The Culinary Imagination

Food. It’s not just what we eat. We talk about it, write about it, dream about it, paint pictures of it, and finally become it. In Sandra M. Gilbert’s The Culinary Imagination, the poet and literary critic considers food from all of these angles. There is much here about the history of human attitudes towards food, food fashions, food in literature, painting and film, some biography (particularly of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and Ruth Reichl) and nostalgic autobiography. It is in part a “foodoir,” a term coined to refer to a memoir in which food is central, and a commentary on the genre itself.

What The Culinary Imagination is not is a cook book. No need for that, says Gilbert, as some 24,000 are already published each year. She also cites the numerous cooking shows on TV, food blogs, magazines, and the proliferation of restaurants both fine and fast, and asks: Why do we seem to pay more attention to food today than ever before? Key to the concern is the quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the early nineteenth-century progenitor of modern gastronomy: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

I don’t know if Brillat-Savarin ever held such psycho-gustatory sessions, but it is true that you can learn much about people by their diet, particularly by what they don’t eat. Do they avoid meat? Meat, eggs, and dairy? Do they abjure pork or beef? (Incidentally, Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, said the first flavor he produced was chicken because it was the only meat everyone could eat.) What about what people drink? Is alcohol forbidden? The answers to any of these questions will tell you something about what a person believes, but Gilbert takes it farther, contending that what you read and think about food is even more revealing: “Tell me what you read and write about what you eat, and I will tell you more about what you are.” The Culinary Imagination, then, tells us that Gilbert is a voracious thinker.

There is an uncomfortable conundrum at the heart of any serious consideration about food, which is this: we have to eat to live, but we have to kill to eat. (That others do the killing for us hardly merits exoneration.) This is one of the concerns that drives vegetarians (other concerns involve the environment and personal health), but even restricting one’s diet to plant life means nurturing a plant until the time comes to pull it up or cut it down. (Potentially the worst news of the last century was the suggestion, somewhat popular in the 1990s, that a radish screams when you pull it out of the ground.) One certainly could let both beast and broccoli die a natural death, but by then they’ve begun to rot.

Our teeth, which include both canines and molars, show that we are designed to be omnivorous, so we should be able to eat meat with a clean conscience. But writers like Upton Sinclair and Michael Pollan insist on a moral dimension. Gilbert wrestles with the conundrum of ethical eating in several chapters (“Black Cake: Life (and Death) on the Food Chain” and “Food Chained: Food Fights, Fears, Frauds—and Fantasies”), acknowledging but not swallowing whole the romanticism of the post-Industrial, back-to-the-good-old-food-days. For example, in response to Pollan’s stricture, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” Gilbert writes, “I can’t sentimentalize the food of poverty or near poverty.”

In The Culinary Imagination, the author tracks attitudes about food and eating from a time when they were rarely topics of polite conversation. She quotes the preeminent American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher on Victorian-era table manners: “[U]n-happy millions of Anglo-Saxons have been taught to believe that food should be consumed without any comment of any kind but above all without sign of praise or enjoyment.”

Surprisingly, Gilbert credits Walt Whitman for our current comfort level for discussing food in general and in literature. It was not only his “freer prosody,” but “the unprecedented newness of a culinary poetics that could focus, as the novel does, on the daily rather than the sacred meal.” She traces this to Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition” which begins, “Come, Muse, migrate from Greece and Ionia” and concludes, “She’s here, install’d amid the kitchen ware!”

The power of food, and its connection to love, are illustrated in the words of Fisher (“Falling in love for the first time since I was nine, being married for the first time, crossing the Atlantic for the first time…they all led irrevocably to…when I picked up a last delicious crust-crumb from the table, smiled dazedly at my love…and recognized myself as a new-born sentient human being.” Betty Fussell wrote of a meal outside Calais, “[I]n the smallest of dockside cafés, I had my first bite of real butter and bread.” And Julia Child proclaimed that her first encounter with sole meuniére was life-changing: “It was the most exciting meal of my life.” Gilbert describes those experiences with the delightful phrase “gastronomic defloration.”

Indeed, in The Gastronomical Me, Fisher notes that when she writes of hunger, “I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it.”

No wonder the subject attracted the attention of a poet and literary critic like Gilbert. The purpose of applying art to food, she suggests, is to defamiliarize the latter, to put it in a different context than the quotidian. This is barely the case when Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams prepares beans and spaghetti over a campfire, but very much so when Gertrude Stein writes about food, as she often did (sometimes as Alice B. Toklas). It is especially true in painting (as opposed to advertising). Cezanne’s apples are a good example—“I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he said. (There’s an anecdote told about Pablo Picasso, that a woman viewing one of his cubist paintings of a horse said, “That doesn’t look like a horse,” to which Picasso is supposed to have replied: “It’s not a horse, madam, it’s a painting.”)

The Culinary Imagination is an engaging book that will provoke many interesting conversations. (The squeamish may, however, want to skip the chapter titled “All That Is Toothsome? Sacred Food, Deadly Dining.” Indeed, dark pockets of history reveal there is more than one way to cook a human.)