Theoretical Grounding

To set the stage theoretically, here is a literature review to contextualize this project at the intersection of the study of embodiment, gender, and foodwork.

Literature Review

The domestic kitchen, often the locus of home food labor, is also well-suited to the study of gender performance if we accept West and Zimmermann’s “understanding of gender as a routine, methodical, and recurring accomplishment” (1987, 126).  Goffman described gender as comprised of “perfunctory, conventionalized acts,” including such acts the preparation and consumption of food, and the cleaning of a kitchen (1976, 69). In her poignantly named book, The Gender Factory, Sarah Berk studied gender through American housework, where she found that her research partners simultaneously ““do” gender, as they “do” housework and child care” (Berk 1985, 201).  These scholars and more support my hypothesis that if we want to research gender, it is to be found in the domestic kitchen.

In a study of an embodied experience of identity, a researcher would be remiss to omit the concept of habitus, created by Marcel Mauss and developed by Pierre Bourdieu, defined by Heather Paxson as, “an embodied set of dispositions required for social proficiency in a culturally (or professionally) specific field of relations” (Paxson 2011, 122).  Mauss’ explanation of habitus is concerned with “Techniques of the Body,” specific embodied practices that are learned as part of group membership, what he calls “a prestigious imitation” (Mauss 1973, 73).  Habitus, as defined by Mauss, “is imposed from without, from above, even if it is an exclusively biological action, involving [one’s] body. The individual borrows the series of movements which constitute it from the action executed in front of [one] or with [one] by others” (Mauss 1973, 73).  Calling attention to specific details in the performance of everyday movements, Mauss highlights how society has conditioned the body:

Walking: the habitus of the body being upright while walking, breathing, rhythm of the walk, swinging the fists, the elbows, progression with the trunk in advance of the body or by advancing either side of the body alternately (we have got accustomed to moving all the body forward at once). Feet in or out. Extension of the leg.” (Mauss 1973, 82).


Bourdieu complemented the theory of habitus with his concept of ‘bodily hexis,’ wherein societal rules crystalize and are made visible in the body.  Bourdieu explains, “bodily hexis is political mythology realised, embodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking and thereby of feeling and thinking” (1977, 93-94).  He believes this crystallization is beyond the access of the researcher or indeed any person:

“The principles embodied in this way are placed beyond the grasp of consciousness, and hence cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit; nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and therefore more precious, than the values given body, made body by the transubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy” (1977, 94, emphasis in the original).


Though I agree that the imprint of society made on our bodies is so extensive as to be unfathomable in its entirety, I argue that some of the outer-most manifestations of habitus and bodily hexis can be understood from within one’s own embodiment.  Furthermore, I argue that these concepts should be explored from the perspective of one’s felt experience.

In the completion of socially-shaped physical practices as described by Mauss and Bourdieu, we claim membership to social groups; one type of group to which we claim membership through bodily performance is a gender.  Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble distills gender to the performance thereof: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender…identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results” (Butler 2014, 33).  I argue that a performative practice such as foodwork is a rich potential research site for exploring gender (as performance).  One example of previous research which leveraged the performativity of both cooking and identity is Maria Antoniou’s My Cypriot Cookbook. In this paper, Antoniou concluded:

“Cooking is a performative act. And, as I’m cooking, I’m realizing that ethnic identity is also performative. I’m performing my Cypriotness through food. My Cypriotness is little more than a series of embodied practices. My Cypriotness only exists in my announcement of it.” (Antoniou 2004, 140)


Inspired by Butler, I argue that one could replace each instance of the words “ethnic” and “Cypriotness” in the quote above with the word “gender.”

Lisa Heldke has asked, “Could it ever make sense to think of cooking as a form of inquiry?” and has come to an affirmative conclusion in her own philosophical writings (Heldke, 1992b, 251). Two researchers who have taken Heldke’s framing of ‘cooking as a form of inquiry’ literally in the study of ethnic identity are Maria Antoniou and Marcos Moldes.  Both researchers expressed a struggle to reconcile their queer identities with their diasporic identities (Cypriot-British and Uruguayan-Canadian, respectively) and they took their queries and qualms of gender / ethnic identity to the kitchen.  In cooking their national dishes, Antoniou and Moldes hoped to learn more about themselves and to reconcile aspects of their identities seemingly in conflict.  In both cases, national and ethnic identity are caught up in the physical experience of a gendered body.  As Antoniou cooked green beans with tomato and onion, she took stock of her physical embodiment:

“I’m noticing how I’m standing. How I’m moving. When I cook, my mannerisms change. My sense of my body changes. In the kitchen, I become ‘Cypriot woman’. I unconsciously mimic the body behaviours of my mum, aunts, grandmothers. I stand, legs apart, elbows out. Arms reaching, grabbing, pulling. Dominating space. I’m not like this outside my kitchen. In the rest of my life, my body performs ‘Western woman’: pull my knees together, tuck my elbows in, apologize for taking up space. Sorry. Sorry.” (Antoniou, 140)


At the same time that Antoniou ‘does’ Cypriotness, she ‘does’ gender, and she experiences it physically.  Her explicit description of physical manifestations of geographic and gendered identity disprove Bourdieu’s belief that the bodily hexis is inaccessible.  In this activity, I hope participants will experience a similar physical manifestation of identity, that of gender.



Antoniou, Maria. 2004. “My Cypriot Cookbook: Re-imagining My Ethnicity.”  Auto/Biography 12: 126-146.

Berk, Sarah F. 1985. The Gender Factory: The Apportionment of Work in American Households. New York: Plenum.

Brady, Jennifer. 2011. “Cooking as Inquiry: A Method to Sir Up Prevailing Ways of Knowing Food, Body, and Identity.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods 10, no.4: 321-334.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2014. Gender Trouble. London: Routledge.

Curtin, Deane W. and Lisa M. Heldke, eds. 1992. Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophes of Food.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

DeVault, Marjorie L. 1991. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1976. “Gender Display.” Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 3: 69-77.

Heldke, Lisa M. 1992a. “Foodmaking as a Thoughtful Practice.” In Cooking, Eating, Thinking, edited by Deane Curtin and Lisa Heldke, 204-229. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Heldke, Lisa M. 1992b. “Recipes for Theory Making.” In Cooking, Eating, Thinking, edited by Deane Curtin and Lisa Heldke, 251-265. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1973. “Techniques of the Body.” Economy and Society 2, no. 1: 70-88.

Million, Dian. 2009. “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24, no. 2 (Fall): 53-76.

Moldes, Marcos. 2017. “Stumbling in the kitchen: Exploring masculinity, Latinicity, and belonging through performative cooking.” In Food, Masculinities, and Home, edited by Michelle Szabo and Shelley Koch. 92-107. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Paxson, Heather. 2011. “The ‘art’ and ‘science’ of handcrafting cheese in the United States.” Endeavor 35, no. 2-3: 116-124.

Vanderslice, Kendall. 2017. “Making and Breaking: An Embodied Ethnography of Eating” Graduate Journal of Food Studies, 4, no. 1 (Spring): 31-41.

West, Candace and Don H Zimmerman. 1987. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1, no. 2 (June): 125-151.

West, Candace and Don H Zimmerman. 2009 “Accounting for Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 23, no. 1 (February): 112-122.