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Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote

Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote

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by Janet Theophano

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Some people think that a cookbook is just a collection of recipes for dishes that feed the body. In Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano shows that cookbooks provide food for the mind and the soul as well. Looking beyond the ingredients and instructions, she shows how women have used cookbooks to assert


Some people think that a cookbook is just a collection of recipes for dishes that feed the body. In Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano shows that cookbooks provide food for the mind and the soul as well. Looking beyond the ingredients and instructions, she shows how women have used cookbooks to assert their individuality, develop their minds, and structure their lives. Beginning in the seventeenth century and moving up through the present day, Theophano reads between the lines of recipes for dandelion wine, "Queen of Puddings," and half-pound cake to capture the stories and voices of these remarkable women.The selection of books looked at is enticing and wide-ranging. Theophano begins with seventeenth-century English estate housekeeping books that served as both cookbooks and reading primers so that women could educate themselves during long hours in the kitchen. She looks at A Date with a Dish, a classic African American cookbook that reveals the roots of many traditional American dishes, and she brings to life a 1950s cookbook written specifically for Americans by a Chinese émigré and transcribed into English by her daughter. Finally, Theophano looks at the contemporary cookbooks of Lynne Rosetto Kaspar, Madeleine Kamman, and Alice Waters to illustrate the sophistication and political activism present in modern cookbook writing. Janet Theophano harvests the rich history of cookbook writing to show how much more can be learned from a recipe than how to make a casserole, roast a chicken, or bake a cake. We discover that women's writings about food reveal--and revel in--the details of their lives, families, and the cultures they help to shape.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“She has enriched our appreciation for the texture of women's domestic lives across centuries and an ocean.” —Women's Review of Books

“Janet Theophano [is]...nourishing the mind and changing the way old cookbooks are perceived.” —Oakland Press

“Eat My Words is the perfect introduction.” —Baltimore Sun

“...she is at her very best when penetrating her material, like a light shining through paper, to illuminate the characters of her women authors.” —Toronto Star

“. . . a remarkable achievement. . . Eat My Words is not merely a history of cookbooks, but an exploration of women's lives in their own words. . .” —Phyllis Pray Bober, author of Art, Culture, and Cuisine

“...an engrossing study of how individual women and entire communities have, for centuries, expressed themselves through culinary instruction both formal and funky.” —Francine Prose, Elle

“The author has set herself a difficult task. Eat my Words is not entirely a work of history nor of literary exegesis nor of Geertzian 'thick description'...Seeking to chart continuity, rather than historical change, Theophano organizes chapters on themes pertinent to all women's lives.” —Shirley Teresa Wajda, Winterthur Portfolio

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St. Martin's Press
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

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Eat My Words

Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote

By Janet Theophano

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Janet Theophano
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-6293-5


Cookbooks as Communities

Bibi ... began at once to prepare for conjugal life ... Neglecting the new shipments delivered to the storage room, she began hounding us for recipes, for vermicelli pudding and papaya stew, and inscribed them in crooked letters in the pages of her inventory ledger.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Years ago, when beginning my hunt for old cookery manuscripts and books, I discovered an early nineteenth-century American handwritten slender volume that belonged to Jane Janviers. I was struck immediately by the number of different handwritings within the book. It was one of the first volumes of cookery that I would scrutinize in my search so I had yet to learn that many of the manuscripts were either attributed to or actually penned by many people other than the person named on the cover. I was baffled by the proprietary claim of Jane Janviers for a book written by many hands. After years of scouring archives, libraries, and personal collections, I have come to realize that although we think of cookbooks as the product of a single author, surprisingly, a cookbook is a communal affair.

Jane Janviers's recipe collection is a perfect example of women's collective writing. The date when Janviers began compiling her recipe book is unknown, but it appears to have been completed by 1837. Perhaps she began gathering her recipe collection as a young and inexperienced housekeeper, eager to develop her domestic skills. She may have continued adding to the book throughout the busy years of adult life. Most likely family, friends, and neighbors brought her their cooking experience, culinary innovations, and inspiration. As these sources wrote their personal recipes onto the pages of Janviers's cookery book in their own hands, the young woman began to experiment with their formulas, altering some proportions, deleting ingredients, and frequently commenting on their contributions as if it were an ongoing conversation among friends.

