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


Forming identity through food and romance in Como agua para chocolate


I like what Regina Etchegoyen had to say about the role of the culinary in Como agua para chocolate:

“En la novela, la vida familiar cotidiana se mezcla con elementos fantásticos, creando así una atmósfera de realismo mágico. El humor que se consigue mediante la exageración y la magia se combina con lo trágico de la situación: un amor que sólo puede conseguirse la muerte.
Pero es la comida y sus efectos el aspecto primordial de la obra. El placer que provoca la comida tanto en su preparación como en su gusto, es la base temática y estructural de Como agua para chocolate. […] La comida y sus funciones, a través de la protagonista Tita, se convierten en el centro de la novela. La novela/libro de recetas/folletín presenta los secretos de la vida ye del amor mediante la comida.” (p.119)

“La comida le ofrece [a Tita] lo que la realidad le niega: expresar su sexualidad y su amor.” (p.120)

“Tita ve el mundo filtrado por su experiencia culinaria.” (p.121)

“La cocina se convierte en un estilo de vida por medio del cual Tita se define como persona. Sus manos operan en función a sus quehaceres domésticos. Sus manos son instrumentos que tejen para canalizar sus frustraciones y escriben un recetario donde narra su historia para dejar plasmada una prueba de su amor y de su talento único. Pero cocinan, ante todo, como parte esencial de su personalidad y de su vida. Escribir, tejer y cocinar son actividades esenciales de la protagonista, por medio de las cuales puede expresarse abiertamente como mujer.” (p.121) …”Escribir, actividad tradicionalmente masculina, se entrelaza con tejer y cocinar, actividades tradicionalmente femeninas.” (p.122)

“La comida, además de poseer una función temática en la novela, tiene una marcada función en el nivel estructural de la narrativa. Las recetas no sólo inician cada uno de los capítulos de la novela, sino que también unen todo lo narrado, pues encadenan todas las acciones que sucedem. Las recetas establecen el marco narrativo. Cada receta abre el capítulo, se interrumpe y concluye anticipando el siguiente capítulo. Cada receta evoca el recuerdo de un hecho particular en la historia de amor de Tita. Las recetas, además, conectan lo narrado con el momento de la narración en el que la narradora (sobrina/nieta de Tita e hija de Esperanza) relata.” (p.122)

Again, the blurring of genres allows all of this work to take place in the text…

Ref: Regina Etchegoyen ‘Como agua para chocolate: Experiencia culinaria y autorrealización femenina.’ Cuadernos hispanoamericanos Jan. 1996: 547pp.119-125

histories of the past, the future and the present


Brian Roberts:

“Where history-writing has a strong narrative structure there is a keen sense of continuity associated with the underlying application of ‘story’. Here, the use of Past-present may be discerned – often held together by some assumptions or themes based on the continuity or revival of traditions and roots. This is found particularly where there is a reliance on ‘national stories’, past heroes, symbolic past events, group or national character, victories and setbacks, and myths which simplify the complexities of historical circumstances to sustain the overall moral and story. Finally, history-writing can bear some comparison with science-fiction writing, since it may draw conclusions about what is to happen. While the future has an obvious part to play in science fiction, the wider movements through time, including drawing on ‘history’, have been major distinguishing features of the literary genre.
“History-writing, generally, has not been immune from making parallels with the present when making history. Of course, its very practice is set within the vantage point of the present. It also provides conceptions of the future again, especially in providing commentary and conclusions where continuities are outlined, verities assumed and predictions may be offered. In short, there are histories of the past, the future and the present. Time perspectives are in complex combinations within forms of history-writing.” (p.99)

Ref: Brian Roberts (2004) Biography, Time and Local History-Making. Rethinking History 8(1)March, pp.89-102

Robert Jourdain on auditory experience


Robert Jourdain offered these amazing explanations of music (a while ago) in a book titled Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. Fascinating to read (and fascinating metaphors, too)…

