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Humans couldn’t live without food, and without language our ability to share the experience of eating would be curtailed. Recipes, reviews, conversations and cookbooks would be nothing without the useful and descriptive words we deploy to create and consider them. We talk with a professor who is turning a critical and inclusive eye to food writing about what we can learn both about our culture and literature from food poetry, fiction and — yes — recipes.
- Jennifer Cognard-Black Professor of English, St. Mary's College of Maryland; co-editor, 'Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal'
Read An Excerpt From ‘Books That Cook’
Excerpted chapter “H Is for Happy, From An Alphabet for Gourmets” by M.F.K. Fisher from the book, “Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal” by Jennifer Cognard-Black.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWithout words like delicious, delectable and even disgusting, never mind the directions for putting dishes together, would we even enjoy food at all? We might still appreciate the flavor and nourishment a meal provides, but how would we learn from those meals and discuss the dishes our coaches are known for that have been passed down through generations of families? It's an existential question maybe but one that is increasingly being asked in academia where cookbooks and recipes are, for perhaps the first time, getting their literary due.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about bringing a more inclusive approach to food writing including recipes as literature is Jennifer Cognard-Black. She is a professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland and co-editor of "Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal." Jennifer Cognard-Black, thank you for joining us.
MS. JENNIFER COGNARD-BLACKThank you so much for having me here today.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation. If you have comments or questions about food writing as literature, give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Before we get too deep into the back story and the contents, this book is a collection and perhaps a unique one. What will we find in it and what were the criteria for inclusion?
COGNARD-BLACKWell, the most important criterion was that every piece in the book needed to have a bona fide recipe imbedded in it. So these are recipe poems and recipe essays and recipe pieces of fiction, foodie fictions, if you will. And so that was the baseline. And then from there just as one comes to a buffet and wants to have a smorgasbord available to him or her, we wanted to have a range of writers, some serious, some more humorous and some in between.
NNAMDIPerhaps there's an analogy to a long simmering stew here because this book was quite some time in the making.
NNAMDIHow did you and your co-editor Melissa Goldthwaite come up with the concept?
COGNARD-BLACKWell, many moons ago we were graduate students together. And what do graduate students do most? Well, particularly in English you read and you eat. You look forward to the eating. And so Melissa and I, we started getting together to eat and talk about what we were reading. And we both discovered that we loved the few novels and memoirs that we could find that had recipes in them. And so from there we started swapping those books back and forth as one might swap recipes, right. So we were sharing recipe novels, recipe memoirs.
COGNARD-BLACKAnd then when we both became professors of English in our own right, me at St. Mary's College of Maryland, Melissa at St. Joseph's University up in Philadelphia, we both had the opportunity to teach courses in the literatures of food to our students. And those two courses are called books that cook. So...
NNAMDIAnd in 2008 you collaborated on an article together about teaching writing and reading through food literature. So, well, that was what, six years ago?
NNAMDISo, in fact, you two have been pondering and collaborating on this issue for quite awhile.
COGNARD-BLACKWe have been simmering for a long while.
NNAMDIThat's why I said it's like a simmering stew.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions for Jennifer Cognard-Black, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you think we can learn about language from food writing? How do you think food helps us understand our own culture and others through the language we use to describe it, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIIn her forward, Marion Nestle suggests that literary scholars have largely ignored food as a subject of serious study. Why do you think firstly that is? And secondly, what do you think has changed in the last decade or so?
COGNARD-BLACKIt's a wonderful question. The anthropologists got there first and the historians came close after. And it makes sense. If you think about a worldview through anthropology, food and food ways is one of the most vital means of knowing who people are and the kind of societies that they build, right. So from there, from the anthropologists and historians, the scientists got interested and involved thinking about how bodies are built, of course. Cooking is chemistry and our bodies are chemistry. And so they also have written quite a bit about food and food ways.
COGNARD-BLACKThe arts and humanities came to it a bit later and I don't know if I have a good answer for why it took so long to do that. Certainly there has been images and symbols of food in poetry, drama, fiction for a very long time. But perhaps it's the rise of the current American food movement and this interest in sustainability, sustainably grown food, produced food. And also in a kind of bubbling up of activism around food.
NNAMDIThat has contributed in your view to a greater degree of writing about food and a greater degree of critical review of that writing?
COGNARD-BLACKIndeed. I agree with that completely. I think we need to credit people such as Michael Pollan, right, at Berkeley who not only conveys information about how, for instance, we are a citizenry that is corn walking because we eat so much processed corn and corn syrup. But he also writes in a way that I would call literary. He creates a character out of his own narrator. He sets scenes. His "Omnivore's Dilemma" is structured around these four scenes of four meals. And he interviews people who are also characters.
