We explore zines that centre food in Part Four of Lea Cooper’s six-part series about the study of zines in the medical humanities.
Most good zine titles involve a pun. This title is a spin on Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House (2019), in which a house is the holder of fragmented memory, the archive of an abusive same-sex relationship. Like all good zine puns, this one draws from the many layers of the book that inspired it.
Zines have an entwined relationship with archives, trauma, memory, narrative, queerness, the domestic, and home. This series of posts takes you on a tour of The Zine House – using its rooms to structure and explore zines around health, illness, disability, neurodivergence and madness. In doing so, I hope to illustrate some of the potential and complexities of zines in the medical humanities. I’m not going to define zines, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about check out Zines 101 on my website.
In the kitchen we assemble ingredients, chop, stew and boil. We share food, gathering around the kitchen table or against countertops to taste, chew and talk. The kitchen is where we brew coffee, teas and tinctures, grind herbs with a heavy pestle, recreate recipes passed down through generations or invent our own. It is a room rich with sensation, with smell, taste, touch, with memory. Cooking and eating are inseparable from health and illness; as an activity that sustains us, that keeps us alive on a very fundamental level, what we eat has long been the concern of medicine, but food and health is not reducible to the medicinal properties of individual ingredients. In the kitchen of the Zine House, I’m going to explore zines that centre food – as social, as sensual; that locate us as readers in our bodies – and ask what it is to read these zines in a research library or on a computer screen.
Food as more than just what we eat
In 2015 I went on a course about building sustainable housing hosted by Earthship Brighton. There I learnt that it makes sense to put bathrooms and kitchens near each other; that’s where your plumbing needs to be. The bathroom and the kitchen of the Zine House sit in close proximity. Part of the way that the bathroom and the kitchen are plumbed together is in the way that food, that cooking and eating, connect with care, and Mad Menu (Luna Tic 2022) has already illustrated some of the ways that zines might engage with feeding yourself as a fundamental act of self-care. Many zines explicitly focus on the multiple dimensions of food: Grub, a lo-fi black and white A5 compilation zine produced by Synchronised Witches Press has a byline of ‘food + more’. It makes clear from the outset that it is about food and feelings in all its complexity, including intersections between food, class and culture, and queerness (Styles, 2016).
In Someone’s in the Kitchen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder a guide to trying to cook (Kaila 2019), zinester Kaila both offers advice for other people who find the kitchen a difficult space and communicates some of the complexity of their experience cooking with OCD. Inside the black and white front cover, which has a glossy texture that feels almost wipe-clean, we are offered in intimate detail some of the thoughts, decisions and mitigations that go into choosing, prepping and making food. Someone’s in the Kitchen… is described as a ‘comic/zine/cook book’ and it plays with different elements from these forms: a friendly avatar narrator; a blend of handwriting with cut and paste text; and recipes and ‘fun facts’. The forward slashes in Kaila’s self-description nod to some of the unclear boundaries between comics and zines, and the overlap and intersections between exploring health zines and graphic medicine.
Filler: a food and mental health zine is a compilation zine, part of an ongoing project led by artist Holly Eliza Temple, with a focus on health, food and lifestyle trends. It does more than document these; contributors offer a critical gaze and perspective. Filler Issue 04 (Temple (ed) 2020) – ‘Soft Spot’ – explores ‘food and love through the lens of sexuality, desire, body image and self-love, home and nostalgia’ (4). The richness of the zine’s contributions are matched by the richness of the printed zine, which I skim my fingers over as I turn the page. In their contribution, Ellie Walton reflects on ‘food as care and haptic communication’ (7). Later, Ginnie-Line Darcq’s photo series ‘Fruits of Desire’ also reflects on touch/touching. Filler is accompanied by a single sheet zine Kitchen Pan (2020) by Xinyue Pan, offering another sensory experience, contrasting with the materiality of its companion.
Bringing researchers back into their bodies
We might be metaphorically in the kitchen of the Zine House, but physically I’m sitting in the Rare Materials Reading Room at Wellcome Collection, leafing through a beige archival box of 15 zines. There’s no food or drink allowed. This has caused me problems in the past; as a neurodivergent researcher, without the cues that I might in fact have a body that needs to be attended to, it is easy to slip into the kind of disembodiment that the archive in some senses demands. I can go for a whole day not eating, not drinking, not acknowledging (or noticing) that I am too cold and the lights are too bright. I suffer later as a consequence, as I can only deny my body an existence for so long; a visit last year left me clutching a toilet bowl with a nauseating migraine. There is a peculiar disconnect to sitting and reading zines that powerfully evoke food and eating, in a context which, if not fully denying you a body, constitutes its physical needs in direct opposition to the preservation needs of the zines you’re reading.
The bright yellow and purple tie die cover of Fatboy zine: the Philippines 2000-2002 (O’Leary 2019) explodes out from the grey of the Wellcome library’s table. It’s printed on thick matte paper, which feels like it can take the weight of texture, colour, writing and photography crammed inside. This issue of Fat Boy is dedicated to the Philippines. Blending recipes with small personal insights and memories, Fatboy zine is deeply evocative of the food it explores and, sitting reading a recipe for Plantain Rolls, I feel hungry.
