From Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking to the community cookbook created by the First Baptist Church of Midland, Tennessee, Cookbook Politics explores the sensual and political implications of cookbooks, demonstrating how they create nations, establish ideologies, shape international relations, and form communities.
May 2020 | 184 pages | Cloth $29.95
Political Science / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Democracy: The Recipe, the Cookbook, and the Forms of Politics
Chapter 2. Nationalism: Why States Need Cookbooks
Chapter 3. International Relations: Mastery, Sensibility, and Relational Cooking
Chapter 4. Community: Cookbooks as Collectivity
Chapter 5. Ideology: Food, Fast and Slow
Conclusion. How Taste Matters
Cookbooks are not usually conceived of as political texts. They do not seem political because the demands they make upon us do not seem to be ones concerned with power or authority. They do not declaim, as do manifestos. They do not constrict, as do laws. They do not command accord, as do arguments. Their stipulations are often vague ("until browned") and their audiences inattentive (how many cookbooks are bought simply for the ideals of cooking and the beauty of the photography?). Even their narrative form is different from that of most books: they fail to tell a story, and one dips into them depending upon one's time, appetite, and taste.
But cookbooks do form who we are, in ways large and small. "Tell me what you eat," Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, "and I will tell you what you are." Cookbooks are repositories of human taste, meant to transmit particular blends of flavor, texture, and nutrition across space and time. They are locations of shared sensation, where collective affective dynamics have material (and materialized) traces, the printed, textualized locale of taste and identity.
Discovering the implications of these repositories is the central concern of this book. Why we turn to cookbooks—what they do for, and to, us—turns out to be a philosophically complex question. Books are generally not so closely linked with our sensorial lives, even though they often represent sensation. Cookbooks, on the other hand, operate specifically on our bodies, but they do so through their reader—a cook. And their authority comes not through traditional lines of political power, such as law or force, but from a diffuse and experiential guidance. Betty Crocker's Cookbook becomes someone's favorite precisely because it aligns closely with the cook's history, traditions, imagination, and aspirations. So such an investigation concerns not only roasts, carrots, and brownies but also aesthetics, printing processes, and assumptions about domesticity, history, and location.
In this book, as in an actual cookbook, the reader is encouraged to pass over those aspects of the book that are not to their taste. Different sections will be used differently by different people. Historians may appreciate the particularities of food distribution and cooking technologies; cooks may be inspired (or revolted) by the mixtures of ingredients or by preparation techniques; philosophers will want to argue with the book's theoretical foundations and conclusions. One does not need to read the chapter on the genres of cookbooks to make sense of cookbooks in international relations. Even within chapters, certain sections may be distracting, uninteresting, or unintelligible to certain readers. While some of the overly technical issues (say, a conflict between two twentieth-century French philosophers) appear only in the endnotes, other theoretical arguments do form and shape the content of the chapters. And yet, while this is a book of philosophy, no technical philosophical training is needed to read this book, especially for the reader who is more concerned with other aspects of cookbooks.
What Makes a Cookbook Political?
The preeminent claim of this book—that cookbooks operate in political ways—will already raise suspicions. Most cookbook authors, readers, and users consider cookbooks very differently: as entirely apolitical works. If a cookbook is merely a repository of techniques (e.g., cook this for forty-five minutes, stirring once), as they presume, then it seems more like a manual than a political text. From this viewpoint, cookbooks are devoid of politics, and to claim that they operate along lines of power, distinction, and community seems counterintuitive at best, provocatively misleading at worst.
As an introductory exercise (not as a template for the forthcoming chapters), consider four ways in which one might admit cookbooks as having or doing politics, arranged from the most overt to the most subtle and so far unrecognized. Briefly, they are these: They could be organized and sold by political organizations and fundraisers affiliated with particular political parties. They also could be seen as replicating and reinforcing political barriers and boundaries. They might act to perpetuate practices of ideology or community. And most counterintuitively, there might be a politics of their very form: the format of the cookbook.
