“Recipe or Shut the Fuck Up”: Women’s Writing, Fandom, and the Art of Food Blogging

October 19, 2019

 

I spend a lot of time on tumblr. That statement is either going to generate feelings of relatability or disgust, depending on who’s reading. It’s nevertheless true. While browsing the other night I came across a thread----which I wasn’t smart enough to save----headed by a tweet about women food bloggers and the anecdotes they tend to preface their recipes with. The general takeaway was ‘Stop ridiculing these women for their writing when they’re giving you free stuff’ and I wholeheartedly agreed. I expected the rest of the post to express similar opinions. Instead, I found a shockingly visceral backlash wherein tens of thousands of people expressed how much they hate women who take a few hundred words to write about their life experiences. The vast majority of the comments were along the lines of, “No one wants to hear your life story” and “Recipe or shut the fuck up.” Needless to say, as both a woman and a woman who writes, this knee-jerk reaction made me rather uncomfortable.

 

I soon discovered that there’s an entire culture of shaming women for writing about their home lives on recipe blogs:

 

I went through the replies. Which is always dangerous. Things that people don’t want to read about include, but are not limited to: your husband, your kids, your grandparents, your pets, your childhood, how that semester abroad changed your life, thoughts on how delicious the food is, how you might make it healthier, what a particular smell reminds you of, any history associated with the food itself, or anything that might conceivably fall under the heading of “your life.” In short, shut up. Which wouldn’t be such a terrible form of criticism if it wasn’t a) entirely unnecessary (I’m sure our poor scrolling fingers will survive the terrible ordeal of three more swipes) and b) leveled at a genre of writing done primarily by women. Whether we’re talking about paperback romances, chick flicks, or as I'll discuss in a moment, fanfiction, there is a very long history of approaching women’s writing with a level of criticism and disdain that is never applied to men. What stands out to me is not that some people might find this form of food blogging annoying----to each their own----or even that there are a few funny complaints here and there about the trend----I’m pretty sure I’ve reblogged at least one----but rather that there exists this amount of honest, visceral disgust leveled at these women's work. And, considering that the work is almost always self-reflective, disgust towards who they are as people. The stories attached to recipes are described as “infuriating,” “annoying,” “painful,” “drives me insane,” and writing that produces a “gag reflex.” It comes down to basic respect which is very much not in evidence here. As said, sadly that’s nothing new, but I was honestly blindsided by the number of people infuriated by a genre that's functioning precisely as it's meant to. 

 

We should note that there are practical reasons for including a story along with your recipe. Google is a tricky beast that likes multiple search terms, spending more time on a page makes for better ad revenue, connecting your recipe to a narrative helps you to copyright it, and shockingly, some writers simply want to connect with their readers. They’re not content to slap up a bunch of ingredients and bake times, then call it a day. Notably, this is what all the professionals are taught to do. Turn on any episode of The Next Food Network Star and you’ll find non-stop advice regarding how to include fun and relatable anecdotes into your cooking instruction. Whether Alton Brown is giving us quick facts about a food’s history or Guy Fieri is chatting about his BFF that lives in this small town, personal interaction is a given. Likewise, every star from Ina Garten to Rachel Ray is peppering their advice with personal opinions and stories. That's the norm. It’s only when women as amateur cooks do this for free that people feel entitled to express, usually through GIFs, how much they want to stab them or chuck them out a window. These reactions (even if they’re ‘jokes’) don’t fit the supposed crime, especially when there's clearly a double-standard that exists. We could apply this “Facts only, please” logic to a number of other forms presumed to be dominated by men. I’ve opened countless tech help videos on YouTube where the guy spends the first minute—if not longer—telling you about why we’re here today, how much this video will help you, his preferred antivirus to avoid this issue in the future, also his preferred laptop brand, and if you’re interested please check out the link below… Additional information is expected. When writing, fleshing out a subject is part of the craft, but as far as I can tell, no one is targeting men in popular culture for doing this.

 

Stephanie Stiavetti, a food writer and cookbook author in San Francisco, has a blog post titled “Why I Don’t Read Your Damn Food Blog” which includes point number 10, “You talk too much about politics/religion/your cat’s medical problems/baby poo.” She admits that she’ll stick around and read a story if it’s good, then provides a link to “what good stories look like, by the way.” Maybe it’s a coincidence. Maybe it’s not. But it strikes me that in a genre that, if not dominated by women, is at least assumed to be dominated by them, Stiavetti chose to uphold a man’s writing.

