Food Confessions: Disclosing the Self through the Performance of Food




see previous submission

How to Cite

Lawson, J. (2009). Food Confessions: Disclosing the Self through the Performance of Food. M/C Journal, 12(5).
Vol. 12 No. 5 (2009): disclose
Published 2009-12-13

At the end of the episode “Crowd Pleasers,” from her television series Nigella Feasts, we see British food writer and television cook Nigella Lawson in her nightgown opening her fridge in the dark. The fridge light reveals the remnant dishes of chili con carne that she prepared earlier on in the programme. She scoops up a dollop of soured cream and chili onto a spoon and shovels it into her mouth, nods approvingly and then picks up the entire chili dish. She eats another mouthful, utters a satisfied “umm” sound, closes the fridge door and walks away, taking the dish of chili with her.

This recurring scenario at the end of Nigella’s programmes is paradoxically constructed as a private moment to be witnessed by many viewers. It resembles acts of secret eating, personal food habits and offers a glimpse of the performed self, adding to Nigella’s persona. Throughout Nigella’s programmes there is a conscious tension between the private and public. This tension is confounded by Nigella’s acknowledgement of, and direct address to, the viewers, characterised by the knowing look she gives to the camera when she tastes her food, licks her fingers as she cooks, or reveals her secret chocolate stash in her store cupboard; the overt performance of supposedly surreptitious gestures. Through her look-back at the camera Nigella performs both sin and confession, communicating her guilty-pleasure as she self-consciously reveals this pleasure to the viewers.

At the start of her performance Table Occasions (2000), solo artist Bobby Baker explains that there are strict rules that she must follow, the most important being that she must not walk on the floor. Baker then hosts a dinner party (for imaginary guests), balancing on top of the table and chairs wearing high-heeled shoes. When the ‘meal’ is finished Baker breaks her rule; she gets down from the table and walks freely across the performance space, giving the audience a knowing look of mock-surprise, as if everyone was seduced into believing in the compulsory nature of her rule (Table Occasions).

In this performance Baker confesses her anxiety and discomfort in the act of playing the host. By breaking rules of common etiquette as well as her own abstract rules, she performatively constructs her “sins” and her “confessions.” Baker’s look-back at the audience reveals her self-conscious “confessing self.”

Confessing the Self

As a practitioner-researcher working in the field of autobiography, developing from artists such as Baker, my practice attempts to articulate the impact that popular cultural performances of food may have upon current notions of food, identity and the self. I seek to use food as a vehicle for investigating and revealing multiple versions of self. The “confessing subject” in contemporary performance practice has been discussed extensively by Deirdre Heddon, particularly as a means of “questioning the subject of confession” (Daily 230). This paper is concerned with acts of disclosure (and confession) that occur through food in popular culture and performance practice. My particular focus will be my durational performance work If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake, commissioned by the Alsager Arts Centre Gallery, as part of the Curating Knowledge Residency Programme initiated by gallery curator Jane Linden. I will explore strategies of performative disclosure through food in both live and mediated contexts, in order to investigate Heddon’s distinction between “confessional performance art” and “the gamut of currently available mass-mediated confessional opportunities” (Daily 232).

My aim is to explore a current cultural relationship between food, confession and autobiography through the lens of performance. My concern lies in the performance of self and the ways in which the self is disclosed through food and I use Nigella’s and Baker’s performances, as confessional/autobiographical material, to develop my argument. Although operating in different mediums, Baker (as performance artist), and Nigella (as media personality), both use food to perform the self and employ autobiographical strategies to reveal aspects of their personal domestic lives to their audience.

It is necessary to acknowledge that Nigella is first and foremost a commodity and her programmes function as part mediation of her cooking brand, along with her cookbooks and cookware. Intentionality aside, I am interested in the ways in which Nigella engages her viewers, which is culturally indicative of the wider phenomenon of the celebrity chef and strategies of performative disclosure operating through food. My argument rests on the premise that Nigella’s strategies are similar to those used by Baker resulting in a slippage in Nigella’s position between Heddon’s opposing categories. Nigella not only adopts a confessional, intimate and personal mode of address but also uses it to construct her persona, lifestyle and perform a version of her autobiography.

