certain group are eating and cooking, but also the values assigned with those foods.

In contrast to food blogs, there is the professional food culture found in the NY Times Dining Out/Dining In, Gourmet, Bon Appetite, The Food Network, and hundreds of cookbooks and other publications. This professional food culture functions in a model of communication wherein the Producer (food writers) transmits information to the  Consumer (readers), creating a one-way information flow, in which the producers are experts and the consumers are not.  While most of us enjoy this sort of consumption, at least occasionally, the one-way direction of this media asks little back from us.  There is no room for readers to bring their own histories, culture and anecdotes back into the story, except for a few hand-selected, heavily edited, letters to the editor each month.  Everyday citizens are related to as non-participants, and more importantly, their own experience of food is denigrated as less important.

Food blogs, on the other hand, offers us another model of food culture.  Rather than a one-way directional structure, Producer à Consumer, Food blogs offer a two-way flow of information, and through its network, a chance for participatory culture production. Here’s how it works:  I read a food blog about called, say, Domestic Failure and one of the entries is about burning a soufflé.  I myself have burned countless soufflés and have a funny story about setting my hair on fire while trying to perfect the dish. When I complete the reading of the entry, I can add my story.  Further more, through the experience of participating, I can feel empowered to start my own food blog, forgoing time I would have spent watching Emeril Live on the Food Network.  I start my own food blog, let’s call it Nice Girl Trying to Cook.  I write a few entries then email a handful of food bloggers I enjoy to see if they want to do a link exchange.  Most agree we link to one another, and now I am a member of the community.  I read and respond to other food bloggers posts and become a part of a network.  Suddenly I see myself as a producer, a creator, someone whose voice matters.  And while I may still consume professional food culture, and now have a place to participate, affirming my location in the world and establishing my own culinary familiarity.

As stated earlier, most blogs are kept by one person, but through a series of links to other food blogs, an online community is formed.  Clicking on links from blog to blog, one enters a rabbit hole full of such various topics as chocolate addiction, New York restaurant reviews, dedications to beer, Jell-O, candy bars, you name it, if you can eat it or drink it, someone probably has a blog about it.

But why is this interesting?  Why should anyone care about food bloggers other than the bloggers themselves?  One reason is this – food culture, even professionalized food culture, offers us an insight into our world, our values and a looking glass with which to make sense of the gastronomic choices that profoundly affect the United States and the world around us —  from obesity issues to farmer’s markets and organics.  If any of us want to change the current crisis of food production and over-consumption, we need to understand where the majority of people are coming from.  There are different tools to do this, from statistical analysis and polling, to looking at commercial culture.  And while we do have the number of McDonald’s burgers served, we know less about why people eat them. Arjun Appadurai, for instance, analyzes how cookbooks communicate more than pure instructional advice in his article How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India.  He writes:

Cookbooks, which usually belong to the humble literature of complex civilization, tell unusual cultural tales.  They combine the sturdy pragmatic virtues of all manuals with the vicarious pleasures of the literature of the senses.  They reflect shifts in the boundaries of edibility, the proprieties of the culinary process, the logic of meals, the exigencies of the household budget, the vagaries of the market, and the structure of domestic ideology. [29]

According to Appadurai, cookbooks reflect trends and shifts in cooking and eating, household budgets and domestic ideology.  Through them we learn much more than how to make Sag Paneer.  Think about Alice Waters cookbook Chez Panise Vegetables.  While the book houses a collection of recipes for dishes such as Whole Wheat Pasta with  Cauliflower, Walnuts and Ricotta Salata[30], it also reveals another story.  The subtext is rich with the tale of California’s culinary revolution.  The book is organized according to vegetables, rather than first course, second course, etc – making clear the emphasis in on the ingredients themselves.  A closer reading reveals the making of a refined American culinary culture which includes fresh, local ingredients – the recipes not only reflect this, they exalt it, placing these new dishes in the same category as the French standards.

Food blogs offer access to the same culinary culture, but of a more pedestrian sort.  While cookbooks are edited by professional teams, styled and photographed to look a certain way and to be bought and consumed in a particular manner, food blogs are written and photographed by unprofessional writers and cooks, whose motivations are varied, but rarely concerned with pure financial reward, so we have a less adulterated story to observe.

