Sunday, February 22, 2015

Maybe she's oblivious?


I first saw Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France when I was in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago trying to figure out if I needed to buy any of the Piglet books. Thirty seconds of flipping through hers was all it took to turn me off. The lavish and abundant photographs never let you forget that Thorisson is gorgeous, slender, young, wealthy and has superb taste in expensive clothes, furnishings, and antique china.  No thank you, Clarkson Potter. I checked the book out of the library instead.

In his Piglet review, Adam Roberts gently mocks Thorisson by marking up some of the glamorous portraits that appear in the book with thought bubbles. I guess it’s debatable how “gently” he mocks, but I thought he was fairly gentle and very funny. He writes that her underlying message seems to be “my life is better than yours.” 

But even as I was enjoying Roberts’s derision, out of nowhere I began to feel sorry for Mimi Thorisson. Ashamed of taking pleasure in her shaming. She looked vulnerable up there with the little balloon comments attached to her pretty face, comments that made her appear vain, coy, and foolish. I felt oddly protective. This protectiveness only intensified when I spent some time reading her blog, which is unguarded, personal, and sweetly rambling. She doesn’t seem like she’s lording her privilege over readers. She seems open and nice.

What if the message some of us take from Thorisson’s photographs -- my life is better than yours! -- isn’t the one Thorisson thinks she’s sending? I’m just floating this out there as a possibility. Maybe Thorisson doesn’t quite grasp how she comes across. Self-presentation is complicated for women, especially beautiful women.

Consider the photo at the top of the page.

You could definitely find the woman in this picture annoying. The leg? No, no, no. 

But there’s another way to look at it. What if the woman simply doesn’t quite understand how close that whole scene is to self parody? Thorisson is half Chinese, half French -- what if this picture doesn’t read as ridiculous and show-offy to someone from that background? What if it reads as lovely and natural?

I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud. I could go on, but have to  put Thorisson’s walnut-roquefort gougeres in the oven, say hello to my guests, then plant myself in a chair to watch the Oscars. 

67 comments:

  1. I have a good friend who is born in the US to Chinese immigrant parents. He has an utter horror of being singled out or recognized, which is inconvenient since we do a lot of projects together and I tend to refer to him in my acknowledgments as "our friend in the witness protection program." He said that his parents instilled him him a strict sense of modesty which clashes profoundly with our American desire for recognition, and whenever anyone approaches him to thank him for his efforts, the encounter is so uncomfortable for him {because it feels as if he is going against everything he has been taught is correct behavior} it makes him literally sick to his stomach.

    Everything about that book seems calculated, including the way your emotions have been manipulated.

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    Replies
    1. You may well be right. I'll never know for sure about Mimi Thorisson's character unless I meet her, so it's safe to say I'll never know for sure. One reason I started to have qualms is that over the years I've known two incredibly sweet, incredibly stunning women who were as wanting in edge and irony as they were over-endowed with beauty. Just by going out in public, other women assumed they were showing off and men assumed they were trying to be seductive. I sort of expect beautiful women to be calculated and fully aware of their power and this isn't always the case. Not that MT seems unaware of her loveliness at all. I'm just not sure she's 100% aware of how off-putting and cloying these pictures appear to people who have become accustomed to cookbooks full of "fuck" and tattoos. In any case, major misfire with a certain segment of the American cookbook market, one that includes you and me both.

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    2. And Adam Roberts. Perhaps if the reviewer had a softer spot for beautiful women the Piglet outcome would have differed.
      Also, the food she shares in her cookbook is so unrelentingly rich! Do you think she even eats it? Some things just can't reasonably co-exist!

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    3. Half Chinese and Half American here, and I would feel uncomfortable sending images like these out into the world. Though as others have pointed out, having her husband as the photographer likely contributes to the odd coyness and intimacy.

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    4. I find this dissecting of her appearance and the photos featured on her blog and book to be off-putting and weird. It reminds me of how women attack other women under the guise of honesty and advice. Who cares if she's beautiful and whether she is aware of her looks and whether she knows how she's viewed by others. Her pictures are no different from what I see on other blogs and books. All the other pictures are staged and crafted to look good. The only exception is that she happens to be attractive and her husband is a profession photographer who knows how to take very beautiful pictures.