Gabrielle Helms, in analysing reality TV programmes such as Big Brother, observes that

Through the use of direct camera address, the confession creates the sense of immediacy and urgency needed to establish a special ‘live’ relationship between speaker and audience, one that remains unattainable in written confession (53).

Nigella also establishes a “live” relationship with her audience through her personal and direct camera address. Yet Nigella’s programmes are only reflective of her supposed actual domestic life. We witness fragmented images of her pampering in her bedroom, carefully choosing vegetables from a market stall and taking her children to school. The seamless flow of these constructed “life” images perform a mock-autobiography of Nigella’s life.

Baker’s practice is rooted in the domestic and through her use of food in performance she communicates her ‘everyday’ experiences as a wife, mother and artist. Baker’s work belongs to a field of resistant arts practice through which she discloses her often painful and difficult relationship to femininity and the domestic. Baker has stated “food is like my own language” (Iball 75), and it is a highly visceral, visual language that she uses to communicate her autobiographical material. Lucy Baldwin describes that Baker’s “taboos collect around the visceral qualities of food: its proximity to the body and to emotions, and its ability to represent what we would rather forget” (37). Baker often uses foods in ways that invoke the internal body. In Drawing on a Mother’s Experience, she narrates personal stories of motherhood whilst marking foodstuffs onto a sheet to map out her memories and experiences. In Baker’s final moment she rolls herself up in the sheet,

The foodstuffs begin to bleed through the second skin of the sheet. Gradually, this seepage takes on the appearance of internal organs-a mapping of capillaries and veins, a tacit revelation of interior matters (Baldwyn 51).

The blending of both food and memories marked onto Baker’s body discloses a fluid, unstable identity. As Claire MacDonald states Baker “allows the self to operate as a site where the meanings of identity can be contested” (191). By nature, autobiographical performance problematises notions of identity and self and there is always a tension between the real and the fictional. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have stated that:

Autobiographical acts[…]cannot be understood as individualist acts of a sovereign subject, whole and entire unto itself. And the representation produced cannot be taken as a guarantee of a ‘true self’, authentic, coherent, and fixed (11).

Baker’s construction of “self” is multi-faceted, sitting in between the fictional and the “real.” Using food, Baker layers together the pieces of “Bobby,” past and present, onto her live body and unites her “self” with her other “selves” in an intimate and ‘real’ shared experience with a live audience; the weaving of a complex, engaging and moving autobiography. My interest is to further explore how food can be used to disclose and contest identity.

Food Exposures

Food is inherent in social and public events, in meal times and celebrations, yet food is also kept behind closed doors and inside domestic kitchens constituting the stuff of private lives. Crossing the realms of private and public, food has become a vehicle for spectacle and entertainment in media culture and is used to reveal identities, subjectivities and personal histories. Cooking programmes belong to the hybrid reality TV genre, frequently termed “infotainment.” Signe Hansen has usefully observed that “when we watch shows like Big Brother, Survivor or Temptation Island, our position as consumers is exactly that of watching Jamie Oliver [or] Nigella Lawson” (55). Helms has also argued that reality TV shows “focus on auto/biographical performance,” and asks, “are the lives represented on these shows, and the ways they are represented, reflections of contemporary understandings of self and identity?” (46). In this vein, I propose that the lives represented in food media such as Nigella’s are also constructed through the autobiographical, and Nigella’s particular relationship with food furthers a trend of self-disclosure that capitulates into abject voyeurism.

