E5: Food & Femininity (with Dr. Kate Cairns)

Dr. Kate Cairns, an Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University, joins us remotely to share her research on how foodwork—the researching, buying, and preparation of food—plays into modern ideas of what it means to be a good, responsible woman. She talks about what she learned after interviewing more than a hundred women for her study, and about how race and class inform the way people moralize women's food choices for themselves and their families. Food and Femininity, the book she coauthored with Josée Johnston, came out last year via Bloomsbury.

Produced by Alan Montecillo. Music by AF the Naysayer, Blue Dot Sessions, and Amjad Sabri.

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[theme music]

ZAHIR JANMOHAMED Hello, and welcome to Racist Sandwich, a podcast that looks at the intersection between race, food, gender, and class. I'm your co-host, Zahir Janmohamed.

SOLEIL HO And I'm your co-host, Soleil Ho.

ZAHIR So, we made it to episode five.

SOLEIL Five's a good number. It's a strong number.

ZAHIR I know [laughs]. And we actually have more episodes out now than we have stickers left, which is good.

BOTH [laugh]

SOLEIL Yeah, we made it rain last night at our launch party.

ZAHIR Yeah, so, we had a fabulous launch party. Thank you to all those who came out in Portland at Kim Jong Grillin’, his location over in the southeast of Portland. It's a fabulous Korean bar-b-que place.

SOLEIL Yeah, big ups to Han for hosting. We just overwhelmed his kitchen, I think, but yeah. The patio was full. Everything was full, and it seems like everyone loved the food. So, thank you, Han.

Another thing going on in the world of food is this really amazing story about protestors showing up in Chinatown in New York over a dog meat festival that's actually happening in China. So, they're showing up in Chinatown, outraged about something that Chinese people are doing. So, the funny part about this is, I mean, the festival is in China. But they think that the Chinese people in Chinatown have a direct line to the people in this rural village in China who are holding this dog meat festival. It's amazing.

ZAHIR Wait, wait. Hold on a second. Are you saying that all Chinese people aren't on a single What's App? group?

SOLEIL Well, they might all be on Weibo or something.

ZAHIR [laughs]

SOLEIL But...no [laughs]. There's this great article on Reappropriate that we posted. We reposted it on our Facebook page. There's this really good quote from there that I thought was really poignant. "Animal rights activists rarely confront--or even acknowledge--how their actions blur the lines between a reasonable conversation about animal rights and historic anti-Asian stereotypes. This is not just a conversation about the ethical treatment of dogs. This is also a conversation about race, ethnicity, privilege, and stereotypes. For centuries, anti-Asian stereotypes have included portrayals of Chinese as barbaric consumers of dirty and unimaginable food sources. The stereotype of the 'Heathen Chinee' typically associated Chinese immigrants with the frequent eating of rat or dog as evidence of their cultural and moral inferiority to Whiteness."

Yeah, that was the quote. And so, dog meat has always been such a flashpoint as far as anti-Asian, Orientalist sort of ideas. Especially, I mean, I heard a lot about that growing up too.

ZAHIR Yeah, I know Soleil and I, we're both fans of the late writer Edward Said, and one of the things that he talks about is that in a lot of Orientalist depictions of other cultures, there's a sense of rendering them through the lens of disgust. Like, "Oh my god. Look at what they do over there. It's so disgusting." And one of the things that I would actually love to do at some point is to write some satirical restaurant reviews of "American" food today.


ZAHIR Because sometimes when I travel, and people talk about, "Why do Americans do this or that?" And so, it's like--

[mellow jazz]

SOLEIL What disgusts people about what Americans eat? I wanna know.

ZAHIR Hot dogs, for example.

SOLEIL Oh, that's fair.

ZAHIR I always get questions about hot dogs when I go travel.

SOLEIL [laughs]

ZAHIR People are like, "So why the hot dogs? What, exactly, is in a hot dog?" And I always say, "I don't really.... Yeah, I don't know. It's a mixture of miscellaneous stuff."

SOLEIL [laughs] Yeah. At my elementary school, we would joke that the hot dogs were made of raccoons.

ZAHIR [laughs]

SOLEIL 'Cause it tasted like it.

