On Peeling Potatoes and Imparting Intimacy: The Autobiographical Cookbook, 2018
The Corinne Steel Award for Outstanding English Honors Thesis
John’s grandma’s frosting recipe calls for Hershey’s cocoa, sugar, eggs, butter, and water – and it’s his absolute favorite. It doesn’t matter that there are probably “better” recipes with high-quality chocolate, sour cream, vanilla etc. The thing you love and eat over and over again when you’re young – like your dad’s pie crust made with Crisco, or your mom’s weird bland spaghetti, or your grandma’s homemade cake – will always taste better to you than anything else bc it’s a whole different thing, it’s a feeling.
Emily Fleischaker, Founder of Kitchenfly, Instagram 2018
The beginning of my cooking career is firmly grounded in Hamburger Helper. If you’ve never had it, just picture Kraft Mac and Cheese (you’ve had that, right?) with a pound of ground-beef and some variant of high-sodium spice packed neatly in an airtight white pouch, to be ripped open and dumped into a saucepan. It was something my mom used to make once or twice a week. My ten-year-old palate felt passionately for artificial cheese and knock-off Stroganoff – Hamburger Helper night was one to be excited about. Fast forward a few years, mom is in rehab, dad is the primary guardian, and the two of us are stumbling around Stop and Shop, staring absently at apple varieties and trying to figure out if there is a visible difference between regular carrots and organic carrots, not sure how to prepare carrots anyway. With no knowledge of cooking whatsoever, we ventured forth into the fast-paced world of the supermarket on a Sunday. Between the moms elbowing each other for the leanest chicken thighs and kids whining about off-brand Oreos, the shelves of Hamburger Helper on “10 for $10” sale truly resembled an altar to us. It would not be unreasonable to assume that we bought ten. We did buy ten. And we proceeded to eat them every night, for the next ten days. The first few nights were like, “This is awesome,” but by night six we had shifted to, “Let’s get take out,” and then by night nine we had reached a consensus: “Yeah, this isn’t sustainable.” So we invested in a 30-Minute Meals Cookbook. None of the meals actually took thirty minutes, but the whole process of my dad and me running around the kitchen, trying to chop peppers and simultaneously sauté chicken and frantically google the difference between “dice” and “cube,” all so that we could get dinner on the table before 9 pm, was formative for us both, fun and emotional and exhausting all at once.
I have graduated from 30-Minute Meals but I can’t pretend to deny what those first experiences provided for me, even if they were borne of necessity. The cooking itself was fun but there was something more to it, and this ambiguous “more” materialized when I discovered NYT Cooking. I would spend whole mornings reading each recipe from the “What to Cook This Week” section. I would reread them when I ran out. I would click each link in their weekly newsletter. I opened a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine. In between trying to not fail Quantum Mechanics and finishing my American Folklore paper, I was googling how to make vinegar, reading Internet forums on sourdough starters, researching the various ways to make Kouign Amman which no one seems to agree on. Mostly, it boiled down to a voracious desire to read recipes. Not even just the narrative paragraphs at the beginnings, dense with the particular inspiration for kale-pesto or the specific circumstances under which Samin Nosrat likes to make tofu. I liked the steps. I liked to think them through, turn them over in my mind, think critically about why it might need to be cooked at 325 degrees instead of 350. I liked the onslaught of… what? Directions? Yes, I liked the onslaught of directions. I like the concrete steps. I think this was true of the backs of the Hamburger Helper boxes, too. Hamburger Helper came into my life most potently as a consequence of a difficult time, but it crystallizes what first made me fall in love with reading about cooking. At a moment in my life when everything was turbulent, I could count on the backs of Hamburger Helper boxes to be candid with me. Recipes, and their ultimate curation into cookbooks, possess the unique capacity to articulate the feeling Fleischaker refers to in her Instagram caption. The recipe is able to provide a bridge between immaterial feeling and tangible material. Fleischaker’s caption is found beneath a photo of a cake, chaotic clumps of nonpareil rainbow sprinkles in a sea of haphazard chocolate frosting. Maybe, even though your mom always cooked her scrambled eggs a minute longer than you would, you are never quite as satisfied with the eggs you make yourself. Maybe, even though you could never bring yourself to actually purchase Ragu in the store, you are always a few processed ingredients short of the spaghetti perfection of your memories.
Increasingly, authors of cookbooks have introduced explicitly narrative personal details into their work. In this thesis I argue that many contemporary cookbooks should be considered a legitimate and exciting form of autobiography. Recipes are able to bring nostalgia to fruition, offering a bridge between the explanation of the thing – the directions and steps – and the production of the thing – the meal. I understand “nostalgia” to mean “[s]entimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past” (OED). When one reads a recipe, they create the recipe. The recipe is closely connected to its author, who has derived it from experience, and the reader, who will now produce her own experience. Consequently, written recipes beckon to intimacy and introspection on the parts of the reader and the writer, which can culminate into personal narrative. By virtue of this culmination, cookbooks come to adopt many of the problematic facets of more explicitly autobiographical writing. The language and tone of recipes – direct, candid, instructive, friendly – mimic the language of an intimate acquaintance. The content of a cookbook – the recipes gathered by the chef-author – are frequently grounded in memories and evoke nostalgia. By way of form and content, cookbooks should be seen as a legitimate subgenre of the autobiographical medium. Specifically, I will be examining Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, Alison Roman’s Dining In, and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune and Blood, Bones, and Butter, in order to demonstrate the bona fide stake cookbooks have in memoir as a broader genre.
The Form of the Recipe
In her article, “The Joy of Reading About Cooking,” Tejal Rao examines the poetics of the cookbook by way of illuminating the effect of the form. She opens with a poignant explanation of this draw: “The imperative mood can be so intimate in its rudeness, like a mother or a friend speaking plainly: Skin the chicken. Tell me everything. Crush the garlic.” Rao’s article is grounded in a personal anecdote about moving to France. Cookbooks were the only English books in her house she “hadn’t already read,” and “every page was new to” her, “equally precious” (Rao 2017). She would hang “on to the microstories tucked into the recipe introductions.” She parallels the innate candidness of a recipe to “a prayer,” and she describes the ultimate lesson she learned from reading cookbooks as the notion that “[w]ords can be used to make an idea more precise, or more vague, to make something clear or to blur its edges.” Ultimately, the article concludes with a shift in the way she is treated by a friend’s mom. She writes, “After I had slept over a half-dozen times, Marielle’s mother stopped fussing, stopped asking me what I would and would not like, stopped talking to me delicately, like a thing that might break. ‘Come downstairs,’ she’d shout, when dinner was ready. ‘Wash your hands. Eat.’” Beyond being bound intimately with the author who composes it, a recipe is inextricable from its sincerity. It means what it says. By granting this insight into another person, the recipe grants clarity. It lends the comfort of someone close enough to speak candidly and directly, without hesitation or indecision or uncertainty. In her article, Rao articulates the facets by which cookbooks function as an autobiographical medium. What humans seek in autobiography is the “other” they can identify with, or, at the least, be fascinated by. What cookbooks provide in their natural ability to speak candidly to their readers is the intimacy we seek in our peers. The language of the cookbook commands this intimacy between author and reader. It fosters the autobiographical pact. This “pact” refers to “a contract, in which the writer pledges that author, narrator, and subject are the same and that the narrative will be told as sincerely and honestly as possible. The reader, in turn, pledges faith in the reasonable honestly of the telling” (Carpenter 2013).
