The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York City drew an eclectic mix of culinary scholars; food studies academics; food writers and bloggers; food photographers and stylists; cookbook writers, editors and publishers; chefs; and those hoping to become any of the above.
I participated in the panel, “Cookbooks as Works of Art and Status Objects,” which explored the slew of elaborate and expensive cookbooks that have come out recently that function as coffee table books more so than cookbooks. Examples include: The French Laundry Cookbook, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, Alinea, Eleven Madison Park, NOMA, and Modernist Cuisine. The panel also featured Kim Beeman, Jane Black, Sarah Cohn, and Anne McBride, each of us bringing a different perspective to the nature and meaning of these cookbooks. I discussed these cookbooks as extensions of the trophy kitchen, given their ornamental nature and status-making potential.
I also attended several other panels, which I summarize in this post. I have captured what I found to be the most tantalizing sound bites from panelists, but I have by no means provided an adequate summary of their entire discussion.
For a full list of panel descriptions and panelist bios, please see the Cookbook Conference website. Panel videos and/or audio recordings are also available there.
Kitchen Class Wars
The first panel that I attended on Friday morning dealt with a subject similar to the panel I was on—cookbooks and cooking as conspicuous consumption, particularly dependent upon conspicuous leisure. In his opening remarks, Michael Krondl emphasized that for much of history, cookbooks have been written for, and sold to, the middle class, the main group that rises and falls in the United States’ social hierarchy. As a result, cookbooks have long provided instruction for status climbing and served as manuals for, and symbols of, aspirational consumption. Katherine Alford argued that what aspiration is and what aspirational consumption means has totally changed—from Julia Child’s sharing of French cuisine and the elevation of a woman’s work in the kitchen to Paula Deen, a once welfare-recipient turned TV star. Based on Food Network trends, Alford shared that Italian food is no longer considered aspirational; rather, it represents idealized home cooking for cooks of many cultures. She also argued that Chopped is Food Network’s top show because it is not about “The Chef,” but about the American Dream, a story of rise and fall intricately linked to American social standing.
Providing a historical perspective, Cindy Lobel traced the roots of today’s comfort food trends to the antebellum period when prescriptive literature encouraged middle class homemakers to ensure the home was a comfortable space, in comparison to upper class homes, which were viewed as stuffy. Farha Ternikar shared results from her research, revealing that for middle and upper class Indian immigrants, European desserts are preferred and considered potent cultural capital over traditional Indian desserts, demonstrating how ethnicity intersects class in interesting ways at the dinner table.
Wartime Cookbooks: Artifacts of Home Front Culture, Tools of Social Engineering, Narratives of Survival
This next panel revealed that during wartime the public and private worlds merged. The kitchen was its own war front, where women fought battles with spoons and knives, rather than guns. While our popular culture is full of examples of Americans going without and suffering on the home front, the truth is that in the United States and in Canada, most citizens had enough to eat. Furthermore, Ian Mosby demonstrated that while wartime rationing certainly impacted the middle and upper classes, it actually improved the diets of working class Canadians.
Rationing did change the make up of diets, however. Amy Bentley poignantly argued that wartime rationing, eating, and recipe writing served to preserve the overall grammar of eating (such as meals composed of meat and two vegetables), while rewriting the lexicon or vocabulary, by for example substituting corn for wheat and corn syrup for sugar. In altering a culture’s food vocabulary however, many bad, bizarre, and seemingly unpalatable recipes came about. For example, Barbara Rotger analyzed the recipe scrapbook of Isabella Ward, which contained many First World War recipes, including one for Boston Roast. The unsavory dish calls for a can of beans and a half cupful of cream, along with measures of cottage cheese, paprika, and tomato sauce. Ian Mosby argues that similarly dismal recipes appeared in Canadian newspapers to fill space left open due to writer shortages experienced during the war.
And finally, Diana Garvin discussed ricetarri (pamphlet cookbooks) in Fascist Italy. Featuring triumphant patriotic imagery on their covers, these pamphlets often included multiple versions of the same recipe—for example, oatmeal balls (the saddest substitute for gnocchi one can imagine) that differed only in size, from small to medium to large. Featuring recipes undesirable to eat and distributed to mostly illiterate Italian housewives, Diana argues that these Italian recipe pamphlets served as a “culinary Trojan horse” for the political ideals of Italian Fascism.
Notably, while in past wartimes Americans were encouraged to go without, the opposite has been recommended in recent years. Americans are currently encouraged to consume in order to support the war effort, to literally feed the economy.
In the Night Kitchen: Why Write Cookbooks for Kids?
