Gender’s role in the Bourdain v. Deen fight over culinary elitism

It was interesting to watch the discussion about culinary elitism evolve over the past week.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, former restaurant critic Frank Bruni used what was otherwise an everyday online spitting match between Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen as a platform for a bigger point: That the culinary elite (represented here by Bourdain) should stop looking down on regular folk (represented here by Deen, who hasn’t led a “regular” life in at least a decade) who might not have the access to, education about, money to buy or interest in fancy, organic, complicated or out-of-the-ordinary food.

Bourdain called Deen “the worst, most dangerous person in America” because she’s “telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.”

And you know what that reminded me of? The study that made the rounds earlier this year that blamed the childhood obesity epidemic on working mothers.

When he’s not making a living traveling around the world making one of the best shows on television, Bourdain makes his living by picking on people who sometimes need to be picked on. He’s famous for saying things that people think but no one has the balls to say. It’s a good gig, especially when so few have the equally big balls to throw it back in his face.

Well, Bruni did. (So did Paula, but it’s Bruni’s piece that has everyone talking.)

He brought up some terrific points about class and the social divide that culinary elitism has created that we would be foolish to overlook, but I was also interested in the gender divide that appeared in his article.

There’s a clear delineation in gender between the “self-appointed sophisticates and the supposed rubes.” Bourdain and chefs David Chang and Andrew Carmellini represent the first. Deen, Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee are Bruni’s choices for the latter.

I tweeted something about it being worth noting that the people who are supposedly leading America down the culinary toilet are women who promote fast, easy-to-prepare comfort meals and that the cutting edge sophisticates who think everyone else is foolish are men.

But there are two big exceptions, one who was mentioned by name in the article and another who was conspicuously absent: Alice Waters and Guy Fieri.

In their respective camps — chefs who are trying to change the world one bite at a time and home cooks who are just trying to get dinner on the table — Waters and Fieri are always outnumbered by the opposite gender, but their presence alone doesn’t allow us to treat this as a gender-neutral discussion.

Emily Matchar, who is working on a book about New Domesticity, used this ruckus as an excuse to break down the show on the Food Network by gender:

Female chefs – even lauded professional restaurant chefs like Alexandra Guarnaschelli – are described as being “working moms” or “stay-at-home moms” and their food is described with adjectives like “simple” and “homey” and “accessible” and “healthy.” The food on the male-hosted shows is “intense” and “extreme” and “ultimate” and “fearless.”

This is not a surprise to anyone, but it’s an important distinction to be aware of when one camp is being vilified in such a public manner. Bourdain could have chosen Fieri, the bleach-haired dude’s dude who is about as annoying as they come, or his target fellow Travel Channel host Adam Richman, who has built an entire show around eating three days’ worth of calories in one sitting.

But he didn’t. He took aim at Deen, and then suddenly Bruni was writing about three female hosts who, to the culinary elite, represent just how stupid Americans have become about food.

But in reality, they are sharp business women who happen to have built brands that appeal to home cooks, many of whom are certainly trying to cook and eat more responsibly for their health and for the environment than Deen does (at least on her show). At least one of them, Rachael Ray, is doing far, far more than Bourdain ever thought about doing to try to reform school lunches and help kids eat better. (And she doesn’t even have kids!)

Bourdain isn’t anti-woman or anti-feminist. I was happy to write a piece in his defense last year when, in his most recent book, “Medium Raw,” he reveals his egalitarian attitude toward home economics and takes aim at famous people in food that piss him off with little regard to gender.

But gender is a part of this debate, no matter if Bourdain realizes it. Subconsciously or not, we’re still drawing a line in the sand between female home cooks who are stuck in the bacon jar and the male progressive-minded problem solvers who never think of their actions or words as hypocritical.

Photo illustration via Gothamist and Ray photo from the New York Post.

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13 responses to “Gender’s role in the Bourdain v. Deen fight over culinary elitism

  1. I agree with many of the points in this article, but I also agree with Bourdain – except for his comment about Sandra Lee who, yes is perky but also and incredible woman. How about using this subject to feature some great – and maybe elite chefs in Manhatten – Lidia Bastianich, April Bloomfield – Spotted Pig, Gabrielle Hamilton: Prune, Anita La of annisa, Paolo Marracino: Paola’s Restaurant, Zarela Martinez – Zarela, Alex Raij Txikito to name a few.

  2. Thank you, Addie! You articulated so well something I’ve been stewing on for a while.
    (P.S. I like Anthony Bourdain AND Rachael Ray. Guy Fieri makes me wanna barf.)

