Cooking Up Healthy Citizens: The Pedagogy of Cookbooks




cookbooks, health, pedagogy, citizenship, obesity

How to Cite

Gray, E. M., & Leahy, D. (2013). Cooking Up Healthy Citizens: The Pedagogy of Cookbooks. M/C Journal, 16(3).
Vol. 16 No. 3 (2013): cookbook
Published 2013-06-23


There are increasing levels of concern around the health of citizens within Western neo-liberal democracies like Britain, the USA, and Australia. These governmental concerns are made manifest by discursive mechanisms that seek to both survey and regulate the lifestyles, eating habits and exercise regimes of citizens. Such governmental imperatives have historically targeted schools with school food ranking high in the priorities of public health policy, particularly in regards to the fears around childhood obesity and related health problems (Gard and Wright, Rich, Vander Schee and Gard). However, more recently such concerns have spilled into the wider public arena in Australia where fears of an “obesity epidemic”, the revision of the “food pyramid” and recent calls that make it mandatory for fast food companies to display calorie/kilojoule content on menu boards illustrate the increasing levels to which governments seek to intervene regarding the health of citizens.

Not only does the attempt to produce a healthy citizen take place within policy imperatives but also within popular culture. Here, we see healthy eating and diet shows becoming international brands. For example The Biggest Loser, where obese contestants embark on a televised diet and exercise regime, competing to lose the most weight in the shortest time, and also Jamie Oliver’s attempt to change the eating habits of the British has crossed the Atlantic to the USA. There is a sense of urgency embedded in many such discursive practices and an implication that, as a society, we need a “lifestyle change” to make us healthier. Reflecting this urgency is an increase in cookbooks that not only provide recipe ideas but also seek to intervene into our day-to-day conduct. The content of such books moves beyond ways of putting a meal together and into the territory of self-surveillance and regulation. In this way, then, cookbooks can be read as pedagogical. This particular brand of pedagogy, moreover, feeds into wider socio-political discourses around the governance of the self within our late modern context. This chapter will argue that many contemporary cookbooks attempt to enact governmental imperatives around health and nutrition and that, by doing this, they become pedagogical devices that translate governmental devices into the homes of their readers. By using a post-Foucauldian analytical framework, we will illustrate the ways in which Jane Kennedy’s cookbook, Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah mobilises discourses of health, gender, risk, and food in a rich (but 99 per cent fat free) mix.

Analytical Framework

This paper draws upon Foucauldian governmentality studies and the ways in which discursive practices are enacted in order to position and offer an analysis of cookbooks as pedagogical devices that translate the work of government into readers’ homes. Foucault defined government as “the conduct of conduct” arguing that government relates to the “way in which the conduct of individuals or groups might be directed: the government of children, of souls, of communities, of families, of the sick […] to govern in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action” (220–1). Foucault argued that attempts to shape conduct occur within socio-historical moments and contexts (Gordon) and they are, therefore, subject to change. Within this article, we seek to understand the ways in which governmental imperatives around food and lifestyle are taken up by cookbook authors and the implications of this in terms of public pedagogies within our late-modern context.

Public health is located within a myriad of governmental sites that attempt to regulate  people’s lives. In deciphering how government sites operate as mechanisms of regulation in modern times, Miller and Rose suggest that we require:

An investigation not merely of grand political schemata, or economic ambitions, or even of general slogans such as ‘state control’, nationalization, the free market, and the like, but of apparently humble and mundane mechanisms which appear to make it possible to govern […] the list is heterogeneous and is, in principle unlimited (32).

Such investigations can be grouped under the umbrella of “governmentality studies”. To grasp “governmentality” is complex and requires an analytics that can span history, and reach across macro and micro contours to trace various linkages and connections forged between governmental rationalities, techniques and practices (Leahy, Assembling). For the purposes of this paper we will be offering an analytic of the humble cookbook and its potential role in the governance of the self, a technique vital to contemporary neo-liberal modes of governance.

