Cookbooks, nationalism and gastronationalism

By Venetia Congdon, Astra Spalvena, Dominika Zagrodzka

This post is part of the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food (IEHCA) series “Summer University on Food and Drink Studies”

Few of us anticipated the extraordinary week we spent in Tours for the IEHCA’s Summer School on Food and Drink. It broadened our minds and made us aware of the many subjects of research in food studies today. Here, the authors would like to discuss a common theme of their research: the relationship between cookbooks and nationalism. Venetia Congdon researches the role of food in the contemporary Catalan nationalist and secessionist movement. Astra Spalvena studies Latvian cookbooks; from the first compilations of translated recipes published in 1795 to the coffee-table books of 2012. Dominika Zagrodzka researches Polish culinary tourism and food as cultural heritage.

Nationalism has once again come to the forefront of world politics, demonstrating its enduring power as an ideology. Cultural manifestations of the nation, including food and drink, take on new and increasingly important meanings. As everyday objects, they are tools through which to express and channel complex ideas about nationhood in a simple, relatable way.

La Cuynera Catalana

Since the inception of contemporary Catalan nationalism in the nineteenth century, cookbooks have played a role in the movement. The first explicitly Catalan cookbook was La Cuynera Catalana (Anonymous, 1833-35), contemporaneous with the beginnings of the Catalan literary resurgence. The next significant cookbook was La Cuyna Catalana, in 1907, by Josep Conill de Bosch. Its introduction makes it clear that the premise for the cookbook was world domination. Good food eaten with pleasure, leads to better digestion, and stronger people. In 1928, an even more obviously nationalist cookbook appeared, the Llibre de Cuina Catalana, by Ferran Agulló. Agulló was a politician and journalist, who made a still-famous statement in this work: “Catalonia, just as it has a language, a right, customs, its own history and a political ideal, so it has a cuisine”. So, by the 1930s, cuisine (and cookbooks) were clear standard-bearers of Catalanism, though the hardships of Civil War, and Franco’s anti-Catalan policies affected Catalan cuisine. However, Franco-era cookbooks were places where sentiments of Catalan difference could be covertly expressed. Today, cookbooks are part of a large market of books on Catalan culture, which has grown in the last few years in response to the pro-independence movement.

The Kaucminde School, from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

Latvian cuisine evolved as an interaction between Latvian peasant food and gastronomic traditions of Baltic German manors. The crucial point in the formation of a national cuisine was the 1930s when endeavours to strengthen Latvian national identity involved also reflection on culinary heritage and its use in modern world. Favourable social and economic conditions encouraged cookbook publishers to focus not only on modernization but also on nationalism. The nationalistic politics of president Karlis Ulmanis’s authoritative regime (1934-1940) was a further spur. In a time of economic growth when the newly-evolved middle-class demanded new living standards, Latvian national cuisine was localised in the renowned school of home economics Kaucminde, whose students continued to educate the nation at large: writing modern cookbooks, publishing recipes in magazines, organizing seminars, travelling across the countryside to popularize contemporary household management, and systematizing culinary knowledge. The cookbooks of the 1930s emphasized the use of local products, the modernization of local culinary habits, and modern nutritional science. Rational and practical approaches to nourishment dominated over the excesses and luxury of the past. This nutritional approach became a good basis on which Soviet ideologists, following Latvia’s occupation after World War II, started to develop Soviet cuisine. However, Latvian national food and cookbooks of the 1930s experienced a renaissance after the state regained independence in 1990. 

Kaucminde Christmas table. Illustration from “The Work of Kaucminde Alumnae 1925 – 1938”

The oldest Polish cookbook is Compendium ferculorum by Stanislav Czerniecki (1682), a book for professionals. The recipes provide a perfect example of how rich Polish people ate in the 17th century, characterised by plenty of spices, sweet and sour flavourings, and attractive presentation. The author was inspired by both French cooks and local ingredients. The next national cookbook to appear was Wojciech Wieladko’s Excellent Cook (1786). The recipes were simpler, based on French La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon (1746). In 19th century, there were many cooking guides written by women for women. The most popular were by Lucyna Ćwierczakiewicz and Karolina Nakwaska. The  20th century was characterised by eating cheap, quick and healthy food. As in Latvia, Soviet ideologists also encouraged this. After the political and social transformation of 1989, Poles were impressed by food from other cultures, but have since revalued their culinary heritage. Modern chefs are interested in restoring old tastes and reviving culinary heritage, for instance Maciej Nowicki’s work at the Museum of King Jan III’s Palace in Wilanów, involving the reproduction of recipes from Compendium ferculorum and cultivating heritage vegetables.

As anthropologist  Arjun Appadurai has pointed out, cookbooks tell unusual tales in complex civilizations. Cookbooks, and the cuisines they represent, are often means for government actors seeking to assert a particular worldview. Yet they are also the representation of grass roots initiatives, such as the first Catalan cookbook, and the Latvian Kaucminde. They are educational tools, for bettering the health of the nation. And finally, today, they are connections with a national past, and objects of global consumerism.

Venetia Congdon completed her doctorate in Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2015. For her thesis, she studied how Catalans use food to express national identity. She is currently a post-doctoral research associate with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include the intersections between national identity and cuisine, and the lived reality of nationalist movements in Europe.

Astra Spalvena is a lecturer at “RISEBA” University of Business, Arts and Technology in Riga, Latvia. She teaches courses on Media Semiotics and Food Advertising among others. She defended her PhD on historical and cultural aspects of Latvian food. Currently Astra studies the history of Latvian cookbooks with a focus on reflections of ideological dimensions and power structures. Another area of her research is Soviet cuisine and especially the role of public catering in imposing soviet ideology on territories incorporated into the Soviet Union after World War II.

Dominika Zagrodzka is a doctoral student in Cultural Science on Faculty of Philology of the Silesian University. She also graduated in Political Science on Faculty of Social Sciences. She is interested in food studies and has attended many conferences on the topic. She conducts researches on Polish contemporary food culture. Her thesis is about food as cultural heritage in Polish culture. She plans to create an academic magazine about anthropology of food.


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