Books that Cook
Books that Cook: The Literatures of Food
When poets...write about food it is usually celebratory.
Food as the thing-in-itself, but also thoughtful preparation of meals, the serving of meals, meals commonly shared: a sense of the sacred in the profane.
—Joyce Carol Oates
“Writers’ Hunger: Food as Metaphor,” The New York Times
Given their sensory—and therefore sensual—nature, cookbooks and culinary narratives suggest an implicit relationship between author and audience beyond the bounds of mere reading. When one person writes down a recipe for another, a moment of cultural work has been enacted: the giver imparts a simultaneous history of region, family, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, whereas the receiver re-enacts these multiple histories the moment she or he cooks and consumes the dish.
In this course, students discuss such cultural work by exploring how different literary genres (recipes, cookbooks, polemics, memoir, fiction, and film) represent the production and presentation of food for various aims. For instance, students examine how the literatures of food reveal relationships among women and men of certain regions, ages, or ethnicities; express love or anger, acceptance of or opposition to dominant culture; record history or fairytales and fantasies via food; and serve as articulations of sexual, social, or artistic power through the acts of reading about and performing food. The course is focused on issues of gender as well as sustainability, students focus their discussions even further by considering two fundamental questions: first, how is food and food writing gendered, and, second, how does food “sustain” the body, community, nation, and planet?
Beyond the classroom, students engage experiential activities related to the literatures of food, such spending time digging in the dirt at the Campus Farm, touring a local organic farm or vineyard, attending a Tasting Class or a Sustainable Table dinner with a local chef who specializes in seasonal and organic cooking, viewing a Colonial cooking demonstration at Historic St. Mary’s City, having a session with a professional cookbook writer, and/or putting together a Writers Harvest creative reading to benefit Share Our Strength, a DC-based organization that fights against Child Hunger. While no knowledge of food preparation is expected, this class does ask that students engage in a certain amount of cookery.
Download a sample assignment from Books that Cook: Literatures of Food (PDF):
Books that Cook: Italian Edition
I am not a glutton—I am an explorer of food.
It is...a side effect of this kind of [handmade, Italian] food,
one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity,
that you end up thinking of the dead,
that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.
—Bill Buford, Heat
Italy is a country particularly known for its food and what such food symbolizes, both for individuals and for the nation. Its wines, pasta, bread, chocolate, and coffee are metonyms for Italian culture writ large; they em-body, via the palate and the stomach, Italian politics, music, familial relationships, religion, landscape, architecture, education, and art. For the American in Italy—and for the Italian who finds herself in the United States—Italian food is a powerful distillation of what it means to be “Italian” or what “Italy” stands for. In this course, then, students discuss the cultural work of food by exploring how distinct literary genres (recipes, cookbooks, essays, fiction, and film) represent the production and presentation of Italian cuisine for various aims. For instance, students examine how the literatures of food reveal relationships among women and men of certain regions or ethnicities; express love or anger, acceptance of or opposition to dominant Italian or Italian-American culture; record Italian history or fantasies via food; and serve as articulations of sexual, social, or artistic power through the acts of reading about and performing food. While no knowledge of Italian cookery is expected, this class does ask that students be willing to write about—and to taste—a variety of the traditional and nouveau cuisines of Italy. The course includes the following Epicurious Excursions: an Italian cooking class, a vineyard tour, visiting a slow food restaurant, and a having a chance to see inside a chocolate factory.
Books that Cook: The Epicurious Experience (A Service-Learning Course)
Gardening is civil and social...
—Henry David Thoreau
There are people in the world so hungry,
that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
—J. R. R. Tolkien
A recipe is a kind of literature. It’s true that recipes are forms of communication: they transmit information about ingredients and directions on how to prepare a certain dish. Yet recipes aren’t merely jotted down on a notecard or posted on a blog or even collected into cookbooks: they’re also incorporated into memoirs, novels, and volumes of poetry. To cook such a book—to follow a recipe from a novel and re-create its smells and simmerings and savoriness in one’s own kitchen—is to engage in a kind of magic. For if a reader cooks and consumes a recipe from a story, the story moves beyond the sense of sight. It is now tasted, smelled, and touched. Fantasy becomes reality. Identification becomes performance. Mind becomes body. And the story is incorporated into the reader at the cellular level; it literally comes alive.
In this course, students discuss such transmission and transformation by exploring how “books that cook” represent the production and presentation of food for various aims. To these ends, this course requires that students become aware of their food sources as well as consider how eating practices define their individual, familial, and communal identities. Initial readings range from actual cookbooks (best-sellers and amateur compilations) to polemics, documentaries, and memoirs specifically about our current food systems, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Subsequently, students think even further about how the politics of food are brought into novels and films. Given the course’s dual foci on gender and sustainability, these readings include novels such as Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes, and John Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure, as well as the documentary film The Garden. And as students read, they also write—analyzing books that cook and crafting their own food literature. As Jeanette Winterson notes in Art Objects, “A writer [has]...an appetite for eating words. Eating words and listening to them rumbling in the gut is how a writer learns the acid and alkali of language.”
Beyond what students read, view, and write, since this is a service-learning class, they also venture outside of the classroom to apply what they’ve learned about food, gender, and environmental stewardship to real-world experiences at both farm and table. In other words, students learn about foodways and food politics “in the field,” both literally and figuratively, including a number of Epicurious Excursions—i.e., working in the St. Mary’s Campus Farm and a tour of an organic farm (E’ven Star), and/or a local vineyard (Slack Winery) to talk directly with farmers about negotiating the realities attached to the label “organic.” Another field experience is a Sustainable Table dinner with a local chef, and, too, students will also have a chance to cook themselves: hosting a Locavore Potluck, which will necessitate a trip to Southern Maryland farmers’ markets to learn more about seasonal and local food choices. Ultimately, students engage in group work in which they take what they’ve learned about sustainable foods and global food politics and apply it to a final service-learning project that helps nourish and nurture citizens right here in Southern Maryland.