Neo-liberalism produces particular versions of health, citizenship, and individualism. Within neo-liberal governmental assemblages, public health policy operates as a key site for enacting what Miller and Rose label “government at a distance” (32) by working to facilitate the shifting of responsibility for the health of citizens from the State to the individual. The individual, however, does not instinctively know how to incorporate governmental hopes for a healthy lifestyle into their lives—it is here that the cookbook, as pedagogical device, is vital because it translates macro governmental hopes to the micro level, that is, into the kitchens of citizens.

Both risk and expertise also work alongside neo-liberalism in the assemblage to render the problems of government both thinkable and calculable, and in turn, practical. We will see in the next section how Jane Kennedy, the author of Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah deploys both popular notions of risk alongside her own experience and expertise (her lifelong “battle” with weight) in order to fold the (female) reader in to Kennedy’s particular approach to healthy eating.

Pedagogy could be described as part of the “doing” of education, the means through which ideas are transmitted through and between learners and teachers. Like contemporary neo-liberal government, contemporary pedagogies can be understood as assemblages; that is, they are made up of competing, intersecting, contradictory and multiple elements. Pedagogy is a technical device through which these elements are translated and transmitted to its audience, be that school pupils, students, adult learners or citizens. Elizabeth Ellsworth argues that pedagogy is a “social relationship [that] is very close in. It gets right in there in your brain, your body, your heart, your sense of self, of the world, of others, and of possibilities and impossibilities in all those realms” (6). In other words, effective pedagogical devices are necessary contact points between ideas and the self; they inform relationships between the macro and the micro, thus shaping both the individual and the collective. The remainder of this paper will demonstrate how Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah deploys popular discursive trends regarding food, health, gender, and citizenship as pedagogic tools that aim to cultivate a healthier subject.

Food That Makes Your Arse Huge?

“Boombah: (adj). Word to describe food that makes your arse huge” (Kennedy 5).

Lifestyle, diet, and health books can be seen to have saturated the market over recent years in an almost epidemic-like way. This phenomenon both mirrors and informs governmental imperatives around the health and lifestyle of citizens. A recent visit to our local bookshop revealed that there appears to be a polarisation of texts relating to food, health, and wellbeing. Books that explicitly relate to health and health issues can be found in one section, and cookbooks in another. However, there are an increasing number of texts that blend the two genres and offer diet, health, and lifestyle tips along with recipe ideas and cooking techniques. Within this blend there is also variation; there are texts that offer a scientific exposition of food, nutrition, and diet, such as Ricotti and Connelly’s The Healthy Family Cookbook, a text which offers a twelve-chapter overview of current theories and practices around health and nutrition before offering recipe ideas designed to help the reader achieve and maintain a “healthy weight” (page). In addition there are also texts that fold particular approaches to weight-loss, such as Jenny Craig or The Biggest Loser, together with cooking. The input of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to the mix has been well documented (see Pike; Leahy, Disgusting; Rawlins; Zimmet and James) and the influence of Oliver’s approachable style of writing can be found within many contemporary cookbooks, including Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah, a text within which Jane Kennedy blends together cooking, health, and lifestyle into a paste that is bound together with a Bridget Jones-style confessional commentary on her own, personal struggles with weight and dieting. For example: “I love food. Always have. Unfortunately I love it about one kilo per month more than I should. Perhaps I should put it another way: the food I love seems to have more calories than I need over a month and a year and a lifetime … it adds up! Yep, I get FAT” (xi).

This style can be read as a way of “getting right in” (Ellsworth 6), to enfold the reader into Kennedy’s world. It also may provide readers, particularly, as we will discus below, middle-class Anglo-Australian females, with a sense of solidarity in a struggle against weight gain. Kennedy often deploys the spectre of designer jeans that no longer fit as a way to further entice the reader to embrace the healthy eating regime promoted by the book. Kennedy draws upon notions of horror and disgust at the fat body (her own but, implicitly, also the readers). Horror and disgust are potent pedagogical devices that are often put to work in educational and health promotion settings in an attempt to lure people and their bodies into action (Leahy, Disgusting; Lupton).

