“Afro-American cookery is like jazz—a genuine art form that deserves serious scholarship and more than a little space on the bookshelves” (Smart-Grosvenor xviii).
Originally published in 1970, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s cookbook/memoir Vibration Cooking: or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl really began in the coastal waters of South Carolina, where the Gullah Geechee people, descended from West Africans, created their own unique culture, language, and foodways. A self-proclaimed culinary griot, Smart-Grosvenor uses food, and stories about food, to bring people together—an early visionary of the self-stylized food documentarian genre. What her work captures—beyond the literary imagination of an African-American woman in the mid-twentieth century—is the need for serious scholarly attention to recipes as a form of storytelling.
Vibration Cooking is a series of vignettes about Smart-Grosvenor’s life, but what connects each vignette are the recipes. Integral to the surrounding narrative, the recipes extend, complicate, or connect the stories quite literally—they are often dropped in the middle of a sentence which continues after the recipe concludes (see recipe for Cousin Gussie’s Coconut Custard Pie, Figure 1).
Sometimes recipes are layered on top of one another, like when a story about returning from a hunting trip leads to a recipe for smothered rabbit, which is immediately followed by a recipe for squirrel, then venison, before moving onto “recipes” (but really just humorous statements; Figure 2) for peacocks and pheasant and others, before finally returning us to the hunters.
When I assign Vibration Cooking in an introductory literature class on food at a predominately white institution, students are immediately struck by Smart-Grosvenor’s familiar and engaging tone: she treats her audience like an insider, writing as though we intimately know all the people of her world. Simultaneously, she maintains a critical analysis of race: Smart-Grosvenor doesn’t like being essentialized as a “soul food” writer, as it minimizes the culinary traditions celebrated and embraced by Black people around the world. She loved saltimbocca just as much as collard greens, and she wrote for a similarly global audience. Other critiques of racism are woven throughout Vibration Cooking alongside experiences of shopping and food culture writ large. In one vignette, she writes of a greengrocer where the Black employee always packages the greens but is never allowed to take the customer’s money; in another, she writes how “so-called gore-mays” are just like plantation owners who take credit for what Black folks created or discovered long before it was considered sophisticated.
My first question to students after assigning Vibration Cooking is always: “Did you actually read the recipes?” Almost resoundingly the answer is no. Students skip or skim through them, as though they are simply instructional tidbits sprinkled throughout the text and included just to interrupt the “real” narrative. Discussions about why they skip them range from individual preference (I’m not going to cook anything, so why bother) to a critical disavowal of recipes as literature (they’re just instructional, right?). What students often overlook in these moments are how they perpetuate misogynist and racist stereotypes by refusing to see this domestic aspect of Smart-Grosvenor’s writing as valuable and intentional: Black women in particular use food in creative and ingenious ways to combat racism and oppression, as scholars such as Dr. Williams-Forson suggests in her work on Black food history. What Smart-Grosvenor’s work teaches us through the act of reading it is how much knowledge can be embedded in what, on the surface, might appear trifling.
That most of the students skip the recipes upon the first read tells me something about our relationship to food and identity, particularly as Smart-Grosvenor obviously intends for them to be read. Even when directly embedded into the story, readers still don’t stop and fully listen to the Black woman speaking. Some people ignore her expertise and knowledge in light of preconceived ideas about what makes a narrative whole. Upon a second reading, students realize the recipes contain more than instructions—they are moments of humor, and history, and, perhaps most importantly, integral to the understanding of the narrative. What Smart-Grosvenor does through her writing is create an active, participatory work of literature that requires a reader to recognize meaning-making as an embodied experience: if we really want to know how to cook, learn, or be human, we must respect the intentionality behind others’— and our own—narratives. We have to unpack what identities we claim through our own food choices. Without deep, mindful engagement with the whole text, we miss out on all the good stuff.
Looking at recipes as narrative highlights the performance embedded in all texts; just as a moving picture captures the physical embodiment of the individual on film, recipes capture the entangled embodiment of people, place, and food. Recent feminist scholarship has determined that recipes are valuable artifacts of literary history (as the very existence of the Recipes Project alone demonstrates). Recipes are always embedded in a culture and time; they capture a moment rich in historical meaning and detail, particularly of those whose narratives have often been excluded from white European canonical spaces. Smart-Grosvenor’s work in Vibration Cooking is just one such example of a Black literary tradition rich with possibility.
Dr. Rhiannon Scharnhorst is a Lecturer in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University and an affiliate with the Kenan Institute for Ethics What Now? network. Her current research explores the complex negotiation, construction, and contestation of authenticity through a food studies curriculum in the writing classroom. When not writing, she is throwing pottery on the wheel in her backyard.
Tofu Hyakuchin (豆腐百珍, One Hundred Delightful Tastes of Tofu Recipes), originally published in 1782, is often considered the first cookbook that only focuses on one ingredient and the beginning of the Hyakuchin-mono (百珍物, One Hundred Recipes of Delightful Tastes) series. Harada Nobuo, Eric Rath, and other historians of Japan have argued that cookbooks published during the Edo period were tools for vicarious consumption of cuisines that the reader could not physically obtain. However, when we carefully analyze the contents of cookbooks written in the Edo period (1603-1868), we are surprised that they are filled with the practical knowledge, the latest cooking techniques, ingredients, and utensils of that time. It was also during the Edo period, in which society formed the basis of Japanese cuisine that is still visible in the present day. The role of cookbooks like the Tofu Hyakuchin, not only as symbols of townspeople (chonin, 町人) culture and the culture of play (Asobi, 遊び) but also as a form of collective knowledge of the people who supported culinary culture during this time, cannot be underestimated.