The Content of the Recipe
Cookbooks bring the intersection of necessity and indulgence into center stage by virtue of their content. The narrator of the cookbook is directing food preparation. It is necessary that we eat in order to survive. But this notion of necessity becomes complicated as we move into the territory of indulgence. Just how “necessary” is indulgence to human survival? I understand “indulgence” to mean “favouring forbearance or relaxation of restraint; the yielding to or gratification of some propensity” (OED). In her article, “Why He Kayaked Across the Atlantic at 70 (For the Third Time),” Elizabeth Weil articulates the story of a 70-year-old man named Doba who has crossed the Atlantic by kayak three times. While describing his experience on the Atlantic, she writes, “when he couldn’t sleep, because of the unrelenting stuffiness of his cabin and the waves crashing through the portal onto his head, [he] thought about his wife, children and his young granddaughter. He thought about his dead parents.” Tested mentally and physically, Doba indulges in nostalgia to alleviate the pain of his situation. This indulgence concretizes a natural inclination by humans towards nostalgia as a form of reprieve. This inclination is doubly enforced because Doba is presented as a character who is “tougher than all that,” and yet falls inevitably back to it when his challenges come to a head. In cookbooks, this indulgence is embodied in a variety of forms. For one, there is the autobiographical indulgence of composing the cookbook. The author allows themselves to remember tender, pivotal moments which coincide with various recipes. Additionally, there is the autobiographical indulgence of reading the cookbook. Reading another’s autobiographical experience provokes nostalgia in the reader, inducing them to also indulge in the autobiographical act. Both of these indulgences constitute the indulgence of nostalgia, the indulgence commonly associated with autobiography. Then, more tangibly, there is the indulgence of cooking and eating. Later in her article, Weil writes, “Among Doba’s bigger regrets in life are the times…when he has perceived and reacted to suffering in conventional ways,” such as, “when he succumbed to the temptation of eating pancakes, tomato soup and rice at the Milk Bar restaurant when he should have been at his campsite, by his kayak, eating cold canned goulash in order to condition his body for arctic temperatures.” Weil marries one of Doba’s most memorable moments of indulgence to gastronomic satiation, thereby delineating the relationship between the two. Doba demonstrates the two fundamental variants of indulgence humans reach for. There is the nostalgic indulgence of the mind, and the carnal indulgence of the senses. Recipes in cookbooks are an attempt at satisfying hunger which must necessarily be satisfied. By virtue of being recipes in cookbooks, they possess some level of indulgence.
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
It would feel incomplete to discuss the intersection of gastronomic indulgence with autobiographical indulgence and not mention Marcel Proust and his madeleine. In this scene from Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s mother feeds him a madeleine and a tea, a snack “he did not ordinarily take” but had accepted on this day “for no particular reason.” Upon taking the bite of the madeleine, Proust is assailed with what he describes to be “all-powerful joy.” As he tries to articulate the origin of this feeling, he writes that, “Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind” (Proust). Proust explicitly marries his joy to the visual memory provoked by the madeleine and the tea.
Proust’s madeleine functions as the concise embodiment of carnal experience inducing immaterial memory. It is an image which acutely frames this parallel between the indulgence of eating and the indulgence of autobiographical musing. Granted, we may not all have such glamorous items to elicit our own Proustian moments – my own is probably borne of Cocoa-Puffs or Go-gurt, which sound much less romantic than a madeleine. And yet, both possess the deeply elaborate capacity to prompt memory. There is something valuable to note in the marriage of memory to sensual experience, particularly relating to gastronomy. It is a relationship which carries into cookbooks by virtue of their content.
And it can be flipped inside out as well. Henry Alford’s article, “Eau God” uses madeleines to “erase memory.” After a bad break up with his boyfriend, he takes himself on a trip to Morocco, where he purchases neroli, also known as orange-blossom oil. He went on the trip in an effort to spite his boyfriend, who had taken him travelling to various exotic places throughout the course of their relationship. While in Morocco, he considers throwing out the neroli for fear that someone had sold him drugs instead of scented oil. He decides against it, however, describing its scent as “the gift soap in Heaven.” Upon returning home, he uses the oil in the “Joy of Cooking” recipe for madeleines, marrying the therapeutic aspects of cooking to the scent of the oil. He writes, “At first I thought my attraction to this activity was purely gustatory or aesthetic, but I have gradually realized that there is consolation to be found in any baked good that calls for more than one stick of butter.” In taking the trip to spite his ex-boyfriend, and then purchasing the oil on the trip, and then using the oil for the purpose of transgressing his worries, he becomes the “anti-Proust,” whose “fountain pen flows with butter.” He becomes transported by the activity, the smell, the taste, the poetics of the story borne of his attempt to subvert a memory. In using cooking to erase, Alford simultaneously employs it to create.
In an interview with Kevin Young for New York Public Library, Gabrielle Hamilton gives context to the analogous necessities of food and poetry. She says at one point, “And yet, what happens is, we come to these certain times where nothing works except for the poem…I can’t walk, talk, sleep, eat, and then the poet comes in and kind of provides the salve…puts the words to the things…a kind of feeding” (Hamilton, Interview, 2016). She juxtaposes the consumption of each in a way which frames them as parallel entities, the two things we first reach for in moments of distress. In this way, food is able to function cathartically in multiple ways. Reading a recipe provides a tone of authority. Performing the recipe provides an activity by which the participant is able to keep her hands busy and mind free. Sharing the product of a recipe provides a centerpiece for gathering, in moments of distress and of peace. Think about funerals – often, you attend a service grounded in lyricism, and then you attend a small gathering in which people eat and share memories about the deceased. In relation to Proust’s madeleine, we see illuminated for us a distinct correlation between the evocation of memory by gastronomic stimulus, and its ability to stimulate narrative musing. In short, a relationship between poetics and food.
