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Food for Literary Thought

The recent Book Expo America in New York included a panel discussion on the future of cookbooks where people debated whether books will still be around in the near future, given advances in electronic resources which allow people to easily collect recipes. What gives me hope for their future, however, is that good cookbooks have qualities that go beyond mere piles of recipes. And like good books in general, they have distinct authorial voices, characters, settings and even narratives that can pass for plots. Paula Wolfert’s books have these qualities as they set about transporting us to little-known parts of the world and share with us her adventures as she zealously pursues a recipe. Another feature found in some cookbooks is their prefaces or introductions by well-known people who extol writers and their work. Gael Greene did it for Wolfert’s classic, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” calling the book a “siren call to Morocco,” which indeed so many of us listened to and followed.

Capote’s vodka-soaked lunch

Truman Capote wrote a brief foreword to Myrna Davis’ “The Potato Book,” published to raise funds for the Hampton Day School on Long Island. Capote offers his tribute to the potato fields of eastern Long Island (or what was left of them before developers got hold of them) with a recipe for what he calls “my one and only most delicious ever potato lunch.”  His first ingredient, a chilled bottle of 80-proof Russian vodka, assures us that this is really Truman talking. He pairs the vodka with a baked potato slathered with sour cream and caviar, a dish he insists is the only way to eat a potato, although I doubt he would have passed up a plateful of crisp French fries.

That Capote wrote a preface to a cookbook is delightful but not surprising, as he often wrote about food, but that Joseph Conrad wrote a preface to his wife’s “A Handbook of Cookery” does amaze me. He delivers the most memorable line about cookbooks I know of, telling us that “Of all the books produced since the most remote ages by human talents and industry those only that treat of cooking are, from a moral point of view, above suspicion.” He reaches this lofty conclusion by reasoning that the only purpose of cookbooks is to “increase the happiness of mankind.” This sentiment apparently also increased his wife’s happiness, for she used that preface again with her second cookbook published some 20 years later, earnestly explaining that Conrad’s thoughts applied equally well to that book.
Venus in the Kitchen documents aphrodisiacal recipes, and has an introduction by Graham Greene.

Graham Greene is another writer I would never have connected with a cookbook, for, like Conrad, he wrote on big themes: life, death and keeping faith in a godless world. So why would he have agreed to write an introduction to a cookbook? Well, “Venus in the Kitchen, or Love’s Cookery Book” is no ordinary cookbook, but a collection of aphrodisiacal recipes compiled by Norman Douglas, a writer best known for his novel, “South Wind.” Not only was Greene involved in this book, but Douglas had arranged for D.H. Lawrence to contribute a drawing for the frontispiece, an invitation that may have been a mistake, for Douglas felt compelled to comment that a “picture of a fat naked woman pushing a loaf into an oven is not at all my concept of Venus in the Kitchen.” In fact, he says, such a picture may well have scared people out of the kitchen and even out of the house. Greene’s introduction, as it turned out, was written after Douglas’ death and became a tribute to this friend who had pursued love throughout his life, and so a collection of aphrodisiac recipes seemed a proper close to the life of a sensualist. As Greene saw it, Douglas died with his boots on.

Literary giants take on food

I only wish that more literary figures had written cookbooks or at least prefaces or introductions to them. Virginia Woolf, who so well understood the symbolic meaning of food, could with a flash of her pen distinguish sensualists from aesthetes by noting the differences between boeuf bourgignon and poached fish. Imagine Eudora Welty contrasting small-town catfish fries with cotillion spreads, or Henry Miller on bedtime snacks. And a book about the foods of Maryland written by H.L Mencken would certainly have been a treasure, for he once said, “In Baltimore soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added.” But, things are looking up, for contemporary literary figures are turning to food to express big themes such as Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life”, and Aimee Bender’s new novel of magical realism, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” in which her main character, by tasting food, can discern the temperament and feelings not only of cooks but of growers and pickers too. Though they may go entirely digital, I think that cookbooks as books are here to stay, for they as well as other forms of food writing are finally being taken seriously these days.


Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.

Photos, from top:
“Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” by Paula Wolfert; “The Potato Book,” by Myrna Davis; and “Venus in the Kitchen,” edited by Norman Douglas.
“Venus in the Kitchen,” edited by Norman Douglas with introduction by Graham Greene.
Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.