The Personal is Historical
A Burnout Confession: I’m a Foodie Academic Who Lost the Joy of Cooking

A Burnout Confession: I’m a Foodie Academic Who Lost the Joy of Cooking

For most of last year, I worried that I’d broken my brain. As an academic whose job entails creating knowledge, this was utterly terrifying. I could still write, but getting words on the page was difficult and painfully slow. As I tried to rehab my writing muscles, I realized I’d missed a key warning sign. Before my writing began to hurt, my interest in cooking had completely disappeared. This should have been a huge red flag because I’m a food media scholar. My intellectual life literally revolves around food. For Nursing Clio alone, I’ve written about sad salads, butter, comfort food, dude food, Super Bowl food, microwave cookbooks, and women nutrition scientists. Even as my academic work led me deeper into the endlessly satisfying world of food, my personal eating life crumbled around me like a slice of burnt toast. My reserves of time and energy dried up. I struggled to feed myself well on a daily basis, let alone enjoy cooking to nurture anyone else.

Academic turned culture writer Anne Helen Petersen felt something similar in 2019. She wrote an essay on millennial burnout that went viral and inspired a book. After organizing her life around work (particularly working hard and all the time) her burnout manifested as “errand paralysis,” or when small and mundane tasks feel insurmountable.

Despite rallying cries to become “slow professors” and embrace “rest is resistance” as an ally, and recent books “unraveling faculty burnout,” working hard and all the time is still common in academia. And despite reading these books myself, I still felt like I had to work to such lengths as I checked off professional milestones — graduate degrees, publications, a faculty position, and the almighty tenure dossier. As I did, my desire to cook and any pleasure I once found in it withered further and further away as culinary errand paralysis took over, worsening with each passing semester, compounding from year to year. Simple things (try a new recipe, plan more than microwavable lunches, deal with leftovers) became seemingly impossible hurdles.

As a graduate of Boston University’s Gastronomy Program (founded by culinary luminaries Julia Child and Jacques Pépin) this feels like a grave confession. Foodies, after all, aren’t just folks who love to eat. They embrace every aspect of food, folding it into their identities with an artisan-crafted wooden spoon.

Emily Contois’s Diners, Dudes, and Diets is now available from University of North Carolina Press. (Courtesy Emily Contois and UNC Press)

What’s more, long standing gender conventions often fuse femininity to domesticity and food labor.[1] While that’s socially constructed B.S., the truth is that even as a woman without children to feed and with a husband who self-sufficiently cooks and feeds himself a muscle-building diet focused on “macros” and “positive nitrogen balance,” I feel like I’m not pulling off any semblance of a food life very well.

For a while, this cooking chasm was concerning and embarrassing (I teach a course on Food Media for goodness sakes!), but now I recognize it as a burnout symptom. Even if I can’t fix it immediately, I want to better understand it. I’m an academic, so I turned to the literature.

I started with one of my favorite books, Laura Shapiro’s delicious history of mid-century cooking, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. I’m not alone in feeling like a cooking flop, as she writes, “The kitchen has always been the place where housewives who feel inadequate must confront their own failings day after day, where guilt runs like tap water and the possibility of disappointing the family burns endlessly.”[2]

Beyond a personal sense of failure, the question of cooking, or not, points to a more universal conundrum. Food anthropologist Carole Counihan (who I first met on the page during an early semester as a Gastronomy student and later became a mentor) writes, “Across cultures and history, food work can represent drudgery and oppression but also power and creativity.”[3] There it is in black and white. No matter the culture, time, or place, food has represented labor and leisure, drudgery and joy, necessary duty and creative expression. I’d drowned that already tenuous dynamic in overwork. I had to right the balance.

Luckily, women authors (burned out and otherwise) have deftly navigated these tensions in cookbooks, especially three moderately polemic figures who I affectionately refer to on a first name basis: Poppy Cannon, Peg Bracken, and Sandra Lee. Their cookbooks live in my work office on campus, though there are cookbooks throughout my home, too: atop the fridge in my kitchen, on top of the dining hutch, and they fill a shelf in a bookcase otherwise dedicated to literature, just below my favorite books by Haruki Murakami, Ann Patchett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Brontë sisters.

Another bookish figure, Poppy Cannon published The Can-Opener Cookbook in 1952 to much initial consternation between “scornful old-line gourmets and delighted busy housewives.”[4] She promised a seeming oxymoron: easy haute cuisine made from packaged foods, glamorized recipes supposedly perfect for those short on time or lacking intuition in the kitchen. It was so successful, marvelously unimaginatively named sequels followed — The New Can-Opener Cookbook in 1959 and The New New Can-Opener Cookbook in 1968. Each edition offered recipes like Blushing Bunny, a can of tomato soup enhanced with milk, egg yolks, mustard, and American cheese.

