It was just an old, battered, handwritten book of recipes, purchased for a dollar from an antiques dealer.
But in it, Janet Theophano (Gr’82) found the life of an overlooked woman—a life that set Theophano off in search of the ways cookbooks transmit more than just instructions on preparing food.
The result is “Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote” (Palgrave, 2002), the first book written by Theophano, associate director of the College of General Studies. The book is the result of research on more than 200 cookbooks and volumes of domestic advice, including the Esther B. Aresty Collection of Rare Books on the Culinary Arts, which Theophano curated in the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Penn.
In the books, Theophano found more than just recipes. She found mementos of women’s lives inserted between pages and annotated in margins. She found commentary on politics, culture, morals and society, autobiography and attempts to set the historical record straight.
In short, she found women using one of the few spheres in which they held authority—the domestic sphere—to assert their competencies in other fields.
“In the 18th century, when women became arbiters of domestic life, the cookbook became the place for women to become authors and make statements,” she said.
And engage in moral instruction, as 19th-century cookbook writers did. Books such as “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons, a self-described “American Orphan,” and “The Frugal Housewife,” by Lydia Marie Child, set out egalitarian, democratic visions of American domestic life in their pages, in sharp contrast to British guides of the same period, with their emphasis on keeping the servants from rising above their ordained station in life.
“Child wrote eloquently and somewhat bitterly about the need for a democratic people to be frugal,” said Theophano, who added that if Child were around today, she would probably detest today’s middle- and upper-middle-class practice of chasing trendy cuisines. And yet, Theophano noted, the moralizing tradition survives to this day in tomes such as Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Café Cookbook,” with its concern over world hunger.
Then there are 20th-century books like “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese,” in which Chinese-American immigrant Buwei Yang Chao at once translates Chinese culture for an American audience and gently upbraids Westerners for their cultural assumptions, and “A Date With a Dish,” Freda DeKnight’s 1948 effort to claim for black Americans their rightful place in the nation’s culinary history.
Food has been a means for Theophano herself to comment on culture and society as well. Her doctoral dissertation in folklore at Penn examined the cultural significance of what most Americans call “spaghetti sauce” and South Philly Italians call “gravy.”
She said it shouldn’t be surprising that writing about food can be transformed into much more than mere sustenance. As she wrote at the end of her book, “Reading a recipe, preparing it and consuming it are, in the end, the word and the body become one. We might imagine cookbook author Waters and her counterparts past and present saying, Eat my words…and live by them.”
Originally published on February 21, 2002