ZAHIR In the first few episodes, we tackled race and food. But in forming our podcast, we were also very interested in tackling gender and class. For me, as someone who's never worked in a kitchen, when I met Soleil, I was pretty blown away by some of the things that she said. I know this is my own naiveté of how female chefs are, for example, pushed into doing pastry, whereas male chefs aren't. Or the gendered ways in which we talk about female chefs.

So, I became really fascinated, and I started searching online for ways in which I could learn more about food and feminism and food and femininity. We ended up discovering this wonderful person via Twitter named Kate Cairns, who's a professor at Rutgers who co-authored a book called Food and Femininity. Kate is also our first phone interview as well, too, and we're really excited to start interviewing guests via the phone, 'cause that opens us up to a wider possibility of interviewing guests across the country.

SOLEIL Yeah! This is an episode of firsts. She's also our first white guest. And I'm mentioning that just because we mention the race of everyone else on our show, and I feel like it's very politically important to mention whiteness. And we thank her for coming on.

ZAHIR You know, I sort of have a bit of a soft spot for academic literature because I think there's such exciting discussions happening in academia. And oftentimes, we don't access that literature. I'm happy that we're interviewing our first professor just a week after my partner, Claire, got her PhD. So, shout out to my partner.

SOLEIL This conversation with Kate was really illuminating in a lot of different ways, right? Her view on food and femininity extends beyond the kitchen and into consumerism, into rhetoric about what it means to nurture and provide for a family or a partner or for yourself. And we even talked a little bit about masculinity. We talked about sort of the ways in which foodie culture seemed more egalitarian but was still very segregated as far as the psychology of it and who cooks what and how often and all of the labor differentials within those relationships. So, it was really fascinating, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.

KATE We're exploring, I guess, not just women's relationship to food but the relationship between food and femininity. So, when we say "femininity," we're referring to kind of cultural ideas about how to be and act feminine and how to signal a feminine gender identity to others. So, I think it's a particularly interesting time right now because food is seen as really kind of hip or hot, and you turn on the TV, and you'll see people from a range of gender identities cooking on The Food Network. Often, we see men who are identifying as foodies, and so, it might seem like the idea that food and femininity are connected is kind of old fashioned or a thing of the past.

And so, what we argue in our research is that actually, there continues to be a very strong association between food and femininity in our kind of collective imagination. So, how we imagine what it is to be feminine is often really connected to food and particularly to expressing care through food. And so, even if we've kind of gone beyond a sort of explicitly gendered ideology that says, "Women belong in the kitchen" or something like this, we still see that women's sense of themselves and also how they're perceived by others, are often very tied to food.

So, for instance, things like being a caring mother or being health conscious or an ethically-minded consumer can often be expressed through our food. And what this also means is that being seen to "fail" at that performance of femininity can be evaluated through food. So, if you think about, for instance, one of the places where we can see this most intensely is around feeding children. And if kids are seen to come to school, for instance, with what's thought to be not a healthy or a nutritionally-balanced lunch, then who is often seen to be responsible for that "failure," right? So, we still imagine that there should be a caring mother behind the provision of nutritious, tasty, wholesome food for kids.

We can also see it in terms of who is expected to be trying the latest juice cleanse or--

SOLEIL and ZAHIR [chuckle]

KATE [laughs] --or adopting a vegan diet in order to promote animal welfare or environmental wellbeing. Those things are still, I think, very intricately associated with femininity.

To be very clear, that doesn't mean that men aren't engaging in those practices, or there aren't men who express care through food or enjoy cooking, etc., etc. But rather that their sense of masculinity, right, their sense of themselves as a gendered person isn't usually evaluated so harshly through those activities.


ZAHIR Kate, I know you interviewed 129 people for researching this book. What was the most surprising thing you learned by talking to all of these people about their relationships to food?

KATE One thing, I guess, to say is that I think it's important when we talk about food and femininity is that there are multiple ways that food and femininity are connected. And of course, women don't all relate to food in the same way, right? So, for instance, I think about one woman who said, "When I open up my fridge, and I see that it's full, I feel like I'm a good mom."

Another who said, "Food is culture. It's your roots." And she said, "If I like you, I'll cook for you," right?