The first category consists of those cookbooks put together for overtly political party purposes, either to raise money for a political cause or to reinforce kinds of political loyalty. In 1984, for example, a group of American political activists collected recipes from prominent Democratic Party politicians and their wives and compiled a cookbook entitled How to Cook Reagan's Goose. Meant to raise money, the cookbook also highlighted important party actors and activists while also presumably reinforcing the affiliations that those cooking from it would feel with the policies of those politicians. To make "Easy Chicken Cacciatore," a favorite dish of then-Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, for instance, would connect the cook to the Democrats, strengthening party affiliation along domestic lines. Many other United States cookbooks produced by local and national political affiliates also attempt to encourage women to cook like a Republican or Democrat in order to strengthen party identification, organization, and fundraising.
But these are uncommon kinds of cookbooks, unusual both in their production and in their distribution. (What sort of gourmand would buy a cookbook in order to cook the dishes favored by a politician with national aspirations?) Far more common, and certainly more familiar, are the second kind of political cookbooks: those that replicate and reinforce political boundaries or barriers. The national cookbook, one that concentrates on "Chinese food" or "Mexican cooking," is typical of this kind. Such a book implicitly presumes the universality of a nation, promising the cook that she can experience and recreate the food of that state. Sometimes written for an external audience (as when an Italian cookbook is published by a British publisher in English), and sometimes for an internal audience (as when an Italian cookbook is published by an Italian press in Italian), such a book not only presumes the naturalness of the Italian people but also reinforces their collective identity through food culture.
Of course, the nation is not the only sort of political boundary that cookbooks emphasize and reduplicate. Throughout this book, various cookbooks will be examined that emphasize regionality as more important. Cookbooks can focus on cities, such as New Orleans. They may emphasize the continuity and homogeneity of larger regional areas; a book dedicated to Tuscan food or to the flavors of Provence marks out those places as different from the rest of the country. In each case, the affiliations among a large set of recipes work precisely because they buy into and reinforce the presumption that certain proximities of taste and culture coincide with geography; that a region and its food emerge naturally from one another. The geographically bounded cookbook proves an enduring staple in the cookbook publisher's larder.
Other cookbooks, however, enact and reflect other affiliations that are not spatial. This third type of political cookbook concerns itself not with a region but with cultural, ethnic, or social affiliations. Many cookbooks reproduce cuisines of different groups within nation-states. Recipes in a cookbook of American soul food may share certain regional affiliations (kinds of food available primarily in the southern U.S. states), but ultimately serve more as a stand-in for race, in that they are concerned with traditionally African American forms of community food. Whites may cook from a soul-food cookbook, but the operating concept of the recipes themselves are widely understood to emanate from and reproduce Black experience. Dishes—and the cookbooks that transmit and reproduce them—can be eminently racial or ethnic.
A different kind of cookbook might emerge from other social and cultural forms that overlap with but are not reducible to racial identities. They may be oriented around a recreational pastime, like a backcountry camping cookbook. They may emerge from a specific church, like a community cookbook created by the First Baptist Church of Midland, Tennessee. They may emphasize lifestyles (a barbecue cookbook), tradition (a family cookbook), or seasonal resources (a cabbages and greens cookbook). They may bespeak ideological commitments, such as vegetarianism, or technological desires, such as "molecular gastronomy," both of which overlap thickly with class and cultural identity. Some cookbooks imply cosmopolitan audiences, who enjoy tastes from around the world, and others locate the cook and diners in a canonic time and place, presenting dishes just like ones you remember from childhood.
Each of these forms of community identification is enacted through cookbooks that explicitly delineate kinds of membership in a group. But even though they appeal to the consumer by expressing kinds of belonging, most purchasers and users think of them more as appealing to "mere taste." The fact that these kinds of belonging are not necessarily recognized as being explicitly about social and cultural positioning makes them all the more powerful and desirable. If one is "merely" interested in preparing an engaging meal, one can ignore the myriad societal implications of the food being prepared.
Such cookbooks mark one's desires as well as one's social commitments. What your table looks like becomes a representation of who you are. What you feed your family or your guests embodies the kind of parent or host you are. How else to explain the emergence of an entire category of cookbooks meant to be lovingly read rather than used for instruction: cookbooks with impossibly complex recipes, exotic ingredients, and full-page glossy photographs? Many people (not merely cooks) find reading such a book pleasurable in itself, more for the imagined sensations of opulence and sumptuousness than for any literal eating of the dishes, which are rarely prepared. Many cookbooks present a life slightly different from the reader's own, providing a window into a potential life of luxurious sensation.
