A History of Cooks and Cooking. By Michael Symons. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press,  2004. Pp. xii + 388, preface, introduction, illustrations, acknowledgments, bibliography, index. $30.00 cloth, $25.00 paper)
Most folklorists would appreciate the basic premise of Michael Symons' book-cooking is an artistic, social, and intellectual skill that has been overlooked and undervalued, both by scholars and by the world at large. Symons argues that contemporary western society tends to regard cooking and the wide range of activities connected to it as insignificant, trivial, and simply a means to an end that is bodily pleasure rather than spiritual edification, and therefore, unworthy of intellectual scrutiny. Similarly, individuals who cook are rarely accorded respect for the skills required to master their duties or for their role in society. This book is meant to remedy the situation by offering an apologetics for cooks and cooking. In the process, Symons attempts a theory of the world according to cooks. It is a colorful and intriguing theory, and, using Australia as his primary example, he regales the reader with anecdotes, quotations, and examples from literary, popular media, ethnographic, and historical sources.
The book offers a selected compendium of famous thinkers on food and cooking. In that, it is very useful, and it is fascinating to read quotes and paraphrases from throughout history and across cultures on the subject of cooking. As would be expected with a work of this magnitude, however, it has a number of problems, namely, interpretations of theory and data, use of sources, and organization.
To my mind, Symons' discussions of theories relevant to cooking tend to be superficial. He gives rather summary dismissals of major thinkers, rarely placing them in cultural context or giving complete analyses of their theories. Plato, Barthes, Marx, Geertz, Douglas, LeviStrauss, Bourdieu and others are all evaluated in reference to their appreciation of cooking, which is probably as good a criterion as any, but his readings of these theorists are too biased against them to be accurate or useful. It is also unclear whether these writers are being used as data, as proof of the validity of Symons' arguments, or as interpretive frameworks. To his credit, he clearly and honestly states his own opinions. After discussing Mary Douglas's structuralist approach to the grammar of a meal, he states: "[T] his kind of pattern is certainly intriguing, but fails to speak to me as the deep-seated cultural logic that is claimed" (103). …