Across the recipe "To Preserve Citron Melon" Janviers drew a black X. Next to it she wrote "not as good as J. Bare's recipe." Later in the book I found "Mrs. Bare's Recipe for Citron Melon" — and Janviers's remark that it was "the best that can be adopted." A recipe for "Tea Cakes" calls for "6 large spoonsful of melted lard, 6 of sugar, 6 eggs, flour sufficient to make them stiff and close [—] like doughnuts." At the bottom of the recipe, in a different script, the writer editorializes, "... a little brandy and nutmeg is an improvement." Janviers may have been the modifier and critic, or it may have been another member of her household. It might have been her daughter who years after its penning decided that the old-fashioned recipe needed updating.

Such modifications and modernizations of old recipes and the invention of new dishes in a woman's cookbook represent the combined efforts of many people. Contributions may come from past generations and from individuals living side by side in small communities, connected to larger social circles, sometimes from one or more cultures, and they also can come to the cookbook from an array of print media. And while we tend to think of cooking as a delight to our senses, the relationships formed through the creation of these culinary compositions are social, cultural, and economic.

This is as true today as it was in earlier historical periods. In fact, the antecedents of the ubiquitous community fund-raising cookbook with which we are all familiar reach back into the early modern period at least to the 1600s. Women then as now were exchanging recipes for food and medicines. Over centuries, in the domestic sphere, the activities related to food and cooking have been primarily in the woman's domain. In the course of day-to-day life, by exchanging recipes and other household advice, women generated their culinary knowledge collaboratively and wrote their cookbooks cooperatively. Thus they learned how to prepare foods, medicines, and other domestic necessities for their families' survival. Beyond this pragmatic function, women used food-related activities as opportunities for socializing and creating friendships with women and men.

Cookbooks, then, besides describing foods, are records of women's social interactions and exchanges. In her nineteenth-century recipe book, Ellen Markoe Emlen noted carefully Elizabeth Camac's technique for preparing gingerbread. Emlen wrote, "Eliza melts the butter in the Molasses, then beats the eggs and milk in last." Imagine a friend stopping by for tea carrying a gift of her own freshly baked gingerbread. Her hostess remarks on how delicious the gingerbread is and asks for the recipe. The visitor might inscribe the recipe directly into her friend's recipe book or explain how to make it while they sip tea together. Or perhaps the husband of a newly married couple enjoys a dish at a dinner party. His wife asks for the recipe, which duly arrives in a letter that is then tucked into the recipe book for safekeeping, where, if not immediately, eventually it will be inscribed into the book.

From their cookbooks, we can learn about the writer and the social circles in which she traveled. Attributions in a recipe book marked the number and prominence of one's kin and friends, demonstrating the breadth of a social network and one's standing in it. A collection of recipes compiled over the course of a lifetime was emblematic of the social circles through which an adult woman traveled. Theoretically, nearly all individuals a woman met, from passing guests to servants, could inscribe themselves in her book, leaving a threadlike trail of women's interpersonal relationships. Thus the recipe book became a register of the relationships that comprised at least a portion of a woman's social universe. In this way, women kept records of the foods they cooked and either liked or rejected; in addition, the recipe book became a record of the individuals to whom they were connected through kinship and through other alliances.

Consequently, women's cookbooks can be maps of the social and cultural worlds they inhabit. In the stories of each of the cookbooks that follow, I discovered something about the social networks that gave birth to these culinary inscriptions. Yet deciphering a woman's social network from the names written in her cookbook is fraught with difficulties. I soon learned that the presence of a donor's name did not necessarily indicate a personal relationship between the recipe's giver and its recipient: Women sometimes copied recipes from printed books and other manuscripts. Similarly, the title of a recipe may have pointed to its long-ago origins rather than its most recent transmission. Widening their sphere, cookbook compilers may have corresponded with men and women across the world. It is difficult to know with certainty how broad or narrow a compiler's domain was, how widely read, or how many friends and kin she had. Without the precise information only the writer could provide on how or why a recipe came to be included, a woman's recipe book became a web of social relations to untangle. The women who exchanged recipes with one another did not necessarily live next door, although they often did; they did not have to be kin, although they often were. In truth, they did not have to know one another at all. For the most part, however, at least some of the attributions in women's recipe books were a gesture to those who had entered their domestic lives in one way or another. The names are useful pieces of a puzzle, significant but, by themselves, insufficient shards of information about the people who comprised their social circles.