Inside page of Hilary Knight's The I Hate to Cook Book
In The I Hate to Cook Book sequel, Hilary Knight’s illustrated cook frowns indignantly, furrows her brow, and squints up at the chef’s hat, questioning the presence and power of beleaguered culinary expectation.

Peg Bracken also found great success with The I Hate to Cook Book, published in 1960. Peg didn’t actually abhor culinary tasks, but the book’s candid title and humorous contents struck a chord with readers. It sold more than 3 million copies and launched a sequel full of recipes like Bastard Barbecue, Blender Coleslaw, and Immediate Fudge Cake.[5]

Beyond Peg’s quirky approach, I love Hilary Knight’s illustrations throughout the book, including the short-haired woman on the book’s cover. With an exaggerated giraffe-like neck, she wears a white chef’s toque atop her head. However, it literally and figuratively doesn’t fit, as it slides down her forehead and covers her eyebrows. On her, it’s a dunce cap. She stares out at us, eyes wide with panic and perhaps a bit of worry. Her lips pull into a tight, tense line, as her cheeks glow red with some combination of exertion, stress, or even embarrassment. It’s an expression I know all too well myself.

Whereas I didn’t learn of Poppy or Peg until graduate school, I knew Sandra from the Food Network, where her Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee first aired in 2003 when I was in high school. Sandra Lee was born in 1966, shortly after Poppy and Peg’s cookbooks came out and were in regular circulation. Carrying on Poppy’s legacy, Sandy made a career out of glamorizing. She combined branded packaged food with a few fresh ingredients, yielding partly-homemade creations, along with festive “tablescapes.” In 2002, her first cookbook promised “cooking fast and fabulous — nothing is made from scratch,” an inversion of foodie devotion to artisanal cooking.

Sandra, Poppy, and Peg each offered a solution to women and other cooks who felt overly tasked with feeding others. They found a voracious audience and sold millions of cookbooks. But what about someone like me, who’s currently struggling just to feed myself? Someone who finds herself subsisting on a buffet of misfit snacks: granola bars and dried apricots, strawberry protein shakes and string cheese?

Judith Jones (famed editor of food stars Julia Child, James Beard, and Edna Lewis) probably would have clicked her tongue at me. As part of her food publishing legacy, she wrote The Pleasures of Cooking for One. After the death of her husband, she was cooking just for herself, leading her to consider people in similar situations, including those “who have been too busy with their careers, but who like good food and gradually come to feel that they’ve been missing something.”[6]

I suppose I am stuck in this gradual process.

Wading through the muck of my un-cooking moment, I can’t help but think of first wave feminists who imagined cooking as a collective duty, one distributed over a neighborhood, so that the necessity and joy of eating could be shared by all. A version of that arrangement saves me now. Last semester, I became my university’s faculty in residence, living in a dorm with about eighty students. After a long day of work, I get to stroll into the campus dining hall, swipe my card, and have someone else cook — someone else feed and nourish me — during this strange time when I struggle to do so myself.

In her cookbook sequel, Peg Bracken humorously quips, “You don’t recover from hating to cook, any more than you get over having big feet.”[7] Like Peg, I don’t actually hate to cook. I just hate how tired and exhausted I am after focusing too intensely and for too long on my career at the expense of everything else. I wish I had quick tricks and favorite recipes to recommend for anyone feeling the same struggles. I can say after some winter break rest, my brain is finally starting to feel ready to write again — huzzah! But I haven’t cured the errand paralysis that plagues my cooking. Not yet. Truly addressing my burnout will take more than just a couple weeks off. But as I heal, Poppy, Peg, Sandra, and Judith will cheer me on from the kitchen sidelines. If you need a culinary helping hand, I’m sure they’ll reach out for you, too. So will I.

Acknowledgements
Thank you to friends and scholars KC Hysmith and Diana Garvin for their feedback on this essay, as well as Nursing Clio editor Kristin Brig-Ortiz — and thanks to all the cooks and temporary un-cooks on social media who shared their stories with me as I endeavored to write this essay, one slow and painful word at a time.

Notes

  1. See for example: Marjorie L. DeVault, Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston. Food and Femininity (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015); Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre, Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  2. Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005), 167.
  3. Carole Counihan, “Mexicanas’ Food Voice and Differential Consciousness in the San Luis Valley of Colorado,” in Food and Culture: A Reader, Second Edition, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (London: Routledge, 2007), 356.
  4. Poppy Cannon, The New New Can-Opener Cookbook (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company 1951), front book flap.
  5. Shapiro, Something from the Oven, 162.
  6. Judith Jones, The Pleasures of Cooking for One (New York: Knopf, 2009), vii.
  7. Bracken, The I Hate to Cook Book, vii.

Emily Contois is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture (2020) and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence & Negotiation (2022). She completed her PhD in American Studies at Brown University and holds an MA in American Studies from Brown, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University.