Sunday, 19 January 2014

Some thoughts on recipe books and collections

The idea for this conference was first seeded when Laura, Chris and I met over two years ago as we all embarked on our PhDs at Warwick. One of the first things we bonded over was a shared love of cookery books - we all confessed that we read them in bed like novels. Over wine and nibbles (naturally), we talked about our favourite writers, favourite recipes, which books had the best pictures, the ones we actually cooked from, the aspirational ones whose pages never got splashed with oil or tomatoes, the ones we came back to again and again, and the ones our parents had.

My favourite cookbooks encourage leisurely reading. More than just lists of ingredients and instructions, they might include a story about how the recipe came to be, advice on the seasonality of ingredients, or an anecdote about an occasion which made a dish so special, and plenty of beautifully shot photographs of the food. Nigel Slater and Tessa Kiros are cases in point.

As an undated annal, Slater's Kitchen Diaries does more than suggest the importance of eating ‘at a time when it is most appropriate, when the ingredients are at their peak of perfection, when the food, the cook and the time of year are at one with each other’ (although I think Slater does achieve that aim [vii]). It also has an invitation to reread and to remember built into its structure. Its insistence on the importance of seasonality inscribes the book with an invitation to come back to it again and again - it’s more advisory than prescriptive, tempting us to change recipes, modify their ingredients, and invent our own dishes. 

Tessa Kiros' work, and I am thinking particularly of Apples for Jam, as it's the one currently on my shelf, intermingles narrative and reminiscence with recipes, with a particular focus on the inherited habits of her children; ‘they separate the food up into groups on their plates and save, just like I did, the best for last’(280). Its rich illustrations contain photographs not only of food, but of family, too, of well-loved toys and of kitchen equipment, and scattered amongst these are Kiros’ childrens’ crayon drawings. 

Fig. 1. My copy of Apples for Jam, replete with page markers for my favourite recipes.

Kiros evocatively describes her sensory engagement with foods which, when encountered, act as triggers for latent memories and reminiscences. A recipe for mango sorbet is followed by the following memory;
We always saved our mango stones. We tore off every scrap with our teeth and then washed and scrubbed them carefully, running our nails first in one direction and then the other until they were clean of all mango. After they were towel-dried, we kept our mango pets and brushed their lovely hair with our old toothbrushes. They still needed a bath and looking after now and then (110)
Kiros’ works play on the fragmentary nature both of cookery books and memory itself, and their intersections with materiality. 

Reading Apples for Jam, one feels a sense of intimacy that speaks to the importance of inheritance and community to domestic culinary culture, as Kiros describes the role that food has played in her experiences of family life, as both child and adult. Many recipes originate with others: ‘this is Harriet’s - my mum’s friend in Finland - a wonderful, stylish lady and cook’; ‘my friend Annabelle told me about this’; ‘these are from a friend of Giovanni...I made him hound her until she finally gave me the recipe’. The books are like a formalised, published version of the kinds of cookbooks that many of us have at home - the cookbook into which we insert recipes from friends and family, clippings from magazines, transcriptions of recipes from other books, recipes in letters from friends, lovingly transcribed or hastily scribbled - perhaps, now, recipes printed from favourite blogs and websites (however much we might enjoy online scrapbooks like Pinterest, I’m not sure they will ever render homemade cookbooks obsolete). These books are invariably the most-used on the shelf - in its short history, mine has required cardboard reinforcements and strategic superglue on several occasions.

Nicola Humble speaks of such scrap/cookbooks in the introduction to her excellent book Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food. Humble talks about her mother's edition of The Constance Spry Cookery Book, which 'has acquired accretions of text', with annotations, modifications, and layer upon layer of insertions. These books, Humble suggests, 'become palimpsests, the original text overlaid with personal meanings and experiences' (3). Like the best collections, these books never stop changing and evolving. Andrea Newlyn, writing about nineteenth-century manuscript cookbooks, suggests that recipes contain a 'narrative structure that enables readers…to recreate the events - ingredients, amounts, results - that produced and formed the originary text', while simultaneously allowing each new reader (or cook) to 'reinscribe' the narrative before passing it on (‘Redefining ‘Rudimentary’ Narrative’, 44). For an example, see fig. 2 below, in which my friend gives me her version of a Nigella Lawson recipe.