I am a firm believer that failure, resilience and practice to which it can lead, are crucial to becoming a better cook. No one gets it right the first time, or every time. Certainly not me. But the thing about cooking is, we all need to eat again tomorrow, so there’s always another chance to improve. The important thing is to seize that chance!
Samin Nosrat, Interview, 2017
In her cookbook Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Art of Good Cooking, Samin Nosrat employs a tone of familiarity and intimacy to hold the hands of her readers along their journey of learning what she considers to be the four basic elements of cooking. The persona Nosrat contrives in cookbook is given to us on a silver platter in the foreword by Michael Pollan: “Samin is a natural teacher” (Nosrat 2). She has been established for the reader as a guide, a mentor. This characterization is immediately reinforced in her own introduction, where she writes, “You can become not only a good cook, but a great one. I know, because it happened to me” (5). Within this statement is the implication that her life-experience is deeply grounded in her cooking experience and, more specifically, in what she is about to detail for readers in her cookbook. She delves immediately into a childhood memory of her mother enlisting her to the kitchen “to peel raw fava beans or pick fresh herbs for the traditional Persian meals she served every night” (6). This moment of indulgence blossoms into a later memory of “Johnny, a rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed poet who introduced [her] to the culinary delights of his native San Francisco,” eventually taking her to the restaurant which would manifest her desire to learn how to cook (6). In marrying her nostalgia to the actual moment in which she indulged, she illuminates a parallel for readers, one with a stake in autobiography. These memories set up her introduction to develop into an autobiographical essay of its own right.
Nosrat speaks with narrative authority throughout her cookbook but takes it on explicitly in this introduction. Why might she do that? For one, it offers readers a degree of intimacy. This intimacy can be directly translated to what Smith and Watson would deem an attempt to “win the reader’s belief,” a desire to “have the ‘truth’ of the narrative validated” (173). In other words, here is where she asks for her readers’ pretend signature on their autobiographical pact. Nosrat is writing a cookbook, so of course her introduction manifests itself into an explanation of where her expertise and her authority to teach on the subject of this cookbook. It is dense with her cooking experiences. How can the humble reader argue with the expertise of someone who interned at Chez Panisse, who apprenticed under Benedetta Vitali, who articulates without an ounce of arrogance her fifteen years of knowledge acquisition? Fine! I’ll buy it. I’ll believe what she has to say about the importance of salt in preparing a steak. And my choice to buy what she is selling me is intimately connected to her assertions of self in this introduction. Her vulnerability imparts onto her reader a level of ease, as if she were a friend, because I now know these intimate details about her life and so I begin to doubt that she would steer me wrong, having no solid evidence to prove otherwise. As Andy Baraghani, Senior Food Editor at Bon Appetit, said to me in an interview on the subject, “I think when you have that personal view, when you add that to the food and the recipes and all that, it gives it more substance and depth, but it also helps with your branding because it’s a personal connection.” In this way, adding narrative to cookbooks beckons to the autobiographical pact.
But what should not get lost in the sauce of this credibility is a central problem with autobiography as a genre: the Samin Nosrat presented to us in this introduction is not some objective Samin Nosrat. It is the persona she has cultivated for us to accept as Samin Nosrat. Paul John Eakin, in Fictions of Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, argues that “autobiographical writing is a form of self-invention that constitutes the self” (qtd. in Smith and Watson 140). There certainly is some self in the persona presented to us by Nosrat. The authenticity of that self, however, is left up to the reader to determine. The self we are given is a self at least partially invented by its presentation. As Dierdre Heddon writes in her article, “Performing the Self,” “The performer may perform the self, but one can never be entirely sure of who the self that is being performed is, nor in fact who the performer is, as both selves keep slipping.” The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the cultivated self, thereby rendering them without an entirely objective of either the cultivated self or the authentic self. To make this even more problematic, we account for the indulgence which is experienced in autobiographical writing which can render the cultivated-self quite far from any resemblance of the “true” self. Heddon offers her readers a provocative quote from Weisberg: “the dangers in autobiographical art are legion: solipsisms that interest an audience of one.” How much indulgence can an autobiographical story stand before it has completely strayed from any semblance truth? The very same issues which arise in autobiography as a broader genre appear in cookbooks when they function narratively.
It would seem that the question consequently provoked becomes: what is it about cookbooks as a genre which invite the author to cultivate a self in the first place? One obvious answer might be that the author of the cookbook defines themselves as a cook. Naturally, they establish their public persona as a cook, if they are publishing a cookbook. Thus, Nosrat’s decision to write a cookbook establishes her as cook. Furthermore, she establishes herself as teacher, by the language she uses and the format of the book. But what of these establishments? Beyond Nosrat being a cook or a teacher is Nosrat’s intimacy with cooking. It would have felt incomplete for her to have composed this book without her autobiographical language, because there is an autobiographical place from which her recipes, and her curation of them, are derived. To again quote Baraghani, “You’re cooking through dishes your mother made that you never thought you’d be making, and, you did a close enough job that it sort of brings you back to that space.” This relationship naturally gives way to examining the role of necessity as was framed earlier by Hamilton. We need food to survive. Consequently, how much is that need tied up with our understanding of ourselves? How much does that play into how we carry out our daily lives? Nosrat opts to deal with this bodily necessity using indulgence, as she demonstrates in her choice to publicize her own food preparations by way of a cookbook.
Nosrat dedicates the first half of her book to a meditation on what she believes to be the four essential facets of cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. She incorporates into these lessons her own experiences in learning about the virtues of each. For example, within the “Fat” chapter, she shares with her reader an anecdote about her childhood experience with dessert: When it hit, the craving for cookies or cake was always urgent. I was never patient enough to wait for the frozen butter to come to room temperature, as every single recipe commanded. And even if I did somehow summon the discipline required to wait…without an electric mixer to help cream it, my cookie dough was always a mess…What I didn’t know then was that by melting the butter, I was destroying any chance I had at working air into it. (97) Nosrat does quite a few complex things here. She shares a story, fostering that intimacy that she cultivated in her introduction. But she also grants credibility to her lesson by sharing a story of her own failure, thereby adding another dimension to the complexity of her persona. She leaves a space for the reader to say, “She has failed too!” She constructs herself as someone the reader can relate to. Nosrat asserts herself as human by reminding readers that she makes mistakes. She strips away the distinction between professional-chef and home-cook by presenting a new paradigm in which mistakes are nondiscriminatory. This ability for the reader to identify with the author is an important facet of autobiography. It serves to deepen the credibility that the reader grants to the author, granting more solidity to the persona being constructed. It strengthens the clauses of the autobiographical pact in fostering a persona the reader can more readily identify with, consequently having a greater investment in.
