Several of my favorite and most tattered books are cookbooks, and when I visit a foreign country, one of my first purchases is usually a volume of recipes, which (if the book is good) provides a sort of sensory shortcut into the heart of the place and people in question. Some travelers rely on maps to orient them, others on their Michelin or Lonely Planet guides, but I did not feel I'd truly arrived in Turkey, for example, until I'd read up on the subtle but oh-so-important distinctions between the sweets known as Vizier's Fingers, Beauty's Lips, and Lady's Navel.
As one who considers cooking, eating, reading, and writing part of the same cultural continuum, I have, however, begun to despair in recent years. On the one hand, more words than ever are being generated on the subject of food, and food writers, so called, enjoy huge audiences and profits (next to books about cat-rearing, I have heard, cookbooks are the best-selling category in U.S. publishing today). On the other hand, the vast majority of these volumes are at best useless, at worst offensive in their view of the world as one enormous Dean & DeLuca's.
To pick up many modern American publications on the subject of food is to encounter a self-absorbed and shameless promotion for The Good Life. Hedonistic Tuscan vacations are recounted in the glowingly airbrushed detail of a travel agent's swankest brochure (the boar with blackberries in Caino is just heavenly, we are assured), while the wonders of the Vidalia onion are rhapsodized in a vocabulary that blends in bizarre--and to my mind, not especially mouthwatering--degree the language of the romance novelist, the ad man, and the nutritionist. Every dish is extolled as "simply divine," "a cinch to prepare," and (deadliest still) "chock full of potassium" or "packed with beta-carotene." In this context, simplicity itself becomes an affectation, and the most obvious assertions are offered up by their authors as somber statements of lofty principle, in the pious tones of gastronomically minded evangelicals convinced they are saving the world through their clever broiling technique.
The corollary to this literary Dionysianism might be described as the monastic-alarmist school of contemporary food writing, which consists in large part of dire warnings (often couched as pert housewifely tips) about the dangers of cholesterol, fat, genetically modified foods, British beef, or--fill in the life-threatening flavor of the month. While consciousness of one's health and the environment are obviously fine things to have in theory, in practice so much writing on the subject turns into a sort of humorless, guilt-inducing tract against enjoyment, against spontaneity in cooking and eating, against the forces and urges that make food more than mere sustenance.
Both of those approaches to food and foodwriting--the indulgent and the apocalyptic--are a far cry from the worldly work of, say, Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher, two pioneering English-language writers on the pleasures and disappointments of the palate. Neither woman is alive today, but if they were, each would probably be, in her own skeptical, good-natured way, suspicious of this tendency to fetishize or quarantine food, to render it a privileged purview of the upwardly mobile and/or educated, and to cut it off from its roots as part of a charged and not necessarily photogenic web of historical, practical, personal, human interactions. (Tellingly, Fisher referred to her chosen subject not as "food" but as "hunger.")
While recently issued books like Spago Chocolate, D'Artagnan's Glorious Game Cookbook, or Alan Wong's New Wave Luau may sound like the antidote to the primly "correct" way of eating expounded in such righteous-sounding volumes as This Can't Be Tofu!, The Soy Zone, and the Good Morning America Cut the Calories Cookbook, I'd suggest that the two approaches are in fact flip sides of the very same coin: the removal of food from its larger social, cultural, economic, and emotional context.
Hope remains, however, for serious literary engagement with cooking and eating. This comes not from the mountains of food journalism or popular cookbook prose but--who would've thunk it?--from the world of scholarship where, in this field at least, a more integrated cultural model often still seems to apply. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this work is being conducted outside the formal framework of the academy, by university-trained writers and researchers driven by their own (untenured) curiosities and appetites. Take the example of distinguished archeologist and art historian Phyllis Pray Bober, who has applied her considerable knowledge and professional training to helping create the emerging para-discipline known as culinary studies. Her fascinating new book Art, Culture, & Cuisine: Ancient & Medieval Gastronomy presents a model of both the intellectual rigor and the humane, accessible discourse that characterize the best works in this field.
The first half of a projected two-volume study, Bober's book offers a complex and altogether persuasive view of the relationship between a society's art and its diet. (Bober's approach is decidedly high: She considers gastronomy itself a fine art.) Working a sophisticated gloss on the notion that You Are What You Eat, she carefully examines the visual and literary artifacts of a series of civilizations, from the prehistoric through the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and European medieval, for clues about the dining habits of each people in turn. By connecting the expressive and the gustatory in this way, she is able to draw larger, deeper conclusions about the sensibilities and ethics of the cultures in question.
