The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity, by Sandra M. Gilbert

Shahidha Bari savours a celebration of our relationship with food across genres and cultures

September 11, 2014

“As long as my digestion holds out I will follow romance,” declares Ernest Hemingway in his essay “Wild gastronomic adventures of a gourmet”. Hemingway provides one of the epigrams to Sandra Gilbert’s new book, and although the sentiment is not, to my prosaic mind, the most romantic I’ve ever heard, it evidently sets the butterflies in her stomach aflutter.

Indeed, she endorses Hemingway’s confidence that there is always “romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else”. As it turns out, the things we eat and the stirrings of the heart are never very far apart in Gilbert’s own account of the place of food in popular and literary culture. In this exhaustive new enquiry into “how we read, write, work and play with food”, she folds literary criticism into cultural history, and seasons it with a strong dash of memoir and a side of nostalgia. The resulting book is not only knowledgeable but also friendly, chatty and personal, leaving her readers equally informed of the affairs of her heart and the stuff of her pantry.

Yet it is this “kitchen confessional” approach that makes The Culinary Imagination a very peculiar order of book too. It is a lively work, explorative in the best sense, roaming far and wide, driven by a voracious appetite both for food of all kinds and intellectual enquiry. It moves between discussions of the paradisal plenitude of Judaeo-Christian traditions to Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist cookbooks, touching on Danish arthouse film (Babette’s Feast) and Pixar animation (Ratatouille) in between. This is an expansive project, in many ways not dissimilar to the sprawling compendium that was Gilbert’s signature work (with Susan Gubar), The Madwoman in the Attic, extending across a range of periods and genres. But it is also an unashamedly personal and anecdotal book, littered with gastronomical details drawn from the writer’s familial life (spaghetti sauce from a Sicilian mother, a macédoine of vegetables from Russian grandparents, brisket from a Jewish boyfriend). In some ways, this quality is in itself a statement; it is indicative of how Gilbert understands life and food to be all bound up, and so part of what she wishes to impart in this study.

The difficulty here is that this melange of materials lends the prose a certain unsteadiness. It wobbles gelatinously between literary expositions of peaches (T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a line from D. H. Lawrence, a Wallace Stevens poem), opinions regarding popular chefs on dedicated television food channels and recollections of a favoured Parisian food market. And yet this variety also permits the book a fullness that seems to suit its subject matter. A book on eating ought to have plenitude, and indeed, Gilbert does not skimp on detail, revelling particularly in the language of food, her sentences sometimes unfurling into itemised lists of exotic cuts, culturally specific curiosities and occasional delicacies: fave dolci (sweet pastry beans), beitzah (roasted egg) and ortolans, tiny songbirds illegal for consumption in France and apparently illicitly feasted upon by President François Mitterrand. Gilbert’s pleasure in the sheer stuff of this book is palpable and it makes her pleasing company. Reading this book feels rather like sitting at someone else’s dining table as she skilfully designs and dresses an extravagant meal. Although it’s certainly interesting watching it being prepared, you are really not quite sure how it will all come together.

But this is one of those curious books where you can happily pursue the exciting lines of enquiry set forth without being entirely sure of the ends to which you are heading. The chapters are nominally organised thematically, around ideas of the “quotidian”, the “transcendental”, “grief”, “transnational food”, and so on, but the trail of thought laid out in each is often so circuitous that it is easy to lose sight of any specific point of coherence. Yet where one might chide another writer for lacking focused critical argumentation, here one seems happy to meander through the slightly haphazard, conversational concatenation of literary knowledge, cultural history and generally gossipy interest in all things comestible.

The specifically American context of Gilbert’s food culture, however, is a point that may jar. The chapter on global “foodoirs” (a memoir that focuses on food) gestures towards a more cross-cultural perspective (African American influences, Italian immigrant legacies), but it remains anchored in the writer’s own largely North American experience. The extended discussion of Julia Child, a stalwart of US TV cooking, will be rather lost on a UK audience, whose own peculiar cast of Nigellas, Delias, Fannies and Gordons might relate a different story. The argument that Gilbert extracts from her consideration of Child, though, is one that warrants further thought. There is something curious in the relationship of women to food in the aftermath of first- and second-wave feminisms, and it is the Gilbert of Gilbert and Gubar who is alert here to the sensitivity of questions of domesticity and the dangerous “glamour of the hearth”.

