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Teaching Food Studies, Cookbooks & Writing

How do cookbooks speak? What stories do they tell—and whose? What do cookbooks reveal about power and how it operates? How do cookbooks communicate and construct gender?

These are some of the questions my students and I have pondered lately in our course “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture” at Brown University. For our first assignment, students analyzed how cookbooks prescribe and transgress conventional gender roles. A uniquely interdisciplinary field, food studies scholarship often employs various methods, but the close reading of cookbooks is one method that approaches universality. Perhaps that’s part of why I’ve written on them so often (like here, here, and here).

I’m working with a thoughtful and engaged group of 20 mostly first- and second-year students. While most had read and used cookbooks for cooking, few had previously considered them as elements of popular culture, as valuable historical evidence, as prescriptive literature that shape notions of gender, or as sources in which the so-often-silenced voices of women and people of color can be heard.

In an effort to fully scaffold and support our work with cookbooks, we first did some reading. While there are many incredible texts I could have assigned, we read from:

Then we had to learn how to read recipes, particularly how their formulas, language, instructions, meaning, and function have changed over time. A selection of apple pie recipes from the eighteenth century to the present (see slideshow below) helped us make sense of how changes in technology, cooking skill and embodied knowledge, and mass market consumption patterns influenced the way recipes were communicated and prepared.

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Armed with this new knowledge, we then set to work applying it further in a cookbook workshop. On a snowy Providence morning, I boarded the bus with about twenty-five cookbooks from my personal collection in tow. While I severely underestimated how much of an isometric bicep workout it would be to carry the books to and from the bus stop, it paid off to bring these topics to life in the classroom.

I brought in an eclectic mobile library of texts including James Beard’s sentimentally illustrated The Fireside Cook Book (1949), Julia Child’s beloved The French Chef Cookbook (1968), an autographed copy of Jean Nidetch’s Weight Watchers Program Cookbook (1973), a selection of convenience cookbooks from Betty Crocker and McCall’s, promotional cookbooks from General Foods and Ball, and even The Marlboro Cook Like a Man Cookbook, which comes laminated, born ready to take up a hot and greasy residency outdoors by the grill.

Food + Gender Class - Cookbook Workshop

Students in “Food and Gender in U.S. Popular Culture” at Brown University during a cookbook workshop. Photo by Emily Contois, posted with student permission. 

While I encouraged students to read their cookbooks cover-to-cover before writing their essays, we spent about 15 minutes perusing our texts during the workshop and pondered a set of questions, which we then discussed as a group, such as:

  • What type of cookbook is it? (e.g. community compilation, specialty e.g. “just desserts,” celebrity chef author, etc.)
  • Who is the author of this cookbook? What do we know about him/her?
  • When was this cookbook published? What about that time period might be relevant?
  • Who is the intended readership for this cookbook? (e.g. novice versus experienced cook) What do we know (and not know) about the cookbook’s readers?
  • What ingredients, forms of measurement, technology, utensils, and techniques are called for in the recipes? How do these relate to the historical context? What might they also tell us about the assumed cooking ability and class status of the cookbook’s readership?
  • What does this cookbook tell us about the identity of the author and of the reader? How are gender roles prescribed and transgressed within the text? What does this cookbook tell us about other categories of identity like race, ethnicity, class, religion, and/or region?

My aim with the workshop was twofold: to help students understand how cookbooks “speak” and to identify what within cookbooks makes for effective sources of evidence—from prescriptive narrative to individual ingredients, techniques, and equipment—considering all along the way how these texts construct gender.

Armed with our compelling evidence, we next set out to craft equally compelling arguments. Motivated by the writing conventions of professional food writing, we’re practicing the skill of “pitching” as an early step in our writing process. Taking the pitch guidelines from Render: Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly and Eater as points of inspiration, students crafted pitches using the guidelines below, which we then discussed in 15-minute one-on-one office hour appointments:

  • What is the title and author of the cookbook you’ll be writing about?
  • Why are you interested to write about this cookbook? What’s your angle? What perspective will you bring to this text?
  • How does gender come into play in your cookbook?
  • What is your draft thesis? What will you argue? What evidence will you use from your cookbook? What is your unique take on this cookbook?
  • What course readings do you anticipate using to contextualize, historicize, frame, complicate, and/or support your reading of the cookbook?

Whether due to this sequential scaffolding or the sheer brilliance of the students I’m fortunate to work with each week (or perhaps a combination of the two), I had the pleasure of reading twenty genuinely intriguing essays with well-crafted theses that examined topics like: how Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls (1957) not only prescribed gender roles, but sought to secure lifelong consumers of convenience food products; how Pierre Franey’s The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet (1979) established the figure of the gourmand on exclusionary terms along the lines of gender, race, and class; how Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982) reimagines and perpetuates a Victorian domestic ideology; and how Elizabeth E. Lea’s Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (1859) is predicated upon historically specific, essentialized notions of femininity that assume cooking skill and knowledge to be inherent to women. 

I quite literally can’t wait to read what these young food scholars write next.

 

10 Comments

  1. That sounds like a fantastic course. And the procedures and processes fit not only academic writing, but cooking as well: figure out your subject, think carefully, prepare, and then experiment.

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    • emilycontois says

      Excellent point! These skills are broadly transferrable for students as writers, thinkers, cooks, doers – the possibilities are endless!

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  2. Sounds like a great course. You hardly need this, but you have taken or considered taking Barbara Wheaton’s Historic Cookbooks seminar at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library? I was lucky to get in last year and it was fantastic. It definitely helped me hone in my cookbook reading skills even though I thought at the time I was already pretty adept.
    I’m currently working on a research project in which I’m using several cookbooks from the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, and I have to keep reminding myself that I’m using the books to make an argument and not making an argument about the books. I keep wanting to on tangents about the importance and usefulness of cookbooks as primary sources, which I suppose I will do at some point, but it’s not the purpose of this particular paper.

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    • emilycontois says

      I haven’t taken the seminar, but have heard nothing but glowing and satisfied remarks from those who have. I’d definitely love to apply to participate at some point. So glad you found it helpful too. I’ll look forward to reading your work when it’s complete!

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  3. This course sounds fantastic!!! I wish something like this had existed when I was in school! As a cookbook author working on my first book, I think I would learn a lot about how to tell my story from the work you do in the classroom. Lucky kids!

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    • emilycontois says

      Thanks so much – and best of luck as you work on your first cookbook!

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  4. You must be such a good teacher to write such clear yet interesting questions and then get such an amazing array of work as shown in the e-book. Wow. Am impressed. 🙂

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    • emilycontois says

      Many thanks for your kind words! The more creative assignments did seem to engage students in the writing process; several said these were the papers they actually looked forward to writing this semester. With that hurdle already cleared, we could then *really* work on argument and style, which was a joy for me as well in that I got to read and evaluate such polished work!

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