October 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal

Earlier this summer I came across a recipe for congee in a book of poetry, Peeling Rambutan by Gillian Sze: "One part rice, nine parts water. After it boils, it is brought down to the lowest heat and cooks for half an hour. A toothpick is placed between the lid and the pot so it doesn't overflow." Found recipes are tiny gifts, thrills, like found poems in texts that aren't supposed to be poetry. One might not expect the detail of the toothpick in a cookbook, but what a useful little tip it is. I recently found another hidden recipe in Ben Lerner's 10:04, dropped in while the narrator has a celebratory meal with his agent. "The baby octopuses are delivered alive from Portugal each morning and then massaged gently but relentlessly with unrefined salt until their biological functions cease; according to the menu they are massaged five hundred times." He goes on to describe how their beaks are removed, their "small eyes pushed out," how they are poached and served with a sake-yuzu sauce. You could replicate this if you wanted to, if you could find a source for live Portuguese baby octopi and if you had the nerve to massage a living thing to death. But you probably wouldn't, because too much context is given of octopi, reminders of their complex neurological systems, details that would be omitted from a cookbook, where the point is to get you cooking, not make you feel a vague sense of guilt about it.

Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal plucks out these kinds of embedded recipes and offers up selections from cookbooks, poetry, and prose. The book, edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite, sprung from the Food Studies program at NYU, and it's this academic background that gives it a satisfying rigor. It's a hefty tome structured like a cookbook with different sections for the major meal components (starters, bread, mains, desserts), but the emphasis is less on the recipes than the text itself. The "menus" provided are actually reading lists covering topics like "food and the environment," "family relationships," and a whole series of "how-to poems," which could have easily included poems from Sze's Peeling Rambutan.

The cookbook excerpts are particularly interesting for their historical context. Each section begins with a different influential cookbook, tracing the lineage of North American cookbooks starting with Amelia Simmons's American Cookery, published in 1796, and making its way to books like Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking and Alice Waters's Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. While the initial purpose of these books was to pass on a recipe or technique, in retrospect they're interesting glimpses into the time period in which they were written. Of course, these cookbooks represent very specific portions of history -- American Cookery, for instance, was the clear result of British colonies settling in the United States, although there are a handful of recipes that attempt to adapt Native American ingredients, like cornmeal.

Joy of Cooking factors in more than once. Published in 1931, and reissued and updated ever since, it was one of the first books that gathered different types of cooking and cuisines: "Frenchified rabbit, soul-food southern fried chicken and a pudding recipe from Merrie Ol' England." It was also one of the only cookbooks in my home growing up, and probably the first cookbook I read as a text rather than instruction manual. It was satisfying to see it reproduced in Books that Cook the way I experienced it then. The particular section excerpted discusses techniques for making frog legs, broiled squab, wild ducks, rabbit stew -- all foods that belonged, to me, in fiction rather than reality. As the editors write in the introduction to Books that Cook, cookbooks should also be "understood as pieces of literature: as forms of storytelling and memory making all their own."

"Baking for Sylvia," an essay by Kate Moses, also references Joy of Cooking. Moses, who wrote Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath (which was reviewed by Melissa Roy for Bookslut way back in 2003!), discovered Plath's penchant for baking during the research for her novel. Plath often kept logs of her dessert-making alongside tallies of what she wrote. In fact, the first book Plath requested her mother send to her from America after starting her relationship with Ted Hughes was Joy of Cooking, which she refers to as her "blessed Rombauer, the one book I really miss." "Baking for Sylvia" is a fascinating essay about Plath's attraction to and suffocation by domesticity. "Is it really such a surprise, then, to learn that she made custard and banana bread on the day she wrote 'Medusa'... or lemon pudding cake while she was composing 'Lady Lazarus'? She also made tomato soup cake the day she wrote 'Death & Co.'" The essay ends with this bizarre recipe for tomato soup cake, requiring a can of soup, some raisins, walnuts, and spices, and is then frosted with cream cheese.

Books that Cook has several surprising pieces like these, things I hadn't read or heard of next to classics by Nora Ephron or Laurie Colwin. The section on desserts even includes a recipe from CrimethInc with instructions on pie throwing ("Choose a worthy target..."). Like a cookbook, this isn't a book to be consumed in one sitting -- the individual pieces need to be digested accordingly -- but it is a book with a long shelf life, and one that I'll be returning to often.