This approach to reading a cookbook—looking at it for the pictures, leafing through it in bed, even opening one at random—highlights the fourth way in which cookbooks act politically. Their very form, the way in which they are put together and used, breaks up the presumptions of what instructions do and what books are. In politics, we too often conflate instructions with obligatory demands. But recipes and cookbooks are not laws or jurisprudential codes. They suggest and direct without demanding or policing. They entice rather than enforce. They thus allow us to rethink how authority, commands, and directions operate.
Even the reasons and form of a cookbook upend assumptions about continuity and directionality. Consider the kind of authority a cookbook author assumes. This is not an authority arrived at through formal education (advanced degrees are not particularly useful in writing a cookbook) or democratic representation (we neither elect authors nor vote for cookbooks). Cookbooks do not attempt to convince or overtly argue. The reader assumes that the author has come to her or his position through extensive cooking experience, but is rarely in a position to authenticate that assumption.
The main exception to this is what is commonly called a "celebrity cookbook." However, these, like "gastroporn" cookbooks, will be largely absent from subsequent chapters. One might wrongly assume that Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking emerged from her television celebrity; in truth, it was the other way around, and it was the reception of her French cookbooks that gave her the opportunity to appear on television. More common is the television personality, such as Gordon Ramsey or Padma Lakshmi, whose onscreen cooking or judging is converted into one or more cookbooks that trade on that renown.
Celebrity has a complex relation to authority: the actions, decisions, and techniques of the famous elicit interest, often regardless of how their fame was achieved. When the actor Stanley Tucci or the musician Ziggy Marley publishes a cookbook, people will read it for insight into their lives and characters, though they also trust the authors to know something about Italian and Jamaican food, respectively. Some celebrity cookbooks are meant to evoke health or fitness: the title of the model Chrissy Teigen's cookbook, Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat, implies but does not promise recipes for thinness. Such cookbooks offer a kind of closeness to celebrities—one cannot be them, but one can share an aspect of their lives. A particularly intimate aspect, in fact: one can bodily experience the same thing they do, namely the tastes that can be replicated by the recipes within their cookbooks.
Such recipes create what Wendy Wall has identified as "transportive fantasies": the ability to imaginatively place oneself in a profoundly different situation. Cookbooks provide proximity to fame, the raptures of wealth, nostalgia for a different time, a recollection of ancestors, transport to an exotic landscape, escape from a "fixed social hierarchy." This power—one created by the reader in consort with the text—can operate regardless of the actual preparation of a recipe. A cookbook can be a pleasure to read, even if one never intends to prepare one of its dishes.
No matter their level of authority, cookbook authors cannot tell their readers how to experience and use their texts. Rare is the purchaser who reads a cookbook front to back, making sure to miss nothing. Instead, cookbooks invite their readers to cross-reference, to dip into and out of sections and pages and ingredients. Reading cookbooks, even for pleasure, rarely resembles reading other kinds of books, since their order, form, and accessibility differs profoundly from that of novels, histories, and even manuals. The politics of the particularities of this form put the reader, not the author, in charge of the process.
These four political dynamics are not isolated from one another. Few cookbooks operate with only one of them. Most, instead, combine them in various ways, using recipes and approaches that simultaneously create communities of people, ways of life, regional specificities, and modes of reading and use. The main focus of this book will be on these varieties of politics, though with a slightly different organizational focus than the one outlined above. Though cookbooks operate politically in many ways, five general groupings stand out and thus form the structure of this book. Cookbooks politicize in terms of democracy (form), nation (content), internationalism (representation), community (production), and ideology (intention). Each of the following chapters takes one of these political subjects in turn.