Food blogs are not the only literary food culture produced by amateurs.  Compiled cookbooks are self-published recipe collections, which are sold to raise money within a given community.  Members of the community donate their recipes, their collection is bound and then sold back to the same community.  Like blogs, collected cookbooks are not professional publications and offer scholars the same unmediated look at food culture within a given group.  Although compiled cookbooks are written collectively within a community and food blogs are personal, they are both amateur writings about food and cooking.  Lynne Ireland, in her article “The Compiled Cookbook,” considers these home-published cookbooks a type of  autobiography.  She writes:

Whether twenty mimeographed and stapled sheets from the St. Ann’s Altar Society or the magazine-slick, color-pate-studded, two-hundred-page Art Association Statement, compiled cookbooks make a statement about the food habits of the groups which produce them.  Much more than magazines and cookbooks of the popular press which set standards and attempt to influence consumption, the compiled cookbooks reflects what is eaten in the home.  It is, in a sense, an autobiography.[31]

Food blogs, like compiled cookbooks make a statement about the people who create them.  Although slick magazines and cookbooks become inspirational for the everyday cook and can be studied as popular culture to reveal trends and desires within our society, it is in non-professional writings about food which uncover not what the magazine editors and their billion-dollar agri-business advertisers advise, but how the population itself relates to and defines itself by food. The remarkable aspect of food blogs, however, is that unlike collected cookbooks, they can be accessed by anyone around the world, at any time, with any online connection, and the audience can respond immediately, which means a wealth of knowledge for anyone serious about food culture.

Ever-expanding, changing and retracting the world of food blogs is constantly in flux.  In order to get a handle on this community, I set out first to read recent press in order to discover which food blogs have attracted the most media. From there I posted on online bulletin boards for a more representative list. I also followed links from one food blog to another to get a sense of the community.  From this initial investigation of about fifty food blogs, I focused on three main categories — personal, political and recipe-driven.  While there are certain food blogs that defy easy classification as well as several other groups not covered in this paper,  including, but not limited to, food blogs about restaurants, newspaper food section, food products, celebrity chefs, and wine, beer and mixed drinks, I focused on sites that were about the mundane, everyday experiences of cooking and consuming food.

For a deeper understanding of the motivations and aspirations of food bloggers themselves, I approached a handful for interviews.  Through a series of emails, I corresponded with three self-publishers.  Mike Crooker’s publishes What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?,[32] which documents a stay-at-home dad’s nightly vegan meals. Jessica lives in Chicago and publishes Fuck Corporate Groceries[33]  a political blog following her forays into local eating and shopping.  A schematic-laden recipe-driven site cleverly entitled Cooking for Engineers[34] is run by Michael Chu.

At its most straightforward, food blogs document food consumption.  Initially, these types of sites appear as naval-gazing journals, but upon further investigation, one finds them rich with information, not only from a sociological point of view–food blogs offer direct access to what people eat, and what they want you to think they eat –but because the bloggers themselves perceive a higher calling in their documentation.  Mike Crooker, a web designer and self-proclaimed “stay-at-home dad,” says he started What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway? as an “opportunity to show that vegan food can look and taste good.”[35]

The posts on the site display a sophistication of ingredients and a passion for cooking and eating.  Consider the following:

Posted 11:57 PM by Mike Crooker

Dinner 12/7

Stir-Fry (tofu, carrot, Napa cabbage, red cherry pepper, garlic, ginger, tamari and sesame oil)

Basmati Rice[36]

Posted 11:48 PM by Mike Crooker

Dinner 12/9

White Bean Cassoulet

Sautéed Lion’s Mane and Yellow Trumpet Mushrooms on Ciabatta Bread

Mache Salad (w/ fig vinaigrette)[37]

Crooker posts almost daily and when one sees his multiple listings together on the page, they read like haiku. Through simple recounting of his meals one can glean a sense of Crooker’s pride in his cooking (and his aptitude for describing and photographing plates of food). Most of his posting occurs late in the evening when his children have gone to bed.  He could easily be watching TV or sleeping, but instead updates his blog.

Often times, the inspiration for a dish comes from a magazine article or cookbook.  For instance on Friday March 31, 2006, he adapted a lemon pound cake recipe from the magazine Cooking Light, swapping out butter and milk for margarine and soy milk. [38]  Other times, he simply creates his own dish like that cooked on April 1, 2006.

