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Cookbook Politics, Kennan Ferguson

Reviewed by John Ferejohn


The argument of this book is that cookbooks, whatever else they try to do, are political artifacts, often intentionally produced for political purposes. Even if they are innocent of political aspirations, cookbooks can nevertheless have important political effects. Kennan Ferguson’s Cookbook Politics attempts to excavate and expose the cookbook as a political object and to convince readers that cookbooks can provide a way to understand peoples, nations, and both powerful or subordinated groups. I think he succeeds in doing this, at least in part.

Much of the book treats what I would call “low-hanging fruit”—examples of cookbooks written with the purpose and/or effect of helping to unify a nation or a nation-state or, perhaps subversively, to convey a thick sense of subnational, regional, or local identity or a supernational, border-transcending culture. These “identity”-creating or -reinforcing books do not seem essentially different from other kinds of books (guidebooks, travel books, etc.) that have similar aims or effects. Cookbooks with this kind of aim seek to create or reinforce certain identities over others. In this sense, they seem implicitly (or explicitly) contentious.

Ferguson helps us see the conflicts that lie beneath these identity-building efforts. The high point of his many examples is his contrast between the contemporary Slow Food Movement and Italian Futurism under Benito Mussolini. Both were explicitly concerned with building a cuisine as a way of encouraging the development of a favored political identity. In the case of the Slow Food Movement, the aim was to create a cuisine combining traditional ingredients with deliberate artisanship as way of encouraging Italians to develop—or find in themselves—a certain cultural and political identity: to think of themselves as the kind of people who appreciate carefully prepared, ingredient-driven food. These values might extend to other lifestyle choices, such as dress, furniture, or architecture, and help shape political identity as well. Maybe that is the point. There is no question that was the point of Futurism. As Ferguson presents it, Futurism comes across as a bit of a (self?) parody, but I assume that the aim of its leaders was genuinely to use cuisine in the form of industrially theorized foods (who knows if anyone ate these things) as part of a program to encourage the development a hypermasculine, militaristic, technocratic, modern Italian willing to reject the feminized and soft ways of Italy’s past in favor of a program of conquest and colonization.

A second focus concerns the gendered nature of many (or most) cookbooks. Plainly, books such as The Betty Crocker Cookbook or The Joy of Cooking (which Ferguson touches on only briefly), the Larousse Gastronomique (which he does not discuss at all), and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which is the subject of a whole chapter) are marketed to (if not aimed at) women, or at least at those who do the cooking. It hard to not to see gender as more or less front and center in some of these books, encouraging young women to fit themselves into a role in the traditional household division of labor. Of course, as this division of labor changes, this aspect of cookbooks may become less prominent over time. Ferguson acknowledges that there are other kinds of cookbooks that are aimed at producing (or at least portraying) higher levels of cuisine, which, he implies, are destined for the coffee table rather than the kitchen. I guess this type of book—I am thinking of the books by Thomas Keller that are gorgeously presented but impractical to cook from (more than once or twice in one’s life) for lack of equipment, ingredients, skill, or simply motivation. Such books might not be as gendered, or gendered in the same way, as those aimed at the standard repertoire.

Ferguson sees cookbooks mostly as collections of recipes, each one telling readers the steps to take to produce a certain gustatory result. He also argues that cook “books” are not merely assemblages of recipes but also books, and in that respect, they are different (somehow) from collections of recipes in (say) magazines, newspapers, websites, and so on. At the same time, Ferguson denies that cookbooks present “narratives” with a thematic structure that transcends their recipes. He recognizes, of course, that many cookbooks separate appetizers from main courses and desserts, so there is a bit of narrative structure, I think. Or maybe cookbooks present formulae for what constitutes an infinite set of narratives in which the story is told by the user.