Chapter 1 investigates the democratic import of the arrangements of cookbooks, both though their structure and through the nature of their recipes. Cookbooks can (and should) model a kind of political authority. Chapter 2 describes how cookbooks serve to reinforce the naturalness of the contemporary nation-state, by allowing and encouraging the diversity of regions while still reducing them to an overarching unity. Cookbooks can create states and nations. Chapter 3 identifies the international relations inherent in national cookbooks of other places: how a particular American cookbook about French food positioned Franco-American relations. Cookbooks can shape relationships between countries, sometimes more robustly than can even the leaders of those countries. Chapter 4 turns to the development of community through cookbooks, showing how their production and distribution consolidate collective identities. Cookbooks can intensify community, delineating not only outsiders and insiders but also continuity across geography and time. And finally, Chapter 5 examines the ideology inherent to some cookbooks, describing the long historical connections and oppositions between trends such as "slow food" and national fascism. Cookbooks can ideate and literalize political thought.
Each chapter uses either a particular kind of cookbook (such as community cookbooks) or one specific text (such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking) to explore these questions. What was the reason for choosing these particular cookbooks as the central texts of this book? It is not that they are the most influential cookbooks ever written, with the possible exception of the cookbooks of Pellegrino Artusi and Julia Child. Nor are they the most sophisticated, or popular, or personal. Out of tens of thousands of cookbooks, those that appear in these pages were selected in part for what they do: each brings together (and sometimes separates) people from one another. But in fact, so do most cookbooks; these are not distinctive. They should, instead, be considered exemplary: each serves as a representative of some sets of practices in which cookbooks engage.
All, however, do one thing clearly, perform one move in which all cookbooks participate, and that is to serve as written repositories and idealizations of the human sensory system. This itself is political: the aim of the cookbook, the creation of food that appeals to the human sensory system, necessitates multiple political relationships. Both those who make the food and those who eat it enter into relationships of authority, power, memory, belonging, and creation. Food operates on the body in surprising and powerful ways, and the body craves and responds to taste according to expectations anticipated and formed by those who prepare food. Unlike many political texts, these operate in a sensory and bodily way; unlike many embodied sensorial experiences, they are traceable in their written and reproducible form.
Cooking, as feminist historians have shown, has long been an underappreciated form of labor. The kitchen, recognized as one of the primary domestic locations for women, encourages feelings of imprisonment and isolation as well as creativity and epicureanism. Cookbooks often mitigate the former by encouraging and empowering the latter. They connect cooks to one another, creating communities of sensation that can be replicated and transmitted from one kitchen to the next. Each recipe has an origin and a destination; unlike food that can be prepared without reference, those that require a recipe remind the cook of her reliance upon the experience and expertise of others.
The person who eats the products of a cookbook, whether side dishes, desserts, or any other kinds of dish, engages the history and conception of the book though her or his own body. When we eat, our sensory apparatuses connect us to the past and to others. Rafia Zafar refers to cookbooks that memorialize people, places, and cultures as "scripted sites of memory." Marcel Proust famously ends the first section of the first volume of his seven-book In Search of Lost Time (also known as Remembrance of Things Past) with such an experience: eating a small madeleine cookie floods the narrator with a recollection of his childhood, causing a deluge of commingled memories and sensations.
So what is this sensory mechanism; what does it have to do with our senses of self; and how is all of this political? The answers to these questions depend on a more thorough explanation of the human sensorium.
A Brief Note on the Sensorium
"Sensorium," a strange term, actually refers to a relatively simple aspect of bodily experience. Bodies are not separate entities from minds, contrary to what a long tradition of philosophers reaching back to Plato has held. Philosophers have historically seen human senses as suspect. For example, René Descartes's "I think, therefore I am" arises from his distrust of sight and experience as potentially caused by dream states or madness. But this is a false division. Instead, a mind and a body intrinsically connect to one another, and the attempt to create a clear and unyielding division between the two proves doomed. Our minds are embodied, our bodies imbued with mindfulness.
It is therefore important to pay attention to the particularities of how bodies engage with their environment, and environments with bodies. Affect, embodiment, and materiality point to the centrality of these relationships. Sensation is central to all. But the senses contain a wide complexity of divergent and coordinate aspects that makes them, in most cases, difficult to analyze.
