Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg

Boris Kustodiev: The Merchant’s Wife’s Tea, 1918

In the seventeenth century, as the Ming dynasty was falling, its great historian and memoirist Zhang Dai revised his grandfather Zhang Rulin’s History of Cooked Food and renamed it The Old Glutton’s Collection. In his preface, which is all that remains of this lost work, he cites many Chinese classics of gastronomy and he describes Confucius’s refined appetite and way of eating as a kind of incarnate philosophy of how to live. He justifies his presumption in editing his grandfather’s work:

I have been blessed with the ability to distinguish between the taste of the water of the Sheng and of the Zi rivers, to tell when the flesh of the goose is that of a black or a white one, know whether the chicken has perched in the open air or when the meat has been cooked over firewood that is already worn-out….1

The exquisite acuteness and depth of Zhang Dai’s ability to taste is an expression of developed knowledge: not only his own, but also his ancestors’ accumulated knowledge of geography, botany, biology, animal husbandry, techniques of cookery, nature, tradition, and the passing of time. Eating with disciplined excellence is a search for wisdom. The practice of eating philosophically can also be seen as a microcosm of ideal government, as the roots of the word “gastronomy” itself invoke, meaning the legislation of the stomach, of the appetite.

This passage embeds, too, an oblique and unspoken elegy. Zhang Dai is conscious of the political threat that will destroy the world in which these tastes existed. When the Manchu conquered the Ming dynasty, Zhang Dai fled to the mountains, where he ended his days a starving refugee, writing his “dream memories” of that lost world and an inscription for his tomb, “For the people, food is Heaven/A greedy Dongpo/Starving at Solitary Bamboo.”2

There is nothing resembling this attitude toward gastronomic experience in Sandra Gilbert’s warmly enthusiastic and engaging exploration of largely American and sporadically European ways of approaching food in modern literature, film, and art, despite the book’s leisurely ramble along many culinary byways. The Culinary Imagination never earns its ambitious, definitive title. It is instead a much more partial work: an imaginative culinary survey, a kind of personal and intellectual cabinet of treasures, that shifts between literary analysis and personal recollection, even including a poignant, bittersweet gastronomic self-portrait of Gilbert herself.

The book moves panoramically through a great variety of culinary scenery; we view in passage a range of funeral foods and customs, sacramental feasts in both Greek and Roman antiquity and monotheism, the history of table manners and utensils, a select group of television chefs (Julia Child, but not Martha Stewart; Anthony Bourdain, but not Jamie Oliver), vignettes of cannibalism and of the radically utopian, Jain-like vegetarian diet imposed by the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott on his Fruitlands commune. Alcott refused all “corrupting” animal food, and forbade the planting of such vegetables and roots as “grow downward instead of upward into the air.”

Gilbert takes us inside Emily Dickinson’s kitchen, which the poet envisioned as an exotic spice island called “Domingo.” She shares the poet’s recipe for Black Cake, in a lovely evocation of how magically the flavors of a dish can seem to bring the dead to momentary life in our presence.

We catch a glimpse of a Renaissance banquet centerpiece designed by Andrea del Sarto to resemble the Baptistery of Florence:

The pavement was made of jelly and resembled a variously colored mosaic; the columns, which looked like porphyry, were large sausages; the bases and capitals parmesan cheese…. In the center was a choir-stall made of cold veal…. The singers were roast thrushes with open beaks, wearing surplices of pig’s caul….

I wish Gilbert had told us the occasion for this display, which would have helped us to understand its underlying political meanings; we would then know better how del Sarto managed to keep a straight face as he worked hard for that Medici money.

A particularly strong section deals with modern children’s books with culinary themes. Through the works of writers like Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak, Gilbert shows how terror—being swallowed up, poisoned, baked into pies, left to starve—is as prevalent a theme in children’s books as dreams of idyllic family life. These writers explore through fantasy, as fairy tales do, the unending reality of danger in children’s lives. The great early-nineteenth-century chef Carême, whose work was instrumental in Talleyrand’s diplomatic maneuvers at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815, was himself abandoned by his parents on a Paris street. It seems more than coincidence that he first made his reputation as a pastry cook who specialized in building elaborate, nearly indestructible pastries such as fantasy castles and temples out of sugar.


A chapter on food in visual art discusses not only still life but the deliberately unappetizing work of artists and performance artists like Daniel Spoerri who create a kind of anti–still life using real, rotting food. In her section on food in films, Gilbert disappointingly confines herself to recent movies with cooks as protagonists, like Babette’s Feast and Ratatouille. We miss the intensity and longevity with which the relation to food has communicated character, social condition, and moral life in earlier movies—for example, the artful, elegantly prepared food in Chabrol’s films that is the fare of his spoiled and murderous bourgeoisie, or the ineptly roasted chicken Ingrid Bergman cooks for Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Notorious, revealing a decadent character as virginal, experiencing first love. The search for food conveys the reality of war in Gone with the Wind and political corruption in The Hunger Games, in which citizens are starved, exploited, and die as entertainment for the well-fed ruling class.