“Almost all of our auditory experience is devoted to identifying things: a faucet dripping, a spoken word, a clarinet’s warble. We’re far more interested in what sounds are than in where they are. Minds like ours map the world so effectively that the locations of sounds are of little concern. We already know perfectly well where the faucet is. It’s usually only in settings like busy streets and dark alleys that we become conscious of a sound’s location and may evens train to fix its position accurately.
Localization is also important in our experience of music. In a concert hall, reverberations reach our ears from all directions, and we localize each. sounds arriving directly from the stage normally are loudest, so we tend to experience music as coming from that spot. But myriad echoes, some pronounced, most too subtle to distinguish, turn what would be a wallop of sound into an embrace. By surrounding us, music is transformed into an environment we inhabit, a world we are at the mercy of. Take a performance outside so there are no walls to return reverberations, and music is reduced to one presence of many in the world rather than a world in itself.” (p.20)

“Cutting Up Pitch Space

We call a system of tonal categorization a scale. Like the scale found at the bottom of a wall map, a musical scale provides units of measure, but for pitch space rather than geographical space. The basic unit is called a half-step (or a semitone). Every key along a piano keyboard represents a half-step. From C to C-sharp is a half-step, and so is from E to F. In the scale system we’re accustomed to in the West, there are twelve half-steps (and twelve piano keys) in any octave, say, from middle C to the C above.
The precise frequencies used for scale tones are unimportant. If a violinist retunes middle A from 440 cycles per second to 450, your brain will adjust its categorizations accordingly. And so it is the relative distances between frequencies that the brain categorizes. Every time you sing “Happy Birthday to You,” you’ll probably begin on a different pitch. This means that you don’t require the rare skill of absolute pitch (the ability to identify precise frequencies) in order to comprehend music. Research has shown that we’re so oblivious to precise pitch that we take no notice when the tuning of a piece is very slowly raised or lowered as it is performed.” (p.66)

“In principle, we can categorize pitch space any way we like. Instead of eighty-eight keys along a piano keyboard, the same span of frequencies might be divided into eighty notes, or one hundred. But there are good reasons for having exactly eighty-eight notes. The divisions of pitch space are far from arbitrary. Some aspects of the scales we use are clearly determined by the way our brains interpret sound. Other aspects also suggest a biological basis, but not of such potency that they cannot be overridden by training. And further aspects are merely a matter of historical happenstance. Hence the world’s many cultures categorize pitch space in very different ways. The traditional scales of Madras are quite different from the traditional scales of Vienna, and neither have much in common with the scales of New Guinea.” (pp.66-67)

“We have become so accustomed to our scales that any deviations from them sound out of tune or downright dissonant. There’s a certain righteousness in our attitude toward our scales, an arrogance that increases as the Western scale system colonizes much of the non-European world (partly by means of the inherent tunings of musical instruments we export). So its hard to realize that there are other useful ways of cutting up pitch space. When we hear “exotic” music from other cultures, we assume that it is entirely the music’s structure that is “exotic,” not realizing that the tones themselves bear alien relationships.” (p.74)

“The Birth of Harmony

“The harmony of virtually all the music we hear, whether Chopin or Elvis, is rooted in chants sung by medieval Christian monks. The earliest examples of these chants would hardly be regarded as music by today’s standards. They consisted of a single melodic line wavering up and down by a half-step or two, without dramatic leaps, with nearly every note held long, and with no beat but for the natural rhythm of spoken language. Early chant was really nothing more than adorned prayer in which certain vowel sounds were accorded fixed pitch. It was words rather than tones that mattered most to its singers.
In time, vocal range expanded toward high notes and low notes that [-p.94] not all singers could manage. And so chants were separated into two or more vocal lines – parts – that were identical in every way but for being separated by several steps. Parts were usually divided by half an octave to form intervals considered most consonant and “perfect.”
This way of singing prayers, called organum, continued for hundreds of years. But starting in the eleventh century, the individual parts of organum began to go separate ways. They upper part was often made more complex than the others, taking on more embellishments. And lower parts began to follow their own melodic line, sometimes moving in contrary directions to the treble. Paticularly at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a group of church composers wrote music in which voices shifted out of sync and moved independently across time for long stretches, although alternately falling back into unison in the older style.
To medieval ears this new music sounded revolutionary, and rightly so. Chant had become multimelodic – polyphonic – with several independent lines sung simultaneously.” (pp.93-94)