However, other clues frequently contributed to an overall picture: the compiler's title and name; the size and extravagance of the book; the number of recipes; the lavishness or simplicity of the foods as determined by the number of ingredients, their cost, and the complexity of preparation. By themselves none of these was enough to reveal a cookbook writer's coterie or class. Yet many books also contained more than handwritten recipes, and from these other marginal writings, poetry, and prose, I could make an educated guess. And while no one book could provide a comprehensive view of its historical period, when all of the clues had come together, a picture of an individual and her social world emerged. By comparing and contrasting the body of manuscripts and printed texts of a particular era, I could derive patterns of writing characterizing the period. Individual women created their cookbooks from a common cultural template. In each era, women had shared understandings about what these books would look like, how they would function, and who might contribute to them. The circuitous routes by which these culinary themes traveled to their destinations are complicated to map because despite their similarities, each book was unique. And it was the variations among the books that helped reveal the social, economic, and cultural differences among the women.

Hopestill Brett, Her Booke, 1678

In 1678, perhaps the year she left her natal home for Horncroft, England, Hopestill Brett received a book for keeping recipes. It is an unpretentious, pocket-sized book — small enough to hold in your hand — and bound in unadorned brown leather. No gold initials or ornamentation embellish the cover. It is in keeping with a modest and devout woman.

In some ways, Brett's book varied from other receipt books of the period. For example, Brett wrote nearly all recipes in her own hand, although attributing them to many different people. Was Brett one of the few women in her community who could write? If so, what does this tell us about her community and her role in it? The women who donated their recipes to her book seem to inhabit a world quite unlike that of the aristocratic contributors whose recipes I have found in other seventeenth-century manuscripts. From Brett's rendering of recipes and from her personal revelations, I would learn how distinctive her book was.

At the outset of her small volume, on a loose page, Brett tells us that she ventured to a new place, Horncroft. By writing those words, she acknowledges the significance of the move. We do not know whether Horncroft was a village or town, a manor house, or, perhaps, remotely, a commune of religious women and men. On the same page on which she mentioned Horncroft she wrote, in a clear, well-executed script, all of the possessions she brought with her: "the Linin [linen], plate [silver] puter [pewter], and goods which I brought to Horncroft." (See Figure 1.1) Among them are:

45 payer of sheetts and a od one — 15 payer of pillow cots: 11 dosen of napkins 29 table Close: too dosen of towells (and 3) sidbord close ... 18 dishes of puter: 6 fase basons one porringer: ... a bras ladle and scommer a payer of [—] hooks, a pyer of grid irons: 3 beds: too bolsters: 3 blankits, one coverlit 9 pillows and two littell ones one chaier: one payer of bras and irons: 5 chests and too trunks one chest of draers: 3 desks ... a hanging shelf a littell loocking glass: ... a Iron boxe ... and too baskits: ... 3 wooden disshes a littell Cheese hoope ... one brush a littel bras chafing dish: a sillver porringer: ... a box Iron a Graye horse.

Brett's worldly goods were not insignificant. In the seventeenth century, owning one bed indicated prosperity. That she brought three beds to her new home indicated a substantial dowry, inheritance, or assets, and she had an unusually large number of linens and many pieces of furniture. Although not fabulously wealthy, she must have been a woman of note.