COGNARD-BLACKSo when I, with my students, work with someone like Michael Pollan, we certainly talk about the politics that he is bringing to the fore. But we're also thinking about how he's writing a piece of literature.
NNAMDIBut you're seeing this not just in English. It's my understanding you're seeing it in theater, you're seeing it in psychology. And even at St. Mary's, first your seminars are being conducted on food, one by a chemist, the other by a theater professor?
COGNARD-BLACKIndeed. Yes, it's so exciting. And since, Kojo, everyone eats, right, we must eat to live and a lot of us live to eat, it makes since that that would be a thematic that could cross many disciplines and get students excited about thinking about so many aspects of the world through food.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you consider recipes in cookbooks a form of literature? Tell us why or why you don't think they are, 800-433-8850. You and Jennifer (sic) talk about the arched eyebrow response you get when you talk about food through a literary criticism perspective. Hasn't been an easy sell for your colleagues, has it?
COGNARD-BLACKNo. It's becoming easier now but back when I started teaching my seminar on "Books That Cook" I would literally get the arched eyebrow response. And people would say, isn't that beach reading? They were thinking of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café or "Shockalot" or "Like Water for Chocolate," those blockbuster novels that became foodie movies, foodie films. And I have always maintained that even a book like "Fried Green Tomatoes" is actually a social protest novel. And if you go back and re-read the novel that way and think of how food is trying in that novel to articulate a kind of social justice, then it becomes something more than a beach read.
NNAMDIJennifer Cognard-Black is a professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland and co-editor of "Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal." She joins us in studio. We're inviting you to join the conversation by giving us a call. Are recipes and cookbooks part of your family's story? Tell us how they're preserved and how they are shared, 800-433-8850. Wherever there is a movement like the current food revolution that's going on here, there's often a backlash, a pushback. Do you worry about the foodie backlash that some people think is stirring, even as we speak, that might undo some of the progress you have been seeing?
COGNARD-BLACKI think that the backlash that I would be most concerned about, and I don't think that it's inaccurate, is that with a turn toward more local, more seasonal ingredients, more organic methods of farming, farmer's markets, there is a certain elitism built into that because it's harder to get to those foods. Those food are often more expensive. It also depends on the areas where such farmers markets might be available.
COGNARD-BLACKAnd so I think that that's a pushback that we need to listen to closely. And in my discipline, my world it means writing pieces that imbed recipes or that have food and food ways that are speaking directly to those kinds of concerns.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation, but that doesn't mean you can't still call. Do you have a favorite poem or scene in fiction in which food is a major element? Tell us about it, 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a Food Wednesday conversation with Jennifer Cognard-Black. She is a professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland and co-editor of the book "Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal." You can call us at 800-433-8850. So let's start with Kay in Arlington, Va. Kay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KAYHi there. I'm actually calling because I'm very interested in this subject but through television. And part of that is that I was never interested in the cooking shows like Top Chef, etcetera but I've become interested in these shows like Anthony Bourdain where someone is going to different parts of the world, traveling, etcetera. But what they're really doing is bringing culture to the viewer as opposed to just food or cooking or recipes. I'm curious if you think that that has been well-translated into literature, if at all, and if you think that there is a medium for doing that through literature?
NNAMDIJennifer Cognard, it's fascinating that she brought that up because from what I'm hearing from you, food has always brought culture and art and literature to us. But go ahead, please.
COGNARD-BLACKAbsolutely. I believe that completely that poetry and fiction and essays that contain recipes that have food as symbol, as metaphor, it does more than just create an image in the mind. I do want to mention that if someone actually does cook a foodstuff out of a piece of literature, then all of a sudden something that is just imaginary in the mind becomes something three dimensional on the plate. And when you then consume that dish, you are taking that story into yourself at the cellular level, which is fairly profound.
COGNARD-BLACKWe talk about consuming literature in my discipline but this is a whole other kind of consumption. And I guess I would add that if one takes a food that might be a foreign food or an unknown food out of a piece of literature, either through words or actually cooks it and eats it, then there's an act of empathy that is occurring. You're coming to understand that writer, that character, that moment in a way that you would not have otherwise. So I do think that literature is a powerful way to stand in someone else's shoes, or perhaps in this way, I don't know, fill someone else's stomach.
NNAMDIThe recipe is central to this collection and it's a form of writing that has not always been taken seriously in literary circles. You've just described that in part but you might want to do some more. What meaning do recipes have beyond their obvious utility and why would you argue do they deserve more attention?