Despite my PhD research being focused on Wellcome’s zine collection, due to Covid-19 I haven’t spent very much time physically in Wellcome’s Rare Materials Reading Room – instead, certainly for the first year, I read zines at home and often relied on digital versions. The embodied experience of reading zines wasn’t mediated by the archive then, but by my laptop screen.
Pot Luck Zine is a compilation zine of writing, recipes and reflections on food, with themed issues on topics such as Feast or Rituals. Though it is a physically printed zine, I currently only have access to digital copies. Like Filler and Fat Boy zine, Pot Luck Zine is constructed digitally. None of them have the familiar xeroxed aesthetic that has come to be associated with zines, instead having a more polished ‘magazine’ feel. Although zine making values the amateur, and more analogue methods of zine (re)production endure, they do so alongside digital methods. Zine making practices often balance aesthetics with access: 10 years ago, it might have been easy to write a physical master copy and illicitly use your office photocopier to reproduce it, in the middle of 2020, it might have been easier to write a zine on your computer, format it on Canva or Photoshop and share it as a PDF.
Troubling the distinction between physical and digital
Alison Piepmeier, in her book Grrl Zines, describes how zines create ‘embodied communities that are made possible by the materiality of the zine medium’ (2008, 214). She suggests that the physical acts of both zine making and zine reading locate zinester and reader in their bodies, ‘a site of care and pleasure’ (230). Piepmeier makes a clear distinction between material zines and the digital, suggesting that zines ‘bring their creators and readers away from the digital world and into their own flesh’ (81, italics added). Digital zines are a different reading and making experience, a difference foregrounded by Daniel C. Brouwer and Adela C. Licona’s (2016) article on trans(affective)mediation and moving between physical and digitised zines as readers. They explore the ‘distinct and distinctly affective domains’ (78) of print and digital zines, and crucially the third space that they occupy as they move between them.
As digital zine making and distribution has increased (partly in response to Covid-19), contemporary zine studies needs to acknowledge the differences between reading and making print zines and digital zines in a non-hierarchical way, that doesn’t reinforce a false binary between print and digital. Rather than position the materiality of print zines in opposition to digital zines, I am curious how approaches which foreground affect and embodiment can help better understand digital zines. If physical zines evoke food and invoke an embodied reader, partly through their materiality, then what does this mean for the digital zines in the kitchen?
Zines responding to social distancing
Many food zines made during Covid-19 explore how food continued to create embodied community, materialise care, and act as haptic communication, whilst their makers remained physically distant and socially isolated. Hosting a Dinner Party in a Global Pandemic: A Guide for the Domestically Isolated (Temple 2021) is a physical zine that documents a dinner party held over Zoom during lockdown. Through a carefully (tenderly) constructed multi-sensory zine with a limited print run, Temple engages in a transmediation that blurs, or connects, digital and material.
Gather (Cook 2020) takes a different approach as both a print and digital zine. In zinester Rhia Cook’s introduction she discusses how rising Covid cases in winter 2020 mean admitting things will be different but ‘in that change, along with sadness is so much possibility’ even if it ‘might not feel the same’ (no page numbers). Cook offers recipes for doorstep deliveries and remote dinner parties. The illustration for the latter feels intimate and deeply familiar: a phone propped next to food prep on the kitchen counter, on a video call. It serves as a reminder that those interactions which happen digitally are still happening ‘IRL’, and that we can consider the sensory and materiality of the digital in many of the same ways, and further different ones, that we consider the sensory and materiality of print.
Where can I find these zines?
Filler: a food and mental health zine can be found on instagram. Someone’s in the Kitchen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder a guide to trying to cook can be found via Kaila’s etsy. Fatboy Zine can be found on their website. Pot Luck Zine and Gather can be found on their website. Holly Eliza Temple’s work can be found on Instagram and her website. Someone’s in the Kitchen…, several issues of Fatboy Zine and Filler can be found in Wellcome Collection. Several issues of Grub can be found in Glasgow Women’s Library.
Read the full In The Zine House series
Brouwer, Daniel C. and Licona, Adela C. 2016. “Trans(affective)mediation: feeling our way from paper to digitized zines and back again”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33:1, 70-83.
Cook, Rhia. 2020. Gather. Zine.
Kaila. 2019. Someone’s in the Kitchen with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder a guide to trying to cook. Zine.
Machado, Carmen Maria. 2019. In the Dream House. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press
O’Leary, Chris. 2019. Fatboy zine : the Philippines 2000-2002. Zine.
Piepmeier, Alison. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: NYU Press.
Styles, Cherry (ed). Grub Issue 02. Zine.
Temple, Holly Eliza. 2021. Hosting a Dinner Party in a Global Pandemic: A Guide for the Domestically Isolated. Zine.
Temple, Holly Eliza (ed). 2020. Filler: a food and mental health zine. Issue 04. Zine
About the author
Lilith (Lea, as in sea) Cooper is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent working on a collaborative project looking at the zines at Wellcome Collection. They balance their PhD research with zine and comics making, zine librarianship at the Edinburgh Zine Library and an arts practice. Find them at www.zinejam.com or on twitter at @lilithjcooper.