“If good harmony were merely a matter of avoiding dissonance, the composer’s task would be much simplified. Music can be made consonant by keeping to the seven scale tones of the prevailing key and by building only simple chords. Yet music written along these lines is no more harmonious than a blank canvas is balanced. Harmony needs dissonance just like a good story needs suspense.
In storytelling, suspense is created by leading a character from initial safety to increasing peril. A good plot wavers back and forth between relative security and danger, returning to complete repose only at the conclusion. There are moments of extreme tension as bullets fly, but these do not last long, lest the audience become too accustomed and lose its sensitivity. The story’s drama lies not so much in the extremes of great tension and repose as in the experience of passing between them. Like a roller-coaster ride, what matters is not how high you go, but how far you dive.
The same is true in music. A tonal center is established in the listener’s mind and becomes associated with harmonic normalcy. This center becomes the anchor point from which all tones and intervals and chords are measured and compared. It is a constant reference point, a sort of pull of gravity. Adept composers tease the listener with the tonal center, pulling away from it and then promising again and again to return, but always holding back. Only after lengthy expeditions in other harmonic realms, realms that orbit lesser tonal centers, is the listener granted release from his agony. Inferior composers make quick, perfunctory returns to tonal centers, or travel so far from them that the listener hardly recognizes them when finally brought home. The trick is to find just the right balance between reinforcing tonal centers and violating them.” (p.105)

Ref: (italics in original) Robert Jourdain Music, the brain, and ecstasy; how music captures our imagination. Avon Books: New York 1997

Musicology – improvisation


Writing about composition/notation and improvisation, Fred Wei-han Ho once wrote:

“Some have argued that once the music has too much notated composition (implying that improvisation is necessarily diminished), then it becomes more “European” and less “African American.” Initially, Western European music had quite a lot of improvisation, the result of player/composers [-p.139] under economic pressure to quickly come up with new works to entertain and satisfy their aristocratic employers. Though they were “literate” and trained, improvisation facilitated both economic expediency and met their own creative urge to avoid the repetitive boredom of performing the same “hits” the same way all the time. As solo and small group works expanded to large ensembles and extended compositions, and paying audiences required their favorites to be replicated as faithfully as the “first”; notation assumed greater and greater dominance.
African American music has never, until recently, had to face the prospects of institutionalization, canonization, and the standardization and codification of a ruling class (presently bourgeois) classical music. Paradoxically, as the art and music of an oppressed nationality, it was free to be free. Duke Ellington’s orchestra could play every night for years the same show music and still retain spontaneity and freshness, no matter how much notation, choreography and staging was set. As “jazz” took on more of an “art” music (i.e. primarily listened to and not danced to) aspect, and the “jazz” composer (who still could be a player/leader) began to pen extended works such as suites, ballet, music-theater and film scores, the best and strongest writing always allowed for and enhanced spontaneity and improvised contributions by the players. Indeed, to truly play the music was to achieve a state of complete memorization and internalization in which the written page was no longer looked at, but the players played from understanding and interaction. This is the essence of the African American music ensemble and composition: in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The identity of the parts and whole, of player and composer, or notation and performance, of composition and improvisation; are inseparable, mutually dependent and interpenetrate.” (pp.138-139)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Fred Wei-han Ho ‘”jazz,” Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century.’ pp.132- Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995

Musicology – rap’s expansion of popular aural territory (Rose)


“Rap music is a technologically sophisticated and complex urban sound. No doubt, its forebears stretch far into the orally influenced traditions of African American culture. But the oral aspects of rap are not to be understood as primary to the logic of rap nor separate from its technological aspects. Rap is fundamentally literate and deeply technological. To interpret rap as a direct or natural outgrowth of oral African-American forms is to romanticize and decontextualize rap as a cultural form. It requires erasing rap’s significant sonic presence and its role in shaping technological, cultural, and legal issues as they relate to defining and creating music. Retaining black cultural priorities is an active and often resistive process that has involved manipulating established recording policies, mixing techniques, lyrical construction, and the definition of music itself.
The lyrical and musical texts in rap are a dynamic hybrid of oral traditions, postliterate orality, and advanced technology. Rap lyrics are a critical part of a rapper’s identity, strongly suggesting the importance of authorship and individuality in rap music. Yet, sampling as it is used by rap artists indicates the importance of collective identities and group histories. There are hundreds of shared phrases and slang words in rap lyrics, yet a given rap text is the personal and emotive voice of the rapper.” (p.104)