Fig 2. Nigella's Thai Green Curry (additional instructions by Hannah).

Newlyn notes in particular recipes wherein relationships are inscribed in the title; ‘Louise’s rock cakes’ or ‘Granny’s apple pie’. This kind of attribution, she suggests ‘is not only an articulation and reflection of community, but, more importantly, a designation that establishes a heritage of tradition and ritual in the form of recipes passed on from mother to daughter or from friend to neighbour' (43). These kinds of cookbooks, as they record cumulative knowledge passed between generations, can reveal much about the relationships and networks in which the women who write and compile them exist(ed). 

Fig. 3. Pages from my sister's cookbook, including recipes from friends and family

Fig. 4. A recipe in my cookbook for Sussex Sausage Casserole (from Steve's friend at work)

Fig. 5. My mum's made-up soup recipe, in my cookbook.

Fig. 6. Dhal recipe in my mum's handwriting, on a well-used page from my cookbook.

The pictures above are from recipe books belonging to myself and my sister (figs. 3-6). But we’re only the latest in a long line of women to compile manuscript or scrapbook cookbooks. The pictures below are of a cookbook given to my mother by her mother - it contains recipes and remedies noted down by Anne Chamberlain, one of her (and - obviously - my) ancestors (figs. 7-9). Some of the recipes have attributions, some don’t, and what makes the book particularly poignant is that in 1793, Anne records her name as ‘Anne Cross’ - but by 1812, she is ‘Anne Chamblerlain’- and practices writing her new name on the inside cover. Anne took her family’s recipes into her married life, continued to add to them, and passed them down to the next generation (my mother and I haven’t yet cooked from this book - perhaps that’s another blog post).

Fig. 7. 'Anne Cross - Her Book. 1793'

Fig. 8. 'Anne Chamberlain. Her Book. 1812'

Fig. 9. A recipe for plain cake (interrupted by instructions for making syrup)

These compilation cookbooks are collections, of course. They share a strong relationship to material memory with physical collections of objects. Like collections of stamps or coins, they're a personal legacy and often passed through family lines. But discussions about collecting behaviours tend to exclude them from their analysis. There’s clearly a gender dimension to this omission - historically, domestic cookbooks tend to be written and compiled by women, who, as Susan Pearce recognises, are less frequently identified as collectors. In part this is due to their absence from typical collecting records such as museum registers, but also because the history of women’s collecting is ‘largely which collected material mixes...with other kinds of goods, and the whole forms a unity to which no dividing self or specifying self-consciousness is attached’ (On Collecting, 207).

This view of female collecting is particularly interesting in relation to cookbooks. Whilst the books clearly document women’s lives, they’re not merely self-referential. They record friendships, relationships, milestone events, communities and family ties. Baudrillard’s understanding of the collector as the constructer of an alternative discourse’ in which ‘the ultimate signified’ is ‘none other than himself’ seems redundant here. Instead, female compilers of scrapbook cookbooks are constructing a material archive that documents the relationships and networks in which the collector is implicated. If we read lives from cookbooks, the selves that we find are malleable, fallible, subject to change and revision, and, crucially, constructed through community.

Mary Addyman

Works cited

Jean Baudrillard, 'The System of Collecting', in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (London: Reaktion Books, 1994), pp. 7-24

Nicola Humble, Culinary Pleasures: Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food (London: Faber and Faber, 2005)

Tessa Kiros, Apples for Jam (New South Wales: Murdoch Books, 2006)

Andrea K. Newlyn, 'Redefining 'Rudimentary' Narrative: Women's Nineteenth-Century Manuscript Cookbooks', in The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions, ed. Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster (Lincolna and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 31-51

Susan Pearce, On Collecting: An investigation into collecting in the European tradition (London: Routledge, 1995)

Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries (London: Fourth Estate, 2005)