Dr J. Michelle Coghlan: ‘The Art of the Recipe: American Food Writing Avant la Lettre’

As part of the 2019/20 BAAS-funded seminar series, we were excited to be joined in Glasgow last semester by not one but two Americanist speakers: Dr J. Michelle Coghlan from the University of Manchester and Dr Katie McGettigan from Royal Holloway, University of London. This post is about the first talk of the evening, given by Dr Coghlan, Lecturer in American Literature and Programme Director of American Studies at the University of Manchester.

Dr Coghlan’s talk, ‘The Art of the Recipe: American Food Writing Avant la Lettre’, began life as a chapter in Food and Literature edited by Gitanjali G. Shahani. Coghlan began her talk by asking what this thing we call a recipe is: ‘Is a recipe a list of ingredients and a formula of the steps to be taken in producing a dish? If it comes to us as a lyric, could we call it a poem? If it’s an essay or in a memoir or dropped in as a supplement or an interruption to a novel’s narrative, can we think of the book it comes to us in as a kind of cookbook, even if it would likely be more readily categorised, at least initially, as something else? And, finally, could cookbooks be read – even savoured – for something beyond themselves, or rather, for a pleasure in the form their recipes take rather than simply the foods they instruct us to prepare?’

The idea of the ‘artful recipe’ originated in the 20th century with works such as M. F. K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941) and How to Cook a Wolf (1942). Since then, there have been many novels and memoirs which ‘ingeniously embed recipes for the dishes cooked up in their pages’, such as Nztotake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1982) and Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (1983). This new hybrid form was termed ‘recipistolary’ by literary scholar Doris Witt and food studies scholars have treated it as a contemporary invention, largely overlooking the American food writing of the previous century and its literary aspirations.

Reflecting on Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, Coghlan discussed the difficulty of classifying the work’s genre, it having first been reviewed as a cookbook and since thought of as ‘something else we don’t quite have a term for, “a collection of gastronomical essays” being our closest approximation.’ In An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler describes Fisher’s book as ‘a book about cooking defiantly, amid the mess of war and the pains of bare pantries’, but Coghlan is compelled by food studies scholar Allison Carruth’s argument that the work should be read ‘as both an inflection and a re-articulation of modernist aesthetic form’. 

Seeking to enrich our understanding of ‘the aesthetic pleasures at the heart of Fisher’s essays and the modern recipistolary canon of which they are a part’, Coghlan has examined the essays of expat American writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, featured in an 1896 collection called The Feasts of Autolycus: Or, the Diary of a Greedy Woman, which was originally written for the Pall Mall Gazette and later circulated transatlantically. Parenthetically, Coghlan noted that she first began researching Pennell when she was living in the US, where ‘greedy’ refers exclusively to money. It was only after years of living in the UK that she discovered it has a rather different meaning here. 

Fisher refers to Pennell at the outset of An Alphabet for Gourmets in ‘A is for Dining Alone’: ‘There is always the prospect to cheer us of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with “One” as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus, “… one sits feasting in silent sympathy”, this lady wrote at the end of the last century, in her mannered and delightful book.’ Coghlan argued that this allusion ‘remarkably invokes but notably does and does not situate’ Pennell, and that Fisher’s ‘affectionate if gratuitous nod’ at the beginning of her own collection evinces her familiarity with the earlier work. And so Pennell might be read as an incubator of modernist food writing, or an ‘alternate temporal trajectory’ as Coghlan puts it.

Pennell wrote prolifically and the gastronomical essay is just one genre with which she experimented. She was born in Philadelphia in 1855 and in 1883 married American illustrator, Joseph Pennell, moving to London later that year. They soon befriended Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Henry James among others, and recent critical interest in Pennell has more often focused on her reputation as a fin-de-siècle New Critic than her food writing. Coghlan, however, identifies a ‘New Critical tendency to attend to the formal characteristics of an artwork’ in The Feasts of Autolycus. She suggests reading Feasts as if it were a kind of cookbook for an alternative understanding of whether cookbooks have to function as we expect, assuming readerly cooperation in performing its instructions. Pennell does not offer precise recipes nor ‘adopt the voice of a domestic authority’, ways in which she subverts the cookbook genre. Instead, Coghlan argues, one finds Pennell repurposing ‘aestheticism for the kitchen’ through ‘meandering meditations on delightful meals’. Coghlan offers the example of Pennell’s recipe for “Gaspacho”, which Pennell imagines to have appeared ‘to the strumming of guitars and click of castanets’, to have been dreamed up ‘in sheer levity of spirit and indolence’ (‘The Salads of Spain.’). Thus, the recipe begins not with an instruction for the dish – and the expectation of readerly obedience – but with Pennell immersing her reader in ‘the sensations of its fabular genealogy’. 

Pennell uses this aesthetic rhetoric not to create a “‘Cook’s Manual,’ or a “Housewife’s Companion”’, but ‘a guide to the Beauty, the Poetry, that exists in the perfect dish, even as in the masterpiece of a Titian or a Swinburne’, a comparison that Pennell makes in the introduction to Feasts and which Coghlan is confident she did not intend hyperbolically. Rounding off a lively and engaging talk, Coghlan suggested that the aim of Pennell’s essays is ‘not so much to instruct as to indulge the senses and to take eating seriously – and thus to refashion readerly palates as much as culinary savoir-faire.’ Pennell’s aim and aesthetic thus combine to resist easy categorisation, like Fisher’s writing and much cookery literature since. 

Dr Coghlan’s talk gave us much food for thought (sorry…) and we hope this was the first of many visits to Glasgow! If you would like to read her work, she is the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Literature and Food (CUP, March 2020). Links to this and her first book, Sensational Internationalism: the Paris Commune and the Remapping of American Memory in the Long Nineteenth Century’, which won the 2017 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize in American Studies, are below:

Sensational Internationalism

Cambridge Companion to Literature and Food

Follow Dr Coghlan on Twitter @JMCoghlan.

Post by Chiara Howe, PGR American Studies

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