  3. Referring to Guy Fieri, Bourdain also told TV Guide, “I’m glad that’s not me.” I don’t think Bourdain is a misogynist. I think he just hates pap and the agri-business minions who serve it and doesn’t mind saying so. I know he’s criticized Alice Waters, too, so I know he’s also critical of elitists. I don’t always agree with Bourdain, but he calls it the way he sees it.

    I’m curious why you seem to avoid mentioning Deen’s connections with Smithfield, Armour, and Butterball, among others (http://dcfoodblog.blogspot.com/2008/03/paula-deen-resolution-why-we-think-you.html).

    Hawking these oppressive food conglomerates is why I don’t follow Deen, among others who do the same, no matter what their gender. Disappointed in Alton Brown for doing Welch’s commercials, too. Those industries of cancerous foods, cruel to workers and animals, are all too powerful and certainly don’t need pushing from television chefs–A-, B-, C-, or D-list. Male or female.

    Forgive me, but I’d prefer my food celebs to promote good, healthy, thoughtful eating to everyone, not dumb it down to the jingle they’re reading from a teleprompter. If that’s elitism, shoot me. I’ll fire back.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking articles.

    • You’re right, Stella. Deen’s Smithfield connection is abhorrent, and I only left it out for lack of time. It’s in that same vein that I didn’t explore the entire chapter dedicated to picking on Alice Waters from “Medium Raw.” Deen sticking her fingers in her ears and saying “blah blah blah” to block out what she doesn’t want to hear about the environmental effects of factory farmed pork will catch up to her eventually. I’m sure Alice Waters does the same thing with certain aspects of the food system, but at this ridiculously early hour of day, I can’t think of them. (Thanks, pre-K!)

  4. Bourdain called Deen “the worst, most dangerous person in America” because she’s “telling an already obese nation that it’s OK to eat food that is killing us.”

    Meanwhile Bourdain glorifies drug and alcohol consumption with little repercussion. I’m so sick of that guy’s faux outrage and intentional pot-stirring.

    • Not to mention that half the stuff he eats on his own show is terrible, nutritionally! It seems like he’s scarfing fried pig skin in nearly every episode.

  5. I’ve lived here for six years and the first year we were here, with no idea who Paula Deen was, we used to watch her show aghast, wondering how anybody could ever eat one of those meals with all those heavy things in it. Now I know a lot more about her, and have a small food business myself, and she is one of my role models.

    Food snobbery and everyday comfort food are always at odds with each other, and have always been dominated by men and women, in that order, so there’s no way you can separate gender politics from the combat, and Deen has been criticised for her food’s unhealthness for years and years. Her answer is, “I’m not your doctor, I’m your chef,” and I don’t see her anywhere on her show telling people this is what you should be eating all day, every day. I know she controls her own weight with dieting, but she just doesn’t make a diet show. Bourdain himself looks nothing like the photo on this post, in his new series, either! Quite the “beer gut”!

    We make comfort food at my British bakery, and nobody eats it all day, every day. The point of that kind of food has always been as part of a balanced diet, and I don’t think Deen should be obligated to put a health warning on her show. Besides which, I was watching Bourdain in the Ukraine last night and he literally downed half a bottle of near vodka in the middle of the day with lunch. Does he think we should do that all day too?

    This is why I prefer home & comfort cooking over cheffiness, and why people love Deen- she’s not snooty and doesn’t put other cooks down!

    Adam Richman I am still aghast at, his show is practically food abuse. I can’t see any good in that whatever. Stuffing your face as a sport? That’s obscene.

  6. I think Deen’s reply was also interesting: she basically tried to argue that because she donates a portion of her fortune to charities that feed children, she is somehow in the clear. But that was Bourdain’s whole point: she is dangerous because her show demonstrates nothing but recipes that are completely unhealthy, on a daily basis. This, to me, suggests that her type of food *should* be eaten every day (contrary to Alice’s comments), precisely because her show plays daily–and several times in one day, in fact–on the Food Network. If she were really about any sort of moderation, she would mix up her recipes now and again, throw in a few vegetables, or cut back on the constant onslaught of carbs. Instead, she and her sons just joke about how much butter and cream cheese they’re using in each dish. Sure, it’s delicious, but it’s sending a terrible message to people, that eating this type of food is something you should do on a regular basis. Isn’t that why it’s supposed to be “comfort” food? You don’t (or shouldn’t) need comforting on a daily basis, and if you do, maybe you should change something in your life instead of drowning your sorrows in a bowl of mashed potatoes.

  7. I hadn’t thought about the impact of the three times a day scheduling, but there has to be more to it than that, if people really are cooking this kind of food every day. Honestly, I am the last person to try to figure out the American TV viewer, but I still feel there is a place for her among the many TV chefs and cooks with all their different styles.

  8. Pingback: The Femisphere: Foodies and Food Politics·

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