The Literary Cookbook

[This post is part of The Recipe Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, Carrie Helms Tippen offers her thoughts on teaching food-writing and food-reading, and on the future of the culinary literary imagination.]

Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.
Photo of the author. Credit to Whitney Sawyer Photography.

By Carrie Helms Tippen

I often come across people who tell me that they collect cookbooks, and I always ask them: “Which ones do you use? And which ones do you read?

The thing I love most about studying cookbooks as a career is that I can talk about my research with almost anyone. The conversations are always rich, whether I’m talking to the phlebotomist at my doctor’s office, the woman who cuts my hair, or my university’s president.

Last month, on a layover between flights, I was talking cookbooks with the woman next to me at the gate. She always kept one or two new cookbooks on her nightstand and read them at night when she couldn’t sleep. “Only you would get this,” she said to me and patted my knee like an old friend.

Of course, I’m not the only one who gets this. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues in “Playing to the Senses: Food as a Performance Medium” that experienced cookbook readers approach cookbooks as imaginative texts to be read, and perhaps never used: “Cookbooks, now more than ever, are a way of eating by reading recipes and looking at photographs. Those books may never see the kitchen. Indeed, experienced readers can sight-read a recipe the way a musician sight-reads a score. They can ‘play’ the recipe in their mind’s eye.”

Just as an experienced reader of fantasy novels can conjure an entire world by reading words on a page, a cookbook reader imagines a recipe like a narrative in which the reader is the protagonist, chopping, sauteeing, seeing, smelling, and tasting.

Moreover, today’s cookbooks come packed with stories in long narrative prefaces, chapter introductions, and recipe headnotes. The reader may be the protagonist of the recipe, but the cookbook author provides pages and pages of autobiographical narrative and anecdote.

Take, for example, Ruth Reichl’s 2015 cookbook, My Kitchen Year. Reichl documents the “136 Recipes that Saved My Life” in the year after Gourmet magazine closed and her job as editor in chief disappeared. The recipes are arranged as they appear in the story of that year: the Shirred Eggs with Potato Puree that Reichl made for breakfast on the day the closing was announced, the Thai-American Noodles she made for lunch while thinking, “I’d spent too many years trading time for money. Was I better off now?” The chapters are divided by season, and each chapter is arranged chronologically, organized around Reichl’s tweets from that season. It is clear that the book is intended to be read, in order, from front to back, like a memoir.

In her blurb on the back cover, famed chef Alice Waters highlights the narrative quality of Reichl’s book: “Ruth is one of our greatest storytellers,” Waters writes. “This book is a lyrical and deeply intimate journey told through recipes, as only Ruth can do.” The product being sold is a story, and Reichl is the protagonist.

While there is an alphabetical recipe index at the back, the book does not lend itself to recipe browsing by course or ingredient. Of course, the cookbook can be used. Reichl encourages readers in “A Note on the Recipes” to innovate with the recipes in this book: “What I really want is for my recipes to become your own.”

However, even the cooking is meant to be an imaginative practice involving Reichl’s persona as character. Reichl describes recipes as “conversations” between herself and the reader, and she encourages readers to imagine “we were standing in the kitchen, cooking together.” Reichl asks to be included as a character in the kitchen performance. The intimacy established between author and reader in reading is continued even when imagination turns to creative action in the kitchen.

Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.
Bedside Reading: An incomplete collection of 21st century Literary Cookbooks. Credit to Carrie Helms Tippen.

I call this type of cookbook made for reading a “literary cookbook.” The focus is on an encounter with the authorial persona, and often, the writers of these cookbooks are well-known as “authors” in their own rights. In each, the organization, tone, language, narrative, and marketing of the book all guide the beholder into the role of imaginative reader first and user second, if at all.

This spring, I will teach a course called “The Literary Cookbook” for graduate and undergraduate students in Creative Writing, and Reichl is up first on the syllabus. The course will focus on the cookbook as a literary genre with its own set of conventions. We’ll talk first about how to read a literary cookbook, and then we’ll think about how to go about writing one.

“Recipe writing is a direct reflection of culture,” Reichl writes in the Prologue to My Kitchen Year, “which means that it changes along with the times.” For now, the times seem to be pointing to a cookbook reading experience that merges literary imagination with creative kitchen action.

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Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carrie studies literary food writing and food in literature. She teaches courses in American Literature and Creative Writing. Her work has been published in Food and Foodways, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society. Her ongoing book project, titled Stories of Southern Cooking: Defining Authentic New Southern Identity in Recipe Origin Narratives, examines the rhetorical value of proving authenticity in contemporary cookbooks.


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