The last panel that I attended on Friday discussed the topic of children’s cookbooks, coincidentally covered nicely in this New York Times article. In her opening comments, the entirely wonderful Laura Shapiro provided historical perspective on children’s cookery books, particularly in the twentieth century, quipping that Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls turned an entire generation onto take out rather than promoting a life long interest in the culinary. Don Lindgren shared images and stories of cookbooks from bygone centuries, pointing to the nineteenth century Six Little Cooks as the first, true children’s cookbook.
Mollie Katzen spoke on her trilogy of children’s cookbooks, inspired by her experience as a mother. Using kid-friendly recipes that feature images instead of words, these cookbooks promote not only cooking skills, but also pre-reading skills, sensory learning, social cohesion, independence, and confidence among pre-school-aged children. She also commented that most kids rarely, if ever, see cooking as it happens because the endeavor takes place far above their eye level. She recommends that parents and caregivers engage children in cooking in a respectful way and bring the work and fun of cooking down to their child-height-eye level. Finally, Roxanne Gold shared her experience writing a children’s cookbook, long before she became a mother. She also shared her own personal revelation that she writes cookbooks not for her intended audience, but as self-expression. Her children’s cookbooks, however, are uniquely written for kids themselves.
Whose Food Is It Anyway?
In the first panel that I attended on Saturday morning, three uniquely qualified panelists discussed the nature of authenticity and the appropriation and colonization of cuisine. Based on her extensive experience with Italian cuisine, Nancy Harmon Jenkins remarked that culinary authenticity is a constantly moving target and thus difficult to define. Conversely, Roberto Santibanez, famed Mexican chef and cookbook author, defines authentic Mexican cuisine as that which features the textures, flavors, and colors that Mexicans recognize as their own. Offering another perspective, Krishnendu Ray of NYU argued that authenticity is a question of “a true copy” that is largely dependent upon individual expectations. He also argues that it is perhaps more productive to identify modes of authentication than to argue about what foods or ingredients are authentic.
In the course of her remarks, Harmon Jenkins also posed an interesting question: “Does the insider or the outsider have a better approach to a cuisine?” Santibanez responded that in some ways a cuisine needs an outsider to observe and codify a cuisine, preparing it for exportation. He joked that his grandmother would teach Mexican dishes based upon her own embodied, sensory knowledge, saying of a dish, “Does it sound ready? The way it always has?” Ray echoed these thoughts, arguing that the most important parts of a culture are unarticulated and embodied. Because of this, Santibanez argued that the writings of white Americans with no claim to Mexican heritage are in some ways better equipped to translate the intricacies of Mexican cuisine for American audiences through cookbooks.
Another of Ray’s comments echoed the language-based metaphor that Amy Bentley used to explain wartime eating. Ray argued that in order to be understood by all, a language is shared; but despite this collective ownership, we each still have an individual voice. He argues that the same holds true for cuisine, privileging both the cuisine of the whole and the individual as equally meaningful, powerful, and right.
Culinary Politics: White House Cooking and Cookbooks
On the final panel that I attended, Cathy Kaufman began by providing foundational comments, discussing the role of politics, class, gender, and race in White House cooking. She argued that Teddy Roosevelt hosted the most controversial White House dinner when he invited Booker T. Washington in 1901.
Barbara Haber discussed the FDR White House and its reputation for universally bad food, as evidenced in the period quote, “If you’re invited to the White House for dinner, eat first.” White House dining was dismal because Eleanor Roosevelt—nothing if not loyal—hired the New York baker, Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, as the housekeeper of the White House. Cranky and a less than wonderful cook, Mrs. Nesbitt was largely responsible for the administration’s lowly food status. Her cooking was a frequent and impassioned complaint of FDR himself, though Haber postulates that Mrs. Nesbitt’s cooking was simply an easy target for his larger political frustration and anxiety.
Haber also debunked the rumor that the Roosevelts fed the king and queen of England hot dogs on their White House visit. In actuality, they were served a full State Dinner, after which they all escaped the press for Hyde Park, where they enjoyed an elaborate picnic that featured, yes, hot dogs, but also a robust spread of tasty and representatively “American foods,” such as a ham and cranberry sauce.
Linda Morgan discussed White House cooking during the Eisenhower administration, which reflected middle class eating habits, such as eating in front of the television, plenty of beef, and gelatin-based desserts. And finally, Judith Weinraub covered the “Golden Age of the White House pastry chef,” from Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush. Often without overtime pay, space to work, or part time staff, Roland Mesnier created beautiful, intricate, and delicious desserts for the presidential families and all of their guests.
In any era, White House dining both represents and leads American taste making. Especially as Michelle Obama has planted vegetables on the White House lawn and promoted healthy eating in an effort to combat childhood obesity, lessons from America’s presidential culinary past ring true.
The Cookbook Conference provided a little something for everyone—and pays homage to the role of cookbooks as meaningful primary sources for research, complex artifacts of the human experience, and an ever-evolving field in food media and publishing.