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

the feminist kitchen


Ksenija Bilbija sums up much of the interest in the kitchen as site of story in Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate when she wrote:

“For feminists, the kitchen has come to symbolize the world that traditionally marginalized and limited a woman. It represents a space associated with repetitive work, lacking any “real” creativity, and having no possibility for the fulfillment of women’s existential needs, individualization or self-expression.” (p.147)

[As an aside, I also found her discussion of the kitchen and the alchemist’s laboratory, especially as the two spaces might be read in Cien años de soledad, p.149-, interesting)

Ref: Ksenija Bilbija ‘Spanish American Women Writers: simmering identity over a low fire’ STCL 20(1) Winter, 1996; pp.147-165

Abjection and Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships


I’m not usually big on the psychoanalytic tradition, but Jennifer Marchant’s analysis of fictional girl-animal relationships (including Lessa’s relationship with her dragon, Ramoth, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968)) is interesting. The questions she poses are worth considering and the approach she takes is fruitful. Her explanation of ‘abjection’ is also perfectly accessible  and fits rather perfectly!

“…what did that relationship between girl and dragon mean to [the protagonist of Dragonflight,] Lessa—and to me, the young reader? In this article, I want to suggest that, in Dragonflight and many other novels, the powerful relationship between adolescent female protagonist and animal plays a vital part in the protagonist’s psychic development. Moreover, I wish to make the argument that Kristevan theory is an especially useful lens for examining this bond and for considering the appeal these books have for many adolescent readers.” (p.3)

“The time of boundary establishment is difficult and painful for the infant. On the one hand, she longs to continue the blissful unity with her mother’s body. But on the other, she fears being reincorporated with her mother, “falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling”. In order to establish herself as autonomous, she needs to separate herself from her mother’s body. Kristeva calls this period between unity-with-mother and autonomy “abjection.” Abjection is uncomfortable, both to the abject and to those within the social order. Kristeva describes it as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. [It is] what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. This is where the imaginary father comes in, comforting the child with “his” love, and thus preventing her from merging back into nonidentity. Abjection is not confined to infancy; it appears at any point in which someone is temporarily or permanently in a state of in-betweenness, not really one thing nor the other. This in-betweenness occurs both on a relatively small scale (concerning the individual and/or her relationships with family members) and on a larger one (concerning the individual’s relationship with community or country). The need for an imaginary father, then, is not outgrown, but continues throughout adult life, although “he” may change form. [-p.5] For example, the imaginary father may reappear in adults’ search for totally satisfying sexual relationships and/or a loving and comforting God.
Adolescents may have an especially strong need for imaginary fathers. Kristeva suggests that adolescence is a time of “psychic reorganization,” a time when people “begin to question their identifications, as well as their capacities to speak and to symbolize”.” (pp.4-5)

“Not only is the adolescent trying to establish boundaries between herself and her parents, but between her own community(ies) and those she deems “outsiders.” In addition, she must deal with her developing sexuality.” (p.5)

“Thus, the adolescent may have to deal simultaneously with several sorts of abjection, and so be powerfully drawn to descriptions of fictional imaginary fathers and their relationships with similarly abject protagonists. Such descriptions may not only reassure the reader that her experiences are not unique, but suggest that abjection can be resolved.
Lessa, in Dragonflight, is a good example of adolescent abjection and resolution.” (p.5)

It is through Ramoth that Lessa is eventually able to come to terms with both her social and sexual states of abjection.” (p.6)

“Moreover, Lessa’s uncertainties about her sexuality and her relationship with F’lar are resolved when Ramoth mates with F’lar’s dragon.” (p.6)

“For both Lessa and Opal [in Because of Winn-Dixie], companion animals play a vital role in drawing boundaries.” (p.7) “The animals also help the girls move from being “outsiders” in their new communities to being accepted members. In these ways, they act as imaginary fathers.” (p.7)

“Considering the animals as imaginary fathers suggests one way in which to interpret a common motif in girl-animal stories. While a child may have to share her parents’ love with siblings, the imaginary father’s love is for the child alone. In a similar fashion, the animal in these stories often displays a marked preference for the protagonist. Usually, this is for an unusual aspect of her personality, rather than because she is the one who feeds it.” (p.7)

“Freud suggested that the ego ideal—one’s internalized sense of what is right and good—is founded on the infant’s identification with the “father in prehistory” (or, to use Kristeva’s term, the imaginary father). The child’s later identification with her parents reinforces this. However, an adolescent has presumably already incorporated her parents’ standards, and is now in the process of separating herself from her family. At this stage, then, one might expect an imaginary father to help her explore parental standards as she decides whether to keep or reject them. Indeed, this pattern often appears in girl-animal stories—although, at least in the ones I surveyed, the animals are far more likely to reinforce the parents’ standards than to instigate rebellion against them.” (p.8)