So, for instance, Bober examines the reliance of Mesopotamian art and architecture on "the single small unit that, in the aggregate, makes up the total form" (sun-dried bricks, clay cones and cylinders) and, with the help of recipes written on cuneiform tablets, determines that Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cooking, too, "must have celebrated abundance by a piling up of many small units, a balanced construction of diverse, even conflicting tastes and textures." These societies' elaborately spiced stews, made up of little chunks of pigeon, kid, or lamb, often cooked with onion, leek, blood, cheese, a fermented fish condiment, and various vegetables, suggest, says Bober, the early ancestor of the colorfully complicated North African tagine, which also reflects later regional cultural developments, including "the mesmerizing rhythms of repeated units in ... Islamic ornament."
All in all, one comes away from her book with a feel for the dynamic sweep of these cultures, as expressed by their dining habits. And while Bober chooses to stick to historical subjects, one could probably also draw some intriguing conclusions about contemporary American nutrition by linking the chaotic, mass-marketed "art" of our day with the mish-mash most U.S. citizens wolf down in the course of an ordinary workweek--not fusion, so much as confusion, cooking.
A very different sort of book on cooking and eating, Alan Davidson's masterful Oxford Companion to Food, adopts a much more eclectic and wide-ranging approach than Bober's to its edible subject matter (though it also provides a more cheerful model than the one just described for navigating the complexities of the global, postmodern kitchen). The product of some 20 years' intensive research and writing by the Scottish-born retired diplomat, amateur classicist, and food historian, who collaborated with a large group of expert consultants in fields as diverse as Aztec cooking, Asian spices, and the history of American cookbooks, The Oxford Companion doesn't just chart the place of food in culture. It constitutes a major cultural act in and of itself. I'm convinced that one could get a very solid education in the humanities as well as the social and natural sciences by simply reading Davidson's encyclopedia straight through.
That would be, mind you, no simple task: The Oxford Companion to Food weighs in at a neat six pounds, two ounces on my kitchen scale. With 2,650 entries and 40 longer articles whose topics wander from the common to the exotic ("Apricot" to "Aquiboquil," "Bistro" to "Bitter Berries," "Cupcake" to "Curassow"), the general to the minutely specific (an entry on the subject of "Digestion" is immediately followed by another, on the "Dika Nut"), the scien-tific ("Botulism," "Curdling," "Lactic Acid") to the culinary ("Deglazing," "Microwave Cooking," "Tartare"), national cuisines ("Ukraine," "Uruguay," "U.S.A.") to particular dishes ("Kasha," "Upside Down Cake," "Samosa"), and such miscellaneous subjects as "Fast Food," "Cannibalism," "Chewing Gum," and "Lent," the book is a constant source of wonder--to say nothing of wisdom and amusement.
My own attempts to progress in a neat, linear fashion through this volume were frustrated--wonderfully--from the outset, as I'd begin to read about, say, "Japan" and would find myself pulled, almost magnetically, to a reference to "Soy Sauce," itself only a page away from the heading marked "Spam," which, we learn, was named by the winner of a 1937 contest (first prize: $100) sponsored by the Hormel Company and is still a favorite food in the Pacific Islands, where it is prepared in a variety of ways, including spam and eggs, spam and rice, spam sushi, spam wonton, and spam tempura.
These dubious delicacies in mind, my eye happened to fall a few columns over, to the entry on "Sparrow," where, after learning that the creature was "criticized by Aristotle for being the most wanton of birds, i.e. taking every possible opportunity to breed" and that its eggs are therefore considered a sexual stimulant, I decided to follow up, by checking the reference to "Aphrodisiac" and so on and on and on. Context is everything here--both in the sense of the connections one perceives by following out the chains of these various cross-references and in the more literal sense of the depth and perspective provided by each entry.
"People ask me," wrote M.F.K. Fisher in the forward to what may be her very best work, The Gastronomical Me, "Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?"
Her answer--though a bit gushier than anything Bober or Davidson would ever allow themselves--could easily stand as an epigraph to either, or both, of their books, each of which, in its way, posits its own essential and nuanced sort of linkage and a grander, organic design: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it ... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one." ¤
@authorbio:Adina Hoffman's first book, House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood, will be published in September by Steerforth Press.