“Sampling technology and rap producers’ commercially profitable use of sampled sounds have seriously challenged the current scope of copyright laws (which are based on notated compositions) and raised larger, more complex questions regarding fair use of musical property and the boundaries of ownership of musical phrases.
Rap’s use of sampling technology, looped rhythmic lines, coupled with its significant commercial presence also raises questions about the relationship between industrial imperatives and their impact on cultural production (for example, formulas that streamline the sale of music as commercial radio’s four-minute song cap or rap’s reuse of previously recorded music). Or are there cultural explanations for the musical structures in rap’s use of electronic equipment?
At the same time as rap music has dramatically changed the intended use of sampling technology, it has also remained critically linked to black poetic traditions and the oral forms that underwrite them. These oral traditions and practices clearly inform the prolific use of collage, intertextuality, boasting, toasting, and signifying in rap’s lyrical style and organization. Rap’s oral articulations are heavily informed by technological processes, not only in the way such oral traditions are formulated, composed, and disseminated, but also in the way orally based approaches to narrative are embedded in the use of the technology itself. In this contentious environment, these black techno-interventions are often dismissed as nonmusical [-p.99] effects or rendered invisible. These hybrids between black music, black oral forms, and technology that are at the core of rap’s sonic and oral power are an architectural blueprint for the redirection of seemingly intractable social ideas, technologies, and ways of organizing sounds along a course that affirms the histories and communal narratives of Afro-diasporic people.” (pp.98-99)

Rose offers these quotes before continuing:

“The organizing principle which makes the black style is rhythm. It is the most perceptible and the least material thing.”
– Leopold Sedar Senghor

“Rhythm. Rap music is so powerful because of rhythm.”
– Harmony

Rose again: “Rap’s rhythms – “the most perceptible, yet least material elements” – are its most powerful effect. Rap’s primary force is sonic, and the distinctive, systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the use of repetition and musical breaks, are a part of a rich history of New World black traditions and practices. Rap music centers on the quality and nature of rhythm and sound, the lowest, “fattest beats” being the most significant and emotionally charged.[…] The arrangement and selection of sounds rap musicians have invented via samples, turntables, tape machines, and sound systems are at once deconstructive (in that they actually take apart recorded musical compositions) and recuperative (because they recontextualize these elements creating new meanings for cultural sounds that have been relegated to commercial wastebins). Rap music revises black cultural priorities via new and sophisticated technological means. “Noise” on the one hand and communal countermemory on the other, rap music conjures and razes in one stroke.
These revisions do not take place in a cultural and political vacuum, they are played out on a cultural and commercial terrain that embraces black cultural products and simultaneously denies their complexity and coherence. This denial is partly fueled by mainstream cultural adherence to the traditional paradigms of Western classical music as the highest legitimate standard for musical creation, a standard that at this point should seem, at best, only: marginally relevant in the contemporary popular music realm (a space all but overrun by Afrodiasporic sounds and multicultural hybrids of them). Instead, and perhaps because of, the blackening of popular taste, Western classical music continues to serve as the primary intellectual and legal standard and point of reference for “real” musical complexity and composition. For these reasons, a comparative look at these two musical and cultural forces is of the utmost importance if we are to make sense of rap’s music and the responses to it.” (p.99)

Unlike the complexity of Western classical music, which is primarily represented in its melodic and harmonic structures, the complexity of rap music, like many Afro-diasporic musics, is in the rhythmic and percussive density and organization. “Harmony” versus “rhythm” is an oft-sited reduction of the primary distinctions between Western classical and African-derived musics. Still, these terms represent significant differences in sound organization and perhaps even disparate approaches to ways of perception, as it were. The outstanding technical feature of [-p.100] the Western classical music tradition is tonal functional harmony. Tonal functional harmony is based on clear, definite pitches and logical relations between them; on the forward drive toward resolution of a musical sequence that leads to a final resolution: the final perfect cadence. The development of tonal harmony critically confined the range of possible tones to twelve tones within each octave arranged in only one of two possible ways, major or minor. It also restricted the rhythmic complexity of European music. In place of freedom with respect to accent and measure, European music focused rhythmic activity onto strong and weak beats in order to prepare and resolve harmonic dissonance. Furthermore, as Christopher Small has argued, Western classical tonal harmony is structurally less tolerant of “accoustically illogical and unclear sounds, sound not susceptible to total control.” Other critical features of classical music, such as the notation system and the written score – the medium through which the act of composition takes place – separate the composer from both the audience and the performer and sets limits on composition and performance. This classical music tradition, like all major musical and cultural developments, emerged as part of a larger historical shift in European consciousness.” (pp.99-100)