In many ways Kennedy’s cookbook can be read as public pedagogy—its aim is to teach the reader how to cook food that is “packed full of flavour but minus the boombah” (xxvii), or minus that which causes bodily harm and/or disgusting transformation. In order to achieve this, Kennedy deploys “expert knowledge” as she takes the reader on a journey through her own struggles with weight, fad diets and failure to epiphany—which for Kennedy was a personal trainer and a new approach to cooking, eating and lifestyle and her book is peppered with self help-style narrative devices, for example:

The key to successful weight loss with this style of eating is to be organised. Disorganisation is the open door though which every second excuse (and French fry) slips. “Oh no, the stores are closed. Oh well, better order takeaway”. Don’t do it. There. Is. No. Good. Takeaway. Food. (Kennedy xxii, emphasis original).

Several mechanisms are being deployed here. Firstly, she is inadvertently constructing the perfect western neo-liberal subject: organised, self-contained, disciplined, and able to make informed rational decisions around food type and purchase. Secondly, by predicting and addressing the reader’s perceived resistance, Kennedy reveals her moralistic overtones. We see the judgment of a rational, ordered subject versus a messy, disorganised, immoral (and fat) subject in a piling up of connotations that lead to the same conclusion: this healthy way is the best healthy way.

Kennedy’s personal narrative within the text follows a trajectory of “awareness, struggle and epiphany” (Plummer 131) that often characterise the confessional stories that we tell about ourselves: “I ended up […] back at square one: overweight, staring down a year of chicken consommé dinners […] I finally grew a brain and motivated myself to see a personal trainer” (Kennedy xiv).

Kennedy’s narrative is a familiar one and a Foucauldian reading of confession enables us to take the position that confession is imperative to the contemporary construction of self. Modes of confession have become increasingly diverse and reified through the era of reality TV, social networking and the “personal trauma” sub-genre of autobiographical memoir (Brien). Kennedy’s book deploys confession as a narrative device that, like her moralising about the dangers of take away food, attempts to fold the reader into her world and, as a result, reifies her approach to healthy eating and lifestyle. We can do it because she has done it. Through the confessional she is not only able to tell of her love of food but also of her understanding of it as risky. This can be outlined by drawing upon an extract we looked at earlier: “the food I love seems to have more calories than I need and over a month and a year and lifetime it adds up! Yep, I get FAT” (xi).

Risk and expertise work alongside neo-liberal individualism in the governmental assemblage to render the problems of government both thinkable and calculable, and in turn, practical. Kennedy deploys both risk and expert knowledge in order to successfully demonstrate her understanding of healthy eating as a battleground that see her appetite and tastes at war with her waistline. She guides us through the various fad diets she has tried, through gaining weight while being pregnant, and the anguish of seeing her image reflected back at her through her career in television, until her epiphany: the realisation that in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight a balance of healthy eating and exercise is required. These are convincing pedagogical strategies that encourage the reader to apply modes of self-governance that reflect wider, macro hopes for the healthy neo-liberal citizen and Kennedy’s status as TV celebrity within Australia.

Her use of the colloquial term “boombah” makes hers a uniquely Australian endeavour. It is worth noting here that Kennedy’s brand of Australian humour and use of colloquialism is deeply entrenched with raced and classed assumptions about desirable body size and the economic and cultural capital of its readers. It is middle class white Anglo-Australian women who are being targeted by this book and, arguably, by this brand of public pedagogy.

As with many contemporary cultural texts about cooking, Kennedy’s book promotes an: “upper-middle-class lifestyle enhanced by the appropriation of goods and commodities. All the while, real issues surrounding the life-sustaining reality of food are ignored” (Wright and Sandlin 406).  The lifestyle promoted by Kennedy is classed in this way. She writes of Bettina Liano jeans, of working on the popular Australian television show A Current Affair, of drinking wine, and using goats cheese and kaffir lime leaves in her cooking. Her levels of economic and cultural capital are obvious, and this sets the scene well for the type of reader she is attempting to educate. Although she does not explicitly mention gender, her “Bridget Jones”-style confessions of dietary failure (though Kennedy succeeds where Bridget would inevitably continue to fail), the mention of cooking both children’s and adult’s dinners, and the illustrations throughout the book that feature children’s toys implicitly position her as a “typical modern woman” with a career and a family to boot.