COGNARD-BLACKI do think that they are a form of American literature. They have been around for a very long time. Amelia Simmons is really the first recipe writer of the new world who was a columnist. And she writes a book called "American Cookery." And so for many centuries now we've had people writing recipes and incorporating them in different ways into different texts.
COGNARD-BLACKI want to say that the recipe itself, Kojo, is a story. It tells a story. We don't think of it that way. We think of it as a how-to text, right.
COGNARD-BLACKBut one could say that the ingredients list is a way of sort of setting a scene. It's a once-upon-a-time. These are the elements of the story. And then as you walk into that story and you move into the instructions, that's the plot. And there are sometimes going to be difficulties along the way. The recipe says, okay, so put this into your cast iron pot and you don't have a cast iron pot. So what modifications are you going to make?
COGNARD-BLACKAnd then as you move your way through that plot, of course you arrive at this conclusion which is a happy ending if the dish is successful and enjoyed and shared. It might be a tragedy but if it is a failure, if that soufflé falls, right, and is inedible, the wonderful thing about the recipe, just like a story, is it can be read again.
NNAMDIMaking the recipe a literary adventure of sorts. Here is Heather in Columbia, Md. Heather, your turn.
HEATHERI'm just calling because I never realized how significant family recipes to the culture of the family. My family being basically English Canadian didn't really have any special recipes. But when I married my husband whose family is second generation Welsh, they had all sorts of Welsh delights, as I think of them, that my family and I was able to raise our children with. And we all think of all of the holidays as having these as an integral part.
HEATHERWhat paused me to realize how important they were was when my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease and couldn't have gluten, and our two daughters, adult daughters and a couple of grandchildren were diagnosed with gluten sensitivity. And that cut out Welsh baked stones. It cut out my mother-in-law's fabulous apple pie. It cut out my mother-in-law's lovely trifle. And when those things were gone part of the joy of preparing holiday meals was gone. So my husband just said, oh, don't bother.
NNAMDIBother I think is what Jennifer Cognard-Black would say. You should bother. Proust famously wrote of memories evoked by tea and Madeleine's in "Remembrance of Things Past." And James Beard recalls that passage in noting his own ability to recall flavors which he thought of as taste memory akin in his mind to having perfect pitch. How do our memories of meals, what Heather was talking about, and of trying to recall and communicate the feelings those memories evoke, how does that play into the way we think about and understand food writing?
COGNARD-BLACKYes Well, one thing I would say is that if one was to glance through the table of contents of my Books That Cook anthology, you'd see pretty quickly that food is absolutely about remembering community. As the caller was saying, you know, a trifle is going to bring to mind the English, right. And so just glancing through the various selections we have, you know, David Citino is writing out of an Italian tradition. Shirley Lynn is writing out of a Chinese tradition.
COGNARD-BLACKAnd so food and culture are bound up that way. But I would also say that if you have a family recipe that does get handed down, that is served at ritualistic moments such as holidays or birthdays or whatever it might be, every time that recipe is cooked again that author, whoever it is, Aunt Matilda, is resurrected. She's there at the table with you. And I think -- I always found that to be both powerful and very lovely.
NNAMDIHeather talks about how the menu changed depending on what had happened with her husband or other relatives. Menus are important as well as you laid this collection out for readers as if we're working through the courses of a meal. What can we learn about the way meals and the components of them are laid out?
COGNARD-BLACKWell, I mean, it might be too much simplification but the arc of a meal is somewhat like the arc of a life of course. You have your beginnings and then you have your middles and then you have hopefully your sweet ends, your just desserts. And so in part we did it for that reason. A meal is cyclic. It has these sections, you move through it. But in part also we did want people to feel as though they could sample the readings through the book in the same way that one might sample parts of a meal.
COGNARD-BLACKYou might say, oh, I don't care for the Brussels sprouts so you pass on that "reading" quote unquote. But then you do decide to be adventurous and try the Thai Port cakes that Paul Hanstedt writes about.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Marsha who writes about "'Fictitious Dishes' which contains photos of meals from literature like Holden Caulfield's grilled cheese from 'Catcher in the Rye.' Is your guest familiar with the book?" She asks, "What do you think?"
COGNARD-BLACKThe Holden Caulfield book? Well, what English teacher isn't familiar with the Holden Caulfield, yes. Well, you know, he's an unreliable narrator, right. This is what we all always come to. And so I do think that when it comes to characters and their foodstuffs, one could potentially, not knowing anything about a character, just pay attention to what he or she eats and learn quite a bit about them.
NNAMDIHere's Charles in Bethesda, Md. Charles, your turn.
