Womanly Spoons and Masculine Forks

American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes
Edited by Molly O’Neill
New York: Library of America, 2007, 753 pages $40.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Sandra M. Gilbert

“Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” So declared Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the author of Transcendental Gastronomy and the patriarch of modern food writers. Nibbling my way through the savory stew of words that Molly O’Neill serves forth in American Food Writing, I find myself wondering if it’s possible to extend Brillat-Savarin’s famous dictum to say, “Tell me how you write about what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” And then, as a corollary, I wonder: might I even, reading the genre of culinary writing through the lens of gender, tell you whether you are “man” or “woman”?

Of course it would be politically and theoretically incorrect to tumble into a soup of stereotypical assumptions about the tough beefsteaks of “masculinity” and the tender cupcakes of “femininity.” And yet. And yet. Although O’Neill’s book is basically organized chronologically by the dates of the texts she excerpts (the recipes dotted throughout are slightly out of that order), certain themes and topics recur, some of them specifically American and some, at least in my view, gendered.

What is American about American food writing? As O’Neill cogently notes in her smart and useful introduction, a distinctive mark of our culinary writing is “how constant and close to the surface is its sense of moral struggle.” Indeed, as she points out, today’s “green gourmets” who “denounce eating chemically induced, industrially processed food” can trace their lineage both to “the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony” who “reviled the sin of gluttony” and to Joel Barlow, who celebrated “the rough hewn simplicity of American hasty pudding.” Barlow had particular praise for corn—perhaps the most widely available local ingredient in colonial America—as “a good wholesome and simple dish” in comparison to “the monstrous and hellish compositions of modern cookery” consumed in England and on the continent.

O’Neill offers an excerpt from Barlow’s popular “The Hasty-Pudding” (1793), but she doesn’t include the passage where Barlow lauds this “delicious grain” in what amounts to a quintessential American culinary manifesto. The author declares that “the kitchen Muse” of Europe inspires cooks to “mix the food by vicious rules of art,” and thus “to kill the stomach and sink the heart,” whereas the “abundant feast” of the Yankee—“with simples furnished and with plainness dressed”—“cheers alike the servant and the lord.” “A simplicity in diet,” pronounced Barlow sternly, “is of more consequence than we are apt to imagine.” Indeed, according to him, after consuming viciously artful European-style dinners, little children cease “their antic gambols” and sink into the grave!

What is gendered about American food writing? Barlow’s polemic is telling here, too. To riff on John Gray’s controversial assertion that “men are from Mars; women are from Venus,” as food writers, women are spoons—enclosing, rounded, intimately dipping—and men are forks—jabbing, spearing, and aggressively rending. Women are at the stove, stirring things up and remembering the tastes of things past, while men are at the table or the desk, like Barlow analyzing and sermonizing.

To be sure, there are exceptions: Prousts among men, who heed the call of the New York Times Magazine to “Eat, Memory,” and moralizers and editorializers among women. For example, Henry David Thoreau meditates affectionately on watermelons, those “green bottles of wine,” while in “Possum,” one of his slyly comic dialect verses, Paul Lawrence Dunbar celebrates the pleasures of “a chawin’” on a “possum’s cracklin’ skin”: “Huh-uh! honey, you’s so happy/Dat yo’ thoughts is ‘mos’ a sin.” Among women, the great abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe—along with her sister Catherine Beecher a classic American culinary reformer—sets herself against Barlow’s Yankee nativism to advocate that American cooks adhere more closely to French ways. “Is it not time,” she asks rhetorically, “that civilization should learn to demand somewhat more care and nicety in the modes of preparing what is to be cooked and eaten?” The frying pan, she adds, “has awful sins to answer for,” expostulating “What untold horrors of dyspepsia have arisen from its smoky depths, like the ghosts from witches’ caldrons!”

A number of American food writers of both sexes, of course, navigate between morality and memory, polemic and narrative. But women seem more likely to stress memory and narrative. A case in point: one of the most notable meals in nineteenth-century American literature isn’t eaten by those for whom it’s been cooked—and doesn’t appear in O’Neill’s book, although it well might have. Early on Christmas morning, as the four young heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women are gathered at the table, “eager for breakfast,” their adored Marmee bursts into the room with a “Merry Christmas, little daughters!”—and a call to moral action. “Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby,” six freezing, starving children, and nothing to eat. “My girls, will you give them your breakfasts as a Christmas present?” And indeed, we soon see the girls officiating at the impoverished family’s table, feeding the six immigrant children “like so many hungry birds.” Perhaps because (as Claude Levi-Strauss once observed) what is good to eat must be good to think, the experience of watching the deprived children eat what was to have been the March family’s Christmas morning meal becomes a spiritual festivity for Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

 To be sure, the March girls are almost immediately compensated for their morality with a communal meal of bread and milk, and they’re ultimately rewarded with a fancier banquet whose magical appearance sets the plot of Alcott’s novel in motion: “Old Mr. Laurence,” the eccentric recluse next door sends over “ice cream, actually two dishes of it, pink and white, and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons.” The all-wise Marmee explains that he heard from “one of his servants about your breakfast party” and wanted the children to “have a little feast at night to make up for the bread-and-milk breakfast.” And the very next day the girls meet his grandson Laurie, the hero—if there is one—of their story. Still, the discipline that Marmee imposes on her daughters is surely rooted in the Puritan ethic of the New England in which Alcott herself was raised. In addition, it has connections with the Transcendentalist philosophy practiced by Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott’s unworldly father, Bronson Alcott.

