The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity

The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity

by Sandra M. Gilbert

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From the recipe novel to the celebrity chef, renowned scholar Sandra M. Gilbert explores the poetics and politics of food.
In this stunning and important work, the prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship with food and eating through discussions of literature, art, and popular culture. Focusing on contemporary practices,


From the recipe novel to the celebrity chef, renowned scholar Sandra M. Gilbert explores the poetics and politics of food.
In this stunning and important work, the prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship with food and eating through discussions of literature, art, and popular culture. Focusing on contemporary practices, The Culinary Imagination traces the social, aesthetic, and political history of food from myth to modernity, from ancient sources to our current wave of food mania.
What does it mean to transform raw stuff into cooked dishes, which then become part of our own bodies; to savor festive meals yet resolve to renounce gluttony; to act as predators where in another life we might have become prey? Do the rituals of the kitchen have different meanings for men and women, for professional chefs and home cooks? Why, today, do so many of us turn so passionately toward table topics, on the page, online, and on screen? What are the philosophical implications of the food chain on which we all find ourselves?
In The Culinary Imagination, Gilbert addresses these powerful questions through meditations on myths and memoirs, children’s books, novels, poems, food blogs, paintings, TV shows, and movies. Discussing figures from Rex Stout to Julia Child and Andy Warhol, from M. F. K. Fisher and Sylvia Plath to Alice Waters and Peter Singer, she analyzes the politics and poetics of our daily bread, investigating our complex self-definitions as producers, consumers, and connoisseurs of food. The result is an ambitious, lively, and learned examination of the ways in which our culture’s artists have represented food across a range of genres.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 05/12/2014
A rich stew of associations are served up in this rambling, flavorful survey of the cultural and literary meanings of food. Poet and critic Gilbert (Death’s Door) noshes from a vast buffet of eras and genres: scriptural eating, from Eve’s bite of the apple to the Last Supper; “food memoirs” that tell a life’s story through meals; abundant modernist fare, from Proust’s luscious madeleine to a Hemingway campfire cookout; kitchen-themed poems, mysteries, and movies, including the Pixar animated epic Ratatouille, which turns restaurant hygiene on its head; contemporary diet primers and bulimia confessionals. Sprinkled throughout are recipes, menus, and the author’s spicy recollection of her Sicilian-American family’s socio-gastronomic rites. Gilbert presents no particular thesis, but does tease out a theme: food’s role as the sine qua non of bodily reality, and thus intertwined with carnality, female eroticism, bourgeois pleasure, and, in Sartre’s Nausea, existentialist revulsion at virtually everything. The topics she covers are so many and wide-ranging that they sometimes feel shallow. But when Gilbert sinks her teeth into a subject—a vivid evocation of Julia Child’s magnetic personality, a skeptical take on slow-food romanticism—her evocative prose and shrewd analyses make for an intellectual feast. Photos. (July)
Marion Nestle
“It is hard to imagine how Sandra Gilbert could have produced so broad an overview of contemporary food writing and thought, not only literary analysis but also history, memoir (“foodoir!”), and bibliography. Anyone wanting an introduction to the meaning of food culture should start here.”
Elaine Showalter
“A rich and tasty dish of cultural history, gastronomical ethnology, literary criticism, and memoir…flavored with Gilbert’s characteristic blend of erudition and humor, warmth and wisdom. I learned something from every delicious page.”
Eavan Boland
“Wonderful…The Culinary Imagination shows us how food can be, and has been, transformed through history into memory, myth, language, and image as different artists explore the subject in different forms. This is a tour of our daily lives with a radiant light cast on our most essential item.”
Wayne Koestenbaum
“Sandra M. Gilbert brings her legendary powers of discernment and analytical gusto to the urgent subject of food, and the results—lushly entertaining, salty with anecdote and wisdom—have lyrical savor and a tenderly autobiographical richness.”
Diane Johnson
“I love The Culinary Imagination—it’s so funny, foodie, learned, and personal at the same time. It shines with joy!”
Louise DeSalvo
“A rich, powerful, important delight of a book to mull over both for its splendid insights but also to use for years to come as a guidebook into the most important writing about food both now and in the past.”
Be Wilson - The New Yorker
