Traditionally, the cookbook has been thought of as a manual of pedestrian concerns and conservative virtues—or more recently, a compendium of food-porn glamour shots of dishes no one is likely to actually make. But to limit cookbooks to those two categories is to miss a fundamental truth about the genre: All cookbooks are political. Written by women and consumed mostly by women, cookbooks have always been a way for ladies to talk to each other about the way they live (and the way they should). Once, this meant that tucked between recipes for Bundt cake and Béarnaise were subtle or not-so-subtle calls to arms: assertions of the importance of female education, campaigns for the vote, and other declarations of independence.
The modern incarnation—the cookbook memoir—offers a twenty-first-century variation: Interspersed with instructions are gentle urgings on how to live a better, more fulfilling life. Generally speaking, the cookbook memoir chronicles the adventures of an amateur cook who is otherwise employed, financially comfortable, perhaps possessing a husband or boyfriend, but somehow lost. They promise stories of women who abandon tedious office jobs and bad relationships for a bigger, bolder life—often revolving around food, often with a man, the right man, hovering in the background. Empowerment and happiness all at once. But these memoirs are pale shadows of their precursors, delivering an ultimately socially conservative way of thinking about life. For these books, barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen is aspiration, not aspersion.
Early feminists used cookbooks to advance their cause. The nineteenth-century Frugal Housewife—The Joy of Cooking for the petticoat set—encouraged its readers to send their daughters to school, cooing that “there is no subject so much connected with happiness as … the education of daughters.” A 1891 holiday tome published in Illinois told chefs “that you may enjoy the good things made from the foregoing recipes” but also that “the ballot would broaden your usefulness and be a protection and safeguard.” The Washington Women’s Cookbook from 1908 offered hard-nosed guidance on starting a campfire and packing enough to survive fora week in the woods, and it was dedicated: “to the first woman who realized that half of the human race were not getting a square deal.” Peppered among the recipes are feisty pro-lady views and articles about “the progress of woman’s suffrage.”1 In the 1960s, Harvard even created a library collection dedicated to cookbooks and feminism. Today it has some 80,000 volumes.
For these books, barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen is aspiration, not aspersion.
The modern cooking memoir might seem the natural descendent of these kitchen-manuals-cum-calls-to-arms, mixing consciousness with cake-making. The archetype of this form is Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia (2005), in which Powell, a 20-something stuck at a dull New York City government job, documents a year in which she learns to cook all of the recipes in Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Over those twelve months, she finds the courage to become the writer she’s always wanted to be. Even the book’s subtitle—“a year of cooking dangerously”—hints at the girl-power to come.
More recent additions to the canon have followed the same basic narrative. A Homemade Life (2010), by Molly Wizenberg, chronicles the writer’s decision to drop out of graduate school and move to Paris, where she spends afternoons sampling pastries and chocolate instead of doing dissertation research, eventually realizing, while paging through a cookbook in the Luxembourg Gardens, that she was meant to cook and write about food for a living. My Berlin Kitchen (2012) tells the tale of Luisa Weiss, who spent her childhood shuttling between her Berlin-based mother and Bostonian father. She establishes her adult life in New York, where she edits cookbooks, falls in love, and gets engaged. But she is also beset by inexplicable anxiety. The answer, she finally realizes: quit her job and return to Berlin, where she tries to turn her food blog into a book. “I’ve always thought of myself as a little bit of a scaredy cat ... I had to be brave to move back to Berlin. … And I’d been rewarded for my bravery, it’s true, with happiness and contentment.”
The heroines of these stories feel bound not by oppression but by expectations. The bra burnings of the past have freed them from household drudgery. They’re thriving professionally; they’ve built enviable lives in fashionable cities, replete with friends and nights on the town. But the expectation that they will pursue a high-powered career and find a fulfilling relationship at the same time is ultimately overwhelming. Real liberation, they decide, lies in a simpler life. And so they set off (bravely, they would have you believe) to make the thing that makes them happy—cooking—more central to their lives. Throughout, their tone is confessional; you, dear reader, are being offered a place at the table of their angst and ennui. And you’re also being given permission to do whatever it is you really love to do, society be damned. Girlfriend, if they could do it, so can you.
Except these books don’t quite live up to their promise. In the end, they’re not really about finding yourself; they are books about finding a man (or in Julie and Julia’s case, keeping one around). In its second half, A Homemade Life giddily recounts Wizenberg’s long-distance love affair with Brandon, a fan of her blog who she later marries. My Berlin Kitchen ends with a sumptuous-sounding wedding in the Italian countryside. These tales are packaged as feminist fables for the everywoman, but their protagonists more closely resemble the minor characters from an Austen novel—bored, dissatisfied, and searching for a soul mate with a cushy income. (Wizenberg and Weiss never really examine the vast privilege that allows them to just do whatever they like. In My Berlin Kitchen, Weiss turns down a high-powered gig in San Francisco and eventually quits her job to become a writer. Wizenberg is a graduate student with the flexibility to fly off to Paris.)
To be sure, it is possible to write a story about food and independence that doesn’t devolve into a happily-ever-after tale. Compare these protagonists with Annia Ciezadlo, a war correspondent who wrote Day of Honey (2012). Day of Honey also weaves personal reflection with recipes. And like Wizenberg and Weiss, Ciezadlo’s book chronicles her relationship with a former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday (who doesn't like to eat—a major issue for Ciezadlo). But Ciezadlo’s ambitions are bigger. Set against the Iraq War, Ciezadlo reports on the violent years she spent as a journalist in Baghdad and Beirut. Specifically, she sets out to prove wrong those who tell her Iraq has no cuisine. "Saying a country has no cuisine seemed like saying it had no culture, no civil society,” she writes. “I decided to go out and find it." Interspersed with the personal anecdotes and war zone scenes are carefully researched essays and reportage about the history of Middle Eastern food. She writes in a particularly compelling way about war—using food not just as a quick means to superficial fulfillment, but also using it to underline the harsh realities that surround her. “[T]he destruction reminds us of the knowledge we spend our lives avoiding,” Ciezadlo writes, “that we are all meat in the end.” For Ciezadlo, food is not just a way to get a guy—it’s her mode of understanding and explaining the world around her. That’s something that the Frugal Housewife understood, and it’s something that more contemporary writers should take to heart.
There are also tips for frying venison and roasting trout; a whole chapter is dedicated to cooking for hungry sailors.
Amanda Erickson is an associate editor at the Atlantic Cities. Follow @AmandaEAtlantic.