On Monday, I went to the Wellcome Library for the concluding event of The Recipes Project’s Virtual Conversation ‘What is a Recipe?’ The Virtual Conversation was a new form of conference, which the co-editors of The Recipes Project (Amanda Herbert, Elaine Leong, Laura Mitchell, Lisa Smith and myself) organised to mark the fifth anniversary of this wonderful blog. We made use of as many forms of social media as possible (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest) and attempted to open the discussion beyond the ivory towers of academia.
I have enjoyed our Conversation immensely. Many of the contributions we showcased were extremely innovative and really fun, while also making important points about – among other things – gender, colonialism, consumerism and advertising, family traditions, literacy and orality, and embodied knowledge. I also liked the spontaneity of Twitter chats (check out #recipesconf), where we encouraged participants to share with us their favourite historical recipes, ingredients, and recipe books.
In one of our events, Amanda asked us to send in shelfies of our cookbook collections. I was unable to do so as I was away from home at the time. My recipe book shelfie probably reveals a lot about me and our family. The books belong to me (for the most part) and to Tween T – we are the cooks in the house. P can make a meal, but I have never seen him read a cookbook.
My cookbooks are for the vast majority authored by women, and by authors who do not (or did not) have restaurants or beautiful patisseries. I like to buy into (and I am painfully aware that I am buying into something here) the idea of blissful domesticity. I have no interest whatsoever in books that will tell me how to present a pretty plate of food. While I understand that beautifully-presented food can also taste good, I am often suspicious of perfect appearances.
The gendering of my collection does worry me slightly. I do not want to send the message to my sons that cooking is a woman’s job. I will make a concerted effort to buy more male-authored books in the future. And I may have started already… or maybe not. Today, in Oxfam, I found a 1952 book by a certain Malcolm LaPrade entitled The Man in the Kitchen: How to Teach that Woman to Cook. The book is meant to be humorous, as testified by the cartoons it contains. The author was from Tennessee, USA, and had French ancestry.
The casual racism displayed in this work is rather striking:
From the outset my methods were similar to those of the coloured cooks with whom I spent so many agreeable and rewarding hours… On numerous occasions I have asked my coloured friends how they prepared this or that tasty dish, and invariably the reply was the same: ‘I don’ zackly know how I makes it. I jes’ makes it’. (p. 19)
The premise of the book is as follows: women often find cooking a chore. Men go out to work in plushy offices where they can relax all day. If they help their wives, even a little at the weekend, they will achieve domestic bliss. The recipes in the book are simple in order to avoid the drudgery associated with endless chopping and stirring. Who knows, in the end, the reader might find himself in a situation where he will teach the woman in his life how to cook.
The road to marital bliss, however, is a hard one:
It must be admitted that a man who undertakes to teach his wife to cook, faces much the same handicaps a woman might face in trying to show her husband how to repair the radio set or to take apart and clean his double-barrelled shotgun. His first problem is to gain her confidence and impress her with the fact that he knows what he is talking about, yet she must not be made to feel entirely inferior.
A wife should always be encouraged to cook by intuition, otherwise she will never be really capable, for women have poor mathematical minds and are apt to crack under the strain, if they attempt to measure ingredients in factions as required by many cookery-book recipes. (p. 205)
I rest my case.