 

 

I have nothing against Garret McCord as an individual, nor his work. I quite like his posts. I read through a number of them considering that Stiavetti merely linked to his blog, not a specific post as an example of good food writing. Rather, I have an issue with that double standard. In his post “I Am Loki. God of War: Peach & Almond Crumb Cake,” McCord provides a long introduction about a young brother and sister who were playing video games up until the sister screams “I AM LOKI! GOD OF WAR!!!” and “kicked him square in the balls.” Cute story. What in the world does it have to do with crumb cake? The connection is tenuous: “I couldn’t even eat my cake. And it’s a good fricken’ cake. Peaches and all. Almond flour, too. Yes, I could not eat a bit as I was laughing too hard. And that’s saying something.” This post functions precisely like every other recipe post does: an everyday anecdote probably embellished a bit for fictional purposes that is then tangentially related to whatever it is you’ve made that week. There’s nothing wrong with this structure. It works! It’s enjoyable! I simply wonder why it’s only enjoyable when bloggers like McCord use it. Stiavetti says that she’ll abandon your site “if you prattle on for days about inane, done-to-death topics, or worse, nothing of meaning.” I’m sorry to say that a sister kicking her brother while pretending to be Loki has no deep meaning. Silly sibling interactions is a done-to-death topic. The encounter is, one might even say, inane.

 

 

While working on this post I also came across an article by April Glaser, “Why Does Every Online Recipe Begin With the Preface to a Personal Memoir?” with the tagline, “A plea to focus a little bit more on the subject at hand----food!” What struck me is that in a post about how writers don’t get to their point quick enough, it takes Glaser three paragraphs----almost three-hundred words----to get to her own topic. First she informs us that it’s still the holiday season and reminds everyone that there are still fun traditions to enjoy. “There’s plenty of cold weather, potlucks, and New Year’s parties left to keep those of us who feel at home in the kitchen busy.” She discusses how therapeutic cooking can be during a stressful time, the desire to “go on the hunt for a charming little cooking blog” to find recipes everyone else hasn’t made a million times before, and her own joy at maintaining a food blog that is “a needed respite from platforms like Facebook, with their clean user interfaces and obnoxious sorting.” Oddly enough, this all seems a little... personal. One might even say memoir-ish. I could easily leave a nasty comment along the lines of, “I came here to read an argument about food narratives! Quit telling me your thoughts on social media and the fact that you use cooking to deal with the ‘political situation in this country.’”

 

I don’t want to leave that comment though. Because, like in the case of McCord's writing, I think Glaser’s insights add something to the piece, namely a relatable, personal flare that distinguishes her post from an encyclopedia entry. On the surface, that’s the only issue between narrative food blogs and the cooks who complain about them: there’s a disconnect between expectation and execution. In short, bloggers are writing their own genre, a genre that includes some sort of anecdote. Consumers, however, become quite upset when they continually discover this addition when they were just looking for instruction. Yet we all know how this genre works. It’s like picking up a mystery novel and going, “Ugh, do we really need all these twists and red herrings? I came here to read the solution to a murder, not 300 pages of a detective following false trails.” The “forty pages” (according to Peretti’s hyperbole) of personal writing is supposed to be a part of the experience. If you want the recipe and only the recipe, why are you on a personal blog? Why don’t you pick up a cookbook? Or head to an online catalog like Allrecipes? There are plenty of forms that do provide the dry, no-nonsense information that you’re looking for. They’re out there and easily accessible. No need to yell about how the mystery novel isn’t a riddle book when the riddles are just an aisle over.

 

 