Green Beans with Red Miso and Sesame Dressing

(2 tbs. red miso, 1 tbs. ground sesame seeds, 3/4 tbs. mirin, 1/2 tbs. sugar worked into a paste which is thinned by the water still attached from the drained green beans)[39]

Why does Crooker do it?  Why spend all that time documenting meals and uploading photos practically everyday for six years. He states, “I just wanted to show that you can cook or adapt just about any food in a vegan manner, whether its based on Julia Child’s the Art of French Cooking or anything by [celebrity chefs] Jean-Georges Vongrerichten, Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller.”[40] Perhaps it is a way for him to validate himself as a stay-at-home dad.  Or by maintaining his food blog, Crooker is contributing to a food culture he enjoys, but one that does not always mesh with his own values. When asked if he considers himself a foodie, he responds: “…we subscribe to twelve food magazines a month, read the local food section first when it comes out on Wednesday, have twenty-plus food blogs in the RSS reader and a library filled with 2000 cookbooks. Yes, we are foodies.”[41] Crooker absorbs the professionalized food culture of cookbooks and magazines which exist all around him and reflects it back through his own table and the meals he cooks each night.  When he documents this process on his blog, he inserts himself into the mix.

Crooker clearly understands professional food culture and enjoys it.  But his entries do not mimic the style of the “twelve food magazines”[42] he receives each month, but rather he reveal an open, personal, revelatory vernacular specific to food blog culture. The following passage illustrates this style.

A few things to consider when reading this blog:

…. 4. We don’t like ersatz food (i.e. tofu molded into the shape of a turkey for Thanksgiving), but we do like Soy Boy Okara “Courage” Burgers and Soy Boy Breakfast Links. We don’t eat Animal Crackers — not out of any moral sense, but because the taste sucks 😉

5. A brief personal history. We were vegetarian for 8 years before becoming a vegan the last 12 years. If you have the time, check out the music page.

6. There is no Number 6.[43]

By using slang phrases like “the tastes sucks” with an emoticon, Crooker situates himself on parallel ground with his readers.  He addresses the reader informally, as you, assuming an intimacy: “If you have the time, check out the music page.”  Furthermore, rather than talking down to the audience, or defining himself as the vegan authority, he does just the opposite, with the line “We don’t eat Animal Crackers — not out of any moral sense, but because the taste sucks.”  This writing style subverts the communication model of professional food culture by re-imagining the role of producer as less an expert imparting knowledge to the masses, but more as an act of generosity from one creator to another.

It would seem that, given the bare-bones approach of “What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway,” there would be little for readers to comment on.  However, almost every post Crooker publishes, receives at least one or two comments, often garnering several.  In response to a Raw Food Wednesday, April 12, 2006’s post, Crooker received three comments and he replied to one, leaving four total.  Here’s how it went:

hey. i love this blog as well, though sometimes the dishes look too hard to make on weekdays (where do you find the time?!). Tamarra[44]

In response Crooker writes:

the raw stuff isn’t that hard to do, as much of it can be made ahead of time (like the cashew cheese) and just assembled in the last 15-20 minutes (like the cucumber slices and UnStir-Fry veggies and sauce).

the one big advantage we have is that I work at home, so much of the raw prep can be done in the morning and put into the dehydrator if need be… [45]

Tamarra, a regular, feels free to ask the question most of us want to know when we witness daily gourmet meals being prepared, “Where do you find the time?!”  In response, Crooker invitingly explains that he works from home so has time to prep most ingredients in the morning.  Instead of admonishing Tamarra on the importance of preparing the family meal, something clearly important to Crooker, he acknowledges his privileged position and assumes others may not have such luxuries.

While not all American personal food blogs are as refined or photogenic as What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway? they all have something to say about how and what American’s eat, what dishes we feel deserves status, which deserve documentation, photographing or rhapsodizing about.
While personal food blogs assert the importance of the meal, political food blogs demand a more just food system.  The blog Fuck Corporate Groceries utilizes all the tenants of a standard political food blog:  a counter-cultural take on the world, an edgy title, an anti-establishment tone and an “obsessive streak about documenting things.”[46] Jessica, who does not disclose her last name and goes by J3s on her blog, is a technical writer living in Chicago.   “Fuck Corporate Groceries” documents her shopping for foodstuffs at local stores, barring any corporate grocery chains.

