Thoughts for Foods

Kate Young, as omnivorous a reader as she is an eater, applies her culinary expertise to literary criticism in her debut offering The Little Library Cookbook. In this substantial tome, she cooks up the best in fictional dishes, providing recipes for meals which, although iconic, had never been realised outside the pages of novels. Haven’t you always wanted to taste the pilau rice and searing curry that causes Thackeray’s Becky Sharp to ‘suffer tortures with cayenne pepper’ in Vanity Fair, or the Clam Chowder which facilitates the crucial bonding moment between Queequeg and Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick? Crucially, this marriage of food and literature takes place in the form of a domestic cookbook; the recipes described by the authors and rendered edible by Young are meant to be created at home. In a similar project Valerie Strivers has been cooking literary meals for the Paris Review in a series entitled ‘Eat Your Words’. Her mustard and cress salad drawn from Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop deserves a special mention. All this recent attention that domestic cookery has been receiving from the literary establishment is significant; while haute cuisine is often considered an important cultural event, domestic cookery has long been denied the possibility of such creative expression.

I have often felt called upon to defend the literary and cultural values of the domestic cookbook. In a recent seminar, my tutor entered into what he considered a controversial issue. We were discussing the increasing visibility of literary prizes, specifically the Man Booker. The tutor was derisive about the Booker’s use of celebrity judges as part of their marketing machinery: he implied that celebrities are not literary enough to ‘judge’ novels. Nigella, a judge for the prize in 1998, was singled out for scorn. The mere mention of her name made my tutor and the rest of the class laugh. I was horrified. How could anyone argue that Nigella was unfit to judge a novel? I argued that since we were discussing publication histories and the materiality of the text, we should not be so quick to dismiss Nigella: after all, she is known to have one of the largest collection of cookbooks in the country. Cookbooks, I added indignantly, constitute a valuable, profitable and not necessarily unliterary division of the output of many major publishing houses. Furthermore, literature and food have long been productive bedfellows: what have magical realist giants such as Midnight’s Children and Like Water for Chocolate taught us if not that food can be textual? Finally, I concluded (quite furious by now) that I would never, ever, write a novel that Nigella (an undisputed goddess) would not want to read.

Underscoring this flippant dismissal of Nigella was a reluctance to regard popular literature, in this case domestic cookbooks, as complex enough to be worthy of the consideration and concern we regularly bestow on so-called ‘high-brow’ texts. But as any regular viewer of Netflix’s documentary Chef’s Table will be aware, the cultivation of flavour and taste is a complicated art: arguably directly because of its sheer simplicity. Each episode of this phenomenally successful series rests on the premise that haute cuisine imparts a significant philosophy: the world’s finest cooks have things to tell us not just about food, but also about life. The first episode, which follows the career of celebrity Michelin star maven, Italian restaurateur Massimo Bottur, is a culinary lesson in postmodernism. Bottura locates himself firmly within the tradition of Italian domestic cooking. In Osteria Francescana, his three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena, Italy, he offers playful interpretations of traditionally domestic cooking such as deconstructed lasagne corners and ‘Tortellini Walking into a Broth’. Fine dining is rarely domestic. It is full of theatricality; a significant cultural event. When Nigella, and by extension her writing on food, was casually dismissed in my class, I do not think anyone was denying that cooking can be complex, layered, skilful and rooted in tradition. There was, however, a sense that domestic cooks, and therefore home cooking, have no place in the intellectual realm.

There is certainly a discrepancy in feeling between home cooking and restaurant cooking, or between so-called domestic cooking and “professional” cooking. In a recent essay titled ‘Home Cooking Can Be a Feminist Act’, Nigella wrote that:

There’s a reason why the home cook has always been seen as a lesser creature: traditionally, chefs had been male and paid; home cooking was ‘women’s work,’ unwaged and taken for granted, sentimentally prized but not essentially valued or respected.

She goes to state that, ‘the spontaneity of the home cook is by contrast gloriously anarchic. Don’t apologise for that: revel in it’. Nigella highlights an important truth: that domesticity and creativity are not mutually exclusive. They can, in fact, be symbiotic. My class’ dismissal of Nigella’s domesticity echoed another domestic dismissal I experience within my postgraduate reading. There is a difference between what I read academically and what I read for pleasure, domestically. I use my favourite novels in much the same way as I do my favourite cookbooks. I dip into one before dinner, and another before bed. Both sustain me. When I describe these novels to self-consciously academic people the reply is often akin to, ‘oh, my mum loves that book!’ Middlemarch, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Middlesex, The God of Small Things, The Neapolitan novels, and especially Jane Austen, have all been dismissed in this way. Yet, these are all undoubtedly important achievements of literary creativity. The books I read for pleasure are, like the best domestic cookery, easily consumed: I devour them; they slip down a treat. It is their sheer deliciousness that precipitates these dismissals. The back-handed compliment which ties bad ‘taste’ to motherhood should be read as a celebration. In the kitchen as in the library mothers are the ultimate critics.

