Beyond their recipes, what can cookbooks tell us? Much, says Janet Theophano, whose Eat My Words
explores women's history as revealed by the cookbooks they wrote, used, or in many cases created, and through recipes, family and historical memorabilia, and other clippings. Beginning in the 17th century and bringing us to the present, Theophano examines cookbooks as repositories of female identity. Whether focusing on early English estate housekeeping books, which served as both cookbooks and primers for self-education; a 19th-century cookbook whose list of servants' tasks reveals aspects of female domestic life; or 20th-century works like Freda DeKnight's classic 1948 A Date with a Dish
, which limns black female culture, the book, at its best, fulfills the promise of its exciting premise. But Theophano is hampered by her choice of materials. Though works like the above do tell about women's lives, others, like that of an early 20th-century Pennsylvania housewife, yield little of consequence no matter how dexterously Theophano squeezes them for meaning. This leads her into a speculative freefall and from there to overgeneralized (and often redundant) conclusions. ("Mrs. Downing gave a lot of thought to the delectable and proper meals she would serve her guests" is one of many examples.) Nonetheless, most readers will find the book an engrossing window through which to glimpse much more than how to roast a chicken or bake a cake. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
Theophano, a folklorist teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, attempts to show that cookbooks can "dramatically expand and enrich our understanding of women's lives." Her discussion covers a select group of English and American cookbooks from the 17th century to the mid-20th, including many she found in antiquarian book shops and archives. Some of them do say a lot about women and their worlds for example, a 17th-century English receipt book where the writer lists all her worldly possessions, or the 19th-century recipe book containing lists of servants' tasks. In A Date with a Dish, published in 1948, the cooking editor of Ebony magazine pays homage to her cultural heritage. In Memory's Kitchen, written by Jewish women interned in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust and published in 1996, contains Central European recipes that represent a "lost world and its flavors." A number of cookbooks are included because their owners used them as scrapbooks, annotating the recipes and placing newspaper clippings, favorite poems, biblical verses and handwritten notes between the leaves, but here Theophano can only speculate, for the information about the cooks is often very limited and not particularly revealing of their social and cultural worlds. While the book is painstakingly researched, with copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography, its title promises more than it delivers.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.