The Future Publics of Food Studies: A Conversation

Emily Contois & Katherine Hysmith

For this Food-Stuff piece, Editor-In-Chief Emily Contois chats with Katherine Hysmith, the Journal’s Communications Editor, to discuss how Katherine balances and blends her work in the academy, as a PhD student in American Studies at UNC, with her work in the world of food, where she is a professional photographer, food stylist, recipe developer, and Instagram star. What follows is a conversation about knowledge and expertise, writing for academic and public audiences, and what the future of food studies and social media might hold.

Emily: Throughout your career you’ve been straddling the worlds of academic food studies and food journalism/food media. How do you think that duality has shaped your perspective, the way you write, and the stories you tell?

Katherine: Early in my undergraduate career, I realized that I like to write differently—that is, I like to alternate my writing styles, keep things fresh and new, and switch between academic food history pieces or research on gendered foodways and then to shorter, more public-facing things like restaurant coverage, cookbook reviews, and even recipes. While I do not necessarily consider the worlds of academic food studies and food media mutually exclusive (there’s so much overlap!), I do think it’s important to be able to understand and appreciate both in order to fully understand the larger world of food. Reading other people’s work is one way to do that, jumping into the fray and writing is another.

E: How do you think your public food writing has shaped your academic writing, and how might such skills shape the scholarship of other academics too?

K: There are several instances of wonderful academic-approach food writing authors at the moment; my favorite is Mayukh Sen over on the recipe website Food52. His work really digs to find the cultural and often problematic root of popular food topics and trends. (His recent piece “The Secret Queer History of Kombucha” is wonderful!) I find that writing for the public allows you to talk about a subject without falling into the academese of methods, theory, and the citational politics that typically accompany lengthy food studies works. These are by no means less valuable to our overall understanding of foodways, but writing for public consumption necessitates brevity, exact and concise word choice, and…

E: And prose! Words that are delightful to read! Food writing tends to emphasize that more than academic writing (often) does.

K: Exactly!

E: Given that you’re also a food photographer and stylist, one of the fascinating things about your food life (including your research and work as a PhD student) is that it is very public and also highly curated. It’s beautiful, maybe even more so than “real life.” We’ve talked before about the constructed nature of life on Instagram—those shots are staged and can be hard to achieve!—but there’s also a balance between the virtual and the real, the aesthetically purposeful and the messiness of everyday. How do you use Instagram, photos, and other visual aspects of food in both worlds of your work? And how do you—or do you?—theorize the work that you perform on social media?

K: Food is an incredibly visual subject and the field of food studies similarly so. Food involves all of the senses, and I personally find it difficult to fully comprehend a food studies topic without some visual aid. Perhaps that’s why I always find a way to conceptualize whatever I’m studying, researching, or teaching through food photography on my Instagram feed. So, yes, there will undoubtedly be some element of food photography in whatever I teach, and Instagram is simply a highly accessible platform for everyone to achieve that end.

There is definitely an intimidating aesthetic element of Instagram to keep in mind. I’ll admit, my photos are “styled” and there are often props in my photos that aren’t typically found in a home kitchen, but I consider them part of the story I’m trying to tell. They are contextual pieces that help explain the food more fully, replacing words with visual markers of gender, culture, class, or whatever you’re trying to explain. However, I will admit, I’m just a fan of documentation, I like taking goofy food photos when out on the town and have forced many friends (ahem, Emily) to hold various food items against good-looking backdrops for far too long.

E: Ha, yes! That is indeed my hand and it did take a couple of shots to finally get the positioning of everything right.

You’ve used Instagram for a lot more than “food porn” though. We’ve both been experimenting with how to use social media in new ways for research and teaching. Tell us about the Instagram Story that you did for #recipesconf!

K: The #recipesconf was by far the most exciting and slightly nerve-wracking conference I’ve ever been a part of, but now I can’t stop thinking about all the ways social media can be used for academic work and research. My Instagram Story provided a brief glimpse at my research on folk foodways and feminist resistance through the platform of Instagram. The delivery method definitely has room for improvement, but it was an awesome way to share my work with the public AND a great way to get more academics on Instagram (I believe several of the conference attendees had to sign up for Instagram accounts right before my presentation went live!).