ALL [chuckle]

KATE Another woman who was a food activist and was involved in community food security work talked about food as a kind of vessel for hope and for change, right, a site of transformation.

I'm not saying this is the most surprising part, but rather, I just wanna kind of emphasize the diverse ways in which food can be a site for performing femininity. It's not a kind of two-dimensional or narrow connection between gender and food.

I would say that one of the most striking things was that because the stakes are so high, I think, around femininity and food, is that we found that this was a really potent site of emotion. So, there could be such emotional rewards derived from feeling like you had achieved success: You integrated spinach into your lasagna that you were making, and your kids thought it was delicious, right?

SOLEIL and ZAHIR [chuckle]

KATE And so, that felt successful in making something that was both tasty and healthy. Or you managed to cook a locally-sourced meal from scratch, and so, that felt ethically mindful.

But, in addition to those periodic rewards, we found a pervasive kind of sense of stress and uncertainty around feeling like you were able to achieve the standards that were set out for you, particularly in relation to mothering. That even women with immense amounts of resources, immense amounts of privilege in terms of class and racial privilege, still sometimes worried that they were kind of failing at food work. Not researching enough about what was the healthiest or safest options for their kids or not doing enough to teach their children about where their food came from. So, there was this kind of real threat of failure, I think, all the time.

And I think I was surprised at the fact that we saw that of course, these standards are out of reach for many women that don't have access to the time and money and other kinds of resources required to make organic baby food from scratch.

SOLEIL [chuckles]

KATE But the fact that also, women with access to lots of privilege also felt kind of stressed and anxious about these standards, I think, was really striking. And it sort of points to the ridiculous bar that we've set for achieving ideas about food and femininity.

You know, I wasn't surprised to find that many women were concerned about the kind of harsh judgments of being a "bad" mom. So, there, we see this come through a lot in the media. It's often very classed ideas about low-income women not feeding their children, making the best food choices, and in this way that's very stigmatizing and often not paying attention to collective issues like could we have better state support for low-income folks to have access to healthy food, for instance? But what I was surprised by was that there was also this sense of being judged harshly if you cared too much. So, if you were the "obsessive helicopter mom," or if you were the health nut who would only drink green juices. So, women would say things to us like, "Well, I try to eat healthily, but of course, I'm not crazy about it," or, "I'm not obsessed with it. I'll have a piece of birthday cake if I go to a party." Or they'll say, "I want my kids to eat organic, but I'm not gonna freak out if they have something that's not organic at their friend's house."

So, there's this kind of balancing act that, again I think, points to these very difficult standards to achieve where it's not only about not doing enough, but being seen to do too much is also something that women can be judged harshly for.

SOLEIL Right. Wow, yeah. So much of what you just said was really resonate with me just in terms of my own upbringing and thoughts about eating too much, eating not enough. And just, you feel like you're on a tightrope constantly. I don't even have children, and I'm already shaking with anxiety [chuckling].

KATE [laughs]

SOLEIL I'm really curious, also, just about within those standards, within the sort of straight jacket that women have kind of found themselves in, have there been any effective modes of resistance or responses from women, historically, in your research?

KATE Mmhmm, yeah. Absolutely. I think I always wanna emphasize when I talk about this research 'cause I think I wanna focus a lot on, you know, I wanna highlight the persistent gendered pressures and inequalities. But also, it's important to say that many of the women that we spoke with were reflecting critically on these very issues. They had a sense that these standards were impossible to achieve or that they were elitist. And they would sometimes laugh at things that they were reading like in parenting books. One woman told us the line of a parenting book that said that every bite you eat when you're pregnant, you should be thinking about how it's affecting your perfect baby.

SOLEIL Oh god!

ZAHIR [laughs]

SOLEIL And she was like, "As far as I'm concerned, that book should be banned."

SOLEIL [laughs]

KATE Another woman who said she had to stop reading food magazines 'cause she couldn't stand to read another article about how hormones in meat were affecting girls' development.

And so, there was a kind of critical reflexivity or critical distance in the way that they were interpreting these pressures. At the same time that that level of critique didn't allow them to totally disengage, right? I mean, Soleil, it's exactly what you were saying. You are obviously someone who's thought about these issues a lot, but still, having these conversations, it can generate anxiety. And you relate to these feelings, right? So, even if we have a kind of critical consciousness or a critique, that doesn't mean that we can just let go of the pressures that we find ourselves in.

