Literature allows us as readers to be transported to a new world – whether that is 16th century England, high society New York during the Victorian Age, or Paris in the 1920s. We become observers in the spaces that surround the characters as we watch them interact with the society and culture that influence their actions and thoughts. Food, in particular, is a vehicle for us to better understand a specific sphere in the world of literature. Many times when we look at a novel or memoir, we not only witness the history of the time period and the people, but also the food history of those people. By focusing on the references to food in literature, it can “help to humanize the absent figures of the past and make tangible the history they lived” (Elias 13), even if those figures and histories are fictional.
I’m pretty sure everyone has heard the saying “you are what you eat.” In this case, it could not be more accurate. Even though we eat food literally for survival, food also gives us ways to make statements about who we are and what we like. Food offers a glimpse into the life of people. I bet if you took a peek into my kitchen, you would undoubtedly be able to guess that I am a college student: packages of pasta, canned soup and frozen dinners (for emergencies); five dollar wine for those long days; and the occasional batch of chocolate chip cookies or brownies for when I really need a pick-me-up. However, it is what is less obvious – shelves of spices in the cabinet, a phone app dedicated to over 200 recipes to try, and my decision to live just a few blocks away from Albertson’s for when I need to quickly grab ingredients for a special dinner – that exposes my willingness to try new things and experiment with food.
As a fourth year English Major, reading has become a huge part of my life (obviously); even though my passion for literature has remained strong, my passion for food has grown since I have been forced to cook for myself and find new ways to satisfy my appetite after long hours of working on research papers at the library. For me, cooking food and finding new recipes is a way to relax and learn in ways not necessarily possible in a University classroom setting. So, for my senior project at Cal Poly, I have decided to combine these passions of reading and cooking (and eating) to make a literary cookbook of sorts.
I will look at significant works from different literary time periods that were highlighted throughout my years of taking English classes, and find food references. After reflecting on the historical and cultural significance of the particular item or dish of food, as well as the significance of incorporating that food in the work, I will include a recipe inspired by the reference and show my process of cooking it.
Essentially, the writings about food “create both literal and metaphorical connections among members of our classes, between the books and our analyses of them, between bodies and minds” (Cognard-Black and Goldthwaite 433). It is through these connections that we better relate to others. Hopefully throughout this process I will be able to better recognize just how important food is in understanding characters and society in literature, as well as the world at large, and I want you to enjoy this journey with me through the literary history of food.
By: Elyse Vincenty
Cognard-Black, Jennifer, and Melissa Goldthwaite. “Books That Cook: Teaching Food and Food Literature in the English Classroom.” College English, 70.4 (2008): 421-436. JSTOR. Online.
Elias, Megan. “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History.” The Public Historian, 34.2 (2012): 13-29. JSTOR. Online.