“There is something puzzling about our obsession with imaginary food, as Gilbert’s book fascinatingly explores.”
The Economist
“An ambitious undertaking… [Gilbert’s] book is packed with literary references, from Plato to Emily Dickinson and Margaret Atwood. The best bits, though, are her memories of growing up in 1960s New York in an Italian-Russian immigrant family.”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Sunday Globe
“A banquet of ideas… deliciously, deeply satisfying.”
Erica Wagner - Financial Times
“A lovely blend of the personal, the artistic and the political.”
Joanna Scutts - Washington Post
“A testament to [Gilbert’s] wide-ranging curiosity and enthusiasm for her subject.”
Alice Waters
“The Culinary Imagination is a meticulously researched and wonderfully written examination of how food is at the heart of our cultural identity. From Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda to Gertrude Stein, Andy Warhol to Wayne Thiebaud, Gilbert skillfully follows the thread of gastronomy through history, art, literature, and pop culture with a scholar and poet’s eye for detail and meaning.”
Lisa Shea - Elle
“Feminist scholar and poet Sandra M. Gilberi dishes with gusto on our romance with food.”
Kirkus Reviews
A literary scholar investigates the cultural meaning of food.In this exuberant, wide-ranging look at what, how and why we eat, Gilbert (Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, 2011, etc.) turns to poets and novelists, movies and art, food critics and celebrity chefs, memoirists and historians to consider the myriad and surprising ways that food reflects culture. She quotes Bill Buford in an epigraph that aptly sums up the book: "One of the great charismas of food is that it's about culture and grandmothers and death and art and self-expression and family and society—and at the same time, it's just dinner." Anyone who has ever written about food is likely to be found in these pages, including Proust, Woolf, Hemingway, Plath, Sartre, Homer and Shakespeare. Gilbert also looks at Wallace Stevens' "Emperor of Ice-Cream," William Carlos Williams' stolen plums, Gertrude Stein's many culinary references in Tender Buttons, and the Romantic poets, whose works frequently featured "magical or exotic foods" that heightened a sense of the fantastic. Julia Child takes center stage when Gilbert considers the popularity of food shows and the transformation of mainstream American cuisine; she also examines the influence of food critics (Ruth Reichl and others) and food memoirists. The genre called "foodoirs," writes Gilbert, "proliferate[s] like cookies and cupcakes…on bookstore shelves that used to be crammed with romance novels." These include celebrants, such as M.F.K. Fisher, and food avoiders, such as anorexic and bulimic women. Gilbert reveals her own rich food legacy from her Italian and Russian grandparents, making her early food experiences far different from that of her Jell-o-eating classmates. Although her mother prepared lamb chops and instant mashed potatoes, the author recalls a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with a Ligurian recipe of spinach, mushrooms, sausage, parmesan cheese and garlic.Gilbert wears her scholarship lightly in this warm, lively inquiry into the social, political, ethical and aesthetic meanings of "food, glorious food!"
Library Journal
It's no revelation that modern society is fascinated by food. Food writing is an increasingly popular genre, and food is a common theme in novels, art, movies, and on television. In this intensive social history, Gilbert (coauthor, The Madwoman in the Attic) questions why we meditate on food—its stories, history, and preparation. While the author doesn't provide a clear answer to this question, she traces the evolution of culinary imagination through history by examining myths, literature, memoirs, poems, children's books, art, and television. Going back to antiquity, the first section of the book examines the philosophical meanings of food and its lore, taboos, and practices. The second section demonstrates ways the invention of the "foodoir" or food memoir turned the act of thinking about food into a way of thinking about life. The final part of the volume examines related issues such as hunger, diets, and eating disorders. Gilbert's research is interspersed with bits of her own personal "foodoir," which makes for an uneven read but lightens the scholarly tone somewhat. VERDICT Extensively researched with a profusion of references, this work is appropriate for academic readers or the serious student of food literature.—Melissa Stoeger, Deerfield P.L., IL

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

Sandra M. Gilbert has published numerous volumes of criticismas well as collections of poetry and a memoir. She is coeditor (with Susan Gubar) of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women and a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. A Distinguished Professor of English emerita at the University of California, Davis, she lives in Berkeley, California.

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