Utilitarian and humdrum, the cookbook’s history escapes most textbooks and documentaries; you probably won’t hear a lecture on cookbook politics anytime soon. But cookbooks have for centuries been more than collections of recipes: they are journals, scrapbooks, even pulpits for social change. In a world where genealogy passed through the male line, and their own histories disappeared with their deaths, women used cookbooks as vehicles to connect with one another and assert what power they could in the domestic sphere.
The tradition survives today in the form of the cookbook memoir, a genre through which women still relate to one another and share beliefs about their lives (men of course write them too, but cookbooks remain largely the purview of female authors). It’s a weighty heritage for an unassuming cookbook — and the 21 century permutation has succumbed to the pressure. In between recipes and notes on a pristine household, many early cookbooks overflowed with radical social ideas, such as the value of women’s education, or suffrage, or power. Cookbook memoirs today revolve around a cast of well-off women who suffer from a vague angst, discontentment with their flexible jobs, and the search for the right man (or the struggle to keep him around). Lacking the convictions of their predecessors, these books are bland, gutted versions of their earliest selves.
Nearly indistinguishable in trajectory, cookbook memoirs follow a predictable arc of confusion, cooking, and domestic bliss. Take Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life. She drops out of her cultural anthropology Ph.D. program, moves to Paris, and discovers her true calling as a food writer. Her tale ends when she marries a fan of her food blog, writing in the last few pages, “I used to think I had a good dowry. I can make a nice meatball and make a fine chocolate cake.” The dowry comment is somewhat tongue-and-cheek, but the book’s final scene is still Wizenberg’s wedding, and the last recipe — the last word — is in fact a chocolate cake.
Compare that to The Gentlewoman’s Companion: A Guide to the Female Sex, published in 1675. The author (whose identity is contested), writes, “I cannot but complain of, and must condemn the great negligence of Parents, in letting the fertile ground of their daughters lie fallow, yet send the barren Noodles of their sons to the University.”
For this woman, the importance of women’s education was not out of place alongside her recipes. She and writers like her were visionaries of a future beyond the world they saw. They didn’t espouse a life lived between kitchen walls.
Even more troubling about the modern cookbook memoir is its utter lack of self-awareness. These heroines find the guts to ditch their hectic, white collar jobs and “simplify” their lives, but they treat simplicity as a revelatory secret. Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast chronicles her lifelong devotion to the idea that when it comes to food, “fancy is always best.” That is, until her simple-living girlfriend teaches her to let go, pare down her recipes, and her life. Altman’s writing is riddled with confessions like, “Everything begins and ends for me in front of my stove,” or, “Until I shared my kitchen with Susan, I hadn’t found the peace.”
Finding peace is great, probably everyone should do it. But it turns a blind eye to the writers’ immense privilege. Poor and working class women aren’t “discovering” simple living; they’re entrenched in it. But those women aren’t the ones finagling lucrative book deals about their kitchen epiphanies. The cookbook memoir industry erases that history and replaces it with breezy, you-go-girl books by a glut of wealthy, educated, white women. They have the funds to pursue a life of simplicity in Paris, Berlin, or New York City. They aren’t bound to it.
The cookbook began as a home to pockets of progressive social writing, but when it becomes a soapbox for a narrow sect espousing ultimately conservative values, something is missing. As the most marketable writers, these women get to make dictations about our domestic ideal, but they’re equating happiness with a partner, a baby, and a 24/7 stove. They offer stories about hyper-individualized empowerment, with blinders to larger social issues. They’re no longer feminist texts, and in my book, that’s a loss.