Though the second part of Nosrat’s book is primarily recipes as opposed to the broader lessons and advice of the first part, this same persona is maintained, carried through by the language she employs in her written recipes. Most recipes have an explicit narrative at the top, a short paragraph detailing the recipe’s precise relevance or importance, where it was derived from, and why it matters to her. For example, her recipe for “Adas Polo o Morgh,” or “Chicken with Lentil Rice” (334). First and foremost, her decision to list the recipe in her native tongue asserts that she is someone who still respects her roots, who values where she has come from. Her introduction shares with the reader that this was the dish she would always request “whenever Maman asked [her] what [she] wanted for dinner,” dubbing it “universal comfort food.” At this point Nosrat has established her stake in the particular recipe, and given us an explicit narrative explanation. Where else is this recipe autobiographical? Let’s look for a moment at the way she formats the recipe and the language she employs and see how that stands up against more traditional standards. For one, Nosrat does not use numbers to denote steps, in this recipe or any. Rather, she separates them with new paragraphs and indentations. This already imparts onto the reader a narrative-feel within the recipe. Beyond that, however, she mostly sticks with the traditional language of recipes: “Return the pan to medium-heat and melt the butter. Add the onions, cumin, bay leaves, saffron, and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until brown and tender, about 25 minutes” (335). In adopting the more traditional language when she gets into the meat of her actual recipe, she cultivates a balance between the pal helping you out while you navigate sautéing your first chicken thigh, and the seasoned, professional chef her credentials affirm her to be. Her persona is both one you can identify with, one you can engage with, and one who commands respect by asserting herself as knowledgeable in her respective field.
At the conclusion of her book comes the ultimate invitation for engagement: a few pages dedicated to notes by the reader. Nosrat is a strong illustration of why autobiographical language can be useful in reaching an audience, but she also demonstrates for us the intimate relationship between medium and producer. She invites the engagement of the reader with the book explicitly. In choosing to produce a cookbook, she establishes a persona for herself which naturally beckons to autobiography. Further, she invites the reader in. She wants them to indulge with her, learn with her, experience with her. Her inclusion of the notes pages implicates the experience that cooking produces, the way that it fosters memories and generates personal connection between the cook and the action. By way of content and form, Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat asserts itself as an autobiographical entity. An additional component central to the role of cookbooks as an autobiographical medium is their use of image. Samin Nosrat makes the provocative choice in her cookbook to not include any photographs. At the beginning, in her “How to Use This Book” section, Nosrat writes, “The choice to embellish this book with illustrations rather than photographs was deliberate. Let it liberate you from feeling that there’s only one perfect version of every dish. Let it encourage you to improvise, and judge what good food looks like on your own terms” (12). The illustrations are beautiful cartoons which impart onto the reader a fluidity. There is something more free, less technical, in Nosrat’s choice to employ illustrations instead of photographs. The deliberateness of her decision to use illustrations instead of photographs helps to foster the persona Nosrat cultivates throughout the course of her cookbook. It reinforces her role as teacher and mentor in asserting that her ultimate intent is to help her readers improve, without making them feel bad or strive for some level of perfection with her as the gold standard. Greater than that, however, the fluidity of the illustration detaches Nosrat from the production of each recipe, generating a space in which readers can develop their own understanding of each recipe, and consequently, attach their own nostalgia to each.
Read the recipe. Because a lot of people don’t and then they get home and they’re like, “Fuck, I need eggs for this?” and they’re mad and have a bad time and end up ordering takeout. Or they put something in the oven and they’re like, “Dammit, I was supposed to put that in before I put it in the oven?” I’ve been guilty of that, when testing things, I get too confident… But also, feel free to ignore the recipe! If you’re like, I hate coriander, feel free to omit coriander, or replace it with something else. If you love cumin, add cumin. Experiment. It’s not always about making a perfect plate of food; it’s about learning to cook, teaching yourself what you like and empowering yourself to riff and do your own thing.
Alison Roman, Interview, 2017
Alison Roman’s Dining In is another acute demonstration of the autobiographical dimension within cookbooks. Similar to Nosrat, her “Introduction” places at its forefront an explanation of how her cooking career began. In fact, her first sentence is: “When I was twenty, I told my mom I was going to take a break from college to cook food for a living…Eleven years later, I’m still on that break from college” (10). She tells her reader the age when she first started cooking, the circumstances, and the relationship of that choice to the present. Throughout her book, Roman’s casual, perky tone affirms the persona which she explicitly assigns to herself in this introduction. She uses “the same stainless-steel skillet to cooking nearly everything,” she rolls her “piecrust with an unopened wine bottle” when she “inevitably” misplaces her “rolling pin” (10). She is fun and quirky, and if you can’t identify with her, you likely want to be friends with her. Or, at least, the persona she cultivates in this introduction. Roman declares, “To buy a book and cook from it is an extremely personal experience” (11). In putting so explicitly to her readers the intimacy of reading a cookbook, she asserts her own cookbook, as well as her own experience reading cookbooks, as autobiographical acts in and of themselves. Similar to the “Notes” section in Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Roman sees the parallel between her own investment and the engagement of her readers.