I say this is supposedly the only issue because in actuality the problem isn’t one of genre, or expectations, or semantics. If it were then everyone who doesn’t want a cute story along with their stew recipe would simply go find another site. Or take the literal five seconds required to scroll down. Because in a digital world built around non-stop scrolling through feeds? I think we’ll survive a few extra flicks of our wrists. Rather, the real issue is women’s writing and how it’s (still) perceived as something not just inferior, but worthy of mockery in our culture. The post that inspired this essay was rather heavy-handed, with people jumping straight to comments along the lines of, "Me not wanting to read about your asshole husband doesn’t make me sexist" and "White women are so desperate to be oppressed smh." On the surface the idea does seem ludicrous. You’re upset that people don’t want to read your annoying writing? Get over it. There are real problems in the world, snowflake. However, in reality this topic----like most----is far more nuanced than what these critics would like you to believe. One of the most important things to keep in mind here is that people are perfectly capable of tackling big issues and (supposedly) small ones simultaneously. “Real problems” in relation to sexism, such as the wage gap and the #MeToo movement, aren't devalued by acknowledging the smaller issues women deal with on a day-to-day basis, such as being underestimated in the workplace and cat-called. In this case, the latter are symptoms of the former and help them to continue to go unchecked. It’s the same cycle here. Are people making fun of women’s food blogs the worst thing that anyone has ever suffered? Of course not. But it’s one symptom of a much larger problem.

 

 

To be clear, I stand by the claim that this culture of making fun of women food bloggers is sexist. The act of exiting out of a blog because you found the story too annoying to get through? That’s fine. Do your thing. That choice alone means nothing. However, the growing trend of actively ridiculing these blogs in an explicitly gendered manner is, at its heart, misogynistic. Despite the fact that there are bloggers of all genders and races, as well as posts discussing a variety of topics from family trips to the benefits of certain foods for the chronically ill, criticisms of this genre follow the same patterned assumptions: it’s written by a white woman (expressed through the use of go-to, ‘I’d like to speak to your manager’ names like Karen or Jane), she lives a 50s style life where the only thing undermining her extreme privilege is a distant husband and bratty kids, and she frequently blows her stories out of proportion or outright lies in an attempt to get attention. Perhaps nothing demonstrates these assumptions better than this tiny snippet that circulates anytime the subject comes up:

 

 

You’d think after decades of online experience people would know better than to take half a sentence at face value. Nevertheless, Regina Schrambling has become the (presumably unwanted) face of everything that’s wrong with women blogging about food. “Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” is meant to encompass all the absurd, dramatic, unwanted stories women force on readers when all anyone is looking for is the recipe. In actuality, it’s unclear if Schrambling wrote this blurb, or if some unnamed author for NYT Cooking crafted it while setting up the page. Regardless, Schrambling’s recipe comes from her September 19th article, “When the Path to Serenity Wends Past the Stove," that, while yes, was published a mere week after the Twin Tower attacks, never actually mentions the tragedy. Instead, Schrambling speaks broadly about how the act of making food can assist in times of grief or high stress, concluding that, “Sometimes cooking is its own reward.” I don’t know about you, but considering the staggering importance that food has in our lives, I think she’s onto something. I don’t believe discussing Maple Shortbread Bars in relation to September 11th is absurd, and neither did the New York Times. Honestly, if women are so relentlessly ridiculed for publications in one of the most prestigious newspapers in the U.S., what chance does the average blogger have?

 

 

I'm all too aware of the sort of responses this post will no doubt generate. Comments along the lines of, "Omg you're not oppressed just because no one wants to read your stupid story." Very true, but we're not talking about oppression. We're talking about the casual disregard, ridicule, and disgust that's frequently leveled at how women choose to express themselves and the fact that hatred of food bloggers is just one of many, many examples of this. The problem is not that people don't want to read a short story attached to a recipe. The problem is they think not wanting that gives them the right to turn a minor (extremely minor) inconvenience into another excuse to bash woman and the writing women produce. In a better world, people would scroll for three seconds, use command + f, download an extension, or simply head on over to another site. In reality though the action of choice is to jump on twitter and join the thousands of other people entertaining themselves by discussing how horrible these women are for taking some time to talk about themselves, while providing you with instructions for a food you obviously don't know how to make. It's the inherent joy people find in mocking women for the things they like, particularly when that mockery rarely or straight up never extends to men. That is what's sexist here. 