The ease with which domestic cookery and cookbook writing is dismissed could be explained by social reproduction theory. In an introduction to the subject, Tithi Bhattacharya, a prominent Marxist feminist, argues that labour power, or simply the ability to work, is produced by three interconnected processes. Firstly, labour power must be regenerated by activities such as sleep, psychological care, and (crucially for our purposes) food. These regenerative activities generally take place domestically; labour in this sphere is unwaged and unconsidered. The second and third processes which sustain labour power are identified as the care of non-workers (children and the elderly) and the literal reproduction of new workers, through childbirth. Perhaps domestic cookery has been traditionally dismissed because its purpose has simply been to sustain. To cook creatively, to cook well, then, is to carve out a means of expression within a system of continued oppression.  Within this paradigm, cooking is a loaded act. Domestic cookery quite literally enables the economic cogs of any given society to turn. Perhaps the way we cook tells us something about how we live – in this case perhaps how we obscure maternal power. Furthermore, allowing creativity to enter into the process of domestic cookery allows for it to become more than simply the act of feeding a populace. The way in which Young, for example, allows literary ideas to act as culinary prompts is an inspirational way of imbuing the everyday act of feeding with imaginative power.

Recipe books, like Young’s, are arbiters of practical philosophy: Jamie Oliver advocates the simple life, an over-reliance on griddle pans, and never enough garlic. Nigel Slater teaches us that life is beautiful, sandwiches are important, and love is real. For Yotam Ottolenghi life is complicated; Delia says it’s ok to cheat (it isn’t). Nigella brings the sex appeal and Ainsley is a meme. It is no coincidence that food-related anthropology is often termed ‘Proustian anthropology’: practices surrounding cooking and eating reveal a lot about societies, and madeleines aren’t the only cakes which have the power to unleash the past. Food writing and literature are anything but mutually exclusive. Nigel Slater’s Toast (or anything by Nigel really) ensured that. Jay Rayner’s restaurant reviews are studies in expertly wielded acerbic wit. William Carlos Williams taught us that plums in a fridge taste like true love, and as early as 350 BC Archestratus (the Rick Stein of his day) wrote his Hedypatheia, a parody of more traditional Greek verse, a celebration of food and a working instruction manual on how to select, cook, and serve fish. There is a cookbook canon in existence. The domestic cookbook writing of Slater, Lawson and their contemporaries is rooted in that of their foremothers, a holy trinity comprising of Elizabeth Acton, Isabella Beeton and Elizabeth David.  Last March the LRB made Elizabeth David their author of the month, and indeed David’s books are probably the master texts of this particular genre. For Kate Young a nineteenth-century classic could be a novel by Dickens or Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Her approach to canonical reading is an extremely perceptive one. The cookbook and the novel can be read in conjunction as analogous literary and cultural documents worthy of our time and study. So much of the way we read and engage in criticism rests on the idea that textual details deserve consideration; when these textual details happen to be culinary, reading them with culinary knowledge can prompt literary insight.

At a recent college dinner I discussed To The Lighthouse with another tutor. I mentioned that when I was studying it I cooked Young’s recipe for the Boeuf en Daube that, in my eyes at least, is at the crux of the novel. The dining table around which the Ramsay family and their guests gather for dinner becomes the physical locus for Woolf’s stream of consciousness and her insight into the inner lives of each character. Of course the food they eat while each engaging in their separate inner lives matters: it is something they all have in common. The tutor was impressed – obviously more at my culinary than literary expertise. She asked how on earth I’d done it. Wasn’t it a very complicated pastry-covered concoction? No. The Boeuf en Daube which causes Mrs Ramsay so much anxiety is a fairly simple slow-cooked stew not unlike a Boeuf Bourguignon. Woolf’s joke here is that Mrs Ramsay is a terrible cook, because she is worried about nothing at all. The timing of the dish simply doesn’t matter – or at least not as much as it would in the case of a pastry or soufflé – and her servants are forced to bear the brunt of the domestic labour. Here a little culinary learning helped to shed new light on a pivotal moment in a wonderful novel. When I started pondering more how domestic cookery writing could shed illuminate the novel, and vice versa, I got to thinking, as I often do, about curry.

