Beyond the Kitchen-Goddess Domestic Paragon: Food Box Narratives

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Food is a wonderful distraction and a locus of cathected emotion for so many of us. As Mahvish Khan’s recent article on the shifting kitchen-goddess paragon indicates, cooking plays a similar role, though perhaps less broadly for most of us than for the talented few (or many, depending) who cook on a regular basis and enjoy it.

As Khan’s discussion of the Food Network’s impact on the changing cultural phenomena of cooking and domesticity notes, there is a
whole slew of cultural discourses surrounding food and its concomitant rituals. From reading her article, one can see that food, cooking, and baking hold an undeniably special place in
our culture that goes beyond the basic needs of feeding and nutrition: There is a large social component to food and the preparation of food.

One relies on the notion that the food-preparer fulfills the important
functions of both nurturing and entertaining, and that the food consumer is a
captive audience that feels safe, cared-for, and perpetually amused and
bemused by the creative and personal meals and meal experiences that s/he is served. Specifically, Khan addresses
recent cultural developments leading to the entertainment and
performance factors that have come to be a part of the new
kitchen-goddess paragon.

An increasingly typical characteristic of American postmodern culture not addressed in Khan’s article is the increasing emergence of non-traditional domestic spheres. I’m speaking of the phenomenon of domestically orphaned subjects, whose daily existence and sustenance is wholly affected by and dependent on, an infringement of the public sphere into the private.

I would like to add to her discussion the following question: What goes on when one
lives and eats outside of the traditional domestic sphere, by virtue of not
having time or skill to participate in the food network paragon, not
having a wife or mother, or at least not one who — for whatever reason —
participates in this paragon?

There is a cultural phenomenon at work, beyond (though not wholly of a different nature than) the Food Network, that addresses exactly
this typically postmodern and domestically orphaned demographic which does not partake in preparing
or consuming “home-cooked” varieties of food and drink.

busy graduate students, I’m sure we can all relate to the phenomenon of consuming pre-packaged foods, snacks, beverages and
meals on a daily basis. Outside of brand names/brand-recognition, there is a
powerful force at work in this category of foods, which serves to
mitigate the sense that one is being deprived of a paramount cultural
component of the eating experience. I’m talking about food-box
narratives. Let us consider the following example as an illustration of the vital cultural work of food-box narratives:

Taking a break from studying-and-obsessing-about-the-Clinton-Obama-race, I indulge myself and snack on Famous Amos cookies (alas, it’s way too long after the holidays to have home-baked goods in our kitchen). Since I’m alone, I read the entire back of the package, as I frequently do when I eat pre-packaged foods alone.

cookie front

Wally Amos’ smiling face peers out of the back of the package, and I am met
with the following inclusive and reassuring narrative about the cookies that I am in the process of consuming:

ORIGINALLY, Wally Amos, A TRUE COOKIE LOVER, baked cookies in his HOME, to SHARE with his FRIENDS.

IN 1975, he PERFECTED his SPECIAL RECIPE to create his ULTIMATE CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE. He started own company with the COMMITMENT to use ONLY THE BEST INGREDIENTS, like RICH CHOCOLATE and FLAVORFUL NUTS. These HOMEMADE-tasting cookies were so SPECIAL that they got famous by WORD OF MOUTH.

TODAY, Famous Amos Cookies continue to meet these HIGH STANDARDS, and are a FAVORITE among ALL TRUE COOKIE LOVERS.

So ENJOY the SPECIAL RECIPE and HOMEMADE taste that made Amos famous!

–Wally Amos


[capitalizations mine, for emphasis on narrative, reassuring and inclusive rhetoric]

With "originally," "in 1975," and "today," this mini-narrative establishes a cohesive flow of events that leads to today, and to the present moment of "enjoy"ment of the cookies, after their history is briefly and reassuringly described.

The strategic rhetorical use of "home," "share," "friends," "special recipe," "word of mouth," as well as the repetition of the word "homemade" several times serve to establish a sense of inclusivity for the consumer, as these words convey a sense of immediacy and intimacy that serve to fill in for that crucial social element of food and eating. The qualification of Wally Amos as "a true cookie lover," and the interpellation of the consumer as one among select and discerning "true cookie lovers," creates an additional layer of personalized identification with Wally Amos and his cookies for the consuming subject.

Finally, the use of "perfected," "ultimate chocolate chip cookie," "commitment," "only the best ingredients," "rich chocolate," "flavorful nuts," "high standards," and "favorite" helps to create a reassuring air of a quality-oriented and solicitous food-or-treat-provider, making the consumer feel well-cared for, nurtured and even entertained.

Additonally, this rhetoric somewhat aligns the role of food box narratives with Khan’s discussion of the Food Network, in generating a positive visual experience that pre-exists and anticipates the actual eating or cooking experience. (Or, it even replaces the concrete experience altogether, if the food item remains unconsumed, but the consumer is still consuming the food-box narrative, making it pure spectacle, a la Guy Debord…)

A look at the other pre-packaged foods in my kitchen reveals similar interesting narratives: some including information about the philanthropic commitments and missions of the food producer/distributor, indicating a more expansive quality of nurturing and solicitousness; others including information about the food producer/distributor’s emphatic care and concern for the consumer’s health and fitness; and still more with a similar narrative of passion for and commitment to quality taste and sharing among friends, like the Famous Amos story.

Surely if one has the choice, one would opt for a box of cereal that has some kind of text and pictures on it, rather than a blank box with simply a name on it. Not that I’ve ever seen food-boxes such as these sold, and I’ll wager that this is for a good reason.

The prefab food industry is keen on doing its best to simulate and convey to its consumer that s/he is indeed participating in this fabulously creative and personalized (not to mention health-oriented and even philanthropic) food experience that is so valued in today’s culture. It sure helps if each prefab food I consume has some sort of reassuring narrative of origin and purpose that directly interpellates me and makes me as an eating subject feel included, my needs anticipated, and simply somehow connected to the social aspect of the cycle of food preparation and consumption.

I’m sure many of us remember that old Snap-Crackle-Pop commercial, with that kid amusedly tilting her ear to the bowl of cereal. In the spirit of this commercial, i would add: "Listen to your breakfast cereal; it’s got something to say to you, and it’s not just onomatopaeic snaps crackles and pops. It’s saying that it cares for you, your health, and your well-being; it anticipates your needs both nutritionally and socially, and it will always be there for you, re-iterating these needs to you and fulfilling them as long as you don’t have your own in-house kitchen-god/dess."

As a matter of fact, prefab foods and their concomitant narratives may well be the new feminist paragon! The implications of this packaging movement are nothingto scoff at. If boxes can virtually fulfill the traditionally "female" and "domestic" business of nurturing and entertaining, women are empowered beyond imperative participation in some such domestic paragon.

Of course, the boxes don’t take this privilege away for subjects who really love and emulate Paula Deen and Ina Garten, or their male Food Network counterparts. Rather, what this account has to add is this: Everyone/thing has a right to be a kitchen queen… even cardboard boxes!

Now, all we need to do is figure out how food-boxes or some other commodity can replace that intractable need for housework… any thoughts? Ideas? How can we commodify this baby?