First, they are both ephemeral and difficult to study. Though movements, events, and light waves exist in the world independently of humans, "colors," "smells," and "sounds" happen to those who sense. These are engagements and judgments rather than clearly demarcated phenomena. Second, the senses are variable between people. A touch that one person experiences as painful proves pleasurable to another; I dislike fish while you love all seafood; bass rhythms seem like music to a teen but noise to a retiree. Third, though we think of ourselves as being constantly aware of all of our senses, the wide range of sensory intrusions constantly assailing us means that we generally ignore the vast majority of sensations at any given time. The pressure of your body on a chair, or the taste of old coffee in your mouth, or the faint smell of dust in the air: you can be made aware of each, but usually they exist on the periphery of your consciousness. Each of these makes the measurement and theorization of the sensory difficult, if not impossible.
In some ways, this book follows the insights of a central figure in contemporary French philosophy, Jacques Rancière, who takes the human sensorium seriously. He famously argues that politics is "the distribution of the sensible." By this he means that the organization of the human sensorium allows for certain kinds of intelligibility and disallows others. The reiteration and consolidation of some sensory meanings proves just as politically important as the instance and emergence of others. What can be seen and heard, what Rancière calls "aesthetic regime," are the means and effects of what we can sense. These determine the boundaries of what we can do and who we are.
One could sidestep Rancière by contesting what he means by the term "politics." He writes very little about voting behavior, judicial opinions, international treaties, or parties. A definition of politics limited to such realms would make the distribution of sensibility relative apolitical. (However, as a number of the cookbooks examined later will show, some of them specifically engage these categories, too.) But he means something more complex and controversial in his use of the term "political": the partitions between what can and cannot be seen and said, which people and events and conditions become common sense and which are forgotten, who can claim their own existence as important and who remains the object of institutional power. These conditions or preconditions of who counts, of what presents itself when experiencing the world: those distinctions comprise politics. Thus, for the philosophically inclined, the cookbook expands Rancière's insight about the division and distribution of sensibility while also standing as a repudiation of his limitation of sensibility to the "visible and sayable." The reader of Rancière's more recent books, which identify and expand on his analysis of the distribution of sensibility, will note that they are repeatedly concerned with vision as the exclusive modality of sensibility. Art, images, and visualization make up his examples; only his analysis of film incorporates sound, and even this as a vestigial dynamic. Rancière downplays or even ignores the other senses. So the world of taste opens realms of the sensorium bypassed by Rancière, those parts of our bodily experiences that are not visual. Some political philosophers who have themselves expanded Rancière's insights, such as Davide Panagia, have noted how cooking can be analyzed in political ways.
Cookbooks have a particular and specific advantage over other ways of analyzing the sensorium: they are written down. That is, they exist in a stable and historically fixed form. Recipes and cookbooks have an eminently recognizable look—as the first chapter explores—which allows for a model of stability and replicability. Like literary works or philosophical texts, they sit on a shelf, awaiting their readers. Unlike many sensory experiences, their tastes can be easily referenced and minutely recreated.
This book explicitly concerns cookbooks in themselves. While it fundamentally relies on the increasingly important and interdisciplinary academic field that has come to be known as "food studies," the work here diverges from that field in several important ways. First, while food studies often refers to cookbooks, using them as critical entry points into understanding food pathways and history, the real subject of the field is food itself. This may be its production and transport (as in the work of Sidney Mintz), its cultural and historical significance (as in the work of Warren Belasco), its constitution of gender and domesticity (as in the work of Carole Counihan), or its influence on commerce and politics (as in the work of Marion Nestle). But in each case the cookbook, if mentioned at all, acts in a supporting role, a piece of evidence showing the presence, absence, or change of the actual food. Second, food studies scholarship often structures itself around one topic, tracing its development through historical time. Whether the subject is nutritional science, cutlery, or cod, the emergence, development, uses, and (possibly) decline of that subject follow a temporal trajectory. They are thus often constructed as traditional chronicles, where one discovery or event leads to another. (Meanwhile, as a book of theory, Cookbook Politics instead jumps back and forth in time, tracing embodied and sensory experiences along lines of affiliation and function.) Finally, even those food studies books that do address cookbooks tend to treat them as objects produced by social and political forces. They help us understand. Or, conversely, they address the form of the cookbook: Henry Notaker, has produced a magisterial history of cookbooks, one that traces multiple kinds of cooking instructions throughout the world. This book, by contrast, examines what cookbooks do, following their form and use across different political registers. Cookbooks are here treated as political practices, making philosophical claims not only about their users but about the way politics operates and is understood.