In terms of resistance, there was a kind of yeah, everyday resistance of being like, "I'm not gonna read any more of those parenting magazines." Or, "I'm gonna let go of some of the standards that I set for myself before I had kids." But then, we also did interview several women who are involved in collective food activism and were doing work around, for instance, community food security work. Where if we're approaching these issues collectively rather than an issue of individual women's responsibility, then we can challenge some of these unachievable pressures placed on women. If we start to think about, for instance, the environmental health risks that could potentially be coming with the chemicals in our food, if we think about that as a collective issue to be addressed through state regulation of industry, for instance, that's very different from saying that individual women need to be practicing very conscientious consumption practices and making sure they're buying expensive ingredients in order to protect their children. So, I think that that kind of collective food organizing is one of the ways that we are now seeing encouraging forms of resistance to these kinds of pressures.

ZAHIR This question is actually from--just to make the connection--this question is from Sarah Mirk from Bitch Magazine.


ZAHIR She wanted to ask about food and feminism from a labor perspective. Because, for example, in Portland, you kind of sometimes will get this scowl at the grocery store if you don't buy organic produce. So then, there's that conversation about buying organically. But in terms of the other side of the question, which is how the laborers are treated. What nuances are sometimes lacking in mainstream leisure-oriented rhetoric around food and labor? And then how do you connect food, feminism, and labor?

KATE Mmhmm. Yeah, I think that's a really, really important question. And the labor side of things in terms of paid food labor is not my area of expertise, but we do know that women continue to make up a vast majority of the paid workforce in terms of a range of food work. But that work tends to be undervalued. So, we can think about the division that many folks have written, and I think this has actually come up on your show before, about between male chefs who are talked about in terms of their genius and their expertise and women who are more likely to be described as cooks rather than chefs. And their food work is seen as less about a particular kind of training and expertise and knowledge and more about an expression of care, right? So, we even see these ideas of femininity being used to devalue women's food work within, for instance, being a chef.

And then more broadly, I think we can see a lot of feminist issues in the context of food service. So, like school cafeteria workers, fast food workers. There's such exciting organizing going on right now around the Fight for $15, mobilizing for a $15 minimum wage.

ZAHIR Oh, got it. Of course.

KATE So, even if that's not explicitly framed as a feminist movement, many of the folks, who work in fast food are women. These are highly feminized industries where women's food work is also undervalued. So, I think we can see the connections between the ways that women's unpaid food work within the domestic sphere is undervalued, and then also women's paid food work is undervalued vis a vis the kinds of legitimacy, I guess, that's granted to men more often, for instance, in restaurant work. Or I mean, even if you think about the context of food politics, the public faces of what we would often, what some folks, would term as the mainstream food movement, tend to be white men, right? People like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, those are often the folks that we look to as authority figures within contemporary discussions of food politics. And in our research with food activists, we had some activists who pointed toward a kind of gendered division of labor and authority that they saw where frontline food security work, so folks that were working within communities around issues of access to food, community gardens, community kitchens, that tended to be coded feminine. That work was predominantly women. Where the realms of policy and food production tended to be coded masculine. There was more often, men who were in those kinds of positions that were seen to be decision-making around policy and positions that are given authority.

SOLEIL So, it seems like a lot of sort of women's entre into food activism has almost been relegated to the kind of choice feminism that's defined 3rd wave mainstream feminism in America.

KATE Mmhmm.

SOLEIL You know, like what you choose at the grocery store determines your ethics. And so much of that seems to be rooted in white bourgeois feminism also. So, what are the kind of pathways that you've seen women of color, working class women try to reach a more ethical relationship to food?

KATE Mmhmm. Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a really important point to draw that link between when we talk about choice--and of course, choice is important--but that's often a very individualized rhetoric, and we need to think about who has access to the choices that we are holding up as the ideal, right? So, not only in relation to gender but also race and class as well. Some of the pathways that have come up are certainly around the kind of collective food struggles that I was talking about. For instance, women of color food activists who we talked to that were working with community gardens and community kitchens in order to increase food security within their local communities. Also around class, one thing that was striking for us was that some of the most, some of the strongest critiques, I guess, of that kind of individualized conception or choice-based conception of food politics came from working class women in our study who didn't have access to the "vote with your dollar" approach, right?


