Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dishing Up History

While it's true that I love to look through and sometimes even read cookbooks -- and that I've compiled a working cookbook of my own, shared with a handful of friends -- I've never before really given much thought behind the people who write cookbooks and their reasons for doing so (aside from the general trend of celebrity cookbooks).

It's really a shameful oversight on my part, given my graduate work on women's history and autobiography. So when I came across Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano, I thought I'd better take a look.

Theophano studied a number of manuscript and published cookbooks, receipt books, and domestic commonplace books from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, intrigued by how these texts revealed the daily lives of women, much as their diaries might have done. For her, these volumes brought to mind "a universe inhabited by women both in harmony and in tension with their families, their communities, and the larger social world" (p.6).

Women had a number of reasons for writing these recipe books. Such books, of course, gave them a place to compile their own recipes, making notes of what worked well, and to collect recipes from relatives, friends, or other outside sources. The receipts were hardly limited to food prepared for the table: they also included information on herbal medicine, inventory lists of household goods, and ideas for planning parties.

Beyond the most obvious reason, though, these household mistresses also gathered information to pass down to future generations, to establish their own relations to their community, and to reveal their own ideals for the good life. Writing down such tidbits of kitchen wisdom allowed women to establish their authority over the domestic sphere, and despite the mundane nature of their work, they "often used their cooking skills and prized recipes as a vehicle for making themselves visible" (p.9).

Reading about how women of past centuries compiled their cookery books by copying recipes (or, later, pasting in clippings from newspapers and magazines) and making their own comments in the margins made me think about cookbooks I've owned and marked up, not to mention other cookbooks in my family.

I own two copies of my family cookbook, a simple typed and photocopied collection compiled by the Chef Mother over 25 years ago. The second copy belonged to my grandmother, and though she only had it for a few years before she died, the pages are full of her annotations, additions, and the many cards, papers, and miscellanea that she often tucked into books. Sifting through the pile, I find much of what Theophano mentions: recipes from my mother and aunts as well as from my grandmother's neighbors, recipes clipped from newspapers, poems, and the occasional letter or postcard. I don't know if this is the only cookbook my grandmother turned to in her later years, but it makes for an intriguing archive of the last part of her life.

Cookbooks, as they are used in daily life, are works-in-progress. They are added to, altered, and transformed to suit the idiosyncratic needs of each household (p.187).

I admit to having some nagging thoughts as I read Theophano's book, thanks to some of the criticism I took on my own master's thesis. The author does point out that most of the first published cookery books were written by men, with occasional credit given to the women who supplied recipes. Since men have published cookbooks all along, I have to wonder what their reasons for doing so were, since I doubt they were the same as the reasons Theophano outlines (save, perhaps, as moral and practical guides as to "how things should be done").

Was the kitchen always the woman's sphere? On the domestic level, perhaps, this may have been true for most of history. But what about professional cooks? Some of the authors mentioned by Theophano did cook on a professional level, but history does show that for a long time, men held the majority of those positions. I'm not denying that the reasons given for women's writing of cookery books are valid: I would just be wary of a clean divide between men and women (or between public and private lives) on any such autobiographical venture.

Theophano finishes the book with an epilogue that explores the modern cookbook and how the reasons behind writing cookbooks today mesh with the reasons she outlined for earlier works:

Each cookbook puts forward its author's vision of the good life, one predicated on an aesthetic of fresh food that is well prepared, hospitality, family, and building community through the sharing of food. ...

Many cookbook writers strike a balance between the sensual pleasures of the table and social responsibility; they write fervently about the need to alter our taken-for-granted habits of eating and preparing food (p.270).

Since the book was published in 2002, I wonder if Theophano would include food blogs in her research now and find similar reasons? I strongly suspect she would, though I think that looking at the multitude of food blogs and the variety of themes represented, not to mention the vast number written by men, she would have to modify some of her questions or conclusions. What does it say about our 21st-century society that so many men and women are writing online journals/cookery "books" and expanding our intended audience to encompass the world?

I'll let you chew on that question on your own (or feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!), but if you're curious about how cookbooks of the past represented women's lives, I encourage you to pick up Theophano's book from your local library. While it's an academic text, it gives insight into the people behind the texts studied.

Think about that the next time you skim through a cookbook!


At 1/02/2008 1:50 PM, Blogger Mitchell said...

What'd you do your thesis on? Its possible I'll be teaching a course next fall at a small college where my wife is on faculty. The topic would be Philosophy of Food (my background is philosophy) which would deal with issues covering "from farm to fork". Interested in any ideas for topics or sources.

At 1/02/2008 3:00 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Mitchell, my thesis was on the memoirs of two women of the French Revolution... not much about food at all. Sorry!

At 1/03/2008 2:41 PM, Blogger Mitchell said...

Ah, well, your blog has pointed me in the right direction, so thanks. Also, I got a hand crank grain mill at the holiday and will be able to try my own "homemade flour bread" soon. I need to find local organic grains now, and I'll be set.

At 1/04/2008 11:09 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Glad I could help, even in a little way. And good luck with the grain mill... that sounds exciting!


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