Food content on blogs, YouTube channels, TikTok, etc are a popular (and profitable) genre online today, but in the early 20th century Lilian Tingle was a trailblazer for approachable, personalized cooking content. Tingle was a “domestic scientist” (think home economics) in the early 20th century and wrote a popular cooking correspondence column in the Sunday Oregonian between 1908 and 1929. Unlike the better known celebrity chefs of the mid-late 20th century, Tingle was what we might now call a micro-celebrity. She had a small(ish) but dedicated niche of followers and, crucially, she was accessible to her audience. If you sent her a letter, odds are she’d respond.
On this blog I will be recreating, documenting and writing about some of the most popular recipes from Tingles’ columns. For my historical research on domestic science in Oregon and the reach and impact of Tingle’s columns, I read and recorded Tingle’s columns from 1909, 1910, 1912, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1922, 1924 and 1925. In this case, the “most popular” recipes are an (almost) entirely subjective group. I’ve identified popular categories, but since this was a correspondence column people often didn’t ask for specific, quantifiable recipes. Who decides whether chocolate cake and mocha fudge cake count as the same recipe? Instead of trying to apply some arbitrary metric, I’m using my knowledge of the data and personal interest to choose the recipes I’ll recreate.
Cooking on the Internet:
Cooking content is an obvious money maker in pretty much every online ecosystem. After all, everyone eats. Who gets to make (and profit) from that content, however, is not simple. Food media companies like Bon Appetit have an advantage. They have large, industrial kitchens that look good on camera and the budget to pay for expensive ingredients and professional film crews. These media companies also have the power to choose who gets to do the cooking and what kinds of foods and cuisines are represented. The barrier to entry is lower for bloggers or people creating content on platforms like TikTok. But these creators still need to be able to film or photograph their food and kitchens. Most people’s kitchens don’t look good on camera: the light is terrible, the stove is never pristine no matter how much you clean it, and there are dishes in the drying rack. Cooking is messy, and stopping to clean between every step is time consuming. Filming yourself or even photographing yourself is challenging, and slows down the whole process. Class is built into online cooking content. Luckily for me my kitchen has okay light, I don’t care if it’s messy, and I have friends who will take pictures in return for baked goods. I also have the time to spend on long cooking projects because I’m getting college credit for this blog.
Affluence, race, and morality were important subtexts of Lilian Tingle’s food columns, just as they are of modern cooking content. Her recipes assumed a middle class lifestyle and defaulted to whiteness, labeling non-Anglo American food exotic. By exploring her recipes and historic attitudes toward food and cooking through a food blog, I hope to put the two mediums in conversation with each other. What kinds of relationships did correspondents form with Tingle over the anonymous forum of the column, and how do they compare to modern relationships between content creators and consumers? How much power did Tingle’s correspondents have over the column? How did Tingle’s correspondents adapt the rigid ideals of domestic science to meet their needs? And how have the ways we apply moral value to food and cooking changed or remained the same
Dan Olson, Cooking Food On The Internet For Fun And Profit, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EXVrzOACv4.