ZAHIR Mmhmm.

KATE So, there's one woman who really comes to mind. She was a single mother living on social assistance who really cared about food, but on a day-to-day basis was making sure that she and her daughter had enough calories to get through the day. She was really angry that there was this vision of being a kind of ethical food citizen that was held up based on the dollars that you spend at the grocery store. She was saying like, "This is an issue that we need to be tackling through the government. Doesn't everybody have access or have a right to nutritious food?" And so, sometimes I think we can see that kind of collective critique emerge from positions of marginality, or sorry, folks who are marginalized, by a more choice-based--which is often a white, middle class--vision of food politics.

In the book, one of the things that we argue is that we do think that we can learn from a kind of second wave feminist vision of the personal as political, right? That, in feminism, we wanna be thinking about recognizing women and marginalized folks' everyday experiences as a site of struggle and politics. But at the same time, a feminist politics that only works at the level of the personal is not enough. That we always need to retain a connection to broader critiques of social inequality in the home and beyond. And that's what I think is a concern within this kind of vote with your dollar approach that we see. It's so popular now is that it can be very appealing if you are someone who feels concerned about a corporate-dominated global-industrial foodscape, and you have access to resources to make the decisions that you feel are ethical or creating change. But that that actually can work to further entrench inequalities because it celebrates the food choices of a privileged few and doesn't do anything to address the broader systemic inequalities in the food system.

SOLEIL OK, cool. Yeah, I've always thought that it was kind of, when I was coming up as a baby feminist, I remember thinking, wait. How can I do this when everything I buy oppresses someone?

ZAHIR [laughs]

KATE Yeah.

SOLEIL Or how do I buy the ethical-- I remember sitting at the grocery store just looking at boxes and just being like, "What the fuck?!"

KATE Yeah!

SOLEIL [laughs] What do I buy? How do I be a good person?

ZAHIR and SOLEIL [chuckle]

SOLEIL And yeah, it kinda tracks back to what you were saying earlier about anxiety and just about how it just exacerbates a lot of-- So when everything you do is significant, it's almost paralyzing.

KATE Yeah, absolutely. And I think another key piece there is that we also spoke with some women who felt-- The women in our study had a whole range of different relationships to feminism. Some actively identified as feminist; some, feminism just wasn't really on their radar. But then we spoke to some women who felt like feminism was a really kind of judgmental force in relation to force, and they felt like their own, for instance, love of cooking would be viewed as only a site of oppression from a feminist perspective. And I think that that is a really important concern for those of us that wanna build a kind of feminist food politics is that if some women are feeling kind of judged harshly by what they see a feminist perspective around food to be, as kind of dismissing or degrading the kind of joy that women can take in food, or as you say, so harshly scrutinizing every single individual food choice that it becomes paralyzing, then I think we're not doing a very good job of building a kind of inclusive and welcoming feminist food politics.

SOLEIL I know in your work, you've made reference to culinary femininity and culinary masculinity.

KATE Mmhmm.

SOLEIL And you mentioned earlier in our conversation about Mike Rumen and Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, these three white men--let's just be real--

KATE Yeah.

SOLEIL --who have been seen as rational authority figures who can articulate politics in a way that people take seriously. So, what do you see as the difference between our perceptions of culinary masculinity and culinary femininity?

KATE We have a chapter in the book where we talk a lot about foodie politics and the emphasis on deriving pleasure through food, through learning about eating, experiencing cooking delicious food. And so, in some ways, the rise of foodie culture has been a site that we can see as a challenge to ideas of femininity in that for women to claim culinary pleasure is to resist ideas about women denying their pleasure or being defined by self-sacrifice. Just being a foodie could be seen as a feminist act. But one of the things that we find in talking with folks who identify as foodies is that there are still sort of persistent gendered differences or inequities around, as you say, culinary femininity and masculinity. One of the ways this comes up is around cooking and how cooking is seen in the context of either everyday food work or a kind of leisure pursuit.

