Food Blogging and Food-related Media Convergence

Jennifer Lofgren

Abstract


Introduction

Sharing food is central to culture. Indeed, according to Montanari, “food is culture” (xii). Ways of sharing knowledge about food, such as the exchange of recipes, give longevity to food sharing. Recipes, an important cultural technology, expand the practice of sharing food beyond specific times and places. The means through which recipes, and information about food, is shared has historically been communicated through whatever medium is available at the time. Cookbooks were among the first printed books, with the first known cookbook published in 1485 at Nuremberg, which set a trend in which cookbooks were published in most of the languages across Western Europe by the mid 16th century (Mennell). Since then, recipe collections have found a comfortable home in new and emerging media, from radio, to television, and now, online.

The proliferation of cookbooks and other forms of food-related media “can be interpreted as a reflection of culinary inexperience, if not also incompetence—otherwise why so much reliance on outside advice?” (Belasco 46). Food-related media has also been argued to reflect both what people eat and what they might wish they could eat (Neuhaus, in Belasco). As such, cookbooks, television cooking shows, and food websites help shape our identity and, as Gallegos notes, play “a role in inscribing the self with a sense of place, belonging and achievement” (99).

Food writing has expanded beyond the instructional form common to cookbooks and television cooking shows and, according to Hughes, “has insinuated itself into every aspect of the literary imagination” (online) from academic writing through to memoir, fiction, and travel writing. Hughes argues that concerns that people are actually now cooking less that ever, despite this influx of food-related media, miss the point that “food writing is a literary activity […] the best of it does what good writing always does, which is to create an alternative world to the one you currently inhabit” (online). While pragmatic, this argument also reinforces the common perception that food writing is a professional pursuit.

It is important to note that while cookbooks and other forms of food-related media are well established as a means for recipes to be communicated, recipes have a longer history of being shared between individuals, that is, within families and communities. In helping to expand recipe-sharing practices, food-related media has also both professionalised and depersonalised this activity. As perhaps a reaction to this, or through a desire to re-establish communal recipe-sharing traditions, blogging, and specifically food blogging, has emerged as a new and viable way for people to share information about food in a non-professional capacity.

Blogging has long been celebrated for its capacity to give “ordinary” people a voice (Nilsson). Due to their social nature (Walker Rettberg) and the ability for bloggers to create “networks for sharing ideas, trends and information” (Walker Rettberg 60), blogs are a natural fit for sharing recipes and information about food. Additionally, blogs, like food-related media forms such as cookbooks, are also used as tools for identity building. Blogger’s identities may be closely tied to their offline identity (Baumer, Sueyoshi and Tomlinson), forged through discussions about their everyday lives (Lövheim) or used in a professional capacity (Kedrowicz and Sullivan).

Food blogs, broadly defined as blogs primarily focused on food, are one of the most prominent means through which so-called “ordinary” people can share recipes online, and can be seen to challenge perceptions that food writing is a professional activity. They may focus specifically on recipes, restaurant reviews, travel, food ethics, or aesthetic concerns such as food styling and photography. Since food blogs began to appear in the early 2000s, their number has steadily increased, and the community has become more established and structured. In my interview with the writer of the popular blog Chocolate & Zucchini, she noted that when she started blogging about food in 2003 there were perhaps a dozen other food bloggers. Since then, this blogger has become a professional food writer, published author, and recipe developer, while the number of food bloggers has grown dramatically. It is difficult to know the precise number of food blogs—as at July 2012, Technorati ranked more than 16,000 food blogs, including both recipe and restaurant review blogs (online)—but it is clear that they are both increasing in number and have become a common and popular blog genre.

For the purposes of this article, food blogs are understood as those blogs that mostly feature recipes. The term “recipe blog” could be used, but food bloggers make little distinction between different topic categories—whether someone writes recipes or reviews, they are referred to as a food blogger. As such, I have used the term “food blog” in keeping with the community’s own terminology and practices. Recipes published on blogs reach a wider audience than those shared between individuals within a family or in a community, but are not as exclusive or professional, in most instances, as traditional food-related media. Blogging allows for the compression of time and space, as people can connect with others from around the world, and respond and reinvigorate posts sometimes several years after they have been written. In this sense, food blogs are more dynamic than cookbooks, with multiple entry points and means for people to discover them—through search engines as well as through traditional word of mouth referrals. This dynamism allows food bloggers to form an active community through which “ordinary” people can share their passion for food and the pleasures of cooking, seek advice, give feedback, and discuss such issues as seasonality, locality, and diet.

This article is based on research I conducted on food blogs between 2010 and 2012, which used an ethnographic, cultural studies approach to online community studies to provide a rich description of the food blogging community. It examines how food blogging provides insight into the eating habits of “ordinary” people in a more broad-based manner than traditional food-related media such as cookbooks. It looks at how food blogging has evolved from a subcultural activity to an established and recognised element of the wider food-related media ecology, and in this way has been transformed from a hobbyist activity to a cottage industry. It discusses how food blogs have influenced food-related media and the potential they have to drive food trends. In doing so, this research does not consider the Internet, or online communities, as separate or distinct from offline culture. Instead, it follows Richard Rogers’s argument for a new approach to Internet studies, in which “one is not so much researching the Internet, and its users, as studying culture and society with the Internet” (29). A cultural studies approach is useful for understanding food blogs in a broader historical and cultural context, since it considers the Internet as “a rich arena for thinking about how contemporary culture is constituted” (Hine et al. 2).