      I'm familiar with her blog and book. At the end of the day if her recipes work and the food tastes good. This post and the comments here are so disappointing and patronizing as well. Fyi, I am Asian-American and I find the comment about how her ethnic background and dual nationality might be why she's oblivious to how her photos are viewed by us Americans offensive and annoying. Really?

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    5. Yes, really. You don't think that different cultures have different aesthetics? Have you been to Japan? Have you been to Europe? My point was that she comes from a different culture where ideas about self presentation MIGHT be slightly different and that she MAY have been oblivious to the negative reactions the photographs in her book were going to spark in a certain segment of the American cookbook buying audience, one that included the Piglet reviewer and many others. I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt and understand. In fact, a lot of her defenders have even said that her American critics don't understand "the French style, love of beauty" etc. So yes, really.

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    6. NOT ONE OF HER RECIPES....has a twig of originality...they are selling LIFESTYLE....the foodies will eat them alive !

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  2. I agree with you that at first she seems pretentious and galling and irritating, but probably she's super nice. She seems like the type of person who everybody thought was fake-nice in middle and high school but was probably nice-nice. Now she's probably the nicest hostess ever to houseguests, but like in that aggressive, "Here, won't you have an extra blanket?" or, "I've made you breakfast," way that is undoubtedly nice but makes me feel bad, like being given a gift I don't want and can't use.

    On her image: she's married to a (male) photographer, and she's lovely, and she professes to enjoy making babies with him. Seems like the pictures in the book definitely ARE a little boudoir-y, and it makes sense, kind of. The gaze of the photographer isn't objective at all, and it seems like she picked the pictures that her husband would most have enjoyed taking. Makes me like it more, actually. Like the book is just an extension of her aggressively nice-nice life. It's a window in.

    The whole thing seems genuine, and she seems genuine, but I think she'd drive me crazy.

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    Replies
    1. It's a puzzling book. The person in the pictures doesn't really match up with the person producing the prose.
      I think it would be terrifying to be her houseguest!

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  3. I don't know her and I don't want to know her, but what I love is that you took a moment to reconsider your feelings for her and gave her the benefit of the doubt. Most people, myself included, wouldn't do that. Shame on us.

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    Replies
    1. Oh believe me, if the Piglet wasn't happening and I wasn't drawn to any and all cookbook discussions, I would have dismissed her without another thought. I was just forced to think longer about her than I ordinarily would have and this is where that led.

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  4. I haven't seen the book, have only visited her blog, which in my opinion, has a fairy-tale quality--it does have an enchanting aura, like one has stepped into another world, maybe a other century. I don't find it off-putting or snobby, or ----(insert whatever negative comes to mind, which is many, judging from the reactions posted on the web). Instead, I find it inviting, engrossing, as I enter layer upon layer of interesting, engrossing, delicious-sounding food, decor, environment--peopled by ALL THOSE CHILDREN and wonderful dogs. And, above all, not only is Mimi Thorisson's beautiful, but so are her kids and everything around her! It's like she sprinkles fairy dust everywhere she goes, turning everything into something special, and she freely shares with you, invites you in to enjoy the love and fun in her family's every-day life. I was born in Budapest, and maybe that makes it possible for me to see her grace and warmth more easily--and, maybe it's her "otherness" (ethnic and cultural) that creates this negative reaction. I, too, feel the protectiveness you mention. You know, I just don't feel she deserves the often-ugly reaction. We could just try to keep an open mind, make some of her food, get to know her! She's sharing something rare and valuable, an authentic self who is engaged in creating a life. Anyway, that's my (not very humble) opinion.

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    Replies
    1. Her food is very, very good. I've made quite a bit of it now, and should probably write about that at some point soon.

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  5. I didn't see the review as a jibe at her so much as at the book's presentation. I will say, the cover photo made me walk right by it - why are you working at a table that is at knee height, however charming that looks? I was surprised to actually enjoy the book, once I opened it.