There is, one suspects, in The Culinary Imagination a breadcrumb trail into another more focused book whose ideas are still being crystallised – it would perhaps be titled The Women in the Kitchen, a neat sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic. Certainly, the delightful chapter in which Gilbert bakes a cake modified from a recipe by Emily Dickinson retains some memory of that early work. Recipes, she notes, are derived from the Latin recipere meaning “to take, to receive”, capere meaning “to seize or to catch” and the Indo-European kap, “to grasp”. And Gilbert is absolutely persuasive here in the notion of transmission, the idea that dishes are gifts received or recuperated and therefore a form of communion with our predecessors. As she recounts it, Dickinson’s “black cake” comes to her as a gift in a moment of need, “deliciously consoling”, restorative and redemptive as literature has always been.

There are insights peppered throughout this lovingly fashioned study, some delightful and pleasing, others serious and provocative. There are observations that bring you up short – the discussion of cooking as killing is stark and truthful, as is the refiguring of God and Creation as acts of gastronomical creation. The exhausted analysis of Proust’s tea-dipped madeleine becomes fresher, sharper, more revealing in Gilbert’s expert hands, as is the thoughtful consideration of maternal milk in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But there are problems too. The passing reflections on children’s literature and the meditations on anorexia wanted more substantial attention in this sometimes hurried book.

Gilbert claims to contextualise “our culinary imaginings” in order to better understand why we are so immersed in matters of food, but one wonders if we are any more so now than we have ever been before. And even if she is correct to observe this, the book never quite gets to the bottom of why. The questions of consumption and class in an era of mass production, genetically modified foods and globalisation are never fully addressed. But the notion that food has acquired sacredness in this secular age rings true. Gilbert is surely right too in her hunch that in examining the “kitchens of our mind”, we find a new angle on ourselves as moral, emotional, political, social and philosophical beings. To consider the place of cooking and consumption is to acknowledge the significance of “the food chain to which all mortal beings belong”.

The author

“Maybe because I’m a native New Yorker I’m not only comfortable with, but yearn to spend time with, people from all over the world,” says Sandra Gilbert, professor emerita of English at the University of California, Davis

“The city where I grew up was a city of immigrants. As I think I mention in The Culinary Imagination, I never had an elderly relative who spoke without an accent. Various members of my own family came from Paris, Nice, Genoa, Sicily (near Agrigento) and Russia (near Moscow); the children of my generation were the first born in the States. This made New York City – where so many of my friends had the same background – very congenial. As for gastronomic influences – well, I grew up with what is now often defined as ‘ethnic’ cuisine, in fact with multiple ethnic cuisines.

As for California, Gilbert observes that “although there are indeed native Californians, many of us out here are also immigrants, and quite a few have come not just from other parts of the US but countless other parts of the world, which also makes this region feel comfortable to me.”

She continues: “I’ve lived in California since the middle 1960s – can that mean nearly half a century? Most of the time has been spent in Berkeley, and for many years with my husband, Elliot Gilbert, and our three children, Roger, Kathy and Susanna. After my husband died, tragically and unexpectedly in 1991, my life and subject matter changed radically: I wrote about my loss in several books, including a memoir, Wrongful Death; a collection of poems, Ghost Volcano; and a cultural study, Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve.

“But then, after several years, I entered into a relationship with a new partner, the mathematician David Gale, with whom I lived both in California and Paris for 15 years. This was another life-altering experience, especially from a gastronomic perspective. Living in the Marais with David, I began to really experience the France where my grandparents met, to shop in its wonderful markets, and to eat the food that they had brought to me from across the Atlantic,” Gilbert recalls.