In her essay, “Nourishing the Self: Cookbooks as Autobiography,” Rebecca Quist Barlow argues that autobiography “is a dynamic act that is performed and, in the case of cookbooks, that can be altered or added to in reader’s own autobiographical performances” (2). Barlow clearly delineates that there is a relationship between the cookbook author and the reader engagement, but what might foster that relationship? One likely explanation is mutual indulgence. Roman acknowledges the involvement by readers, thereby acknowledging an inherent facet of autobiography: autobiographies are granted meaning and credibility by their readers, and their willingness to indulge alongside the autobiographical act itself. Though this brings to light the problematic notion that autobiography can put forward any sort of objective self, it also reinforces the autobiographical tendency of cookbooks. The engagement on the part of the reader is essential to all autobiographical writing. Further, it is made possible by this notion of indulgence. In what ways is the self we cultivate limited by what is available to us? Consequently, in what ways is Alison Roman only able to present an incomplete persona as a consequence of the cultural script available to her? In what ways is her own understanding of herself incomplete or false, thereby rendering the persona she presents to be entirely fictional? All of these questions become necessarily tied to, and further complicated by, the process of cultivating a brand. Smith and Watson write, “People tell stories of their lives through the cultural scripts available to them, and they are governed by cultural strictures about self-presentation in public.” Roman uses pop culture references, pictures of herself in cute outfits, and playful narrative as ways of employing the cultural scripts available to her to reach an audience. For example, in her “Scallops with Corn, Hazelnuts, and Brown Butter Chermoula,” she writes, “I’ll admit that I find seared scallops to be sort of 1997…You know what else I find uncool? Sautéed corn…Maybe like mom jeans, both will come back into style by the time this book comes out” (187). In tying what she considers “lame” to mom jeans, which were cool, then were uncool, and are now cool again, she indicates to her reader that she is aware of trends. Similarly, in the introduction for her “Raw and Roasted Kale with Pistachios and Creamy Pecorino,” she writes, “To me, there is no better leafy green than kale…Crispy kale, raw kale sautéed kale. Kale with garlic, creamed kale, kale in my soup…I literally cannot get enough. I know, what is this, 2004?” (84). You don’t have to be a foodie to remember the cringe-inducing “Hail to Kale” t-shirts and canvas bags toted by white twenty-year-olds everywhere – girls with yoga mats on the subway, the guy in front of you on line at Trader Joe’s, you know the type. Roman incorporates comedy into her cultural reference, asserting herself as trendy and simultaneously able to see the ridiculousness of a trend. In employing these cultural scripts, Roman cultivates a persona in such a way that people want to buy it. She sells her persona in the form of a cookbook. In Roman’s introduction of herself, she incorporates the concept of agency implicitly by bringing up quitting school to work in a restaurant. Her presentation of this decision suggests to the reader an understanding that her present is derived wholly from her past choices. She grounds her understanding of herself in her life-experience derived from cooking, and proceeds in this fashion throughout the cookbook, maintaining the tone she establishes in her introduction. Free will is a central issue of autobiographical writing. The question provoked becomes: how much agency do we really have when so much of our understanding of ourselves is derived from societal norms? In Leigh Gilmore’s work, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony, she writes, “autobiography’s domain of first-person particularities and peculiarities offers an opportunity to describe their lives and their thoughts about it…to emerge through writing as an agent of self-representation” (9). This question of agency can be seen in the representative persona necessarily cultivated by the authors examined in this paper. In her essay “The Concept of Agency,” Bronwyn Davies writes, “being an individual involves the appropriation of the words of the collectives of which one is a member and that the collective appropriates the individual at the moment that individual speaks any words” (47). For reference, “appropriation” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is, “The making of a thing private property, whether another’s or one’s own; taking as one’s own or to one’s own use” (OED). This brings us full-circle to the issue of representation so prevalent in autobiography. How much can we trust this “self,” if it is only able to function within the cultural scripts available to the author? How real is the persona put forward, and how real is the self behind this constructed self? This issue is just as central to autobiographical cookbooks as to any conventional memoir or personal narrative. The will and agency of the author is at constant conflict with the way they are being shaped by the society around them, and by their own manipulation of the self they put into words, whether this manipulation is intentional or not.
Roman’s use of anecdotes brings this issue of agency into view. For example, her explanation of her choice to include three brines for pickles:
While I was growing up, my grandmother used to say to me, “You eat so many pickles, you’re going to turn into one.” And it’s true. I’ve always had a very aggressive pickle habit, keeping at least three types in my fridge at any given time…Realistically, it would be insane to give a recipe for just one type of pickle when there are so many options out there, so here are three of my favorite brines. (23)
How much can we trust this anecdote? How can we adequately locate embellishment which is incorporated to make the text more believable or relatable? This issue becomes necessarily tied to the autobiographical pact, and the willingness of the reader to accept these anecdotes for what Roman tells us they are. In addition to these anecdotes which Roman weaves throughout her cookbook are the explicitly narrative introductions to chapters. These narratives provide a consequential explanation for why she is including the chapter at all (e.g., for the vegetables chapter, she opens with “When I was about seven or eight, I had a thing for supermarket shoplifting” (31)). Then, every recipe also gets its own little blurb, explaining its relevance. These are explicitly autobiographical. Their language and essential form function to maintain the persona she established in the beginning, and to promote engagement from the reader. Referring again to Baraghani, “[authors] want to connect with the reader, and showing some vulnerability is very trendy.” Within this beckoning towards reader engagement is the construction of a brand. Roman is cultivating a product in cultivating a persona.
But what about her actual recipes? What sort of poetic nuances do they carry which serve to grant us a deeper image of the persona Alison Roman wants to put forth? Let’s take her recipe for “Steamed Artichokes with Salted Garlic Butter.” This recipe opens with a slightly longer-than-usual narrative: “My earliest memory of being in the kitchen is standing on a chair and using (probably very dull) scissors to trim the cactus-like thorns from the tip of the artichoke leaves so that my mom could steam them” (56). She partakes candidly in the indulgence of nostalgia, asserting for the reader that this recipe is near-and-dear to her heart and to her earliest moments in her as-yet-unbeknownst cooking career. But the actual recipe assumes language that is rather natural for recipes, arguably even more traditional that Nosrat, in the fact that she employs numbers: “Trim the stem of each artichoke so it’s about ¾ inch long. Make sure it’s even, so it stands up straight in the pot.” You get the picture. Until, that is, she gets to her last step, where she instead writes, “Serve with the melted butter and lemon wedges and eat the artichokes with one person you love, or share them with three people you like.” By subtly infusing some humor into her otherwise classically written recipe, Roman does a few really complex things. On the one hand, she has already established the recipe’s importance and relevance for the reader, by way of narrative. Then, in writing the recipe with mostly traditional language, she portrays herself as having knowledge of the general rules of the recipe. Then, by imparting some humor, she maintains her projected persona as funny and relatable. This persona speaks intimately to the autobiographical character Roman cultivates in her work.