Television chefs each have their own unique, “hypertrophied personality” (Govan and Rebellato 36). Nigella’s persona is characterised through her personal and casual address, which bridges the gap between “food expert” (performer) and “novice” (viewer) previously circumscribed by food experts like Delia Smith. Hansen fittingly observes that “the experience of befriending, of coming to ‘know,’ the person behind the persona is one of the particularities of today’s media climate” (55). Nigella allows us to “know” her better by revealing her greed, laziness, messiness and lack of self-control. She reveals her personal relationship to recipes, such as those originating from her grandmother, or cooking utensils that hold sentimental value, like her mother’s wooden spoon.

The glimpses of self that Nigella exposes through food are framed as confession and privilege her viewers with “inside knowledge.” Although the fictional/real tension prevails, it is the performance of autobiography that is significant here. The mock-autobiographical address entices viewers and transforms what is essentially an advertisement into a particular practice of visual engagement, one that is founded upon the pleasures of witnessing and consuming disclosures.

In the case of reality TV an element of guilty pleasure remains on the part of the viewer, who is learning about someone’s private life without having to reciprocate[…]By observing others from a position of omniscience, viewers can live vicariously and can engage without having to take responsibility[…]they can move between attraction and revulsion without consequences for themselves (Helms 55).

Both Nigella and Baker embody “attraction and revulsion” to different ends—in Kitchen show (1991), Baker performs thirteen actions that each result in a “mark” being left on her body. Baker’s sixth action is opening a fresh tub of margarine, confessing her delight in the “satisfying nipple peak in the centre.” Baker then subverts her desire, smearing the margarine onto her face, crossing between “attraction” and “revulsion.” Baker’s marks “defamiliarize the ordinary and everyday to provoke new […] disturbing insights” (Blumberg 197).

In contrast to the sanitised aesthetic trope of cooking programmes, in which ingredients are pre-prepared and separated into glass bowls, “the hallucination of hygiene” (Govan and Rebellato 37), Nigella gets her hands dirty and heightens moments when her body comes into contact with food. In her “Comfort Food” episode from Nigella Bites, she aggressively pierces the insides of the lemon declaring, “I quite like this ritual disembowelling of the lemon.” Her fingertips often disappear into her mouth as she licks and tastes the food that she “disembowels.” Using Kristeva’s theory of abjection, Emma Govan and Dan Rebellato acknowledge the precariousness of the boundaries of the body, stating that “the passages into and out of the body are always dangerous sites for the self” (33). Nigella crosses the boundaries of etiquette and hygiene and exposes an open, wanting body that is both “repulsive” and “attractive”. Her persona is also characterised through the trope of consumer seduction, in terms of her adopting a flirtatious manner and playful aligning of cooking acts with sexual pleasure. She seductively describes the “wonderful primrose emulsion” colour of the lemon sauce, which matches her own yellow T-shirt, thus presenting her self as food, becoming both desirable and consumable.

However, Nigella’s sexualised gluttony borders on the grotesque; risotto made, Nigella confesses that, “in theory, this would be enough supper for two, in practice, I rather feel, one”. She eats it immediately, standing in the kitchen eagerly taking in large spoonfuls whilst glancing knowingly at the camera. Bakhtin’s notion of the “grotesque body,” Bob Ashley, Joanne Hollows, Steve Jones and Ben Taylor point out “is frequently associated with food. It is a devouring body, a body in the process of over-indulging, eating, drinking, vomiting and defecating” (43) and Nigella renders her own body grotesque. However, in contrast to Baker, the grotesque in this context functions to seduce a consumer audience and perpetuate the voyeuristic gaze. Nigella is part of a culture in which the abject (improper) body and taboo eating habits are fetishised through media constructions of self.