So, in lots of heterosexual couples that we talked to, they talked about how the everyday work of cooking dinner, where it was kind of nothing special, we gotta get something on the table after a long day. We'll throw together what we find in the fridge, that was often associated with femininity. In some of the focus groups, we talked to couples, and the men and women would both reflect on this difference. So, it wasn't that they were clueless about it either. Or they would talk about, I remember this one couple where the man was saying that his wife is a really great cook. But for some reason, he gets so much more cred as being a "guy who cooks." So, if they take something to a potluck, it will be like, "Oh, Roy! Wow! You're such a master of flavors!"

SOLEIL [laughs]

KATE And all of these kinds of-- And he was saying he gets more recognition for the food that he prepares, and he saw that as being because he was a man. So, there was a critique of the gender politics as play there even as they saw it playing out in their everyday lives.

ZAHIR So, Kate, one question that we get asked all the time is, "Food and race? Who cares?! How are the two related? Talk about food, and then talk about race. But why talk about them together?" Do you get this from people who come up to you and say, "What's the big deal? Food and femininity, I mean, discuss them, but discuss them separately. Why together?" Do you ever get that?

KATE Yeah. I mean, I think it's interesting because I think in the context of gender, the connection is maybe seen to be more obvious, but it's maybe seen as a thing of the past sometimes, right? So, the why write a book about food and femininity perspective would come less from what does food have to do with gender, and more what does food have to do with gender in 2016? So, there's an idea that sure, in the past, maybe food was a site of inequality; it was seen as something that predominantly women did. But look now: Men are foodies--

ZAHIR [chuckles]

KATE --and women are in the workforce, and gender equality has been achieved. That is something that I think, it's one of the reasons why I feel really strongly about claiming a feminist approach to food issues, is because I think that these sorts of gendered pressures and inequalities become even more intense when we deny that they exist, right?

I mean, similarly around the kind of racism that's perpetuated through food, one of the reasons that that works so insidiously is because of a colorblind kind of perspective that says, "Oh, no, but now we live in a multicultural society where we can all just try each other's foods, and it's an even playing field." So, similarly, I think if we have what's sometimes referred to as a post-feminist approach that says, "Gender inequality is a thing of the past. We no longer need a feminist approach to food," then we leave women to have to navigate these intense pressures and penalties as individuals, rather than wanting to challenge them collectively as feminists. Just as we wanna challenge the racism that happens around food from a collective anti-racist perspective rather than a colorblind perspective that denies that it exists.

[music break]

ZAHIR Well, Kate, where else can we find your work?

KATE I am on Twitter @KateFCairns, and you can also go to my website, KateCarins.net, or find me on my Rutgers faculty page.

SOLEIL Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

KATE Oh, thanks so much for having me! I really love the podcast.

ZAHIR Thank you, Kate. This has been wonderful. Thanks. Appreciate it. Cheers.

KATE Thanks.

[qawwali music]

SOLEIL Thank you for listening to Racist Sandwich.

ZAHIR Be sure to check out Kate's book, Food and Femininity, published by Bloomsbury in 2015.

SOLEIL Co-authored by Josée Johnston.

Our show is recorded at KBOO Community Radio in SE Portland and produced by Alan Montecillo. Jen Tam designed our logo.

Our website is RacistSandwich.com. You can also find us on Twitter @RaceandFood or on Facebook at facebook.com/RaceandFood.

Email us as racistsandwichpodcast@gmail.com. Our music comes from AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions.

ZAHIR And today, we have a very special outro music. It is by the Pakistani qawwali singer Amjad Sabri. Amjad Sabri was killed on June 21st in Pakistan. He was gunned down. I grew up listening to this type of Pakistani devotional music known as qawwali music. One thing that I really love about this type of music is he takes devotional music, and he challenged us to think about it in a new way. So, for example, he sang a lot of songs about religion but then also about intoxication and about wine. Generally, people feel like if you're gonna be talking about religion, then don't talk about intoxication, and don't talk about wine, and don't talk about love. But he did all those things, and he was gunned down by people who thought he as blaspheming. So, we wanted to play this song as a tribute to him, but then also a tribute to so many artists around the world who are threatened for what they do. So, thank you, Amjad Sabri, for all you gave us. I owe you so much.

[qawwali continues for about 10 minutes]

Transcribed by Storyminders