I wonder how Ferguson thinks of Julia Child’s approach to teaching her readers basic techniques (how to make the classical sauces, or sauce types, actually; or to produce stable emulsions; or to sauté, fry, roast, or braise) that carry across recipes, allowing each to be seen as a variant rather than a freestanding creation (this is common to many French cookbooks that are aimed at aspiring chefs rather than homemakers). I recall when I first started cooking obsessively from Child’s books while doing (or rather, avoiding) my graduate work, I came to think of French cooking as “organizing butter” in various ways. Obviously, this is too simple a view, but one that gave a thematic structure to the book that made it more than a merely a list of recipes. There was a narrative aspect to learning to understand how to do—to master—proper French cooking in ways that could be applied to any set of ingredients. Child taught, as French training does, how to think about food and how to bring out flavors and textures. I came to a similar understanding from the wonderful books by Marcella Hazan and Diana Kennedy, both of whom share Child’s aim: to master Italian (or really Bolognan) and Mexican regional cuisine, respectively. Their works are complex and challenging in many ways, but in each case, there seemed to me to be a narrative thread running through them that persuaded readers not merely to look up a recipe for veal piccata, or lasagna, but to acquire a mental disposition that they could carry into the market or to the garden and see (and vicariously taste) myriad possibilities.

For me, the most interesting claim in Cookbook Politics is Ferguson’s assertion that the cookbook—or the recipe—is “democratic” in some profound way. This claim seems to transcend any ideological or “nationalist” content of a particular recipe or cookbook. Any cookbook invites readers to participate by using a recipe to create something. In that sense, it is a “meta” assertion that says that no matter what the author or publisher intends, the presentation of recipes in an accessible and often inexpensive (book) form is a form of liberation from certain kinds of social or political domination—and, perhaps, an invitation to self-government. The recipe puts readers in a position of command: they can choose to attempt it or not (their choice), to treat it as unalterable text or as an open-ended invitation to amend and substitute and play. It is up to the readers. But by exercising agency, the cook must take responsibility or criticism (even when dining alone).

Ironically, however, this freedom to choose arises from a text (recipe) that claims to be an authority: something whose advice is presented as something that ought to be followed if one wants to achieve the desired result. Note that this is merely a claim: a recipe faithfully followed may fail to produce the desired result. It may be a bad recipe; the ingredients may be low quality, or the conditions (altitude, humidity, etc.) may interfere. In any case, “you” may well be able to do better because you are there to taste as you go along and take account of imperfect conditions or maybe think of better ideas (if you worked through Julia Child, you certainly have the training). The question is, how can the claimed authority of the recipe or cookbook produce the democratic conditions that Ferguson sees? As he remarks in passing, this puzzle is most sharply posed in baking, in which slight departures from the text (or from the assumed preconditions) can lead to vastly inferior results.

I am not sure how Ferguson would respond. He says that recipes (or cookbooks) presume a certain competence on the part of the user. Even if they are aimed at young people, the assumption is that a minimal level of kitchen competence is present. Not everything can be written down (as John Locke and Carl Schmitt said about law). Ferguson might say that even if the assumed level of competence is lacking—as I assume he thinks is the usual condition for a beginner—a few culinary disasters will hopefully have the effect of bringing up that level. Criticism by others, tasting the food as one cooks, and persistence in the face of failure have a competence-creating effect. In other words, following the commands of an authority might naturally lead the cook to become sufficiently authoritative to play around with recipes in ways that improve them or create wholly new culinary possibilities—that is, to become an authority.

This seems right to me, and it seems genuinely democratic, too. We do not expect a people to be able to govern themselves from birth. Democracy takes practice and openness to experience. We need to “taste” for seasoning as we go along. Democracy is a form of rule—a way in which authority is created. Sometimes in a democracy we do things together. Sometimes we (authoritatively) decide to encourage people to govern themselves in matters that do not harm others. Or in matters where individual exercises of judgment and creation combine to achieve superior results. Aristotle said that a feast prepared by many cooks is better than one produced by one. I think he was wrong about feasts, but he was probably right about cuisines.

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