The blog features weekly entries about Jessica’s local food shopping experiences and offers a list of stores she visits, as well as recipes for food bought from these shops.  The tone of “Fuck Corporate Groceries” takes a decidedly political/irreverent bent – not unlike the zinesters who came before her.  For instance, in her December 13,, 2004 post, she refers to Wholefoods as “wholepaycheck,”[47] and on March 13, 2002 she writes “i’m pissed off. not because yet another starbucks has opened, that’s inevitable at this point; but because it has opened in greektown [a Chicago neighborhood]…”[48]

Interestingly, it’s oftentimes merely the banal documentation of what Jessica bought that is most illuminating.  Consider the post from November 23, 2004:

Nikko had never been to Kurowski’s, so last week she and I headed up there around lunchtime to stock up on some stuff. As usual, the place was packed. Upon walking in, you are overwhelmed with the smell of the meat counter: BACON. Sausage. So enticing. Nikko wanted to get something from the meat deli, but ultimately ended up wimping out, as I do every time: where to begin? It’s a bit overwhelming, and everything is in Polish. I’m good at pointing and asking, but just wasn’t feeling up to it. My purchases were:

– cherry juice

– carrot apricot apple juice

– Baltic Bakery Polish rye (as opposed to the loaves of Latvian rye they also had)

sauerkraut from the deli

Bigos from the deli

– 3 yogurts (black cherry, raspberry, and blueberry)

– house-made cabbage and mushroom pierogi

– blueberry preserves

– a maple pecan roll from the bakery section

– bag of pasta

– 2 kiwis

– 3 Alpen Gold chocolate bars

– 4 bananas

– a grapefruit

total: $23.07 [49]

Although merely a list of what Jessica bought at a Polish grocery store, it reveals more than its ingredients.  The foods Jessica eats and why and how she chooses them demonstrates who she is.  Jessica is a person who values small businesses, engages in conscious consumerism as a form of activism and distrusts major corporations.  Although she is intimidated by the foreignness of her local stores—as she states above:” It’s a bit overwhelming, and everything is in Polish”– she continues to shop there.  The discomfort she experiences is mitigated by the pride she feels by adhering to her own values.

When asked why she started the Fuck Corporate Groceries, Jessica states:

I guess you could say I like the challenge of eating consciously [and] shopping responsibly.  [“Fuck Corporate Groceries”] wasn’t originally a politically motivated experiment, though I strongly believe that what you consume really affects who you are and how you live.  It was only after I started shopping independently that I started seeing the socioeconomic aspect of it, which I guess can be described as political.[50]

Although she initially began the blog as month-long experiment in food avoidance, she has continued, sticking to her plan of shopping locally.  As she states, it didn’t start out political, but politics became a motivating factor when she decided to continue after her thirty days were up.  For Jessica, consciously consuming her food is a way for her to protest the increasingly commercialization of urban centers. In her own words she states:

The blog was…partially motivated by feeling like a gentrifier in Logan Square [Chicago].  I don’t like seeing neighborhood shops and the communities they support go under because the new people send their money out of the neighborhood, driving several miles to shop at huge corporate chains.  So I started shopping literally on my block.”[51]

What and how you consume is a political act for food bloggers, much in the same way one does not eat meat as protest to environmental waste.  Although she gave up being a vegan years ago, Jessica still shops for organic ingredients and sees her shopping at local stores as a way to support her community.[52]  Part of this means eating new foods, like pierogis and sausage or Mexican burritos, that might not be familiar to her, but because she lives in an urban area with people from other parts of the world and she wants to shop locally, she ends up eating with them, expanding her food repertoire in the process.

When Appadurai writes that cookbooks reflect “the shifts in the boundaries of edibility,”[53] it is easy to imagine Jessica, a yoga-practicing, political, hipster enjoying homemade cabbage and mushroom pierogi or sauerkraut, although the food is foreign to her.  She has shifted the boundaries of what she considers appetizing.  Jessica’s blog is her autobiography of how she makes sense of her life through her food decisions, which center around the idea of consuming responsibly.

Michael Chu is a hardware application engineer for a large semi-conductor manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he helps companies design notebook computers. His blog Cooking for Engineers follows the standard format of a recipe food blog: recipes, photos and cooking advice. This particular food blog is differentiated from the others in this category by Chu’s use of schematics for recipes and his analytical approach to cooking.

Bloggers list different motivations for starting their blogs.  For Chu, the impetus was the result of a technological glitch, as well as a love and passion for cooking and food science. He used to keep all of his recipes on his Palm Pilot, but after months of entering and storing this information, he lost every one but Tuna Noodle Casserole in a synchronizing error.  After that he says, “I decided I needed some way to store my recipes (and share them with friends)…Earlier this year, blogger.com was giving out free storage space for pictures and I thought I’d take advantage of that.”[54]  Within a few months, he was receiving around 2,000 visitors a month.[55]  Chu likes to cook and as he was already documenting and annotating his recipes, posting this information to the site was a natural outgrowth of his hobby.

