Radio is one of the most accessible and flexible forms of mass communications, providing news, education, and entertainment to millions of people around the world. For radio phone-ins, the host, the dominant voice, invites listeners to ask questions, voice their opinions, and to have some small talk.
For food radio, listeners ask hosts cooking questions, but really so much more is shared.
Because of the dominance of voice and the explosion of food interest worldwide, food radio provides raw materials for which to cook up the linguistic and discursive methods of communicative competence and meaning production for a mass overhearing and largely remote audience, as well as the dynamics of interpersonal interaction within the intersection between public and private realms of communication.
With increasing digital audience and opportunities for experimentation with podcasting, terrestrial food radio has come a long way since the 1920s with Betty from “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air,” Aunt Sammy, and other corporate cooking personalities that shared advice, sympathy, and recipes on air to an audience that were typically female. Yet, at other moments, food radio appears to have not changed at all.
Before taking listeners’ calls, food radio show Milk Street host and former America’s Test Kitchen radio star, Christopher Kimball interviews leading guests in the food industry (e.g. Michael Pollen, Ziggy Marley, Nigella Lawson), conducts wine and food tastings, and later parries with contributor Dan Pashman on topics such as burgers of the future. Like Ira Glass of This American Life and a long line of male radio hosts, Kimball is an authoritative and entertaining figure. He offers familiar and reliable recipes based on scientific explanations while explaining to the audience that he has decided to offer something smarter for his chicken salad: “skip the mayo and ramp up the volume by taking a cue from Sichuan bang-bang-chicken salad; add chili oil, tahini, soy sauce, and sesame oil, cucumber and ginger” (Milk Street Radio “Sichuan Chicken Salad,” 2017).
The mix of masculine culinary worldview and feminine tradition and home comfort (e.g. Bolognese in a slow cooker or a foolproof pie crust with vodka) on Milk Street radio reflects important assumptions about audiences and beliefs about gender, food, and the rewards of labor. Host Kimball’s approach reflects an era of intellectual and curious home cooks and foodies who prefer simpler, yet bolder recipes with global flavors.
Gender roles related to domestic tasks still exist; yet, today, American media, including cookbooks, magazines, cooking shows, and food radio programs, feature Dad in the kitchen (e.g. Food Network digital series “Cooking with Dad” 2017). If men are doing more work in the kitchen and women in the restaurant, our cultural ideals about what is and is not ‘doing gender’ might also be shifting.
The way cooking knowledge is divided and described on radio is important, for as sociology and gender studies scholars Candice West and Dan Zimmerman (1987) write, allocation of labor reflects social categories of “doing gender” and what it means to be “female” and “male” (p. 143). The Milk Street food radio is an important site that articulates discourses about cooking and gender, as it is a widely listened and respected channel devoted to instructing listeners about how to buy, prepare, and consume food. It is also part of the genre of media discourse that seeks to makeover the cooking and radio sphere. The Milk Street’s audience and profile increase steadily since its October 2016 launch, and as of August 4, 2017, the channel is broadcast on 41 public radio stations. Although the network’s core audience is in the United States, Milk Street’s episodes are also available worldwide, with listeners calling from Abu Dhabi to Tokyo to Sydney.
Radio about food is particularly insightful in exploring the long-held binary of professional-public-masculine and private-domestic-feminine, which has been the topic of recent scholarship on food and television. The American radio and podcast Milk Street Radio presents an interesting case where the male host (Christopher Kimball) is the expert in a female domain, the domestic kitchen; in an effort to resolve this potential threat of masculinity, a female guest and culinary expert (Sara Moulton) assists the main host in answering caller-in sessions. Although Kimball also answers questions, the respect and deference given to the female guest host illustrates prevailing norms of gendered stereotypes surrounding the home kitchen. In an era where the domestic labor is becoming more equal, stereotypical portrayals of women by the home stove still prevail.