Food Blogging: From Hobbyist Activity to Cottage Industry

Benkler argues that “people have always created their own culture” (296); however, as folk culture has gradually been replaced by mass-produced popular culture, we have come to expect certain production values in culture, and lost confidence in creating or sharing it ourselves, for fear of it not meeting these high standards. Such mass-produced popular culture includes food-related media and recipes, as developing and sharing recipes has become the domain of celebrity chefs. Food blogs are created by “ordinary” people, and in this way continue the tradition of community cookbooks and reflect an increased interest in both the do-it-yourself phenomena, and a resurgence of a desire to share and contribute to folk culture.

Jenkins argues that “a thriving culture needs spaces where people can do bad art, get feedback, and get better” (140-1). He notes that the Internet has drastically expanded the availability of these spaces, and argues that: "some of what amateurs create will be surprisingly good, and some artists will be recruited into commercial entertainment or the art world. Much of it will be good enough to engage the interest of some modest public, to inspire someone else to create, to provide new content which, when polished through many hands, may turn into something more valuable down the line" (140-1).

Food blogs provide such a space for amateurs to share their creations and get feedback. Additionally, some food bloggers, like the artists to whom Jenkins refers, do create recipes, writing, and images that are “surprisingly good”, and are recruited, not into commercial entertainment or the art world, but into food-related media. Some food bloggers publish cookbooks (for example, Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini), or food-related memoirs (for example, Molly Wizenberg of Orangette), and some become food celebrities in their own right, as guests on high profile television shows such as Martha Stewart (Matt Armendariz of mattbites) or with their own cooking shows (Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman Cooks). Others, while not reaching these levels of success, do manage to inspire others to create, or recreate their, recipes.

Mainstream media has a tendency to suggest that all food bloggers have professional aspirations (see, for example, Phipps). Yet, it is important to note that, many food bloggers are content to remain hobbyists. These food bloggers form the majority of the community, and blog about food because they are interested in food, and enjoy sharing recipes and discussing their interest with like-minded people. In this way, they are contributing to, and engaging with, folk culture within the blogging community. However, this does not mean that they do not have a broader impact on mainstream food-related media.

Food-Related Media Response

As the food blogging community has grown, food-related media and other industries have responded with attempts to understand, engage with, and manage food bloggers. Food blogs are increasingly recognised as an aspect of the broader food-related media and, as such, provide both competition and opportunities for media and other industries. Just as food blogs offer individuals opportunities for entry into food-related media professions, they also offer media and other industries opportunities to promote products, reach broader audiences, and source new talent. While food bloggers do not necessarily challenge existing food-related media, they increasingly see themselves as a part of it, and expect to be viewed as a legitimate part of the media landscape and as an alternative source of food-related information. As such, they respond positively to the inclusion of bloggers in food-related media and in other food-related environments.

Engaging with the food blogging community allows the wider food-related media to subtly regulate blogger behaviour. It can also provide opportunities for some bloggers to be recruited in a professional capacity into food-related media. In a sense, food-related media attempt to “tame” food bloggers by suggesting that if bloggers behave in a way that they deem is acceptable, they may be able to transition into the professional world of food writing. The most notable example of this response to food blogs by food-related media is the decision to publish blogger’s work. While not all food bloggers have professional aspirations, being published is generally viewed within the community as a positive outcome. Food bloggers are sometimes profiled in food-related media, such as in the Good Weekend magazine in The Sydney Morning Herald (Karnikowski), and in MasterChef Magazine, which profiles a different food blogger each month (T. Jenkins). Food bloggers are also occasionally commissioned to write features for food-related media, as Katie Quinn Davies, of the blog What Katie Ate, who is a regular contributor to delicious magazine.

Other food bloggers have been published in their own right. These food bloggers have transitioned from hobbyists to professionals, moving beyond blogging spaces into professional food-related media, and they could be, in Abercrombie and Longhurst’s terms, described as “petty producers” (140). As professionals, they have become a sort of “brand”, which their blog supports and promotes. This is not to say they are no longer interested in food or blogging on a personal level, but their relationship to these activities has shifted. For example, Dusoulier has published numerous books, and was one of the first food bloggers to transition into professional food-related media. However, her career in food-related media—as a food writer, recipe developer and author—goes beyond the work of a petty producer. Dusoulier edited the first English-language edition of I Know How To Cook (Mathiot), which, first published in 1932 (in French), has been described as the “bible” of traditional French cookery. Her work revising this classic book reveals that, beyond being a high-profile member of the food blogging community, she is a key figure in wider food culture. Such professional food bloggers achieve a certain level of celebrity both within the food blogging community and in food-related media. This is reflective of broader media trends in which “ordinary” people are “plucked from obscurity to enjoy a highly circumscribed celebrity” (Turner 12), and, in this way, food bloggers challenge the idea that you need to be an “expert” to talk publicly about food.

