This book review was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sept. 10th.
“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” 19th century foodie-philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said. In “The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity,” Berkeley poet and feminist literary critic Sandra Gilbert takes this oft-repeated injunction one step further, saying that what we read and write about what we eat is just as vital to self-knowledge.
Gilbert, who is best known for her feminist lit-crit tour de force “The Madwoman in the Attic,” co-authored with Susan Gubar, is interested in our current obsession with food. From food blogs and “gastroporn” magazines to “recipe novels,” foodoirs (food memoirs), food polemics and, of course, TV cooking shows, we are experiencing a “gastronomical feeding frenzy that’s both unprecedented and deeply significant,” Gilbert writes. Tracing this preoccupation in literature, art, film and even pop culture is the broad task Gilbert sets for herself in this sometimes dizzying cultural history.
Gilbert’s literary, artistic and cultural references span the centuries as well as the globe. She is as comfortable discussing Plato and Rabelais as she is interpreting the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti’s cookbook or Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” And though she’s well versed in the literary canon, Gilbert is hardly a highbrow academic snob, including passages on Lady Gaga, cult mystery writer Rex Stout and popular movies like “Ratatouille” and “Like Water for Chocolate.”
Lest you settle down to read this book while enjoying a snack, be forewarned: Not everything Gilbert examines is appetizing. Though she re-creates famous literary feasts (Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” Joyce’s “The Dead”) and odes to sensual fruits (William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence), Gilbert also covers the unpleasant parts of eating. A chapter called “Black Cake,” after an Emily Dickinson recipe for spice cake, is devoted to the subject of food and death. Weaving in her personal memories of love and loss, Gilbert shares grim tidbits, such as websites that chronicle the final meals of death row inmates and the detailed food fantasies of the starving women at Terezin concentration camp. (They left behind a cookbook of recipes, recollected from memory, including one for deviled eggs garnished with smoked salmon and caviar.) Later in the book, Gilbert examines — in some detail — cannibalism throughout the ages, nausea (Sartre, Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” etc.), scatological perversions and even eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.
Gilbert’s romp through the literary and film canon can be fascinating, but it suffers from a lack of focus. In a chapter on “the Kitchen Muse,” ostensibly about the pleasures of the cook and the joys of transcendental gastronomy, she digresses to fill us in on D.H. Lawrence’s love-hate relationship with Whitman and T.S. Eliot’s anti-Lawrence lectures. It is hard to see why this is relevant to the way modernist writers depicted fruit in poetry. One chapter starts as a discarded memoir about the herbs her relatives cooked with, then morphs into a survey of recent ethnic food memoirs with a lengthy digression on a vacation in Turkey where Gilbert annoyed an Italian couple by showing familiarity with their cuisine.
And often, Gilbert will pose an intriguing question at the start of a chapter — such as “why and how did the kitchen invade the living room and the theater?” — only to interrupt her own line of inquiry with a tangential stray thought. In this case, she divulges that she and her friends “sometimes wait weeks or months” for reservations at the French Laundry, Per Se and Momofuku. This proves her street cred (“I, too, am a serious foodie”), but it doesn’t get to the heart of why we’re obsessed with watching celebrity chefs on TV.
Finally, it must be said: This is a scholarly work and at times it gets bogged down with footnotes and fanciful interpretations. I’d wager Gilbert is the only (re)viewer of “Ratatouille” who thinks the scene where the rats take over Gusteau’s kitchen “underlines what Jacques Derrida would call the renversement.” And who but a feminist critic would use psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theory of the ever-giving “good breast” to deconstruct the Raggedy Ann tales?
Not every reader will agree with Gilbert’s interpretations of touchstone culinary scenes from literature, film and food memoirs, but the great service she offers is to remind us that these texts exist. I’d long since forgotten the scene in “Little Women” where Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy surrender their Christmas breakfasts to their poor immigrant neighbors. (“There were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.”)
And Gilbert’s lengthy section on Julia Child — “gangly, breathless, always with (in her husband’s words) 'a slight atmosphere of hysteria’ edging her inimitably swooping voice” — nudged me to move “The French Chef” with Julia Child to the top of my Netflix list. After Gilbert quotes from M.F.K. Fisher’s essay “The Lemmings at Sea” — a confident celebration of dining alone — I pulled my copy of “The Gastronomical Me” off the shelf. I intend to reread it soon.