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Toast Festival – Women in Food: Media

I admit I have a problem with titles prefixed by the words ‘women in’ or, that fashionable one, ‘bird’ that I have used in my own blog subheading. I can’t recall seeing a single advertisement for an exhibition of ‘Men in Art,’ a talk on ‘Men in Science,’ or a festival called ‘Stag’s Eye View’. It seems the fact there is such a market for events discussing or promoting women’s work in various industries, is nothing but a symptom of our continuing inequality.

In spite of my prejudice, the week before last I was in London for the Toast Festival discussion on ‘Women in Food: Media’. The panel, chaired by chef and author Signe Johansen consisted of the formidable food writers Grace Dent, Felicity Cloake, Bee Wilson and the author and editor Jill Norman. I took up one seat of an audience entirely composed of the fairer sex. This may suggest that the majority of those wishing to address inequalities in the food media industry are women. I have a hunch, however, that when you call an event ‘Women in Such and Such’, it simply puts men off coming. By way of consolation, the one man I did see was from Nyetimber and responsible for doling out free bubbly.

I found the talk had some scary points. More than one panelist admitted that in order to have a career in food writing, you will need to work three to five jobs and probably still live hand to mouth. I guess I already knew this to be the case, as I have a habit of being attracted to things that offer little or no remuneration: illustration, indie publishing, motherhood, blogging. Still, I didn’t expect such a high calibre panel of writers to appear so grateful for their success, or to imply that their seemingly solid positions within the industry still feel like they’re on shaky ground.

Bee Wilson and Grace Dent both spoke of their necessity to get columns in immediately after, respectively, giving birth and being hit by a car. If they hadn’t, you see, they felt there would have been someone else ready to fill their boots. As Dent says, ‘you’re never going to see a job listing that says “wanted: restaurant critic. Wanted: food writer.” That’s not the way; you just need to kind of elbow your way in…’

‘It’s the most male-dominated industry I’ve ever been involved with,’ says Dent. ‘You know, food criticism is kind of a cushy job and cushy jobs often go to the guys, historically. Also, women may shy away. I don’t have any children which really bloody helps. I can run out of the house at the last-minute… You have to be around.’

Aside from the hours, another root of inequality in the food media industry stems from our fixation on its equivalent of high and low art: the perception that professional chefs (mostly men) are more skilled and important than domestic cooks (mostly women). As Bee Wilson puts it, ‘gastronomy is an invention which goes back about 200 years to all of these complacent, greedy French lawyers who invented the term and made it an incredibly narrow, male, competitive thing.

‘The high status of male chefs has been more or less continuous throughout that period, and if you go back to the late eighteenth century and the first emergence of these best-selling middle class cookery books written by women, for women, they never had the same status as the ones written by the courtly male chefs written for royal palaces. This dichotomy still exists.’

While female writers may have gone on to sell more copies and influence more readers (and their families) than their male counterparts, women have still not had an equal share of the prestige. Examples discussed by the panel include the scarcity of female contestants on Masterchef: The Professionals and the recent ‘Gods of Food’ issue of Time magazine that features few women. Wilson recommends Alice Waters’ responses to Time, including the points that, as Wilson says, ‘if food was celebrated for the things it ought to be celebrated for then women would rise effortlessly to the top… [yet] when a woman cooks it’s called domestic and when a male cooks it’s called creative … we just don’t use that word in relation to women enough.’

Reasons given for the dearth of female chefs in top establishments include the vogue for ‘hyper-modernist’ cuisine, ‘shouty’ kitchens and most obviously, the working hours. The panel does point out, however, that these traditions can be changed. Examples include the introduction of a more family-friendly shift pattern at the River Café and Spanish culture, in which food is less likely to be interpreted as ‘gendered’.

A particular sticking point for me was a remark by Jill Norman, editor of the game-changing Penguin Cookery Library, that our modern-day habit of valuing of commercial enterprise over genuine skill, or creativity, leads us to appraise chefs in order of ‘how well they can run an empire’. A reason too, as discussed by the panel, that many contemporary cookery books are in fact ghostwritten by women on behalf of male chefs working under the banner of an easily marketed restaurant brand. To me it all seems very cynical, that market forces drive us to take one of the great universal and flexible subjects such as food, and anchor it still under a logo.

Food writing is as Felicity Cloake says: ‘a completely different skill to cooking in a restaurant and it should be celebrated as such… No one wants to read a book of great recipes that doesn’t have any context to it. Many of the best food writers are women because the best food writing tends to be quite personal… Food is a pleasure that you’ve got to experience, but the next best thing is to experience it vicariously through someone’s words. If they don’t bring the food alive on the page then what is the point? Men don’t seem very good at that…’

Jill Norman also underlines the importance of the social and cultural context of food writing. She says ‘an awful lot of people think they can write just by writing recipes rather than by thinking about what they are doing. There are a handful of people who can really do it properly, but seldom are they men.’

The dominance of recipes in modern food writing seems to be a gripe for the whole panel. Bee Wilson exclaims how lucky she is that she is still ‘allowed’ to write around the subject of food for her Kitchen Thinker column in The Sunday Telegraph Stella magazine. Food blogging comes under a degree of fire, for its role in proliferating ‘short, sharp’ recipes void of context and of uncertain reliability. Yet, on the whole, the panel was pleasingly upbeat about blogging as a means to democratise restaurant criticism, discover new voices and talent, and for the space it gives writers to explore avenues and depths that otherwise wouldn’t be given column inches in established media.

In summary, the panel offers some advice to aspiring food writers. Signe Johansen says you should ‘be prepared to do a lot of grunt work for free at the outset and be very strategic… If you have an underexplored niche that you can tap into, you can make a go of it, but be prepared to work for little money and maybe be prepared to do other work alongside your food writing.’ Grace Dent, on the other hand, advocates boldness: ‘Work out where the money is. Work out who has got money… read about who is getting budgets. I think you also have to keep going sideways into places, turn up writing about one thing and then move into another. You’ve got to be a bit of a hustler.’

The panel’s top food writers:

Nigella Lawson
Fushia Dunlop
Alice Waters
Shiela Dillon
MFK Fisher
Diana Henry
Vandana Shiva
Laurie Colwin
Elizabeth David
Jane Grigson

And what about the men?

Nigel Slater
Lucas Hollweg
Simon Hopkinson
Jeffery Steingarten

Disclosure: I have received no financial compensation or other incentive for writing or publishing this post, sniff.

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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3 comments on “Toast Festival – Women in Food: Media

  1. December 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Woweee! I bet it was just fascinating to be there with all that talent in the room! How inspirational. Free bubbly too? Sounds good to me. xoxo

    • December 12, 2013 at 10:26 pm

      I really enjoyed it, so I did! X

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