I think it is probably significant that so many of the protagonists in this genre are attached to animals associated with power and freedom—horses, large dogs, wolves, dragons, and falcons. It is also worth noting that animals are outside the patriarchal social and linguistic systems that marginalize women. In identifying with animals, girls and women may seek an alternative social system in which they are not regarded as the inferior “other.” Although animals are not generally believed to use language, many of those in girl-animal stories communicate very effectively via vocalizations, body signals, and/or telepathy. In this sense, they may represent an alternative to male-privileged language. Thus, while the animals still ultimately function to integrate the protagonists into patriarchal society, they may also imply that this society can be questioned, subverted, and perhaps eventually changed.” (p.9)

In a number of novels, the protagonist learns that the animal itself is less important than the supportive structure it has helped her develop.” (p.13)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Marchant, Jennifer ‘An Advocate, a Defender, an Intimate”: Kristeva’s Imaginary Father in Fictional Girl-Animal Relationships’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 30(1), Spring 2005, pp. 3-15

More urban change questions


More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Mapping Suburban Fiction – Long


I’ve just been reading an interesting article by Christian Long on the (general) absence of travel between work and the suburbs in suburban fiction – and what might be read into this absence.

Long begins by aligning two quotes in a way I find quite powerful: “Suburbanization, probably more than any other single factor, hid the poor from view … Suburbanization nourished the solipsism of the middle class, which looked around its new environment and concluded, short-sightedly, that it was alone in America.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, quoted p.193)
Then you make a map of the book, and everything changes.” (Franco Moretti, quoted p.193)

Long then goes on to write: “…the suburbs are more than cookie-cutter tract houses and depersonalizing offices; they also are the roads and rails on which suburbanites ride. In spite of the practical importance of commuting, of all the routine segments of everyday suburban life, moments of transit seem most prone to disappearance from fictional narratives and their critical engagements. The critical history of suburban literature more often than not defines suburb/suburbia/suburban/suburbanite/suburbanization in terms of houses, workplaces, and the discursive regimes that order them, drawing a line between the urban world of work and the suburban world of ‘home.’” (pp.193-194)

Long proposes that we might “redirect examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces. By ignoring representations of in-between moments like commuting to get to the easy pickings of the ranch house or copy room, we risk ignoring an important factor of suburban life—that is, all the time and space spent coming and going.” (p.194)

“[Sinclair Lewis’s] George Babbitt’s attention to the space within which he commutes models an active engagement with his environment—an engagement that pays attention to the economic inequality embodied within the built landscape. In contrast, representative post-war suburban fictions like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Corrections narratively and formally normalize a disconnection from the spaces between home and work, between the suburbs and the city. In these narratives—which represent the standard suburban narrative of American culture—the protagonist shuttles between the conflicts of suburban life—at home and at work—with as little interference from the built environment as possible.” (p.194)

“While suburban literature thickly describes domestic-house space and office-work space, maps of Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Corrections reveal that between the house and office lies a nearly-blank, unrepresented space. Such empty space on the map represents a blind spot in the suburban imaginary: inequality. Recognizing the space between suburb and city—both narratively and as a critical reading strategy—makes it possible to understand the history of suburban discourses and to challenge the inevitability of the current sprawling, stratified suburban way of life in America.” (p.195)

“…this separation of home and work also generates a blindness to the in-between spaces through which suburbanites travel—highways, bridges, streets, sidewalks, trains, trolleys, and even subways—and a similar blindness to the price non-suburbanites pay for the convenience of that infrastructure. Deconstructing the home-work binary allows us to understand and highlight that price, to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which the conventional account of postwar suburbia glides over.” (pp.194-195)

Reading this, I was wondering how urban fantasy deals with this space between suburb and city (if, indeed, it does)…?

Note: Long also points us to the following work: “The best book-length analysis of suburban fiction I have found—Catherine
Jurca’s White Diaspora: The Suburbs and the Twentieth-Century American Novel—uses a metaphor of movement.” (p.194)

Reference: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Christian Long (2013) ‘Mapping Suburban Fiction’ Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 6(3)Dec, 193-213 DOI 10.1179/2051285613Z.00000000019

Abstract: “In spite of the practical importance of commuting to everyday suburban life, moments of commuting are rare in American fiction. While the experience of commuting offers chances for reflection and self-knowledge for the suburbanite’s psyche, that time for introspection comes at the cost of ignoring the built environment. The separation of home and work that the often-elided moments of commuting perpetuate generates a blindness to the suburban built environment and infrastructure. This article redirects an examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces by paying attention to scenes of commuting. Placing the space between home and work at the centre of the analysis allows us to understand and highlight the price of the suburban way of life, and to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which a conventional account of post-war suburbia glides over.”

Quotes referenced more fully as: Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Harper
Perennial, 1989), 42.

and: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 36.