Cooking in the Scholarly Kitchen

This morning I have the pleasure to attend the Rural Women’s Studies Association Triennial Meeting (via zoom, of course) to offer a few comments on a book that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will release tomorrow. The book is Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook and it’s edited by my colleague Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. 

If you want to check the book out, you can download a copy here or purchase it in glorious paperback!

I want to keep my remarks focused on the book this morning, but I’m super tempted to talk a bit about academic publishing as well. Backstories emphasizes the role that women play in rural foodways and in the family kitchen. Woman not only provided sustenance for their families and communities, but also communicated cultural and social values, shaped the domestic economy, and offered stability during a time of crisis. The kitchen and cooking took on an even more prominent role during the COVID pandemic when family meals, cooking experiments, and the use of the kitchen table itself as a multipurpose nerve center where family life, work, school, and, of course, eating come together. The book then reveals how contemporary situations shine light on the traditional roles of the kitchen in family life.

A more adventurous talk would fold the story of The Digital Press into the history of the kitchen and point out how publishing is often regarded as the kitchen of the academic process. In fact, one the best known academic publishing blogs is called The Scholarly Kitchen

In this context, it makes sense that publishing industry as a whole is largely operated by women (one recent figure that I saw was >70% of the publishing industry is women). Of course, this doesn’t mean that women are making decisions about who and what to publish. In fact, studies consistently show that men dominate editorial boards and there remains gender disparity in research. Moreover, women are paid less than their male colleagues in the publishing industry. Thus, the kitchen metaphor is more than just a way to describe the back of the house where research (which remains encoded as masculine activity in many contexts) is quietly turned into something consumable. The barrier, then, between research and publishing is not as simple as a kind of technical black box where two different skills abut one another. It is also a barrier that is mapped onto gender divides in academia as a broader industry.

Books like Backstories serve as nice reminders that the kitchen as both a real and metaphorical place remains a gendered space, but also reflects the centrality of women’s role in the process of producing the family, society and culture as well as academic knowledge making. Just as in recent home architecture, the kitchen has move to the center of the home and become public social space situated for both display, gathering, and the preparation of food, the publishing process, pried open by interest in open access and scholar-led publishing, has started what I imagine to be slow pivot toward the center of academic life. 

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