BOOKS THAT COOK: The Making of a Modern Literary Meal. Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. New York: New York University Press. 2014.
Books that Cook is a savory concoction of prose, poetics, and recipes that narrate U.S. history and memory through the optic of the cookbook since the eighteenth century. Through the simple notion that everyone eats, the contributors insist that food is a pedagogically effective and generative site of knowledge production and transmission: “the joy of learning is like eating, and words are dishes to be savored” (1). Complementary to the layout of the common modern cookbook, Bill Kloefkorn’s “invocation” gives way to an array of rich “courses” arranged in menu sequence—aperitifs, starches, eggs, main courses, sides, sweets, and, finally, “a toast;” each course is saturated with sensory, emotional, and historical depth that gives way to the other. Contributing authors are a handpicked consortium of classic and contemporary scholars, fictionists, poets, and cookbook artists. The book is situated around three conceptual themes: recipes as cultural texts, cookbooks as literature, and menus as pedagogical tools. Collectively, these themes allow for an innovative “literary meal” that narrates U.S. history as it relates to environmental issues, ethnicity, love, growth and nostalgia, life and death, and loss and kinship. In style and content, Cognard-Black and Goldthwaite argue that recipes are not dormant instructions for the preparation of dishes; instead, they are “culture keepers and culture makers. They both organize and express human memory” (2).
Given its unique layout, co-editors Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite offer a recipe for reading: “the literary works within each section should be read as an extension of the cookbooks, while the cookbook excerpts should be understood as an extension of pieces of literature: as forms of storytelling and memory making all their own” (1). What is particularly innovative about Books that Cook is the way in which the book calls upon the reader to bring these recipes to life: “When a food is shared and eaten, the reader actually embodies the text… the reader’s own body is altered as a result of reading and eating this text. In a very real sense, then, a recipe reader becomes that recipe: she breathes it, her heart beats it, and thus the text is known both by the mind and by the body” (2). However, to “embody the text” does not require chronological linearity. Instead, the reader is encouraged to “sample” the poetics, prose, and recipes based on their unique position and “taste.”
However, the contributors keenly point out that our palates are not isolated from the broader political, geographic, and cultural contexts of the emergence of particular foods, and neither are meanings attached to certain foods fixed. Indeed, the editors encourage the reader to consume these recipes as they move through time and space, through their authors’ taste buds and imagination—from eighteenth-century instructions for proper meat selection, to 1940s chicken jellies curing a bedridden malaria-stricken adolescent, the saltiness of lust, the metaphor of rising bread for the transition from girl to woman and the Old World importation of multiple meals as part of the colonial restructuring of the Americas (compared to a single large meal served between lighter fares as was customary in many Native American traditions).
In reading this text, I am particularly moved by Judith Moore’s “Pie:” “The fruits’ sweet and buttery juices, in a total immersion baptism of the mouth, flood tongue, teeth, cheeks. There is no more outside. Everything is in” (301). Here, body, mind, mouth, spirit, and pleasure all converge in a dish of flaky crust and tart fruit. There is whimsicalness, nostalgia, desire, and the explosion of flavor. The distinction between outside and inside prove indefinite.
Because food anchors our humanity in the ways that it is consumed, circulated, produced and represented, Books that Cook is a delicious, accessible, and versatile contribution to the growing field of food studies, particularly as it relates to issues of history, memory, and identity.
Lila A. Sharif (University of California, Berkeley)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.