“Rhythm and polyrhythmic layering is to African and African-derived musics what harmony and the harmonic triad is to Western classical music.” (p.100)

Like many groundbreaking musical genres, rap has expanded popular aural territory. Bringing together sound elements from a wide range of sources and styles and relying heavily on rich Afrodiasporic music, rap musicians’ technological in(ter)ventions are not ends in and of themselves, they are means to cultural ends, new contexts in which priorities are shaped and expressed. Rap producers are not so much deliberately working against the cultural logic of Western classical musics as they are working with and among distinctly black practices, articulating stylistic and compositional priorities found in black cultures in the diaspora.” (p.105)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Tricia Rose ‘Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, orality, and black cultural practice in rap music.’ pp.96- Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995

Musicology – some cool ideas


It seems to me that as technologies change, music and literature will surely come closer together than they already are? In any case, musicology is interesting… some ideas:

“Whereas ‘new music’ is written by composers, its reputation and social significance are provided by people who are not composers: textbook writers, magazine journalists, radio interviewers, and newspaper critics.”
(p.227, Susan Parenti, Mark Enslin and Herbert Bruen ‘Recontextualizing the Production of ‘New Music”)

“Music is a threat to hegemonic forms of discourse and social relations because it offers the greatest potential to create new forms of communication and create “pleasure in being instead of having.”” (p.21 Robin Balliger Sounds of Resistance, pp.13-)

Sonic Squatting
[…] subordinate groups have used music as a weapon which is able to penetrate walls and minds. In addition to the fact that drumming can reproduce language, territorialization through sound marks off areas of political or cultural significance and has played a major role in human activities such as religion and war. From kettledrums to bagpipes, sound exhorted troops, relayed commands, and was used to terrify enemies. Sound has remained a potent weapon, a force that disturbs through the fact that it is unhinged from the visual or the knowable and symbolically acts on the imagination, infiltrating and destabilizing power.” (p.23 Robin Balliger Sounds of Resistance, pp.13-)

“Sound or P.A. systems may create an internal spatiality or “temporary autonomous zone,” but through them music can traverse and challenge spatially organized social divisions. In his work on the cultural character of ethnic and class divisions in Cartagena, Colombia, Joel Streicker describes the use of sound as resistance and a “non-spatial way to reclaim space.” He historicizes the construction of urban space which has become increasingly divided by class and race to make certain areas “safe” for the “rich” and tourism. The spatial separation of rich and poor is culturally symbolized by the Independence Day Festival which once involved all social groups, but more recently local elites have shaped it into an event which excludes the poor (who are largely of African descent). Many lower class youths have reclaimed the Festival’s dance through what Streicker describes as a “budding, racially conscious, popular class cultural movement centered on music and dance called champeta.” In addition to constructing an alternative identity through African music as opposed to Latin music, the loud sound systems at these dances broadcast the music past the walls of the colonial city. “This music speaks of – and is – a presence that the rich cannot avoid, a nearly dusk-to-dawn siege reminding the wealthy of the popular class’ Otherness… and a way for disenfranchised groups to exercise control over space…” Through broadcasting their own music directly into the site of official culture the champetudos create a struggle over class privilege and identity through sound.” (p.24 Robin Balliger Sounds of Resistance, pp.13-)

“Our cultural evolution is no longer allowed to unfold in the way that pre-copyright culture always did. True folk music, for example, is no longer possible. The original folk process of incorporating previous melodies and lyrics into constantly evolving songs is impossible when melodies and lyrics are privately owned. We now exist in a society so choked and inhibited by cultural property and copyright protections that the very idea of mass culture is now primarily propelled by economic gain and the rewards of ownership.” (p.92 Fair Use, Negativland, pp.90-)

Ref: Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995