Using cookbooks and understanding what they do requires levels of experience and understanding. As common and self-explanatory as they seem, their use and practice requires skill and familiarity. This quickly becomes clear to any cook who has attempted to use a nineteenth-century cookbook, where instructions such as "debone and pluck the quail," "season appropriately," and even "bake until done" are common. Cookbooks do not transform their readers into excellent cooks, but instead, to be useful, need to be treated judiciously, learnedly, and carefully. Their philosophies are practical.
How to Read a Cookbook
The practicality of the cookbook often serves to obscure its political operations. The historical connection of cooking with women's labor has served to demarcate the knowledge of food preparation from other, more masculine domains of knowing and acting. But excellent food preparation—being a "good cook" —depends on a wide range of knowledges, attentions, and intuitions.
The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott used cookbooks to distinguish between the sorts of knowledge that are technical and those that are practical. The cookbook, he argued, belongs to the first: it is measurable, verifiable, and can be formulated with a degree of precision. Yet being a good cook entails more than these skills. The aspects of propriety, facility, precision, and experience, what Oakeshott calls "how to do it," escape and exceed the technical descriptions. In fact, they are often presumed by the cookbook, which cannot explain the details of every aspect of cooking.
But they are more than technical references. Cookbooks, ultimately, are concerned with the recreations and transmissions of taste, in all its sensual glory and complexity. These tastes, however, are not merely those of the cook herself: they are also those of the people for whom she is cooking and of the people whose directions she is following. Thus, attention to her place in these collectives proves vital to the good cook, as she attends to issues of food freshness and availability, health and dietary requirements, history and tradition, and personal dynamics of taste. Usually, though not always, these all need to be considered within a dynamics of commonality. Whether prepared for a couple, a family, or a dinner party, a dish needs to appeal to more than one person and bring all into a shared social dynamic. Only with close attention to both the diversity of the individuals and the needs and desires of the collective can the cook accomplish this.
Finally, the intuitional aspects of cooking also inform its practicality. When you select a cookbook from a store, a library, or your own bookshelf, why are you choosing that particular one? What cookbook speaks to the wide variety of flavors, textures, diets, and other preferences that make up food to you? As philosophers such as Carolyn Korsmeyer, Lise Heldke, and Raymond Boisvert have shown, food is always philosophical. Aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, pragmatism, and even the concept of the self all inform the choices and preferences of the process of food selection and eating. The good cook is constantly aware of these dynamics even if she does not use the philosophical terminology. When she makes dishes that are visually appealing, seasonally appropriate, nutritionally utile, and tasty (while also considering one person's vegetarianism and another's lactose intolerance), she is intuiting a range of needs and desires, not least her own, and causing them to materialize at the table.
As foods operate along these dynamics of knowledge, attention, and intuition, they transform bodies in both the short and long term. The close relationship between the human sensorium and our bodies highlights the materialism of our existence. To ask how the senses operate leads to an investigation of the physical operations of the skin, the mind, and the nervous system, but it also makes central the mechanisms of the distribution of that sensibility: how it is reproduced and made. The instructions of the cookbook allow the good cook to replicate (and experiment with) those flavors, ingredients, and techniques that transform food into meals.
Yet to do this, the good cook must know how to read cookbooks. Strangely, the skills of the contemporary reader prove antithetical to proper cookbook reading. The literary theorist Joshua Landy has argued that the modern mind apprehends the world through narrative. The stories we tell about ourselves, about others, about things, and about abstractions: these stories become reality. Narratives come to be the only way to understand or even experience a reality that is infinitely capacious. The question "who are you?" becomes conflated with the question "what is your story?" He notes "that atemporal phenomena—the beauty of a landscape, say, or an individual's personality" now exist in a world where "we pay less and less attention to them, and that it is more and more difficult, accordingly, to create a space for their perception." Narratives limit as much as they clarify, for they tend to exclude that which does not advance the story.