Gilbert also discusses at length the proliferation of memoirs focused on food and cooking that she infelicitously insists on calling “foodoirs.” The term narrows a subject for which she wants to claim a new dignity. It would appall M.F.K. Fisher, one of its great practitioners, who never considered herself a food writer.

Food is at the center of this genre of memoir because it is an integral part of another story. Norma Watkins’s powerful The Last Resort, for example, studies food because the kitchen of her family’s Mississippi hotel in the segregated South is a concentration of pleasure and cruelty, of generosity and injustice, when black people cooked for white people but could never eat with them, or as well. And it is a gaping omission in a book about modern ways of writing about food not to have mentioned the influential Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery’s fresh, elegant, and wide-ranging yearly collections of essays.

In her discussion of memoirs, Gilbert also misses an opportunity to consider the multiple effects of technology on the culinary imagination. The intensity of attention to food is not new—Dr. Johnson famously suggested that a man not preoccupied with the excellence of his dinner “should be suspected of inaccuracy in other things.” If he had made that remark today, it would probably be published with a mosaic of reminiscences and images of suppers he’d had at his pub, the Cheshire Cheese, and a link to the food vocabulary in his online dictionary.

The Internet enables us to witness as well as express a shared, unconcealed, universal passionate meditation on eating. Blogs and websites are like individual magazines or anthologies. If a labor historian posts a recipe on her website or an Instagram still life of her dinner, it now functions as just another feature of interest in what amounts to her personal magazine, and doesn’t detract from her academic reputation, though it might have done so thirty or forty years ago.

Elsewhere in the book, Gilbert comments that Dickens didn’t include a recipe for roast goose in A Christmas Carol—but his wife did elsewhere, publishing menus and recipes as the playfully titled Lady Maria Clutterbuck. Dickens didn’t publish recipes (though he may have had the impulse) because to do so would have undermined his authority and dignity as an artist. The contrast between the artist Dickens and his artisan wife made the division clear, and served to enhance the distinction between the craft of one and the artistry of the other.

The Internet offers not only new freedoms in reading and writing, but also intensely engineered experiences of reading. Online writers relentlessly badger readers, in particular at food websites, to “share” or “like” or “endorse” or “pin” or “tweet” an article or recipe on social media. People looking for recipes often have to get them from videos made by cooks eager to become “brands,” though for seasoned cooks, written recipes deliver information much more quickly.

Technology has always influenced the way we talk about food and the way we cook, just as the invention of the refrigerator in the early twentieth century gave prestige to newly invented cold dishes that were a feature of the era’s cookbooks, and were novel and elegant until refrigeration became common. At this moment of smartphones and tablets, we seem to be gripped by a kind of Wi-Fi cuisine, in which the interplay of virtual food and real edibles shape gastronomy. In Paco Roncero’s fashionable Ibiza restaurant, Sublimotion, the chef greets the patrons virtually, that is, on a screen at their table, and offers cocktails that stir themselves; the table itself becomes a kind of screen, and dessert floats toward diners. Efforts are underway, too, to create a kind of cuisine of algorithm, fabricating combinations of ingredients by computer and duplicating tastes from the laboratory, not from the soil.


The breadth of Gilbert’s book is sometimes achieved at the expense of its depth. She passionately wants to convince readers that the current attention to food “represents a gastronomical feeding frenzy that’s both unprecedented and unique.” There is an insistence on telling this story of American food as a story of revolution, of a sharp break with the past, in a way that can undercut our efforts to understand which elements of the present moment really are new and unique.

Sometimes she seems caught up in the demands of a story that imposes certain patterns on her thinking: this leads to assertions that can occasionally seem wildly broad. She comments, for example, that “by the 1950s few bourgeois families in England and America could boast of cooks, and most had only intermittent help in housecleaning.” That may have been true of England, but in the American South of the 1950s, black women were overwhelmingly employed as cooks and maids, while Latin American women staffed white middle-class households in the Southwest.

Elsewhere she insists that the twenty-first century is a period of unmatched culinary spectacle, though it is hard to reconcile that claim with either the Renaissance banquets she herself describes, or the lavish “Bos Ball” concocted in Boston for Dickens, with its inexhaustible servings of oysters and pièces montées crowned with scenes from The Old Curiosity Shop, C.K.G. Billings’s nouveau riche extravaganza dinner on horseback in Sherry’s restaurant, or the impressive Thanksgiving feasts sent by public subscriptions to Union troops in the field in 1864. Intensely covered by the press, this gastronomic feat served to demonstrate for the increasingly starving South the abundance and variety of food available in the North, and the Union mastery of supply lines.