In terms of pedagogy, Kennedy’s book reflects contemporary governmental discourse around health, food and wellbeing. It is designed “to shape with some degree of deliberation aspects of our behaviour according to particular sets of norms and for a variety of ends” (Dean 18). It reflects government fears around obesity, portion size, calorific content, and body shape. Pike and Leahy argue that food pedagogies provide government, and in this case the individual, with opportunities to shape, sculpt, mobilise, and work through the food choices, desires and aspirations, needs, wants, and lifestyles of parents, families, and children.  The explicit intention of food pedagogies is to enlist the public into a process of “governmental self formation”: that is, “the ways in which various authorities and agencies seek to shape the conduct, aspirations, needs, desires and capacities of specified political and social categories, to enlist them in particular strategies and to seek definite goals” (Dean 563).

Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah then uses confession as a springboard to enlisting its readers into a healthier lifestyle and, more importantly, a healthier, risk aversive relationship with food. It individualises this struggle, and, like all good neo-liberal subjects, presents a healthy diet as an individual struggle:

This way of cooking and eating works for me […] I feel much healthier and happier and I’ve got a lot more energy […] These recipes have to be better for you than chowing down a creepy bowl of 2 minute noodles and an entire pack of Tim Tams (yes, it’s time to let go). Be disciplined, even if you’ve struggled before. And if you really can’t live without your nightly routine of creamy pasta […] then bung this book back on the shelf. But stop whingeing about your huge arse (xix).

This passage illustrates Kennedy’s pedagogy well, particularly the way in which her pedagogy is infused with neo-liberal discursive techniques. She positions herself as expert by stating that her way of cooking “works for me” as well as by deploying phrases like “I feel” and “I’ve got”. She then expertly shifts the reader’s focus from herself to the governance of the self by stating that it is up to the individual to be self-disciplined. Her pedagogy is littered with risk discourse as she informs us that you can continue to eat as you wish, but that there are consequences (a “huge arse”). This particular brand of risk discourse is gendered, as it is arguably mostly women who worry about the size of this part of their anatomy.

One of the greatest contradictions of a neo-liberal approach to governance is that at the same time as promoting individual responsibility, there is also a strong emphasis on the collective. Kennedy reflects this throughout the book, as the above passage suggests. Her introductory section acts as a guide for the reader, who—once enfolded into Kennedy’s approach—she lets make their own way with encouragement. This is manifest in her final statements, “So let’s say goodbye to boombah. Go for it! And enjoy!” (xxvii). As pedagogy, then, Fabulous Food, Minus the Boombah attempts to cultivate and shape the reader’s choices around food by providing a practical means for transforming not only the reader’s food practices but also her image and self-esteem. This is achieved by the author’s supplement of supplying expert information, cooking skills, guidance, and incitement.

Let’s Say Goodbye to Boombah?

This paper has demonstrated how the contemporary cookbook can be read as pedagogy. In some ways the humble cookbook has always been pedagogical; seeking to teach the reader to make something that they previously did not, presumably, know how to, as well as providing cooking techniques and advice on the most suitable produce to use in particular recipes. However, in the contemporary moment, the cookbook arguably increasingly acts as a translation mechanism for governmental imperatives around food, health, and wellbeing.

We have taken one cookbook amongst many as an illustration of our thesis. Jane Kennedy’s Fabulous Food Minus the Boombah is an Australian example of the neo-liberal project that lies at the heart of contemporary modes of governance of the population, but also, and more importantly, governance of the self. At the very heart of neo-liberalism is an imagined subject. That is, neo-liberalism needs and wants citizens to be autonomous, health seeking, enterprising, rational, choice-making individuals. The contemporary cookbook, it has been argued, can assist the individual in the production of a healthier-eating self. However, the more complex and intersecting aspects of selfhood—aspects such as socio-economic status, gender, location and ethnicity—are often absent from the construction of the healthy individual promoted by the contemporary cookbook. Above all, this paper has sought to problematise some of the dominant discourse around food, health, and wellbeing that can be found on the pages of the modern-day cookbook.


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Author Biographies

Emily Margaret Gray, RMIT University

Lecturer, School of Educatio, RMIT University, Australia.

Deana Leahy, Monash University

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, MOnash University, Australia.