Biography 26.2 (2003) 333-337
[Access article in PDF]
Janet Theophano's clearly stated purposes for working with selected cookbooks are announced early in her book. She aims to "recapture some of these women's previously undiscovered stories and the sensibilities of women whose lives would otherwise remain obscure" and "to expand the significance we usually ascribe to cookbooks by considering them as worthy objects of serious textual analysis" (5). Unstated, but soon apparent to the sympathetic reader, is Theophano's soulful longing to reach through the pages of cookbooks to make some kind of durable contact with the women whose manuscripts or books she lovingly reads. [End Page 333]
Those who have collected or enjoyed browsing in cookbooks, those of us who read cookbooks just as often as we use them to prepare cakes or soups, will initially find this writer's convictions about cookbooks unremarkable. The strength of Theophano's book, however, lies in the way this culinary historian and folklorist probes diverse texts for their biographical content, helping us to become better readers of the complex stories within women's cookbooks. As she makes evident, cookbooks can be outstanding primary sources for understanding cultural forces and changes, revealing not just one individual's or a small group's values and history, but providing insights into social, political, and economic forces at work in a given community and time period.
In the past twenty-five years, scholars in history, sociology, literature, folklore, and other disciplines, spurred by feminist, cultural studies, material culture, and other theoretical approaches, have worked to help us see that women's domestic artifacts hold immense potential as historical and biographical texts. Quilts, gardens, embroidery, scrapbooks, and cookbooks have joined letters and diaries as important resources, but we've needed reading lessons in how to interact with these new and often fragmentary texts. Theophano joins a small but important group that has offered these lessons, specifically for cookbooks. I think of Lynn Ireland's 1981 article "The Compiled Cookbook as Foodways Autobiography" as the starting point, expanded in the mid-1980s by work such as that of Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, concerning Jewish cookbooks, and that of Laura Shapiro, focusing on the Domestic Science movement with its links to both reformism and literary sentimentalism. Susan Leonardi's 1989 PMLA article about The Joy of Cooking lifted food scholarship to a new level of academic respectability, a positioning that Deane W. Curtin's and Lisa M. Heldke's essay collection, Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food (1992) workedto secure. Linda Keller Brown's and Kay Mussell's essay collection Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, and my own essay collection, Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, are additional academic markers of this change (certainly there are others; I only list these as examples). In the past five to ten years, we've seen a veritable feast of books, essays, courses, and articles securing food studies as a respected part of our history and culture.
Placing Theophano's work in the context of what's gone before makes clear that she is not bringing us new information or attitudes. The beauty and strength of her book, rather, is in the detailed scholarship she has performed to contextualize and elaborate the texts she studies. She models for us ways to deal with cookery texts that are fragmented, elusive, cryptic, or overflowing with archived notes, newspaper clippings, and letters. They may [End Page 334] be multi-voiced or solo-authored, recent or centuries old. Theophano claims that "women's cookbooks can be maps of the social and cultural worlds they inhabit" (13), and I found her most instructive in demonstrating how to read those maps. She uses historical research to pinpoint what can be known, but admits to speculation at other times.
In a narrative style that is sometimes quite conversational, at other...