Tellingly, however, Bronson’s austere culinary morality was far more radical than Louisa’s, and his daughter certainly understood this so well that she significantly modified it in Little Women. She explained her true feelings in her sardonic “Transcendental Wild Oats,” an account of the Alcott family’s trials at Fruitlands, a utopian community that Bronson helped found in the early 1840s. Residents of this idealistic enclave forswore most of the pleasures of the table, including not only all “animal substances” but also anything produced with the aid of “animal labor.” Unfortunately, the experiment proved that the renunciation of both worldly goods and the traditional techniques of agriculture would be unrewarded on this earth, for as a vegan paradise, Fruitlands proved fruitless. Without fertilizer or animals to help plant and harvest, the communal table was meager indeed.

Louisa’s scathing critique of her father’s procedures is rooted in a kind of feminist pragmatism. The brunt of the Fruitlands diet of “[u]nleavened bread, porridge, and water for breakfast; bread, vegetables, and water for dinner; bread, fruit, and water for supper,” fell upon the woman who would become Marmee; “a brave woman’s taste, time, and temper were sacrificed on that domestic altar,” writes her daughter. Given her history, it isn’t surprising that Alcott bestows an ice cream party on her young heroines even while she celebrates the holiday good will that shapes their willingness not to eat breakfast.

The modern women food writers whom we might define as Alcott’s descendents are equally pragmatic, and, for the most part, antipolemical. While, on the one hand, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry praises “the pleasures of the table” in a classic essay with that title, his musings on the problematics of “industrial eating” are larded with severe admonitions: “Participate in food production”; “Prepare your own food”; “Learn the origins of the food you buy,” etc. On the other hand, on a related subject (“The Farm-Restaurant Connection”), Alice Waters writes a straightforward, personal narrative outlining the workings of her famous restaurant, Chez Panisse: “If, as I believe, restaurants are communities—each with its own culture—then Chez Panisse began as a hunter-gatherer culture and, to a lesser extent still is.”

Sampling the writings of other contemporaries gathered in O’Neill’s book, one confronts comparable distinctions. Male forks rend and analyze; female spoons dip and savor. Former New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne dissects a $4,000 French meal won at auction (“A Quiet Dinner for Two in Paris, Nine Wines, a $4,000 Check”) and his Times colleague, humor columnist Russell Baker, offers a piercing riposte (“Francs and Beans”). Meanwhile, in “Looking for Umami,” Ruth Reichl, Claiborne’s female successor as Times food critic, dishes out a Proustian memory of perfect sushi. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan seeks perfect tortillas in “Coming Home to Eat” while drawing lessons about “the true commerce of the continent”; but in “Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings,” Ana Menendez savors her family’s holiday shift from mojo marinated roast pig to mojo marinated roast turkey. In “My Organic Industrial Meal,” bestselling journalist Michael Pollan offers a cutting analysis of the way “the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected . . . position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum”; while in “Adultery”—probably the single best piece of prose in this fine collection—the late great food writer Judith Moore muses on the new tastes with which erotic electricity charges everything she cooks.

As I’ve remarked, there are exceptions to these generalizations, but since O’Neill’s anthology is eminently worth reading, see for yourself if they don’t mostly hold true. And is it “essentialist” to emphasize such differences? In the light of psychoanalytic work done by writers from Nancy Chodorow onward, I’d say male “forks” and female “spoons” are figuratively as well as literally cultural artifacts. If, as Chodorow has so influentially argued, the mother-daughter relationship is marked by fluid boundaries, and if—as is usually the case—mothers do most of the cooking, then the mother-kitchen-daughter relationship is similarly marked. Although in a world of take-out and gender bending, the contexts of cooking are changing rapidly, for the most part—and for better or worse—it’s usually women who still stand over the stove, stirring, ladling, sipping, tasting. And it’s usually men who preside at the dinner table, testing, analyzing, evaluating, prescribing and proscribing.

Just a minute ago I rose from my computer to dash into the kitchen and stir a Persian lamb stew, and coming back to this text I was reminded of the beautiful passage with which the sociologist Luce Giard introduces her discussion of cooking in The Practice of Everyday Life (1998), on which she collaborated with the philosopher Michel de Certeau:

Women bereft of writing who came before me, you who passed on to me the shape of your hands or the color of your eyes . . . you who carried me, and fed me. . . you whose beliefs and servitudes I have not preserved, I would like the slow remembrance of your gestures in the kitchen to prompt me with words that will remain faithful to you; I would like the poetry of words to translate that of gestures; I would like a writing of words and letters to correspond to your writing of recipes and tastes.

Perhaps such a search for fidelity to the ancestral “recipes and tastes” propounded by what Giard calls “le peuple feminine des cuisines” (“the kitchen women nation”) inspires most of the female food writers who, like me, move between study and stove, spooning out memories.

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