Reading a cookbook escapes many of these narrative demands. While there is certainly a temporal component to a recipe, as one step usually follows another, the cookbook itself has no story, no central narration. Just as importantly, the initial reading of a cookbook, or a recipe, highlights a vital (as well as underappreciated) skill: the cook must read the recipe for its sensory qualities. Will she be cooking this dish? When? For whom? How and why will it appeal? The final result must be imagined, not as a conceptual idea but as an imagined sensory impression. She must read in a way that highlights immediate experience and physical impression, not narrative causality or consequence. The reading of a recipe is an event, not a plot.
Narrative comes in the cooking, of course—a good cook will also ask "Can I do this?" and "What do I need to do first?" But the immediacy of the reading relies on the oblique overlap of sense and imagination. As the next chapter shows, the structures of cookbooks and recipes call into question a wide range of assumptions about reading and genre. But most important to the good cookbook reader is the immediacy of the imagined flavor, texture, and taste.
What Are the National Dishes of a Country?
The senses that a cookbook helps us imagine, and their relationship to political identities, practices, and ideologies, may still not be apparent. So before examining the genre of the cookbook, a specific example may prove helpful.
When the United States celebrated its centennial in 1876, the cookbook was ascending in its centrality within its political culture. Food production and distribution were being consolidated through railroad and incorporation at the same time as an increasing middle class was gradually coming to see food as a social event rather than mere sustenance. These forces came together in the creation of a cookbook.
The Women's Centennial Executive Committee, a Philadelphia-based organization formed to help raise funds for the celebration of the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, decided early on that a cookbook would be an excellent resource. They published a National Cookery Book, Compiled from Original Receipts for the Women's Centennial Committees. (The word "receipts" is an archaic version of what we now universally term "recipes.") Organized by Benjamin Franklin's great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, the committee attempted to identify and compile the broad variety of cooking that made up American cuisine.
In their introduction, the committee specifically claimed to represent the United States: "'Have you no National Dishes?' is a question that has been asked by foreigners travelling in this country. The Committees believe that the answer to the question may be found in their unpretending book." By highlighting the particularities of American cooking and providing the mechanisms by which a cook could recreate those dishes, the committee explicitly aimed to establish a guide to the nation. (Chapter 2 will further explore cookbooks' mechanisms of nation-building and national continuity.)
The committee's choice of what counted as American proves noteworthy. Two decades after the Civil War, Americans of African ancestry are notably absent. The word "Negro" never appears in the cookbook, and "neat colored women" are mentioned only in a footnote bemoaning their disappearance from Philadelphia marketplaces. A recipe for "groundnut cakes" (a dish akin to contemporary peanut brittle) is included in a footnote, showing a minimal African influence in the cookbook, but the elision of other dishes that might have hinted at the existence of black Americans could not be accidental. On the other hand, the book does grudgingly recognize Native Americans as a presence in the nation by including a two-page chapter entitled "Seven Receipts from an Oneida Squaw," including "Baked Bear's Meat," "Woodchuck," "Mud Turtle," and "Muskrats."
The National Cookery Book was not merely a universal celebration of the entire hundred-year-old nation. The particularities of the class positions and expectations of the women involved (as well as of their presumed audience) stand out in high contrast to the lives of the average American. The writers complain, for example, that the "most fruitful source of waste in the country comes from the incompetence of our servants," servants who were often Irish or Italian, or descendants of slaves or previously enslaved themselves. This means, they argue, that the housewife must never take the word of servants who claim that more food is needed unless she examines the larder herself. Much can be made of little, if she only knows how to utilize old bread and recycle fat. Parsimony is needed in the United States: "There is no country in the world where there is so much waste. This arises, in great measure, from the habits which have descended to us from a period when food was so cheap and plenty that 'it was not worth while to save.'"
Thus this cookbook operates not only as a text for nationalism but also as an instruction manual for domestic correctitude, social belonging, racialized identity, and class consciousness. As such, it exemplifies a number of the political contexts and practices of such instruction manuals. Cookbooks, in their transmission and sharing as much as in their writing and production, politicize those aspects of our lives that we usually neglect to notice as political: taste, production, domesticity, collectivity, and imagination. The fact that they do so in the name of creativity and preparation, and that their readers happily consume them in similar ways, emerges both from the particulars of their form—what makes a cookbook a cookbook—and from the kinds of practices—creativity, domesticity, or adventure—that they engender. It is thus to these questions of genre that the first chapter turns.