Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cookbook Studies

When I first started cooking, cookbooks were a must.  They gave me a sense of portions, flavor pairings, tips, and new ideas.  Eventually, as I learned more, cookbooks became more of a consultant than a mentor.  Although it is common to think about cookbooks as guides, in reading about food studies I’ve learned that cookbooks are becoming a source for text studies.      
On the negative side, cookbooks can be a symbol of the false and unattainable.  Anthony Lane in his article, “Look Back in Hunger,” reprinted in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, discusses the joys and flaws of cookbooks.  Though they provide guidance and direction, the missing steps and unanswered questions make them unreliable.  He even goes so far as to say that the trouble with cookbooks is that “like sex education and nuclear physics, they are founded on an illusion.  They bespeak order, but they end in tears.”   In that way, cookbooks give misleading promises of culinary panache and the ability to wow.  The dish never looks quite as good as the picture and fails to taste quite like the flavors you concocted in your head.   
Although I think some cookbooks are about promoting superficiality (i.e. Martha Stewart), good cookbooks are a form of narrative, contributing to a cultural history.  Like Water for Chocolate ends with the grandniece of Tita talking about her mother’s and Tita’s cookbook legacy.  As I talked about in Sunday’s post on the movie, Tita uses cooking as a conduit for emotions.  Because of that, her cookbook “tells the story of [her] buried love” and serves as way of letting her live on through recipes.
An interesting article about the legacy of cookbooks is one by Rosalyn Collings Eves called, “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women's Cookbooks.”  In the article, Eves argues that cookbooks function as memory texts and create a feeling of collective consciousness and identity.  Eves points out that recipes and cookbooks are tied through cultural identify because recipes foster group identity through a larger community or through a smaller family unit.  Through naming dishes after family and friends or commemorating important moments by naming a recipe after the event it was cooked for, a cookbook creates a narrative of the past.  The introduction to the Black Family Reunion Cookbook states, “Through choosing this cookbook [...] you are partaking in centuries of history, tradition and culture [. . .] that is central to the fabric of African-American life.”  The quote, according to Eves, challenges the reader to be a “part of the African-American community by consuming and digesting culturally invested recipes and instructions.”   
The value of cookbooks is that they are a written text beyond being keepers of food equations and ingredient permutations.  Cookbooks are a form of storytelling, a link into memories, and a manifestation of a community.  Another quote Eves gives from the Black Family Reunion Cookbook is a woman remember her grandmother: "Every time I make biscuits I remember those early days with my grandmother [...] I can still feel grandma standing next to me.”  So, next time you post or write a recipe or receive one from a friend, take a minute to think about the way that one recipe will create a legacy of your life.  What will your children remember about your through making it?  How will people associate that dish in their sense memories of you?  What will your cookbook say about you? 
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