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166 EPILOGUE The Relevance of Taste IN A 2009 New Yorker article, “What’s the Recipe?,” Adam Gopnik explores our culture’s fascination with cookbooks, why so many people collect them, pile them on nightstands for bedtime reading, and mark recipe after recipe as if we’ll ever have the time or occasion to make all those dishes. Yet, he writes, the problem is less about the volume of recipes we collect than our constant disappointment with the outcome. He notes of the novice cook, “If the first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes,the second is that a space exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets.”Gopnik concludes that while no text can replace handed-down advice, it is our “desire to go on desiring, the wanting to want” that makes us keep reading.1 Yet, in this space between words and results exists the potential of myriad cultural meanings to be imposed on the rhetoric of the recipe. Perhaps we read to teach ourselves to cook, fearing that we might be judged poorly in a society obsessed with food. Perhaps we consume recipes that assure ourselves we can throw the perfect party in order to gain a reputation for effortless entertaining. Perhaps, then, what keeps us reading is not only desire for the perfect pie crust or roast chicken but rather the desire to understand our tastes, to fortify group affiliations, or to strengthen our sense of self. Gopnik calls the recipe “our richest instance of the force and the power of abstract rules.”2 Our desire, then, is to create a system that allows us to understand our place among the competing and often contra- EPILOGUE 167 dictory demands of modern society. In this way, cookbooks have performed much the same function throughout their long history. Through a complex negotiation of the power of taste in domestic rhetoric , American women have used the cookbook to promote, critique, and revise these “abstract rules”that exist in the space between words and action,between written recipe and finished result. When we study cookbooks, we cannot know for sure how they were used, if men and women read them or simply allowed them to sit on a shelf and gather dust. We can, however, examine the methods by which authors attempted to persuade their readers to adopt a domestic philosophy or perform a specific action, and this can tell us much about women’s culture throughout American history. This project has explored the progress of cookbook writing over the course of the long nineteenth century and argued that cookbooks develop and participate in American discourses of taste. The late eighteenth century introduced an increased emphasis on print as a means of uniting individual bodies around shared but abstract tastes for laws, literature, behavior, and, of course, foods. Domestic print culture of the early republican period emphasized the virtue of economy as a response to the aristocratic aesthetes of Europe and allowed women a greater public role by print’s suggestion that intellect was not determined by one’s bodily form or function. In the mid-nineteenth century, when domestic novels promoted the religious significance of women’s roles in the home, cookbooks provided a concrete guide to achieving the outcomes of the novels. They also taught an emerging female middle class the importance of their developing roles as consumers; recipes more explicitly began to suggest the use of purchased items and to instruct women in class-based tasks rather than assuming all supplies would be crafted in the home. As sectionalism increased leading up to the Civil War, cookbooks provided readers a way to understand and even contribute to the development of regional unity and identity through the celebration of local tastes for both food and behavior. During the Civil War, while cookbooks retained their regional significance, they also became survival manuals, especially in the South, where the recipes allowed plantation residents and others to share advice. During Reconstruction and reconciliation , cookbooks enjoyed perhaps their most complex social roles. They taught women to participate in the imaginative act of regional reconciliation by framing the South as romantic, domestic, and uniformly aristocratic. They also promoted a Lost Cause regional distinctiveness and the racial attitudes that accompany a plantation economy. The Progressive era introduced a reform zeal that quickly spread throughout the middle-class population; cookbooks echoed the era’s emphasis on running the home as a public business through science and economy...


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