Still, despite the wealth indicated by her belongings, nothing else suggests that Hopestill Brett was aristocratic. She also recorded in her little book that in "1683 I had 24 naile of flax and a half: and when it was dresed I had 5 nail of byer: 3 naile of lounrit stuf: one naile and a half of five [—] and 10 nail of cors bow." Again in "1685 I had [—] 4 naile of hemp undresed and a half and half a pound of [—] and 11 pound of [—]." It is not clear whether Brett worked the flax and hemp herself or had it produced for her. Knowing that Brett had worked the flax herself would provide us with strong evidence that she was not upper class. Although all women, aristocratic and plebian, produced or embroidered textiles — aristocratic ladies were recognized and lauded for exemplary needlework — spinning flax was work for women who needed to supplement their income regardless of their marital status.

Finally Brett tells us that she or someone else either refashioned the goods she brought with her or used the flax and hemp to create more linens: "woven and cutt out of my linen: too payer of sheets 14 napkins too [—] too pillocotse, one sheete more 14 napkins more worn out: one sheet more: one sheet more: 2 payer of sheets more: a leven napkins one pallebor one sheete more: one payer of sheets more." Brett's linen likely may have been handed down from generation to generation, as it was most often through a family's women, and it represented their industriousness. Because of women's intimate connection to cloth, these goods are most likely mentioned in women's rather than men's inventories. It is from such tantalizing snippets in the recipe book, not from Brett's recipes, by themselves not so different from those in other books of the period, that we begin to place Hopestill Brett in the social world of seventeenth-century England.

Did Brett come to Horncroft as a bride, as a widow (called relict in this period) or simply as a single woman coming to live with kinsmen or in an adopted community? The answer is not clear. The unusual number of linens and beds suggest that she may have inherited the chattels of an innkeeper father, uncle, or brother. Moreover, we have little evidence of her marital status or her position in the community. Yet her book offers some clues. Brett's ability to write — by itself a sign of education and perhaps upper-class origins — still does not definitively reveal her social rank. It may suggest that she was reared and educated by parents who believed that literacy was necessary for an individual's spiritual development. Their church urged Protestant women and men of the late seventeenth century to become literate so that they might reflect upon their spiritual condition and read scripture directly, without using priests and clergy as intermediaries. Yet with the exception of her carefully written list of belongings, Brett's manuscript is unpolished. It is not what is called a fair copy, such as those that aristocratic families owned. Rather it is a working document, one used in the course of daily life. Perhaps because of this, her manuscript gives the impression of a person who may have written many of her recipes hastily or had learned to write later in life — when it was difficult to master the pen — or that her penmanship was rusty from lack of use. Although her possessions and ability to write suggest that she came from at least a moderately wealthy family, perhaps the rising middle classes or the gentry, this does not mean that her lineage (her family name) was a noble one. Many middle-class families had abundant wealth and encouraged literacy for their children.

To learn what we can about Brett and the connections she forged with others, we must look at her cookbook and the contributors who left behind their marks or names. Several ordinary Christian housewives, called "goodwives" or "goody" for short, contributed to her collection. According to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a good wife was "obedient to her husband, loving to her children, kind to her neighbors, dutiful to her servants, and religious in all her words and wayes." Goody Weller gave Brett an ointment and Goody Barber a recipe for rolls. "Goody Foulers pasty crust" was one of a few recipes Brett received for the dough that envelops meats and fish. Goody Hephorn also gave Brett a recipe for pasty crust. Brett did not say which one she preferred; perhaps she experimented with both.

Was Brett operating under an egalitarian impulse when she included multiple recipes for the pasty crust? Perhaps it was important for her not to exclude anyone because the community she lived in was small and its residents interdependent. Causing offense, even inadvertently, might have created tension among this network of women and men whose lives were profoundly intertwined. And there is another possible explanation. Many women accumulated more than one recipe for the same dish or medicine. In this way, they developed a repertoire that was varied and was more likely to ensure them at least one reliable and effective method. Whatever Brett's reasons for including multiple recipes for the same dish, the donors appear to have been of equal middlin' social rank (to one another), if not of equal culinary skill.


Excerpted from Eat My Words by Janet Theophano. Copyright © 2002 Janet Theophano. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Janet Theophano is a leading social historian and Associate Director of the College of General Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes widely on food and foodways in American life.

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Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The way she depicts the life of living in that house is great. The book was a big eye opener.