Gilbert presents a “master narrative” that she calls “Tact”—the “Tale of American Culinary Transformation”—by contrasting a 1955 dining hall at Cornell University, where she ate a casserole of tuna made with canned soup, with a 1985 dinner of lamb with Dijon mustard crust at a Princeton eating club. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “Americans ate Jello-O, apple pie, canned vegetables, plain old roasts, and ‘casseroles’ made with cream of mushroom soup,” with the exception of immigrant families like her own, who retained some of their traditional culinary vocabulary.

The fare she describes, though, wouldn’t have been recognized as representative American food by Thomas Jefferson, or by Mark Twain, who listed eighty American foods he craved in A Tramp Abroad, including Philadelphia terrapin soup, Connecticut shad, bacon and greens, possum, coon, and “prairie-hens, from Illinois.” The heroine of Mary McCarthy’s 1971 novel Birds of America amuses her son with a game of cooking only American food—dishes like New England boiled dinner, the stuffed cod known as Cape Cod Turkey, spoon bread, Indian pudding, quince jelly.

The 1955 Cornell casserole is not an archetype of American food, but a product of a particular period and environment—home economics cuisine. Cornell’s school of home economics was the oldest in the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt was an important patron of the school, and its home economists were active during the Depression when her husband was governor of New York, in programs educating struggling families about nutrition and fuel-saving cooking techniques. Home economists also helped design the repertoire of ration cookery during World War II.

In the 1950s, home economics was a profession hospitable to women who were no longer welcome in the postwar workforce, and companies designing kitchen appliances, new kinds of cookware, or industrial food products hired them to fabricate dishes like Gilbert’s casserole in order to sell their wares. This was the food evoked by Warhol paintings, concoctions that were edible advertisements, drawing on the privation cookery of the 1930s and 1940s. As for the Princeton eating club, Owen Wister’s 1903 novel about Harvard, Philosophy 4, with its pampered students’ menu of “soft-shell crabs, broiled live lobster, salmon, grass-plover, dough-birds, rum omelette,” suggests that wealthy Ivy Leaguers have always eaten well.

A longer look at the history of American food would have helped us see its many dislocations, its uncertain identity and regional fragmentation, its ongoing entanglement with politics and big business. Of the “eternal staples” that Gilbert mentions—eggs, sugar, oil, butter, wheat, corn, rice—all were imported to America except for corn.

New England struggled to define itself as English in cooking and farming methods until the Revolution made an ideological virtue of simple food, while the South, where luxurious food distinguished master from slave, never embraced a diet of “republican simplicity.” Twain’s prairie chickens, once an emblematic American delicacy, are now virtually extinct, through the settlement of the prairies, which destroyed their grassland habitat, and through large-scale hunting parties that railroad travel made possible.

The Civil War, with the North’s military strategy of starving both soldiers and civilians in the South, and the developments it stimulated in technologies of preserving food, had a powerful effect on American agriculture, while Prohibition profoundly altered the development of American cooking, forcing the closing of many of the imposing hotels and restaurants that had been America’s equivalent of noble kitchens in Europe, and causing a final deracination of American from English cooking: without brandy, the mincemeat and plum puddings that had been a familiar feature of Thanksgiving tables disappeared. American food is seasoned with a lot of amnesia.

Gilbert makes a number of other elisions that are disconcerting. We are told that M.F.K. Fisher was “sui generis, the first to write…an autobiography focused on food,” but that claim ignores Colette, whose autobiographical writings and fiction invented a “language of taste,” in Julia Kristeva’s phrase, and showed Fisher how to write about food without being cast in a nurturing, maternal role. Dumas’s Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine is an even earlier experiment combining autobiographical anecdote with recipes and stories about food. Fisher’s apprenticeship in French literature taught her much of her craft through writers like Maupassant, who wrote incomparably about social class through food in stories like “Boule de Suif,” and Simenon, for whose police detective Maigret the savory cuisine bourgeoise of his wife represents the one mystery he cannot solve: How can the domestic peace and stability it evokes be possible in this criminal world?

Gilbert’s claim that Walt Whitman and America were the source of “a culinary poetics” of “unprecedented newness” that enabled writers to describe what they saw in day-to-day life, using the language of everyday speech, radically free to celebrate the domestic commonplace—mugs of cider instead of champagne flutes—truncates a history of a complex continuity. In fact it was the Scottish poet Robert Burns, of whom Whitman was intensely aware, who brought this candid and unembarrassed engagement with the quotidian into American poetry. Burns, who famously wrote an ode to the impeccably humble Scottish dish haggis (sheep offal cooked in the lining of a sheep’s stomach), was a significant poetic presence in the United States well before Whitman.

