Cuma//joo mah: Cookbooks as Cultural Artifacts
While completing my Master's in Gastronomy at Boston University, I lived in Cambridge, MA, next to Harvard University's Schlesinger Library. This library housed over 20,000 volumes of cookbooks or food-related books from the 16th to the 21st-century. It was such an honor to walk into a place where cookbooks are treated with care: think scheduled appointments, gloves, no pens, silence, etc. These books were valued as historical artifacts, particularly in the study of women and gender throughout history. Historians and researchers consider cookbooks a primary source, a text written by someone in the past but have only recently considered them as serious contributions in academic research. Despite the deprecation of food studies and cookbooks as serious historical artifacts, they have the ability to reveal social, technological, and economic bearings of a specific time period.
A cookbook offers anthropological evidence of societies and civilizations. Even a "bad" cookbook can act as an indicator or artifact from a specific time, especially considering the cultural response. According to food historian Ken Albala, when we study or engage with cookbooks, we should "answer five basic questions of provenance and purpose if possible. Who wrote the cookbook? What was the intended audience? Where was it produced, and when? Why was it written?" These questions are helpful when engaging with a cookbook and taking it more seriously as a larger commentary on culture. While academics previously reduced these recipes to frivolous collections of photos, ingredients, and measurements piecemealed together, there is now a larger emphasis on the role of recipes and cookbooks when studying history, and these questions are a great place to start.
This week, I listened to a wonderful podcast episode from Keep Calm and Cook On, where Julie Turshen interviewed human rights activist and cookbook author Yasmin Khan. The conversation was meaningful, and it explored the nuances of food beyond just the ingredients and taste of a dish. Khan is of Iranian descent, and her recent book, Zaitoun, focuses on the food of Palestine, which undoubtedly gets tied to political topics and the issue of conflict in the Middle East. One of the questions asked by Turshen was, "What can a cookbook do to help in these situations that other forms of media, like a newspaper or television, might not be able to achieve?" Khan's response once again supports the idea that cookbooks are more powerful than what most people acknowledge. She loosely explains that cookbooks take you into the heart of the home, the kitchen. When you cook recipes for yourself and your loved ones, feelings of enjoyment, comfort, and nourishment are achieved. When you engage in a cookbook from a culture you are not familiar with, it spreads the seeds of that culture and helps to facilitate conversation about a place that you would not normally talk about. The drip-feed of negative and hostile images of countries, usually in the Middle Eastern, in the media can be countered through creativity or connection, which are achieved through the preparation and consumption of a meal. If we apply the previously mentioned questions outlined by Ken Albala, we can learn more about the recent surge in Middle Eastern cookbooks in the past five years, the need for representation in immigrant communities, and the writer's intentions to share a personal account.
Food and drink writer Alicia Kennedy writes about the role of cookbooks in her life when learning about a culture she is unfamiliar with, "through cookbooks, I gain insight and make really delicious dishes. Inevitably, I take parts of what I’ve learned and apply them more broadly; they become part of my personal technique, my personal canon. This is how my instincts are honed so that I don’t have to look at cookbooks or a recipe website every time I want something to eat. It’s a gradual process of internalizing. To me, this is what it means to love food and cooking. This is why, despite not using them all the time, my cookbook collection continues to expand with new and vintage releases alike. I learn something from them all, even if it’s something I never do again." The truth is that it is easier (and often cheaper) to find recipes online, but I like to think of cookbooks as heirlooms to pass down to generations. These books are more than just a collection of information; in each book there are photos, experiences, and explanations - there is a story.
However, we should keep in mind that, ultimately, cookbooks are produced by those who have the means and capital. They are influencing and shaping a story through the book, which is representative of their experience. While they can be a window into another culture, they should not be confused with the actions to educate, efforts to connect, and research to understand the complexities of another culture. I certainly believe that food is powerful, but I think it is naive to believe that food unifies everyone and can save the world; it is not that simple. Food is simply a door to open while exploring different ways of thinking and living, and it just so happens that a dinner table can be a great place to sit down and start that exploration.
The more I experience Turkish cuisine, strengthen my skills in the kitchen and share my knowledge with others, the more respect I have for those who write recipes and compile their food stories in the form of a book. I pay more attention to the text in the books, the stories of the people, and I lean on their knowledge to form a more complete picture. Below, I would like to share four of the most important cookbooks in my culinary adventure so far.
What would make your top four list? Please share with me below!
Things I am Loving:
"The Paradox of Focus: Make the most of one opportunity, and more opportunities will come your way. Moving boldly in one direction causes more paths to unfold before you. To get more, focus on less." -- James Clear
There is nothing quite as sweet as a youtube channel called Pasta Grannies, where Italian grandmas all around Italy show us how to make their favorite family meals.
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