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    Replies
    1. very nice book when you get going with it

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  6. My reactions were the same, reading the judging and your initial blog post. However, it was enough to make me curious enough to check out her blog, and I just think that she's like everyone else, trying to make a living. She was blessed with beauty and talent to cook and write, and now she's setting up her cooking business after the success of her book. We shouldn't begrudge her that. More power to her!

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    Replies
    1. I don't begrudge her anything! I don't think Adam Roberts did, either.

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  7. Jennifer, I had the exact same reaction. I initially felt embarrassed at her apparent vanity, and I still find the pictures pretty ridiculous. But I, too, went to her blog, and I grew to like her more. I don't love her blog, which is very dreamlike and otherworldly, and completely lacking in humor and depth, or anything approaching reality. The pictures are beautiful (but oh, how I wish she would caption them), she's beautiful, her home is beautiful, France is beautiful, dogs and kids are everywhere. I agree she seems genuine, so I'm giving her a pass on the icky glamor shots. (But seriously, is she shopping barefoot in that picture above?)

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    Replies
    1. No, she isn't. Well, she is if you don't count the nude flats on her feet! And can someone explain what is wrong with her leg position, why that is a "no, no, no"? I stand like that all time. Is the problem that the leg in question is kind of perfect? Seriously, what is wrong with Americans?

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    2. It's a "no no no" because when I look at it I see someone posing in a position that looks contrived and unnatural. TO ME. And apparently to a lot of other people. You may see it differently and you are not alone either. There are a lot of things wrong with Americans, but "our" opinion of the way she is standing is not one of them. Mimi Thorisson has a lot of ardent American fans and I'm sure they agree with you.

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  8. I don't love it when my essential cattiness is exposed -- I am almost certainly less nice than Mimi Thorisson. Although I'd happily cook from the book, I can't help but feel that her editor should have thought about the audience, and eradicated passages such as the highlighted one, to make the book less obnoxiously my-life-is-an-unattainable-fairytale in feeling. I had a similar reaction to the first Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook, with its endless nattering-on about duck bacon, and photos of the radiant Gwyneth, NOT being spattered by anything in a lovely kitchen NOT full of dirty pans.

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    Replies
    1. The quoted passage was less than ideal.

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  9. Ginger Ivey2/25/15, 3:09 PM

    I love her blog and every recipe I've cooked from her book has been spot on.
    How did the gougeres turn out? I haven't tried them yet.

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    Replies
    1. They were excellent. I didn't salt them enough, but they were otherwise perfect.

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  10. I love the Manger blog and I think that in both the blog and the book Mimi Thorisson has some great recipes that really work. Yes the pictures are beautiful: she looks lovely, as do her children and there are some beautiful landscapes and interiors. I enjoy looking at beautiful things and beautiful people and places too. It doesn't make me unhappy or make me feel inadequate - why are these images less real or worthy than the ones containing 'fuck and tattoos' as you say. If that is the only reality for you guys I feel sorry for you all.
    Your musings are very self-indulgent but you seem to lack self-awareness. Instead of criticising her achievements, her attributes and her talents you might do well to reflect on just why you are so jealous. Hmm....

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  11. First sentences of this article = selfpromotion a la Mimi Thorisson:

    http://momfilter.com/we-want-to-know-more-about/marie-france-thorisson

    Petra

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    Replies
    1. I didn't see the first sentences so much as self-promotion, as her stating her background, as she was asked to do. I think there's no doubt that she has led a very privileged life, and maybe she isn't aware of that privilege, but I don't think she's trying to consciously show it off.

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  12. "Self-presentation is complicated for women, especially beautiful women." is the most insightful, helpful comment I've read in any part of this discussion. I wish more people talked about this.

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  13. Yes, I agree, but it's a difficult subject to address. Testimonials would look like: "Hello, my name is Sue and I'm a beautiful woman. This is the story of my life and how everyone hates me..." See what I mean?