CHARLESYes, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I didn't know if the author were familiar with the National Council of Negro Women's two-volume the Family Reunion Cookbook one and two. In both cases the National Council of Negro Women solicited input from African American women, not only the recipe but a story had to accompany the recipe. My mother's grandmother's recipe is in this with this story I never knew. I just thought this might be interesting to pick up since food is such a central part of the African American experience. But I put that out there for your authors to see if they're aware of these two publications.
NNAMDICentral part of the human experience actually.
COGNARD-BLACKIndeed. I have actually both of those volumes on my bookshelf. They're powerful. And what I would say is that I think that that kind of collection speaks to the fact that any cookbook -- you know, I said that a recipe is a story -- any cookbook, you might call it a novel. You have the recipes imbedded in there but then you have the stories and the pictures and the drawings around those recipes. And you can sit down and you can read a cookbook like one would read a novel or read a memoir.
COGNARD-BLACKAnd what I love most about the two volumes that you just mentioned is that as with many, many cooking texts, they're collaborative. And so you're not just getting one author's story told through food and food ways. You are getting a collective story, a community story. It's about remembering that community through their food.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Charles. Not all meals begin with a reflection or a prayer but it is a deep tradition for many. This book begins with an invocation. And I wondered why you decided to kick it off that way.
COGNARD-BLACKWell, for the very reason you just brought up, Kojo, because it seems as though since food is not just to sustain our bodies so that we can make it through the day, but also to sustain our souls, our minds, our hearts. To have this moment, this ritualistic moment where we say, okay, before we break that bread together we're going to anticipate it, give thanks for it. And so that's why we start with Bill Kloefkorn's poem "Pork Chop Gravy."
NNAMDIYour work, your own work appears in the dessert section. What can you tell us about that work and what else readers find there to close out the experience?
COGNARD-BLACKIn the dessert section you'll find both sweet endings but also some bittersweet ones, depending on the story. Mine is more of the bittersweet kind. My short story is historical fictionalization of an actual moment in Edith Wharton's life, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist from the early 20th century here in America. She carried on an affair when she was married with a journalist and a cad -- I have to say it -- a man named Morton Fullerton. And her part of the correspondence came to light about three decades ago.
COGNARD-BLACKSo I read that and based on that built this story around it. What happens in my story where she decides to burn down his house, is pure fiction.
NNAMDIWell, I knew that in another relationship in real life, but that's another story. Some of the names in this book M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Alice Waters, Fanny Farmer, readers might anticipate. Who might it surprise people to find in these pages?
COGNARD-BLACKI'm not sure how many people know that Maya Angelou was a cook. If they don't they should. Yes, she was a poet. Yes, she wrote a very important memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." But she also cooked and loved to talk about her cooking and her food. So toward the end of her life she wrote "Hallelujah! The Welcome Table" which is a food memoir. It comes right at the end of the book. It's right before our final toast. And it's a recipe for a caramel cake which is both a caramel cake but it's also about healing.
COGNARD-BLACKYes, Sherman Alexie.
NNAMDITell our listeners how he ended up in these pages.
COGNARD-BLACKWell, one of the things that I love about the collection is that some of the recipes are pushing the boundaries of how we define recipe. And Sherman Alexie's poem is doing exactly that. There is literally a recipe in here, a man takes down cans off of a shelf, washes them, opens them and eats food out of the cans. But the point is not to perhaps go through making that recipe on your own as a reader. It's to think about the culture that this man inhabits in which as a member of a Native American tribe he has been relegated to the, I guess you could say, leftovers of current American culture. So the recipe becomes a very mordant comment on the current politics of Native Americans.
NNAMDISherman Alexie. As you were putting this book together there was a shift in fiction with a lot more novels incorporating recipes coming out. What do you attribute that boom to and what does that mean? That a volume two is in the works for you?
COGNARD-BLACKOh, well, that would be fantastic. I'll have to talk to my editors at New York University Press. Yes. In fact, at this very moment I have between 12 and 15 recipe novels on my shelf that I have not yet had a chance to read. When I first started teaching this upper level literature course, I struggled to get enough novels. There are plenty of poems. There are plenty of memoirs. But now it has just exploded. And I don’t know. Perhaps the publishers know that there's a good thing going on here. People want to cook their books as well as read them but I'm delighted.
NNAMDIJennifer Cognard-Black. She is a professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland and co-editor of "Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal." Thank you so much for joining us.
COGNARD-BLACKThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein and Andrew Katz-Moses. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Tobey Schreiner. And Jonathan Osmundsen is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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