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A Recipe for an English Honours Project

By Emma Goyer

July 29, 2015

I am an SFU English undergraduate student with a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, and I am presently in the process of writing my thesis for the English Honours program. You may wonder: what does producing an English Honours thesis entail? Why might I care about such a thing? Why do people still even do the Honours program? Well, SFU English department blog reader, I would like to humbly offer answers to all of these questions, and (hopefully) provide a nice testimonial that you may think of when considering your options at SFU in the future.

Although it is currently without an official title, my Honours essay focuses on ‘popular chef memoirs’—that is, contemporary memoirs written by Western male celebrity chefs detailing their lives and culinary careers. I am examining three specific works: The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz and his business partner, Nick Kokonas. Through an amalgamation of psychoanalytic, queer, feminist, and architectural theory, I question why the ‘chef’ figure has recently become such a recognizable and dominant masculine identity, and how the memoir form exemplifies this identity. In particular, my work considers how the representations of the chefs’ bodies in the books work to establish and reinforce their respective masculinities. I offer my own explanation for the present popularity of culinary culture, and ask why this phenomenon has gone largely unquestioned (think about it—have you read any articles critically analysing the Food Network or Instagram #foodporn posts lately?).

I originally came up with this idea after writing a paper about Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for GSWS 330 “Masculinities” with Ruth Wynn Woodward Lecturer of SFU’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, Dr. Lucas Crawford. Food and culinary culture have always been vital constituents for me, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to write a paper about something I felt I personally knew and understood so well. Lucas and I were both excited about the final product I came up with, and we discussed various possibilities for expanding the paper into something larger. Since I had already been considering English Honours but had been unsure of what I would want to write about, the lightbulb went off. With the approval of the English department, I was able to enroll in the Honours program with Lucas as my project supervisor.

I recognize that the topic of my Honours essay is a little unorthodox. Perhaps examining such a niche genre seems pointless; it might seem like a way to avoid reading ‘real’ literature in the last year of an English degree. These concerns certainly ran through my mind while I was applying to the program; however, I’d like to suggest that this sort of suspicion about a topic or area of specialization may actually be an indication that I’m onto something good. I think that it’s exciting to talk about something that hasn’t been talked about yet. It’s especially exciting to concoct your own theory about something that the majority of the world believes is unwarranted for academic inquiry. In fact, these very ideas are central to my project. Why might we consider memoir to be an invalid literary genre, or at least one that doesn’t typically warrant a presence in a university classroom? Additionally, I think it’s useful to think of a thesis as a way to present further, previously unasked, questions about something—rather than feeling a need to determine a finite set of conclusive answers on the subject. I am not under the impression that my project will provide all of the answers for the questions I raise, necessarily, but I do feel confident that it will motivate its readers to think about something they may otherwise not have considered.  

So, why am I writing this blog post? And why should you care about my Honours project? Well, because the fact that I am doing this is pretty cool, for one thing. Let me clarify: I’ve found an opportunity to expand upon something that I happen to find extremely interesting, and that has been important to me since I was a kid—and in pursuing it, I get credit that will go towards my degree. I get to try to expose ignored problematics, to raise questions about parts of popular culture that are taken for granted, and to present a new way of perceiving the world that maybe a reader hadn’t previously considered. I have the chance to utilize my Minor in a tangible way and spend more time with a professor I greatly respect and admire—and I get to learn from the other Honours students who are working on their own radically different projects, on subjects that are equally as important to them as mine is to me.  Going through the Honours program may not be the immediate answer to finding an illustrious career as a novelist, journalist, or poet. That said, completing a large and unique project, articulating a new theory, and significantly expanding my literary and theoretical repertoires upon graduation – that sounds exactly like what I might have hoped for when I began my English Degree at SFU just shy of five years ago.

Emma Goyer is an undergraduate student at SFU in the final semester of her BA degree in English Honours, with a minor in GSWS. Areas of interest include contemporary literature, popular culture, psychoanalytic/queer/feminist/trans* theory, the culinary sphere, music and poetry. She recently submitted her Honours paper, "Congealing Subjectivity: Abjection, Loss, and the Masculine Body in Celebrity Chef Memoir." In her spare time, Emma cooks food, eats food, serves food, spoils her dog, plays therapist, and conducts merciless sociological experiments on Tinder. Emma can be reached at egoyer@sfu.ca.