Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture
Megan J. Elias
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017
The history of the cookbook is long and varied, but can often be used to trace the overall history and social norms of a specific culture. In Food on the Page Megan J. Elias, a historian and gastronomist from Boston University’s Metropolitan College traces American culture through the first domestically-published cookbooks to present day.
Cookbooks became prevalent in the 1800s, when community-based compendiums were a way for the contributor to show social status by offering recipes for unique dishes. Elias points out that for a long time, the most-contributed pie recipe was lemon, questioning the idea of apple pie as the epitome of American desserts.
Cultural changes eventually reflect in how we cook, and Elias demonstrates the great “whitewashing” of southern cookery books that never mention the slaves who would have actually been cooking the dishes included, or which refer to a romanticized Mammy-figure with love and cake for all.
She addresses the trend for slimming in the early 20th century and the misogyny of food writing after the wars when publications such as Gourmet forced a divide between masculine and feminine cooking and dishes that still exists to some extent today.
French food and its many fans also feature in chapters about how chefs and writers such as Julia Child and MFK Fisher turned Americans against their own local and regional cuisine in favour of complicated French dishes under the guise of sophistication.
I’ll admit that I found the chapter on the counter-culture cookbooks of the 60s and 70s a bit of a bore, not due to Elias’ writing but what with all the references to earnest hearty breads and cakes laced with pot, hippies were and continue to remain tiresome.
Moving on to present day, Elias takes on Michael Pollan and the sustainable food movement, which has inspired a whole new trend in chefs and cookbooks, meant to inspire the home cook to think about where their food comes from.
Finally Elias addresses the popularity of blogs and sites such as Instagram as a more current way of sharing recipes and food stories. Of course, the ultimate goal for a food blogger is still a book deal. Even if more people might visit your blog than buy your book, there is still a seriousness to the physical cookbook that cannot be replicated online.
Food on the Page is extensively researched and is informative and intriguing as both a history of food trends, but also as a series of snapshots of the United States and wider western culture.