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  14. Haha! I have known about her blog for over a year now, and I was glad to come across this post (which brought me to the Piglet review) because I have often wondered why there are not way more articles making fun of her and her so grossly over-posed, ultra-perfect photos! I at least partly agree with the comments everyone has made here - MT seems genuine and as such the only explanation is that she is also completely, utterly, outrageously oblivious in a Gwyneth-esque way. And if I was her editor, I'd say "go ahead" with her style too - I mean lots of people are lapping it up, right? I read her blog the way I read about Kate Middleton's clothes - to see pretty pictures of things that are so far away from what I'd ever have that it doesn't cause me any jealousy at all. Except Kate seems to at least attempt to be modest about herself.

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  15. It's a carefully cultivated image, but isn't that a feature of all blogs? Underneath the fairytale imagery and the designer dresses (I am a fan of beautiful photography and fashion, so for me, that is a bonus!) are some solid cookery skills, and lovely recipes that showcase local, seasonal produce. She promotes family dinner, and it seems that the kids are involved in her cooking life. Why does that infuriate people so? Well, I can guess why, but here in Europe, it's not such a big deal.

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  16. I'm trying to imagine what the reactions and reviews would be if Mimi was an overweight middle aged woman. Everything else the same, same house, same views just a not-beautiful woman in the photo. I think it would be completely different. I doubt we'd be having this conversation at all, I doubt the Piglet review would have been so nasty. But, ya know, she's gorgeous (how dare she!!!) so let's all pile on, okay? That way, the next time she writes a cookbook and her photographer husband is taking photos, maybe they can put one of those canvas bags over her head. So we can feel better.

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    Replies
    1. Ha, ha, that would be interesting, yes! It's a pity that some people can't see beyond the beautiful imagery because the food is actually quite uncomplicated, good interpretations of classic French home cooking. Her life looks magical, and charmed, but I sincerely doubt she has the luxury of swanning around in designer dresses at the chateau all day, what with cooking for all those children day in, day out, renovating the property (builders in France are no different than anywhere else, believe me!), stuck in the middle of the French countryside - this is a remote little village, not Bordeaux, remember! Not to mention all those dogs! Rather her than me.

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    2. By the way, I love dogs. Just couldn't cope with 20!

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    3. Re: renovating the property. There is a reason why so there are so many decrepit old chateaux for sale in the French countryside. Nobody wants to live in such remote, isolated spots, and renovating and maintaining these vast old properties and grounds is a hard, hard grind, not to mention huge financial drain. It is certainly not a fairytale. Hats off to Mimi.

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  17. It's interesting that the focus of this discussion is Mimi Thorissson's looks - not her recipes, not her writing - but rather the perceived "vanity" and "foolishness" that we wish to project upon her. Even speculation about how her race may be the reason for her obliviousness to how she is perceived by others. Lesson learned: wear sweatpants to the market, never a dress, and stand with both feet flat on the floor at all times if you don't want to incur the wrath of other women.

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    Replies
    1. Oh boy. No one said anything about race. I was trying to suggest that maybe Mimi Thorisson came from a culture -- French? Chinese? -- where cookbook aesthetics are different than they are in the United States. A culture where posed glamour shots are (maybe) the standard as opposed to pictures of sweaty chefs with tattoos. I never said she was foolish. I was trying to give her a break after the very funny Adam Roberts cartoon that really did make her look foolish. I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, see things from her perspective, figure out what that perspective was. And this is what I get!

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    2. Hmmm, it is because of Mimi thorisson that I came across your blog. I guess you should thank Mimi for the traffic. I find it interesting you find Mimi annoying because of her pose? I do find her photos pose-y. But it seems she is genuinely posing for photos and not making an effort to make the pose naturally like I have seen in many blogs. There are also many blogs I find quite vain and self indulgent. So it is interesting that you chose Mimi blog for the subject. I actually enjoy her blog, photos of her family, blog, and lifestyle. I agree with the others above that in reality, it's not easy to tackle big family, many dogs, and fixing a big old house in an isolated countryside. So more power to her for the best presentation she makes! And who wants to visit a sloppy blog anyways?

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