Food Blogging as an Established Genre

Food blogs are often included alongside traditional food-related media as another source of food-related information. For example, the site Eat your books, which indexes cookbooks, providing users with an online tool for searching the recipes in the books they own, has begun to index food blogs as well. Likewise, in 2010, the James Beard Foundation announced that their prestigious journalism awards had “mostly abolished separate categories based on publishing platforms”, although they still have an award for best food blog (Fox online). This inclusion reflects how established food blogging has become.

Over time, food blogs have co-evolved and converged with food-related media, offering greater diversity of opinion. Ganda Suthivarakom, a food blogger and now director of the SAVEUR website, says that “in 2004, to be a food blogger was to be an outsider in the world of food media. Today, it couldn’t be more different” (online). She argues that “food blogs leveled the playing field […] Instead of a rarefied and inaccessible group of print reviewers having a say, suddenly thousands of voices of varying skill levels and interests chimed in, and the conversation became livelier” (Suthivarakom online).

It is worthwhile noting that while there are more voices and more diversity in traditional food-related media, food blogging has also become somewhat of a cliché: it has even been satirised in an episode of The Simpsons (Bailey and Anderson). As food blogging has evolved it has developed into an established and recognised genre, which may be nuanced to the bloggers themselves, but often appears generic to outsiders. Food blogging has, as it were, gone mainstream. As such, the thousands of voices are also somewhat of an echo chamber.

In becoming established as a genre, food blogs reflect the gradual convergence of different types of food-related media. Food blogs are part of a wider trend towards user-generated, food-related online content. It could also be argued that reality shows take cues from food blogs in terms of their active audiences and use of social media. MasterChef in particular is supported by a website, a magazine, and active social media channels, reflecting an increasing expectation of audience participation and interactivity in the delivery of food-related information. Food bloggers have also arguably contributed to the increasingly image-driven nature of food-related media. They have also played a key role in the popularity of sharing photos of food through platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest.

Food Blogs and Food Trends

Food blogs, like cookbooks, can be seen to both reflect and shape culture (Gallegos). In addition to providing an archive of what “ordinary” people are cooking on a scale not previously available, they have potential to influence food trends. Food bloggers are essentially food enthusiasts or “foodies”. According to De Solier, “most foodies see themselves as culturalists rather than materialists, people whose self-making is bound up in the acquisition of cultural experiences and knowledge, rather than the accumulation of material things” (16).

As foodies, food bloggers are deeply engaged with food, keen to share their knowledge and, due to the essential and convivial nature of food, are afforded many opportunities to do so. As such, food blogs have influence beyond the food blogging community. For example, food bloggers could be seen to be responsible, in part at least, for the current popularity of macarons. These sweet, meringue-based biscuits were featured on the blog A la cuisine! in 2004—one of the earliest examples of the recipe in the food blogging community. Its popularity then steadily grew throughout the community, and has since been featured on high-profile and popular blogs such as David Lebovitz (2005), The Traveller’s Lunchbox (2005), and La Tartine Gourmand (2006). Creating and posting a recipe for macarons became almost a rite of passage for food bloggers. At a food blogging conference I attended in 2011, one blogger confided to me that she did not feel like a proper blogger because she had not yet made macarons. The popularity of macarons then extended beyond the food blogging community. They were the subject of a book, I Love Macarons (Ogita), first published in Japanese in 2006 and then in English in 2009, and featured in a cooking challenge on MasterChef (Byrnes), which propelled their popularity into mainstream food culture. Macarons, which could have once been seen as exclusive, delicate, and expensive (Jargon and Passariello) are now readily available, and can even be purchased at MacDonalds.

Beyond the popularity of specific foods, the influence of food bloggers can be seen in the growing interest in where, and how, food is produced, coupled with concerns around food wastage (see, for example, Tristram). Concerns about food production are sometimes countered by the trend of making foods “from scratch,” a popular topic on food blogs, and such trends can also be seen in wider food culture, such as with classes on topics ranging from cheese making to butchering (Severson). These concerns are also evident in the growing interest in organic and ethical produce (Paish).

Conclusion

Food blogs have demonstrably revitalised an interest in recipe sharing among “ordinary” people. The evolution of food blogs, however, is just one part of the ongoing evolution of food-related media and recipe sharing technologies. Food blogs are also an important part of food culture, and indeed, culture more broadly. They reflect a renewed interest in folk culture and the trend towards “do-it-yourself”, seen in online and offline communities. Beyond this, food blogs provide a useful case study for understanding how our online and offline lives have become intertwined, and showcase the Internet as a part of everyday life. They remind us that new means of sharing food and culture will continue to emerge, and that our relationships to food and technology, and our interactions with food-related media, must be continually examined if we are to understand the ways they both shape and reflect culture.

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Keywords


blogging; food blogs; recipe sharing; cookbooks; food-related media



Copyright (c) 2013 Jennifer Lofgren

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