 

Even if all the assumptions were correct, even if 99% of the blog posts out there had women writing about these supposedly horrendous things----the beauty of changing leaves in the Fall, cookies you made for your daughter’s soccer game, frustration that your husband doesn’t want to try kale----what these reactions nevertheless boil down to are age-old, sexist beliefs. Women talk too much ("Shut up and give me the recipe!") Women are too emotional ("I don’t want to hear your sob story, Sandra.") Things that women like are automatically cringe-worthy ("Omg who cares about your new baking sheet?!"), etc. We should acknowledge that some food related entertainment, such as The Pioneer Woman, do reinforce a specific, heteronormative lifestyle that's potentially worthy of criticism. They adopt the persona of the housewife who exists solely to feed the hardworking men of her family. Yes, some food blogs echo this persona, but not nearly the number that critics would like you to believe. The desire to be casually sexist—-it’s just so fun to tweet about how horrible these women are for enjoying their lives----keeps people from seeing the ways in which most actually undermine those norms. Got a husband who still has the pallet of a five-year-old? Shouldn’t we applaud her then for creating a recipe he likes, encouraging him to try new things in the future? Got kids who don’t want to do the dishes? Read to the end of the story for once to find out how she taught them that moms aren’t the only ones taking responsibility for cleanup anymore. These aren’t women enslaved to the kitchen because binary gender roles dictate that they have to make each family meal. These are women who actively choose to cook because they love it... and then turned that work to their advantage through book deals and ad revenue. The very existence of these blogs and the effort put into them speaks of passion, and isn’t that what we want as feminists? To provide choice? There’s little use in undermining the limitations put on women’s identity if we turn right around and shame the women who actively choose to maintain those traditional forms of expression. To say nothing of the fact that food bloggers represent far more variety than people want to believe. Because to accept that not everyone baking is white, cishet, able-bodied, and middle class ruins the image you’re ridiculing. Intersectionality exists and race is only one identity marker we need to consider. For every “white mom” blog there’s a poor woman writing about how to eat on a budget, or a disabled woman writing about her new dietary needs. Are mean tweets the cornerstone of poverty and ableism in this country? Of course not, but you also don’t serve either of these groups by sneering at and simplifying the genre as a whole. Particularly when it's given to you for free. 

 

 

 

Yes, let’s talk about that free aspect for a moment. One of the primary reasons why I wanted to write this post is because of the similarities I saw between these reactions and the reactions I’ve grown up with in regards to my own writing of choice: fanfiction. If this post seems more snarky than my usual, that’s why. I’m all too familiar with this kind of backlash, a backlash in response to work created out of love and then presented to an audience free of charge. So much of the rhetoric surrounding women bloggers echoes opinions surrounding fic. Including, but not limited to:

 

1. “Just write a cookbook!” This is, fundamentally, a useless statement. Beyond the fact that many food bloggers do go on to publish cookbooks (and that many cookbooks often still include personal anecdotes...), a cookbook and a food blog are separate forms of writing. Fic writers will recognize this in the form of, “Just write your own novel!” Maybe I will, but right now that’s not the kind of creative expression I’m striving for. I don’t want to write a novel, I want to write fic; I don’t want to write a cookbook, I want to write a personal food blog. You’re offering me an apple when I’m trying to eat an orange.

 

2. I’m not sure how many of you are old enough to remember, but there used to be similar complaints volleyed at author’s notes. Many fic writers used to compose long-winded explanations of their inspiration, writing process, sometimes joke conversations between the characters, etc. Whatever they felt would give the reader some insight into who they were as a person/author. Rather than simply skipping that info, people frequently left comments criticizing the inclusion, to the extent that most authors nowadays are scared they'll put 'too much' into their notes. To quote Celli’s essay, “Author’s Notes OR How to Make Sure I Never Read Your Story,” “I’m here for the fic, not your notes. If there’s information the reader has to have, fine. And I’m all for thanking your betas. But the heading is long enough. We just want to read the stories!” Insert the near identical “We just want the recipe” here. There’s something rather unsavory (pun not intended) about people vocally rejecting an author’s clear attempts to enjoy themselves outside of the labor they’ve produced. Especially when no one is making you read author’s notes or supplemental anecdotes. They are, to reiterate, incredibly easy to skip. The takeaway then becomes, How dare you talk about yourself. Just give me the thing I didn’t pay for.