Self Disclosures

Elspeth Probyn draws attention to the trend of media food disclosures, “listen carefully to the new generation of television chefs, and one will hear them tiptoeing along a fine line that threatens to collapse into terrifying public intimacy” (20). This rather unnerving concern resonates with Heddon’s observation of a current “cultural omnipresence of autobiography” (Autobiography 161). Heddon suggests that “if we were confessing animals in the 1970s, we have by now surely mutated into monsters” (Autobiography 160) and questions the implications for performance, asking if “a resistant autobiographical practice is even any longer a possibility?” (Autobiography 161). Heddon posits Irene Gammel’s term “confessional interventions” as a potential self-conscious, subversion strategy that autobiographical performance practice can adopt. For Heddon, Baker “refuses the voyeuristic gaze” by only confessing “the mundane” and never allowing us access to one true version of self,

Baker’s ‘secrets’ are not only moments of refusal, or moments of ‘privacy in public’, they also perform spaces in which I, in the role of spectator, can bring myself into (the) ‘play’ as I fill in her gaps with my own stories. Who then is the confessing subject here? (Autobiography 164).

In my practice I am seeking to use autobiography to “strategically play with the mode of confession” (Autobiography 163) and pass comment on the ways that food functions in popular culture as a vehicle for disclosure, and perpetuates the voyeuristic gaze. My interventionist strategy then, is to investigate how notions of the self can be represented through performative acts of disclosure, in which versions of the self are manipulated, revisited and retold. All performance is citational and I would argue that a deliberate, self-conscious acknowledgement of that citation is a useful means to problematise the mock confessional, whilst maintaining an autobiographical mode of address. Heddon has also acknowledged that,

In the performance of autobiography, the always already fictional nature of the autobiographical mode is made explicit. Such an acceptance and revelation of the constructed nature of the autobiography is vital in its connection to the constructed nature of ‘identity’ and the ‘self’ (Glory 2).

This strategy is evident in both Nigella’s and Baker’s performances if we return once again to their knowing look-back at the audience/camera. Their looks re-play their own citational context and communicate a “knowingness” that they are ‘playing’ themselves, and in doing so they refuse the very possibility of an ‘autobiography’.

If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake

My performance work investigated how cakes and baking could be used to create and perform a version of my autobiography. The work existed both as a performative durational process and an artwork that communicated through predominantly non-verbal means. Using cake decorating techniques I designed a large cake sculpture consisting of a number of cakes that were representative of significant occasions, relationships and memories throughout my life. The sculpture was baked, decorated and assembled over five days in the gallery and spectators were invited to witness each stage of my process.

The sculpture featured cakes from my past, such as memorable birthday cakes. Other cakes were newly created to represent memories in which there was no cake present to that occasion, such as saying farewell to my family home. All of the cakes were used in new ways to disclose a version of my autobiography. The work simultaneously constituted and represented a number of autobiographical processes. Firstly, prior to the project I underwent cake decorating tuition over a period of ten weeks and the performance acted as documentation of this learning process; secondly, through the act of baking and decorating I engaged in processes of revisiting and remembering personal experiences; and finally the cake sculpture became a living autobiography of my durational time in the gallery and the physical experience of creating the artwork.

As a keen baker my interest in cakes has developed into my artistic practice. Here I want to briefly propose the significance of cakes (in British culture) as mediators and markers of identities and relationships. Cakes are used to signify and commemorate occasions and social rituals. Cakes function as rewards and treats, and they mark the pivotal moment of a meal or end of a celebration. Cakes are shared between friends and they are present in the personal and particular experience of those individuals. A cake is not just a cake; as a symbol a cake can hold associations, memories and feelings and act as mediators for social interaction. Probyn raises an idea introduced by Nigella that “baking equates with the ‘ability to be part of life’” (5) and from my own experiences I can recall how cakes somehow enabled me to feel part of life, as a child baking in the kitchen, thinking, doing, creating, making decisions and mistakes, that impacted upon my relationships and connection to time and place. 

My performance investigated how cakes could be used to perform versions of self and here, I will unpick the strategies of performative disclosure (as a means of “confessional intervention”) that were used to construct multiple representations of the self and explore the dialogic relationship between them. In doing so I will disclose my own intentions, experiences and discoveries in order to problematise my role as both subject and creator of the work.

