cookbooks as literature


Speaking of community cookbooks in her introduction to Recipes for Reading (1997), Anne Bower writes “Usually put together by women to raise funds for a church, temple, school, museum, or other cause, these texts seem innocent of narrative force. After all, what do they contain? A preface explaining the group’s philanthropic intent and/or a few words on how the cookbook was compiled, a few illustrations, chapters dividing food by categories, paid advertisements (sometimes), and mostly, of course, the recipes, normally accompanied by their donors’ names.
It is the contention of Recipes for Reading that fund-raising cookbooks comprise a genre containing much more than the discrete elements listed above. The contributors to this volume find that these cookbooks tell stories – autobiographical in most cases, historical sometimes, and perhaps fictitious or idealized in other instances. The discourse of the discrete textual elements and their juxtapositions contribute to the creation of these stories, which quietly or boldly tell of women’s lives and beliefs. In community cookbooks women present their values, wittingly or unwittingly (we often can’t know which).” (pp.1-2)

She poses the question “Could I value this book not just as a fun source of recipes but as a literary text whose authors constructed meaningful representations of themselves and their world?” (p.2)

“As we come to see the links between what Susan Arpad classifies as “literary artifacts (diaries, letters, reminiscences, and oral histories) and material cultural artifacts (especially quilts and other needlework, photographs, and gardens),” we acquire more and better techniques for reading all texts related to women’s self-representation.” (p.5)

Part of what we’re coming to see about these varying texts, once considered decorative and/or private and/or trivial, is how they have served the communication needs of women. Scholars, particularly those in women’s studies, or feminists in literature and history, have demonstrated that, although women were often limited in access to recognized status-bearing discourse forms such as poetry and fiction, public speaking, and journalism, they expressed themselves through other print and nonprint materials. And in those materials they not only recorded and reflected the world around them, they worked to construct their world. Whether complicit with or pushing against the constraints and categories that bound them, women acted to shape the communities around them. Thus, what we may designate as fairly private activity or discourse (sewing, the writing of letters, contributing to a cookbook) may actually have been seen by women of the past as forms of public participation.” (pp.5-6)

Karen L. Blair reminds us that because a “male definition of activity” has dominated discussions of history and social change, only women engaged in public work such as suffrage have been termed active.” (p.6)

“scholars have for a long time seen the great cultural significance of food, though they did not contribute directly to discussions of community cookbooks until recently. Mary Douglas puts it bluntly in a discussion of ethnic food: “Ethnic food is a cultural category, not a material thing.” She goes on to explain that “food is a field of action. It is a medium in which other levels of categorization become manifest. It does not lead or follow, but it squarely belongs to whatever action there is. Food choices support political alignments and social opportunities.” This kind of insight is immensely applicable to research into the compiled or charitable cookbook.” (p.10)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Anne Bower ‘Bound together: recipes, lives, stories, and readings.’ pp.1-14 in Recipes for Reading, Ed. Anne Bower, Amherst, Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997


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