 

3. The use of that term “labor.” In the post that started all this, there were numerous replies making fun of the supposed work involved in crafting both the recipes and the narratives attached to them. Akin to, "Oh sure, Sandra. It’s real hard to add salt to this stolen recipe and complain about your kids for four pages." Any fic writer should be able to see the similarities. Fic isn’t real writing, you just stole everything from the original author. Fic isn’t hard. Anyone can slap together a shitty self-insert and some porn. Back in 2015, in an interview titled “Food Bloggers Are the Devil’s Spawn,” an unnamed chef shrugs off the work of bloggers with, “But seriously, any asshole with a laptop can do that, can’t they?” Each form is disparaged because “anyone” can supposedly do it... but of course, not everyone has made the attempt. Or achieved the follow-through. I’d encourage everyone reading this to go try and set up their own website, craft a story that holds people’s attention, take professional looking photographs, and edit/post it all within a timely manner. Do non-writers realize how long it takes to format and revise these blog posts? Insider’s secret: it’s not quick, and I’m not crafting/testing out a recipe alongside writing, something that can take weeks to perfect. “Adapted from” is the food blogging version of “transformative work,” but people are still inclined to view both works as simplistically “stolen.” I guarantee that adapting a recipe so it’s gluten free is just as difficult and time consuming as turning that dystopian TV show into a fluffy Coffee Shop AU.

 

4. The assumption that it’s only cis white women writing and consuming this genre. The same way that it’s supposedly only cis white women reading and writing fic. The “mommy blogger” is a simplistic, reductive stereotype as much as the “crazy fangirl” is. 

 

5. The continued, entitled belief that people deserve free content and likewise deserve to be nothing but cruel towards those who provide it for them. As Kruse puts it,

 

 

However, there’s a difference between criticism and sexist bashing. This is the latter. Anyone who spends time in fan communities is well-versed in this mindset: How dare you write a self-insert, a Mary Sue, an OC, any story that doesn’t precisely meet my expectations and my desires. I once wrote a 90,000 word story and had a reviewer who was very vocal about what they wanted to see as the plot progressed. Rather than going out and finding a story that fit those parameters, or even just accepting that this story differed from their specifications, they continually left comments expressing disappointment (and at one point even anger) that I hadn’t told the story exactly how they wanted it. When someone bakes you a cake, you don’t complain about the flavors they chose or fill up social media with ‘jokes’ about how no one wants to eat the awful cookies you baked along with it. Just give us the cake! Rather, you accept the cake in the spirit it was given. And if you don’t like something? Don’t take a slice. Don’t eat a cookie. Allowing people, particularly women, to write what they like on their own personal blogs really isn’t that difficult a concept.

 

Here then, we see an aspect of mainstream writing that could use a bit of old-fashioned fandom advice: don’t like; don’t read. Just move along, because there is no benefit to people complaining about how a genre is functioning exactly the way it's meant to. No one forces you to choose the personal blog over the purely factual recipe site. It’s not the author’s fault you didn’t plan ahead in your grocery shopping or your baking and are now scrolling through (apparently) hundreds of paragraphs trying to figure out how many raisins you need. Most importantly, we’re not living in a culture where you can casually devalue an entire genre of writing headed by women and expect that it will be taken as a harmless bit of criticism. Because in this context, it’s not.  

 

What it all comes down to is not that people don’t want entertainment alongside instruction (they do), or that this additional information is truly inconveniencing them (it’s not), but simply that people don’t want to hear about women and the lives they lead, despite always being open to the lives and experiences of men. What’s said is, “Shut up and give me the recipe” but the meaning is clearly just, “Shut up.” Quit talking, quit emoting, quit reminding me of your existence, even in the space you explicitly designed to express yourself in. That’s what people want, the fruits of women’s labor, in this case delicious recipes, without any hint that the women themselves exist. Well, that’s just too bad. It’s never going to happen. So, you can either accept that the price of a good brownie recipe is reading an anecdote about the author’s life, or you can lose five precious seconds of your time to scroll to the bottom.

 

Either way, it’s not that hard.

 

 

 

 

Image Credit 

 

#1: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/AdhmJDb7UCp0rCFmlIgC7Ur_Yf1rsqUtV6mLC2E3MaMnpek3fP

      19pzU/?nic=1

#2: https://twitter.com/chelseaperetti/status/1065627325960675328

#3: http://www.vanillagarlic.com/

#4: https://twitter.com/timonymous/status/1065653989876744192

#5: https://twitter.com/Concettina16/status/1065707859521036289

#6: https://twitter.com/KevinMKruse/status/1096549128262352902

#7: https://ifunny.co/picture/maple-shortbread-bars-regina-schrambling-NKppEctU6

#8: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017089-maple-shortbread-bars

#9: https://thestayathomechef.com/about/

#10: https://thestayathomechef.com/about/

#11: https://twitter.com/KevinMKruse/status/1096549128262352902

 

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