Baking My Autobiography

Programme notes were displayed at the entrance to the gallery and provided a map of the space outlining the function of each room. These notes were written as if addressing the spectators directly and contextualised the work through confessing my deliberate re-appropriation of Nigella’s “domestic goddess” persona:

Hello, my name is Jenny and I want to be a Domestic Goddess. Welcome to my world of cakes and baking. Here in the gallery I am attempting to bake my autobiography. I have designed a large cake-sculpture that I will be baking and creating during the week. Every part of my cake has been individually constructed using memories and experiences from my past. Each area of the gallery is devoted to a particular part of my process…

The entrance to the gallery opened up into a small corridor space that I titled “The Domestic Goddess Hall of Fame.” Hanging on the wall in chronological order were five portrait photographs of historical British female food personalities including, Mrs Beeton, Fanny Craddock, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson. The fifth and last photograph was of me. I deliberately wrote “myself” into a visual narrative of significant female cooks, with their own cooking styles. From the outset I attempted to situate my autobiography within a culture of self-referentiality (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Image: Rory Francis.“The Domestic Goddess Hall of Fame”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

Figure 1. Image: Rory Francis. “The Domestic Goddess Hall of Fame”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

The other areas in the gallery included a kitchen where I baked the cakes; a cake cooling room, where the finished cakes cooled, assisted by portable fans; a cake decorating corner where I conducted the sugar craft and exhibited an array of equipment and materials; and a display room, in which the finished cakes were arranged into the final sculpture. The audience were invited to participate in various activities, such as licking the bowl, assisting me with simple baking tasks and receiving a decorating demonstration. On the final day the finished cake sculpture was cut-up and offered to the audience who shared in the communal eating of my-life-in-cake (see fig. 2 and fig.3).

Fig. 2. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “The Cake Cooling Room and The Sugar Craft Corner”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009

Figure 2. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “The Cake Cooling Room and The Sugar Craft Corner”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.


Figure 3. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson.” The Kitchen”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009. 

Figure 3. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson.” The Kitchen”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

The isolating and displaying of each process revealed the mechanics behind both the artwork and the experiences of cake decorating. Yet the unveiling of these processes in the citational space of a gallery was intended to point up the construction of “personal” domestic space. Although I welcomed the audience into “my kitchen” and lived and breathed the duration of the project, there was no mistaking that this space was a gallery and bore no “real” resemblance to my (domestic) self or my autobiography, in the same way that Nigella’s domestic mise-en-scene, constitutes both her kitchen and her studio.

In keeping with Heddon’s advocated “confessional intervention” the spectators were not presented with a clear autobiographical narrative. Rather, the cakes were used alongside structuring devices to present a collection of experiences that could be revisited, manipulated and retold; devices I devised in accordance with Daniel Schachter’s notion that,

Memories are records of how we have experienced events, not replicas of the events themselves […] we construct our autobiographies from fragments of experience that change over time (qtd. in Smith and Watson 9).

The durational nature of the project meant that audience members witnessed my cakes at varying stages of development and on the first morning there were no completed cakes present in the display room. However, three diagrammatic drawings were displayed on the walls depicting different versions of what the final sculpture may look like; technical drawings of top and side projections and a more personal mapping of fragmented stories and memories (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Image: Rory Francis. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Side Projection Scale 1:4.5”.  If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

Figure 4. Image: Rory Francis. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Side Projection Scale 1:4.5”.  If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

Twenty-two nametags were carefully positioned on the display table indicating where the finished cakes would eventually be placed. The names of each cake were indicative of an event or memory such as, “The Big Pink Sofa” or “Failed Mother’s Day” and performatively framed each cake within a personal narrative. Each cake had its own song, which the audience could play out loud on an Ipod at any point during the process, whether they were looking at the finished cake or just its nametag and a blank space. The songs were designed to locate my memories within a shared cultural frame of reference that although specific to my memory, would evoke associations personal to the viewers allowing the possibility of other self-narratives to arise from the work.