The Pennsylvania Packet, the first important daily newspaper in the US, published twenty-six issues from 1787 to 1788 with features of songs and poems of Burns. As Burns’s biographer Robert Crawford has pointed out, there are more statues of Burns in the United States than of any American poet.3 Burns Night suppers on the poet’s birthday were common entertainments to which prominent figures, even presidents, were invited.

In Boston, in 1859, at a Burns Night supper (fittingly at the Parker House, the birthplace of the Parker House roll), Emerson gave an eloquent speech in Burns’s praise:

He has given voice to all the experiences of common life; he has endeared the farmhouse and cottage, patches and poverty, beans and barley; ale, the poor man’s wine; hardship; the fear of debt…. What a love of Nature, and, shall I say it? of middle-class Nature.

D.H. Lawrence, too, whom Gilbert discusses as a poet in this vein, was preoccupied with Burns, writing dialect poems inspired by him and planning a novel about him.

Burns was deeply indebted to Alexander Pope, who wrote one of a number of versions of Horace’s satire “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” an opportunity for a virtuosic display of still life, high and humble. Pope, Homer’s translator, is a bridge from Burns to Homer. The Greek poet’s description of the tragic meal of simple roast meat cooked by Achilles for the broken King Priam after he killed Priam’s son Hector is a premonition of the imminent deaths of both host and guest, and the most powerful description of a meal in Western literature. Describing life and fate through ordinary food is not an American discovery, but a development of tradition, a subtle but genuine link to a literary past older than American literature and America itself.

Gilbert’s nearsighted view of modernism denies her readers the full adventure of thinking about her fascinating material, and what it might mean that we are now free to explore it. When she quotes Virginia Woolf’s diary entry, “I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down,” she tells us that “with these words about the writing of food Woolf herself joined a new cadre of novelists, poets, and essayists who were representing food in the kitchen, not just on the dinner table.”

But of course earlier writers had represented the preparation of food. Dora in David Copperfield serves a comical meal of oysters without realizing they must be opened; Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair sees the workings of the coarse country household of Sir Pitt Crawley, and eats sausage in a sleazy boarding house. Adam Mickiewicz’s domestic epic Pan Tadeusz is an encyclopedia of Polish country life, from hunting mushrooms to the distinctive Polish way of making coffee. (Nationalist fiction and poems are often rich in their descriptions of native foods and gastronomic custom, serving to memorialize a threatened country, or to lay colonial claim to a desired territory.)

Another prime location for writing outside the dining room in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is in children’s books: Louisa May Alcott, Kate Douglas Wiggins, Margaret Sidney, and Laura Ingalls Wilder show us in detail the topography of period kitchens, diets, and beliefs about food.

The contrast in both gender and genre is significant. When the once-famous but now-forgotten Marion Harland, a hard-working, eclectic writer of novels and travel books, wrote her best-selling 1871 cookbook, Common Sense in the Household,

I was assured that I should lose the modest measure of literary reputation I had won by novels, short stories and essays if I persisted in the ignoble enterprise. One critic forewarned me that “whatever I might write after this preposterous new departure would be tainted, for the imaginative reader and reviewer, with the odor of the kitchen.”

Both male and female writers described food in their work, but for male writers, making use of food in writing could enact an artistic possession of life in its full reality; for women, such writing became a stigma, an instant literary depreciation. Now, as Gilbert points out with palpable excitement, writers can permit themselves to think about food increasingly beyond the confines of literary class distinction.

What makes the new range and possibility of writing about food—by women and men—exciting is that we are witnessing a rare tectonic shifting of a deeply rooted aesthetic and moral hierarchy that extended to the visual arts as well as literature, in which, from the Greeks through Joshua Reynolds, still life was “relegated to the lowest rank,” as the art historian Norman Bryson wrote. Still life was a genre suitable for women painters and less talented male artists, representations of motionless and dying matter, a reminder of the sinful and contemptible mortality of the human body, its appetites and extinction the visible evidence of sin.

The idea that death is above all a punishment for sin, and that appetite is demeaning, has altered. It seems apropos that in 2004, the famous French bread baker Lionel Poilane joined with Paul Bocuse and a number of other French cultural figures in writing a charming, playful, but sincere plea to the Pope to remove gluttony from the list of mortal sins.

For centuries, the image of Eve and her apple served as a memento mori and an emblem of sin. As Nina Simone sang in her joyous and bitter song “Forbidden Fruit,” “You went ahead and et it, now you’re gonna get it.” We seem to have arrived at a moment when we are able to see the apple as a source less of sin than of knowledge. Instead of cursing Eve for tasting the apple, now we are beginning to ask, What did she find out?