“Cooking for Engineers” is well organized and offers hundreds of pages of recipes and equipment reviews.  This recipe blog reflects Chu’s own idiosyncratic outlook on the world; in this way, it too is a personal blog.  Chu states his intention in his blog header:  “Have an analytical mind? Like to cook? This is the site to read!”[56] The following introduction to a recipe is typical of Chu’s writing style:

Recipe File: Prime Rib or Standing Rib Roast

Prime rib used to refer to a prime grade standing rib roast, but these days all rib roasts (and some rib steaks) are called prime rib regardless of the USDA grade it received.

Preparation is quite simplistic for an entree with such a grand reputation. In fact, with a couple tools, this dish is easier to prepare than any other special event food (roast duck, turkey).

When properly roasted, the medium-rare pink is uniform to the edges of the roast, giving the diner the maximum amount of tender, juicy beef per slice.[57]

Chu approaches cooking with a methodical approach.  First he analyzes the labeling of prime rib.  Does the label actually communicate anything to the consumer:  no. Then he reviews preparation techniques and qualifies the recipe:  easy.  From here he walks his readers through the recipes steps and finishes with a clever cooking schematic.

While the Food Network host Alton Brown takes a somewhat methodological approach to his cooking and there are a handful of cookbooks that utilize food science, this approach is rare.  Perhaps it is because cooking is a gendered activity, but most instructional texts offer little in terms of this sort of scientific cooking analysis.  More prevalent is either the flowery prose of Nigella Lawson or the cutesy hurriedness of Rachel Ray, both clearly intended for a female audience.  While Chu loves cooking, he likes to  do it in a way he feels most comfortable with.  As he describes himself, “I’m just someone who plays with his food and is curious to figure out how to make a good meal.”[58]  As an engineer, he transferred his methodology from computer science to cooking.

While food bloggers maintain their blogs individually, as they continue to publish, they become part of a larger community of nonprofessionals. In this way, they have together created their own online food culture, which is much more heterogeneous than professional food culture, as evidenced by the sites investigated in this paper alone.

In organizing the hundreds of blogs around major themes, I am attempting to understand what motivates people to invest their time and energy into maintaining these non-commercial ventures, and to uncover, “the unusual cultural tales” that food blogs tell.  The reasons for keeping food blogs are varied, from personal expression to political motivation to wanting to share their own passion for food – or in the case of Julie Powell, perhaps launching a writing career.   What unites all of these blogs and bloggers is a need to create and talk back to the mainstream media food culture, while not merely dismissing it.  Instead of railing against Gourmet and “food porn”(although some blogs do), these food bloggers are injecting their own experiences, recipes and practices into the culture.  They assert a more nuanced, heterogeneous experience of food than found in the mainstream media.  This is not surprising.  As celebrity chefs, food books, and Food Television gain notoriety in popular culture, more people will refract this and contribute to it in their own ways:  be it food blogs, amateur cookbooks or simply teaching their children the food preferences of their family heritage.

Food culture, as far as cooking goes, has trickled down to the masses, since Julia Child help launch a home cooking revolution in the 1960s. And in a way, growing, procuring and cooking of food has always been a part of popular culture production–after all everyone must eat.  Food writing, however, has mostly been relegated to the experts.  Professionalized writers and cookbook authors have historically told us how to think about and cook food; they defined the parameters of taste, particularly around notions of fine cuisine.  With food blogs, another vision of food journalism emerges; a quirky, authentic, often funny, unglossy world of cooking, making a mess, eating too much, enjoying food, production obsessions and dining out.  It might not have the refinement of  The Dining In/Dining Out section of the NY Times, nor the beautiful photography and exotic locations of Gourmet, but it does have something \ they don’t:  an innately human desire to communicate with the world as a citizen, not as someone who needs to sell or buy something.  To paraphrase good old Karl Marx, blogs help us be a hunter in the morning, a chef in the early evening and a philosopher at night.  I can think of worse things.

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[1] Marx, Karl & Frederick Engels, The German Ideology

New York: International Publishers, 1844 –1988

[2] Powell, Julie, The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/12/31.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

3 Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, New York: Knoff, 1961

[4] Powell, Julie, “Sunday, August 25, 2002,” The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html (accesed April 10, 2006)

[5] Consider the lyrics to “Gold Soundz” off Pavement’s first album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain:  “All drunk in the August sun and you’re the kind of girl I like, because your empty and I’m empty.”