“David died suddenly six years ago, and then I met my current partner, Albert Magid, who cares for and cossets me too, so I’m happy to cook for him. And he’s an observant Jew, so (especially because I grew up as a Roman Catholic) I’ve learned a lot from his family about the rules of Kashrut.” 

As a child, Gilbert loved to read. “But I never considered myself especially scholarly. I adored kids’ books – The Bobbsey Twins series (who has heard of those today?), Nancy Drew, and, more grownup I guess, Little Women and Jane Eyre. My parents had ‘great expectations’ for me and nurtured my intellectual growth. When I was in high school, my father actually got me a subscription to The Partisan Review.”

Gilbert was not only a reader from an early age, but a writer, too. “I think I began writing poetry when I was around four, or so my mother always told me. And I believe I composed poems as a way of not having to go to sleep. ‘Mom, I have a poem!’ I’d cry, and in she would come to transcribe my creation. One began, as I recall, ‘Zip, zip, through the air,/Comes a fearful bear!/His name is lightning,/And when he comes you can see the whole sky brightening!’ I know, I know, it doesn’t scan, but consider, I still remember it!”

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, says Gilbert, “one of my most important intellectual influences was my English professor, M. H. Abrams – a great thinker and teacher who just a week or two ago was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Medal at the age of 102! I’m happy to say that, as you can see, he has been an enduring influence.”

Gilbert adds that “‘ambivalent’ is a really nice word for my undergraduate experience. I adored Professor Abrams, but I have to admit that I spent an awful lot of time hanging around under the elm trees on the quad at Cornell, writing poems. I loved thinking about literary history as Abrams taught me to understand it – but I was also very fascinated by the poems I was writing – and, to be frank, by various boyfriends.”

Returning to her book Wrongful Death and the important issues it addresses, Gilbert says: “My husband’s death from medical negligence, along with the lawsuit that my children and I felt obliged to bring, was an utterly transformative experience, perhaps the most transformative one I’ve had. 

“My kids and I (along with one of my oldest and best friends in the world and, then, our smart attorney) worked hard to find out how and why he had died, a few hours after surgery in a major modern hospital. To this day we don’t know the answer. But I told the story to the best of my ability in the book, and I’ve told it again and again in talks around the world. In the UK, I should note, I found really sympathetic audiences, including (alas) people who had had similar experiences. As for other countries and their experiences of medical negligence, I don’t think I could comment. Is our dreadful US health care system to blame? Perhaps, but catastrophes can happen anywhere.”

Gilbert served as president of the Modern Language Association in 1996. “It was an honour, but at the same time it was a deeply serious responsibility. It is especially important to have an organisation that represents critics, scholars and teachers around the world. Yes, the culture of literary criticism is vexed and vexing – and yet surely we want everyone to keep on struggling to read and think in ways that the MLA represents.”

Do words get any easier to shape into poems the longer one does it? Gilbert enthuses, “There is nothing more pleasurable for me – entre nous (and here I confidingly speak French) – than to write a poem.  Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night I lie awake trying to compose a sonnet. Or a NON-sonnet! Linking words together as I brood in the dark, I’m pleased and happy.”

The Culinary Imagination speaks eloquently of the sharing and enjoyment of food. What was the latest and best meal Gilbert recalls eating?

“It was here, on the northern California coast, two days ago: (lightly) grilled fresh local wild King salmon, grilled (yes) local sweet corn (‘on the cob’, as we say here), and a salad of local ‘early girl’ tomatoes with basil and mozzarella. Who cooked? I did and Albert did and, especially, my daughter Susanna, who produced a lovely tarte tatin made with apples from a tree in her back yard. My dining companions: Susanna, her daughter Sophia (age 9), Albert and my friend Dorothy. We were all pleased, to say the least.”

Gilbert adds: “I guess I could also have mentioned Parisian meals at, say, Taillevent (roasted pigeon), Lucas Carton (a truffle menu), etc. But I was so happy with that wonderful northern California salmon!”

Karen Shook

The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity

By Sandra M. Gilbert
W. W. Norton, 448pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780393067651
Published 2 September 2014

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