Before her recipe for “Burrata with Tangerines, Shallots, and Watercress,” she details a story about her love for Creamsicles, which is what ultimately inspired this salad. Later in the book, she dedicates a whole page to her dad’s “Matzo Brei.” She expounds her love for chickpeas as borne in childhood, she titles a recipe “Mom’s Trout with Herby Bread Crumbs,” and she grounds her sorbet recipe firmly in her Grandma’s orange sherbet cups (191, 252). The sheer density of personal connection the author establishes to each recipe forces the reader to question how much agency we have over our memories. Do we have agency over the various ways they impress themselves into our minds, the way they carry forth into our future endeavors? In including so many personal recipes and drawing such direct connections between her experience and her cookbook, she reinforces the autobiographical lens through which her cookbook can be read. She clearly spells out for the reader just how much her understanding of herself coincides with her understanding of herself as a cook.
One recipe which particularly struck me was her recipe for piecrust. The recipe is dubbed “The Only Piecrust.” From her language, it really does feel like the only piecrust. She describes making the pie in her typically-narrative blurb prior the recipe, detailing before the details the “tactile process.” She writes that she prefers “to make [her] dough by hand, never in the food processor,” because of the connection between maker and pie crust from feeling “the butter smash into the flour, then the water hydrate the flour,” because of the intimate “understanding” of “what it means to need a few more teaspoons of water of a light dusting of flour” (256). Her poetic language draws the reader in further, placing the reader’s ear to the page with the eagerness and anxiety of someone about to perform something sacred, intimate. They deepen her credibility in asserting that she has some connection with the food she’s cooking, and what’s greater, some connection that the reader should strive for. And red alert! She is partaking in some seriously indulgent writing here. She invites the reader to indulge along with her, both in the act of preparing and enjoying food, and also in the autobiographical act. Roman articulates in her description of making pie crust the complex intersection between mental indulgence and carnal indulgence. She welcomes her readers to develop their own narrative dimension through the preparation of these meals with already carry nostalgic significance to her.
In John Derrida’s essay, “The Animal Therefore I Am,” he describes “the autobiographical animal” as “the sort of man or woman who, as a matter of character, chooses to indulge in or can’t resist indulging in autobiographical confidences” (49). The word indulgent here is not a groundbreaking revelation, and it brings Marcel Proust readily to mind. In a review of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Roger Shattuck quotes William H. Gass as having written, “there is no special truth in him…Proust writes a careless self-indulgent prose, doesn’t he?... Epithet follows epithet like tea cakes in flutes of paper…It is a style that endangers the identity of the self in its reckless expressions of it.” Is indulgence not its own “special truth”? Or does indulgence foster the manufacturing of a fictional narrative? Cookbooks as a narrative medium illuminate these questions. Something about the relationship of food to the necessity of it beckons the author to delineate meaning and personal investment to carnal indulgence. This meaning and investment call into question of the authenticity of the autobiographical narrative. Moving forward into the realm of sensual satiation, I reiterate that the food articulated in cookbooks is indulgent. I mean, surely, I don’t need Brown-Butter Buttermilk Cake to survive. This sheer indulgence of the recipes curated in cookbooks demonstrates the parallel between the things themselves and the indulgence of the autobiographical act authors of cookbooks participate in. The authors must be autobiographical animals at some level. They must have that tendency to manifest autobiography where others may not immediately see it if they are able to construct their cookbooks to function narratively.
To turn our attention back to the author at hand, Roman offers another unique dimension to the “autobiographical animal”: social media. For one, fans of Roman’s work can derive some comfort in the credibility of the persona she puts forth from her interactions on social media. They can access what she is tagged in and see other successful food-writers respond to her work and engage with her, and they can feel good because other credible chefs are reading her book and cooking her recipes. But then, there is the actual “self” she puts forth on her social media. Social media grants a platform on which any old Joe-shmo can cultivate a self. In some ways, “social media is essential in cultivating a brand – good or not” (Baraghani 2018). It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that social media is tailored to indulge the autobiographical animal in all of us. It inherently beckons users to find meaning and publicize it. It is saturated with autobiography. And so besides being able to check Roman’s credibility, it also provides an opportunity to hold the persona constructed in her book to the persona constructed on her social media, to check how they align, and to make ourselves feel like we are getting some kind of more authentic self (if we disregard the extreme construction which is devoted to the social-media self). Because when they align, we can tell ourselves that it is harder to fake it in two mediums, and so maybe that self is really her, assuming we believe in an essential self. Of course, the inherent problem of autobiography is translated to social media, autobiographical platform that it is, and we know deep down that all we get is a persona, meticulously cultivated by the person under scrutiny. As Gilmore later writes in The Limits of Autobiography, Every autobiography…is an assembly of theories of the self and self-representation; of personal identity and one’s relation to a family, a region, a nation…How to situate the self within these theories is the task of autobiography which entails the larger organizational question of how selves and milieus ought to be understood in relation to each other. (12) In what ways is Roman’s social media persona a construction of her with relation to her understanding of the world around her? Most of her pictures are of food, her captions drip with wit and snark. In perpetuating the persona she constructs in her book and on her social media, Roman reinforces the autobiographical dimensions of cookbooks as a larger genre. Her autobiographical self is one cultivated from the environmental aspects in which she is grounded. The writing of recipes is tied intimately with the experience of composing them, the derivation of them, and the persona who is presenting them.
But there is another facet of Roman’s social media character which we have already briefly touched on but must now discuss in greater depth, and that is the value of cultivating a brand. I followed Alison Roman on Instagram before I bought her book – in fact, it was not even out yet when I started following her. She would post photos of the recipes from the pre-publication, always featuring a clever caption and the hashtag #imdiningin, and I’ll be damned but suddenly, as if by magic, I was a total Alison Roman groupie. I barely knew anything about her beyond her Instagram handle and how she cooks her omelets and where she buys her salt, but there I was, furiously googling recipes from her former Bon Appétit career, wishing I had thought of that caption first, and seriously praying that I would run into her on her morning Q train commute. Truth be told, I can’t even remember how I found her on Instagram. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? I was immediately captivated by this persona she put forth, so captivated that I was willing to literally purchase it in the form of a book. She branded herself, and I bought it, and so did a lot of other people. And so beyond a quasi-sincere desire to connect with readers and share indulgence in its many forms, the autobiographical act crystallizes another complex facet: survival. Fostering a persona in a cookbook, as in any autobiographical text, is synonymous with fostering a brand. The success of that brand is reflected in the audience. I am not saying Roman is a sellout, or anyone who cultivates a brand and a fanbase, because at the core, fostering a brand is a tangible employment of available cultural scripts. It is using the tools which are readily available to make a living. Why is it useful that I identify with Roman, or think she’s funny, or want to read what she writes, besides for her own validation? Because I am paying her rent. Roman’s book has sold out various times on Amazon. Therefore, it can be concluded that she has constructed a pretty successful brand. Her persona is one people want to buy. Her self has been successfully commodified.