One of my favourite recipes by Kate Young is her version of the curry that so surprises Becky Sharp’s palette in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Young imagines this as a fragrant, satisfyingly garlicky goat curry, but the first curry we encounter in the novel is a remarkably metropolitan Anglo-Indian affair. Amelia calls Jos to supper and describes what they are having: ‘There’s a pillau, Joseph, just as you like it, and Papa has brought home the best turbot in Billingsgate.’ The spices and recipe may be Indian in origin, but the turbot is not. Their supper incorporates East and West; it signals the Regency beginnings of the UK’s habit of culinary borrowing.

Edward Said provides an easily adoptable description for culinary fusion when he writes, that ‘partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and un-monolithic’. This curry, as well as its Anglo-Indian variants in Vanity Fair, are significant sites of colonial silencing. This can be seen most clearly in relation to Loll Jewab, Jos Sedley’s so-called ‘Oriental Menial’. Loll Jewab is rendered an imperial product: his clothing is marked, stamped and effectively colonised by the Sedley family crest. Thackeray precludes postcolonial readers from translating Jewab’s insuperable silence because this risks the imposition of a model of Western consciousness and therefore complicity in the imperial project. It is possible, however, to analyse how Jewab is silenced. These silencing mechanisms are entirely culinary. After Loll Jewab teaching Jos Sedley’s English servant how to prepare various curries and a hookah pipe he is summarily dismissed and returns to Calcutta. He is sent away after imparting his knowledge, craft and his culinary culture.

This silencing of Loll Jewab and the erasure of his recipes are symptomatic not only of the novel, but of the cookbook. In her foreword to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management Nicola Humble suggests a case for considering the cookbook alongside the novel as a cultural document: ‘It is precisely because they are an ephemeral, market-led form of writing that cookery books reveal so much about the features of a particular historical moment’. Just as Mrs Sedley anglicises pilau with a turbot, Mrs Beeton includes a significantly large proportion of Indian recipes in her guide on household management tailored to British wives. Mrs Beeton commits a colonial act of plagiarism when she gives her readers a recipe for ‘Bengal Recipe for Making Mango Chetney’: ‘This recipe was given by a native to an English lady, who had long been a resident in India, and who, since her return to her native country, has become quite celebrated amongst her friends for the excellence of this Eastern relish.’ Here we see the process by which Loll Jewab’s culinary legacy is erased. This originally Indian recipe has been adopted by an Englishwoman. Crucially, and tragically, it is Mrs Beeton and this ‘English lady’ who receive the credit for the ‘excellence’ of this imperial product. The systems of culinary colonial silencing in the novel and the cookbook are analogous. In both cases the origin is deliberately erased and made British. In other words, if, proverbially, we are what we eat, then we are also what we read. On both culinary and literary grounds the novel and the cookbook silence the subaltern: Loll Jewab cannot speak. Mrs Beeton makes this link between food, empire and domesticity blatant when she writes: ‘As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of the house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment.’ Empire, the novel and the cookbook attempt similar projects. Novel reading, domestic cooking, and curry eating can be considered analogous activities; all ought to proceed with an awareness of the violent sites in the history of the British curry and the silenced Others in the British novel. Applying postcolonial readings to the British cookbook as well as the British novel outlines the processes of empire at work in both. The cookbook is an important cultural document worthy of study. The domestic cook and the domestic reader are both worthy of our literary and culinary attention.

Young’s brand of culinary, domestic literary criticism has illuminated two ways of reading domestic cookery in relation to literature. Firstly, the question of why and how domestic cookery is denied the possibility of creative expression. Secondly, Young’s realisation of Thackeray’s curry allowed me to identify that the way we read novels could inform, and be enriched by, a reading of cookery books. Young often draws on Mrs Beeton’s tome when creating recipes from nineteenth century fiction, and reading this cultural document in a post-colonial sense, just as I would a novel from this period, showed how the empire was at work in both of these cultural documents. Reading cookbooks literarily and novels for culinary inspiration enriches both. Young’s project is a wonderfully inspiring one – but it is also just the beginning. Why stop at literature? Why not imagine and create famous artistic dishes too? I would love to taste the beautiful pies and roasts in Pieter Claesz’s Dutch still lifes, or even blasphemously imagine the simplistic tastes (and potentially fantastic sourdough loaves) of the Last Supper. Literature and art draw on previous literary and artistic creation. We have established that cooking too has a rich tradition and a canon of its own. An amalgamation of these traditions could usher in wonderful new ways to eat and read.