What food books say

Our shelves of cookbooks are fascinating not so much as a body of knowledge, but as a body of ignorance: they contain what we don’t know (or no longer know) about food, but our ignorance and aspirations take on very specific, trend-sensitive forms, a bit like—come to think of it—a good bundt pan waiting for batter.

“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” Brillat-Savarin challenged his readers in 1825, and his wisdom if not his brio was already old hat. Human meals serve those mixtures of raw and cooked that make up anthropological codes. Nearly every prescription or preference blends irrational faith and scientific requirements, as Marvin Harris shows in his fascinating Good to Eat: look long enough at a seemingly arbitrary food rule (cloven hooves, sacred cows) and one can probably discover a self-preserving logic behind it, but look hard enough at an apparently sensible directive (a glass of milk, a handful of supplements) and one will like as not detect a prejudice posing as sense. Omnivorous and hungry, body and spirit, we sit down at a table spread with necessary choice; we cannot eat to live, that is, without in some measure living to eat. As Laurie Colwin once put it, then, cookery books will always “hit you where you live.” What seems distinctive and disquieting now, what seems to have increased in the two centuries since Brillat-Savarin shot a turkey in Hartford or even in the two decades since Colwin roasted a chicken in her New York apartment, is the number of volumes hitting us combined with the force of their impact. A nation with a lot of food books is a nation without much sense of food, as The Economist recently pointed out.


from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” by Siobhan Phillips, The Hudson Review, Summer 2009 :: via The Smart Set

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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