Unlike Nosrat, Roman chooses to employ photographs in her cookbook. That said, the photographs don’t appear to be perfectly neat and organized dictations of what a dish should look like. Many photos are mid-preparation, or post-serving. Most have utensils sticking out of them, and feature missing bites or smears of sauce. The image next to her “Grilled Branzino with Lemons All of the Ways” features two fish, one untouched, and the one directly next to it picked completely clean, excepting the head and tail. The images match the sunny persona which Roman cultivates in her cookbook though her language, and the freeform attitude she adopts with regards to cooking. The photo of the “Lemon Shaker Tart” shows an empty pastry crust next to a bowl of the tart-filling (288). The photo next to “Brown Butter-Buttermilk Cake” shoes a hand, presumably Roman, with bright orange fingernails, pouring frosting on a cake (295). It is clearly an action shot, and next to the cake is a bunch of junk strewn haphazardly. The fluid tone of the photos affirm that Roman is just like her reader. She doesn’t have some fancy, neat, professional kitchen. She also has notebooks and keys and sunglasses chilling next to her mixing bowls while she cooks. Her images are captivating, using natural light and bright backdrops to draw readers in. Though photographs possess the danger of imparting technicality, Roman manages to employ them in a way that maintains the fluidity she asserts in the language of her recipes. What’s more, they align closely with her brand, and the photographs she puts on her Instagram. Interestingly enough, Roman makes reference to Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine in one of her narrative pieces, remarking that, “It had only sketches of dishes – no photographs – which made attempting execution all the more frustrating” (273). This offers a compelling contrast to Nosrat’s intention in using illustrations. Where Nosrat felt sketches were liberating, Roman sees it as discouraging. This distinction affirms the delicate potential possessed by cookbooks to be a medium for “self”-cultivation. Image in Roman’s Dining In functions to contribute to the form of her book, and the persona she carefully constructs.
As soon as I saw the three-bin stainless steel pot sink, exactly like ours, I felt instantly at home and fell into peeling potatoes and scraping plates for the dishwasher like it was my own skin. And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start.
Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter 2012
The next case to discuss is a unique one in that, similar to Roman, there is another autobiographical medium with which we can compare the actual cookbook in order to explicitly tease out the autobiographical facets of the cookbook itself. This comes in Gabrielle Hamilton’s cookbook, Prune, and her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter. Aside from being explicitly narrative (it’s a memoir), Blood, Bones, and Butter provides readers an explanation of where the recipes in Prune come from. Whereas Roman and Nosrat lean heavily on weaving the two together and exploiting the cookbook’s capacity for autobiographical narrative, Hamilton opts to separate the two and leave her readers to do a bit of the leg-work for themselves. Blood, Bones, and Butter sustains a lyrical voice in order to recount Hamilton’s “Inadvertent Education.” Prune allows the recipes to speak for themselves, and occupies a rather direct, candid tone. Hamilton does not fluff up the recipes with hand-holding expressions of identity, and having read her memoir, this is a decision which acutely reflects the autobiographical persona she puts forth.
Hamilton opts to open the memoir with a candid memory: “We threw a party. The same party, every year, when I was a kid. It was a spring lamb roast” (5). In choosing to open her memoir with a memory in which food is not only the centerpiece, but indeed, the actant, she affirms its role as a centerpiece in her own life. As she goes on, she offers readers a deeply romantic image of her mother, who “knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal” (8). Hamilton divulges more explicitly the precise prudence of her mother:
We were given one piece of Saran Wrap for the week, to be reused and brought home each day…My mother turned soured milk into buttermilk with the help of a tablespoon of cider vinegar, and then it went in the blender with strawberries for our breakfast. Stale heels of bread became bread crumbs, make by grating on the toothy holes of a box grater and then kept in the freezer. Mold was cut away until the creamy tender edible part of whatever thing was revealed. (37)
This “thrift” she ascribes to her mother can be directly correlated to her final chapter in Prune, which she chooses to title “Garbage.” The entire chapter is dedicated to various ways to give new life to the scraps and expired items normally which, under normal circumstances, would be considered “garbage.” In this chapter in particular, Hamilton’s tone feels reminiscent of the character she constructs to be her mother: “If there is smoked fish leftover from brunch on Monday morning, make this chowder and run it at lunch, please. The quality of the fish (Russ & Daughters!) – and the expense (this is not a product to be used in family meal, people) is such that I’ll kill you if you waste it” (535). She is commanding and confident in her directives, and the parallel between her and her mother is exceedingly evident. She even includes, explicitly, how to turn “Expired Heavy Cream” to butter, a lesson which would appear to be derived directly from her mother (542). In including a chapter on reducing waste, Hamilton constructs the persona presented in her cookbook to be one of practicality. This makes sense when readers do the extra step of comparing it to the persona cultivated in her more explicitly autobiographical writing, and it becomes clear precisely from whence her practicality was derived.
Hamilton marries her realization that her parents were unhappy together to her memory of “sweeping up cornichons and hard salami and radishes off the kitchen floor” (21). The ingredients she highlights in this scene – “Kronenbourg beer,” “salami,” “a hunk of Jarlsberg,” “some radishes and butter and some cornichons and Dijon mustard” – carry right through into Prune. “Radishes with Sweet Butter and Kosher Salt,” “Canned Sardines with Triscuits, Dijon Mustard, and Cornichons,” “Grilled Lamb Sausages with Dijon Mustard and Cornichons,” to name a few (4, 3, 13). Thereby, the deep connections she has to these flavors become evident in our ability to draw lines between them and pivotal moments in her life. She describes her childhood desserts, noting in particular “sliced bread with butter and granulated sugar” (37). In Prune, she actually includes a recipe for “Butter and Sugar Sandwiches” (228). This inclusion of such a seemingly simplistic recipe (you can probably guess how to make this sandwich without my having to even articulate the recipe here), juxtaposed to her more complex recipes like “Cornmeal Pound Cake with Rosemary Syrup, Candied Rosemary, and Poached Pear,” reinforces the birthplace of her inspiration for them all as the simple satisfactions from her younger years, before she had even considered cooking professionally. They are borne of these simple desserts her frugal mother fed her as a child, these raw, un-ornate things which satisfied her once. The juxtaposition functions to assert with precision the persona Gabrielle Hamilton so carefully wants to perform for her readers: “no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry” (136). Hamilton performs authenticity. In making this authenticity so poignant, Hamilton constructs her persona to be one of nondiscriminatory respect for satiation. Satisfaction of her hunger, rather than desire to impress with elaboration, become a cornerstone of Hamilton’s persona.