[6] Powell, Julia “Saturday, February 01, 2003,” The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2003/02/01.html (accesed April 10, 2006)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rosetto Kasper, Lynne, “Romanga Holiday.” Gourmet Magazine. New York, April 2006, 125-132

[10] Powell, Julie, Interviewed by Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR: August 26, 2003

[11] Hesser, Amanda, “A Race To Master The Art Of French Cooking,” The New York Times.  New York: August 13, 2003 Wednesday, Dining In, Dining Out/Style Section

[12] Powell, Julie, The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/10/08.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[13] Mandelbaum, Robb, “Counting Sheep,” Gourmet Magazine.  New York:  April 2006

[14] Powell, Julie, The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Powell, Julie, The Julie/Julia Project, http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/09/01.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[17] Gourmet Magazine, New York:   April 2006, 103

[18] Gourmet Magazine, New York:   April 2006, 95

[19] Rosetto Kasper, Lynne, “Romanga Holiday.” Gourmet Magazine

New York:   April 2006, 125-132

[20] Benjamin, Walter, “The Author as Producer,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, edited by Peter Demetz, translated by Edmund Jephcott.

New York: Schocken Books, 1986

[21] Duncombe, Stephen.  Notes from Underground:  Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. 1997, 10.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kahney, Leander, “The Web the Way it Was,” Wired Magazine, February 23, 2000

[24] Ahrens, Frank, “Web Watch,” The Washington Post.

Washington D.C., February 26, 2006

[25]  Jo, Queer Jo’s Knitting Blog, http://queerjoe.blogspot.com/ (accessed April 27, 2006)

[26] Cox, Anna Marie, the Wonkette, http://www.wonkette.com/ (accessed April 27, 2006)

[27]  Kirchner, Mimi, Doll, http://mimikirchner.com/blog/ (accessed April 27, 2006)

[28] Grossman, Lev, interview by Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR, June 21, 2004.

[29] Appadurai, Arjun, “How to Make a National Cuisine:  Cookbooks in Contemporary India.”Comparative Studies in Society and History 30,”1998, 3.

[30] Waters, Alice, Chez Panisse Vegetables

New York:  Harper Collins, 1996

[31] Ireland, Lynne, “The Compiled Cookbook as Foodways Autobiography,” in The Taste of American Place, ed. Barbara and James Shortridge,  1998,108

[32] Crooker, Mike, What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?

http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/ (accessed April 27, 2006)

[33]  Jessica, Fuck Corporate Groceries, http://fuckcorporategroceries.net/ (accessed April 27, 2006).

[34]  Chu, Michael, Cooking for Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/ (accessed

April 27, 2006).

[35] Crooker, Mike, email correspondence with author, December 9, 2004

[36] Ibid.

[37] Crooker, Mike, “Dinner 12/9,” What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?, http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/2004_12_05_veganmenu_archive.html (April 27, 2006)

[38] Crooker, Mike, “Dinner 3/31,” What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?, http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/2006_03_26_veganmenu_archive.html (accessed April 3, 2006)

[39] Ibid.

[40] Crooker, Mike, email correspondence

[41] Crooker, Mike, email correspondence

[42] Ibid.

[43] Crooker, Mike, “Things to consider when reading this blog,” What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?, http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/2006_03_26_veganmenu_archive.html (accessed April 3, 2006)

[44] Crooker, Mike, “Things to consider when reading this blog,” What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?, http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/2006_03_26_veganmenu_archive.html (accessed April 3, 2006)

[45] Crooker, Mike, What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?

http://veganmenu.blogspot.com/2006_04_16_veganmenu_archive.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[46] Jessica, email correspondence with author, December 13, 2004

[47] Jessica, “November 23, 2004,” Fuck Corporate Groceries, http://www.fuckcorporategroceries.net/index.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[48] Jessica, “March 13, 2002” Fuck Corporate Groceries, http://www.fuckcorporategroceries.net/2002march.html (accessed April 27, 2006)

[49] Jessica, “November 23, 2004”

[50] Jessica, email correspondence

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Appadurai, Arjun, “How to Make a National Cuisine…”

[54] Chu, Michael, email correspondence with author, December 6, 2004

[55] Ibid.

[56] Chu, Michael, Cooking for Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article.php?id=20 (accessed December 17, 2004).

[57] Chu, Michael, Cooking for Engineers, http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article.php?id=38 (accessed December 21 2004).

[58] Chu, Michael, email correspondence