The audience were also invited to take part in the continual documenting of my process. A plasma TV screen in the corner of the gallery that I titled “Cake Moments,” displayed a continual loop of photographs of past cakes from my life. The audience were instructed to take photographs of any interesting “cake moments” they encountered during their stay and at the end of each day these were added to the display. Like the cake sculpture, this collection of photographs built up over the five days. Many visitors chose to photograph themselves interacting in some way with the cakes and baking materials, thus becoming part of my autobiography. The photographs looped in random order and blurred together personal life shots with the constructed shots from the gallery, fictionalising the audience participation and potentially disrupting any singular notion of self (see fig. 5).

These interactive features performatively disclosed fragments of personal memory and served to involve the audience in the self-conscious authoring of my autobiography. Whatever the stage of the process, the audience were encouraged to fill in the gaps with their own self-narratives. To return to Heddon’s question, “Who then is the confessing subject here?” (164). I find a possible answer lies inside my cakes.

The Undisclosable

My memories, like a cake, were beaten and mixed together and like the icing, bled into each other to create a fluid yet fragmented autobiography. The finished cake sculpture combined an array of colours, textures, tastes, shapes and images. Some cakes were inscribed with photographs, personal texts, quirky features (a tower of custard cream biscuits) and disturbing details (a red gash cutting through a cake’s surface or a deliberately burnt black “Failed Mother’s Day” heart) (see fig. 6)

Fig. 6. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Cake Sculpture”.  If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

Figure 5. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Cake Sculpture”.  If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

As an artistic tool I found the layered form of a cake enabled me to represent multiple versions of memories and disclose complex feelings (albeit highly subjective) through a visually expressive and creative art form. In keeping with Bakhtinian dialogism, in which the self is only constructed through the interrelationship with the other, I performatively disclosed a version of my autobiography that was not located somewhere inside me, but somewhere in between both mine and the audience’s subjectivities. As Michael Holquist has expounded from Bakhtin:

In order to see ourselves, we must appropriate the vision of others[…]the Bakhtinian just-so story of subjectivity is the tale of how I get my self from the other:  it is only the other’s categories that will let me be an object for my own perception. (28)

This inter-relationship between “self” and “other” was epitomised through the act of communal ingestion and the spirit of event-ness that comes with the territory of food. Once cut up, dismembered and eaten the cakes revealed all, in the same way that my process had exposed in its duration and excess the mess, my exhaustion, the remnants of congealed icing and the smudges and stains on my aprons. Yet in concealing nothing, the work inherently refused to disclose. Once the cakes passed through the mouth of the “other” they gave way to that “other”, that “self”, revealing only cake and sugar.

The mouth machine is central to the articulation of different orders that go beyond the division of public and private:  the tongue sticks out, draws in food, objects and people. In eating we constantly take in and spit out things, people, selves. (Probyn 21)

In giving my cakes and “myself” to the spectators, I relinquished ownership of both my cakes and the artwork. I looked on as my cakes were eaten and destroyed, redirecting the voyeuristic gaze towards the audience and the private, personal, undisclosable experience of ingestion (see fig. 7)

I started out baking myself, but I ended up baking you, and then together we ate each other.

 Fig. 7. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Cake and Sugar”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.

Figure 6. Image: Anonymous Audience Member. Performer: Jenny Lawson. “Cake and Sugar”. If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. 2009.


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Author Biography

Jenny Lawson, University of Leeds

Jenny Lawson is a performance maker and a doctoral researcher currently based in Leeds UK.  Her practice is concerned with women, food, autobiography and domesticity.  Based in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds, her practice-as-research PhD  investigates how performance practice can articulate the implications of popular cultural food performances for women and their relationship to food and the domestic. Her solo work has explored cakes and baking and the spaces of the kitchen and the dinner table. She is currently developing a trilogy of works that address processes of making food, eating food and watching food in contemporary culture.