Early American Cookbooks as Cultural Artifacts

By Tobias, Steven M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Early American Cookbooks as Cultural Artifacts


Tobias, Steven M., Papers on Language & Literature


Many aspects of American letters and publishing have been examined with the goal of establishing the boundaries and the genealogy of the cultural field of the United States. Although both numerous and diverse in its areas of concentration, American publishing historiography has traditionally ignored a genre of books that has had a substantial influence on the American home since the eighteenth century. Despite their historical ubiquitousness and the major effect they have had on American society since 1742, cookbooks have received little consideration as serious artifacts of cultural production. This oversight is dramatic: what could be more basic to existence than food and its requisite gathering and preparation? As the old cliche suggests, "You are what you eat." Similarly, a culture is what it writes and publishes about eating. Therefore, a culture can be evaluated in terms of its eating practices and the texts it produces which dictate the proper, healthy, even normal way of cooking and eating. Cookbooks contain not only recipes, but hidden clues and cultural assumptions about class, race, gender, and ethnicity. They reflect many of the dramatic transformations that have come to define the boundaries of the modern public sphere.

Human beings must eat to exist. Eating is the most basic of all physical impulses and takes precedence over all others: sexual activity, communication, artistic production, technological development, etc. Obviously, eating occupies a central place in biological existence since it functions both as a sustaining factor, necessary to all life, and as the single requirement which must be met before any other activity can be begun. Because food is such a basic necessity for the maintenance of life, the production and preparation of foodstuffs may be regarded as the foundation for more complicated human relationships and activities. Cookbooks serve as a repository of food-related culture and therefore reflect something very basic about the societies that have produced them. It is no accident that in the history of Western publishing, cookbooks have produced more best sellers than any other genre (Lincoln 3).

The neglect of cookbooks as subjects of serious study is not surprising since throughout recent history, Western socio-political thinkers have tended to disregard or downplay the importance of food in and to society. In typical fashion, George Santayana has this to say in The Life of Reason about the social and biological importance of eating in comparison to that of reproduction:

Nutrition is but germination of a pervasive sort... Reproduction is accordingly primary and more completely instrumental than nutrition is, since it serves a soul as yet non-existent, while nutrition is useful to a soul that already has some actuality. Reproduction initiates life and remains at life's core, a function without which no other, in the end, would be possible. It is more central, crucial, and representative than nutrition, which is in a way peripheral only. (4-5)

Similarly, Michel Foucault, a more contemporary thinker than Santayana whose views and objectives would probably seem quite foreign, if not shocking to the nineteenth-century-born rationalist, also gives nutrition and eating short shrift in his zeal to place sexuality and reproduction in the philosophical spotlight. In the History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Foucault argues that sex has played the central role in shaping modern socio-political systems. He believes that government's relationship to its citizens is inherently and fundamentally linked to the public deployment of sexuality, arguing that sex has resided invariably

[A]t the pivot of two axes along which developed the entire political technology of life. On the one hand it was tied to the disciplines of the body: the harnessing, intensification, and distribution of forces, the adjustment and economy of energies. On the other hand, it was applied to the regulation of populations, through all the far-reaching effects of its activity. …

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