E: Have you found any challenges in the work you’ve done between academia and your more public facing projects?

K: There are definitely challenges to balancing *anything* with academia, but I find that, like so many other fields with #altac counterparts, bridging between academia and the public facing world can be difficult. Thankfully, I have a wonderful professional-friendly department and an advisor who is keen to help build that bridge and open up our department to our community and the larger public interested in what we do. Food is such an integral part of life inside and out of academia, I feel like it is our obligation and responsibility to share what we know and learn with the community. Social media and public-facing work is an effective way to do that.

E: I think food studies in particular is a field where such commitments are central to what we do; the idea that our academic conferences, for example, should bring together not just faculty and graduate students, but also chefs and public health practitioners and journalists and community folks interested in these topics. It’s part of why food is so good to teach with too. It can be a common table from the second you sit down together.

K: I love the idea of a “common table” and you’re exactly right, but there are still many folks in our field that look down on food writing and don’t yet consider it a useful part or helpful tool in their own work and research. It’s time we get over it, share our resources, and come together. And remember, there are more #altac food publications than traditional academic journals that are eager to share your work with a wider audience. An audience that is hungry for this kind of research.

E: I think the most recent ASFS conference was interesting in this regard in that two of the pre-conference workshops were with food writers and revolved around thinking critically about what food studies academics can contribute, and what we can learn. Part of the issue is with the institutional structures in which we work (universities, colleges) and the metrics by which they judge our success and advancement. Things like tenure requirements often don’t make space for public facing work and in some cases can hold such work against us. That’s starting to change and I think (hope!) that we’ll get to be part of a generational shift that helps the academy grow and change in these ways that are collaborative, innovative, and accessible. That was part of my hope with starting this Food-Stuff section, to make space for creative approaches and different kinds of conversations.

K: Yes! Projects like this allow graduate students the opportunity to flex different writing muscles, try new mediums or platforms, or even just learn about other food studies career paths, like the one I hope to continue on after my dissertation! There are many opportunities for grad students (and even undergrads!) to submit their #altac food studies work to slightly less traditional journals, online blogs, and publications, or they can just self-publish with a blog or their own social media feeds.

E: What else have you learned from your work between the worlds of academe and food media?

K: I really can’t impress the importance of a good Twitter and/or Instagram feed. These platforms can be endlessly useful for academics, especially for food scholars who can then link to all the other food writing and food industry folks already active on these platforms. Established publications and journalists reach out to such scholars on these platforms (for quotes, expertise, writing gigs) and they are wonderful tools for academic networking. It’s vastly easier to reach out to that lauded food studies scholar on Twitter than it is to approach her at a conference.

E: You and I have been thinking seriously about academics and social media for years and hosted our first “Social Media for Scholars” roundtable last June.

K: I’m actually teaching a food photography and social media workshop for my department later this semester and several faculty members have asked me for recommendations about photo quality and sizes for their own feeds. I found that this skill is useful not just for my own work (freelance and academic), but it’s a way I can contribute and be a good citizen of my department. It’s been a way I can demonstrate the usefulness of my #altac choices within a very traditional academic space.

All Photo Credits: Katherine Hysmith 


Emily Contois is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University. Her research explores food, the body, health, and identities in the everyday American experience and popular culture. Her dissertation examined media representations of  food masculinities in the 21st-century U.S. Emily holds a BA in Letters from the University of Oklahoma, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. Her work has been published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food CulturesCuiZine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures, and Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, among others. She has also written for the Providence JournalZester Daily, and Nursing Clio. She blogs and tweets at @emilycontois.

Katherine Hysmith is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, focusing on historical foodways and its relation to modern consumption patterns and attitudes towards food, society, and the media. She holds a BA in Plan II Honors and French from the University of Texas and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. Katherine has an academic and professional background in food writing, food photography, and research, and has had her work featured in publications including The Boston Globe, t.e.l.l. New England, and The Ethnic American Food Today Encyclopedia, among others. She also shares her work on her blog, tweets at @kchysmith, and shares visuals on her Instagram, @kchysmith.