Prune is essentially a literary representation of Hamilton’s restaurant, Prune, which is located in the Lower East Side (and will serve you probably the best chicken you’ve ever had in your fucking life!). In her memoir, she gives readers a vivid landscape of precisely what she wants her restaurant to embody: And I wanted to bring all of it, every last detail of it – the old goat herder smoking filterless cigarettes coming down the mountain, crushing oregano and wild mint underfoot; Iannis cooking me two fried eggs without even asking me if I cared for something to eat; that sweet, creamy milk that the milk wallah in Delhi frothed by pouring in a long sweeping arc between two pots held as far apart as the full span of his arms from his cart decorated with a thousand fresh marigolds – into this tiny thirty-seat restaurant. (136)
Her restaurant, and consequently her cookbook, is borne entirely of her life’s experiences, composed wholly of her “moments of being.” In making this marriage so clear to her readers, Hamilton elucidates with clarity the birth of a cookbook from a memoir. The cookbook is the memoir, even when it lacks narrative excerpts and autobiographical chapter introductions, because the cookbook is spawned of the life of its author. The choice in recipe structure, recipe inclusion, and even the choice to include or not to include explicit narrative within the cookbook itself are all components in the cultivation of the autobiographical persona of the author. They all say something inherently about their author. In this case, they say a lot. To quote Baraghani in our interview, “We cook people’s recipes and it’s like oh, I understand your approach to recipes, your flavor profile. Especially the more you cook from them…A great cook and writer, they’re able to do that.” Cooking someone else’s recipe grants insights into an autobiographical self the person opts to put forward by their recipes.
Hamilton deepens this connection in the sheer volume of pages in Blood, Bones, and Butter she dedicates to her mother-in-law, Alda, and then with the entire chapter of Prune dedicated to Alda. Hamilton never explicitly says whether she is a lesbian or not, and frankly, it is irrelevant, but she partakes in a green-card marriage and ends up with an Italian mother-in-law (her and her husband later divorce and she currently lives with her two kids and a new wife). She describes the first meal Alda made for her as “the most delicious, unapologetic, undressed meal of a lifetime” (172). It becomes very clear very fast that Alda is a decisive character in Hamilton’s cooking career. In her cookbook, the photo next to the “Alda!” chapter is of a white-haired woman with a pearl necklace, varicose veins, and a closed smile. Though it never explicitly says so, the reader sort of takes this image to be Alda in the flesh. The inclusion of a picture of her deepens her importance, giving a face to the life which Hamilton paints, both in the recipes of this chapter, as well as in the dense descriptions of her from her memoir. She also includes a full-spread picture of a table which the reader is to take to be Alda’s. It is kind of a crappy picture, honestly, which only adds credibility to Hamilton’s persona as authentic and sincere. She is willing to include these average-looking snapshots because they matter on a level beyond their aesthetics. This prevents Hamilton from looking like someone contriving a character in order to directly appeal to her audience. Rather, it expresses the I-do-what-I-want mentality she has been cultivating, both by the character put forth by her memoir, and by the language she uses in her recipes.
If we describe Nosrat and Roman as consistently friendly and congenial, we can safely describe Hamilton as the unambiguous antithesis. She is direct, frank, and at moments, harsh. But she is never mean. The language she uses in her recipes function to add another dimension to the persona she builds for her readers. She is smart, and she is serious. Let’s take, for example, her recipe for “Strawberry Milk” (342). It is clearly inspired by the strawberry milk she describes her mother as having made for her as a child. But what of the actual language she uses to articulate the recipe? “Macerate the strawberries in sugar 1 hour. / Add milks. Steep overnight. / Shake well.” Blunt and unsuspecting, until we get to the final line, where we get a real taste of Hamilton versus everyone else: “Berries have to be excellent – don’t try and compensate for shitty berries with more sugar, please.” In using the word “shitty,” she really reinforces this authentic, bad-ass persona she has been cultivating. It is a provocative word choice for a strawberry milk recipe, something sweet and tender and reminiscent of childhood. It is juxtaposed next to a picture of someone sucking a pastel pink beverage through a red-and-white striped straw, inherently delicate. But it expresses exactly the character Hamilton tries to get across, which translates directly into the recipes she includes: real.
A Chicken Cutlet Love-Story
A few days ago, my mom finally divulged the steps to her homemade chicken cutlets, my prevailing favorite food. She always refused to tell me how to make them on the basis that we would make them together, but finally, because I requested it for my time-sensitive thesis, she cracked. (Thank you, Academia!). Though the conversation took place over the phone, I felt the air in the room shift as her voice fell into notes of comfortable meditation. I could see her seeing the steps in her mind. I was seeing the steps in my own mind, from my tiny-human perspective. The smell rouses me from bed, almost sensual in nature. By the time I get up, she is already done with the first batch. They beckon me from their paper towel mattress. Too young to see value in breakfast food that isn’t Cocoa Puffs, I eat one right then. I take tiny bites and talk to her while she cooked, only she was the only speaking. “What do you think?” she would say. “Not enough garlic,” she would answer herself. But they were perfect to me, every time. To have the recipe at my fingertips feels like some deeply sacred privilege. The notion of execution puts the two of us in what feels like an intimate connection. We are at a strange point where formally, I probably know more about the technicalities of cooking than her, and yet, I can’t help but feel daunted. There is innate pressure in executing someone else’s ritual – the pressure of paying respect to someone else’s intimate moments, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable within that moments in the way they have now been vulnerable with you. There is a deep connection between the creation and curation of meals which becomes articulated in the composition of a recipe. This meaning invested in recipes is indulgent, both emotionally and sensually, and contributes to the autobiographical impulse which cookbooks naturally lend themselves to. The autobiographical impulse manifests itself in the construction of a public persona, a carefully cultivated self, and a brand. The cookbook illuminates the problematic facets of autobiography, including the issues inherent to constructing a self and presenting a self, and indulging in nostalgia as a means of recounting experience. The cookbook is able to function as an invitation to indulge, and an intimate partner, employing language and content which invite intimacy to the table. The experience of writing a cookbook, reading a cookbook, and engaging with a cookbook closely mirror the experience of engaging in narrative and autobiography, as both the creator and the consumer. It places as its centerpiece the intersection of indulgence with necessity. And what’s more, it tells you how to make really good chicken cutlets.
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