This piece challenges the generalizing discourse surrounding cookbooks during the Edo period by first examining the popularity and accessibility of tofu as food from primary sources aimed for everyday people. Then it analyzes key aspects of Tofu Hyankuchin that separate this text from other cookbooks during this time, such as utensils, specific cut sizes, and measurements of ingredients to highlight the components that could be seen as “practical knowledge” rather than “vicarious consumption.”
Many believe that tofu was not consumed among ordinary people in the first half of the Edo period. In 1500, Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase (七十一番職人歌合, Matching Songs of Seventy-one Craftsmen) was published. Tofu seller (豆腐売り) is mentioned as the 37th job . In the accompanying illustration, a lady in a black kimono and white headband sits cross-legged on a low platform on a street selling large and small pieces of cut tofu. The author of the painting is believed to be Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525). A total of 71 sections and 142 craftsman figures are displayed. In addition to the traditional craftsmen involved in the construction of temples and shrines, more low-ranking people such as female craftsmen, saleswoman, entertainers, and prostitutes who are not directly involved in material or agricultural production, are also included. Through the Shichijyu-ichi ban Shokunin Utaawase, it can be assumed that tofu seller was one of the recognized occupations and tofu was available in the later Muromachi Period (1336-1573).
In the Kansei period (1789-1801) or the early 1800s, ranking tables (banzuke) became popular in Edo. Tofu cooking is mentioned in the Nichiyo Kenyaku Ryori Shikata Kakuryoku Banzuke (日用倹約料理仕方角力番付, Daily Frugal Cooking Method Competitive Ranking Table) which is in the same format as a sumo tournament flier. According to the table, there are two sides: Vegetable and Fish. The highest rank is Ozeki (大関). Under the Vegetable side, the Happai Tofu (八杯豆腐, Eight Cups Tofu) is ranked to Ozeki. Yaki Tofu (焼豆腐, Grilled Tofu) is ranked in the fourth rank of Sekiwake (関脇). Kinome Dengaku (木芽田楽, Baked Tofu with Sansho Tree-Sprout Miso Coating) is ranked in the fifth rank of Maegashira (前頭) in the spring section. Tofu related cuisines appeared a total of 15 times on the table.
Besides popular culture mentions of tofu, we can also see the prevalence of soy itself through Edo period edicts. Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Keian Ofuregaki (慶安御触書, Keian Edict) in 1649 for the control of farmers. The edict consists of 32 articles, which warn of luxury life by peasants, such as alcohol, tobacco, and rice. The edict also demands people to devote themselves to agriculture. In the fourth edict, soybean planting is mentioned in the form of so-called aze-mame (畔豆, ridge beans), in which soybeans are planted in the ridges of rice paddy fields. It states that peasants must plant soybeans and azuki beans between their rice fields and farms. It is interesting to note the contemporary understanding of legumes’ ability to reincorporate nitrogen back into the soil. Although the people of Edo knew no such knowledge, legume planting may have helped farmers overall crop yield and efficient use of land. As the 4th edict decreed:
“Focus on cultivation, and planting to rice fields and vegetable fields, and at the same time, focus on production and prevent weeds from growing. If you take care of weeds and always cultivate the land with a hoe, you can get good crops and a lot of harvest. Then, plant soybeans and azuki beans on the bank in the fields to increase the crop as much as possible” (Keian Ofuregaki).
In the 11th edict, it stated that after experiencing famine, peasants must eat soybean leaves, which was also mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari [料理物語, Tale of Cooking], perhaps the most prominent early cookbook in Edo Japan. From the context of the 11th edict, the peasants had rice in the autumn, but in the later months, they had millet. The Tale of Cooking is written to support the peasant’s menu:
“The peasants are not thinking well, and they have no idea about the future. In the autumn, they feed rice to their wives and children without thinking about the harvested rice. Always in January, February, and March, they take care of rice and eat millet, wheat, Awa millet, Hie millet, vegetables, radishes, and make more millets, and do not eat a lot of rice. Immediately after experiencing a famine, do not waste time throwing away soybean leaves, azuki leaves, cowpea leaves, deciduous leaves of potatoes, etc.” (Tales of Cooking).
Around 1695, tofu was sold by vendors sitting by the road. We do not know for sure when tofu was first sold by walking street vendors, but after a big fire in Edo in 1698, sellers of dengaku (skewered grilled tofu with a sweet miso topping) started to appear.
In 1634, the Tale of Cooking was published. This was during the early part of Edo and is often considered the first Japanese cookbook written mostly in plain, syllabic Japanese. Although the author is unknown, the epilogue states that “This one volume of this cooking book does not require knife skills. This is for ordinary people and there are no cooking rules. This teaching is from our ancestors. Since I wrote the story of people to date, it is called the tale of cooking.” As for tofu related recipes, there are only two mentioned in the Ryori Monogatari in section 12 on boiled foods: Ise Tofu (伊勢豆腐) and Ryori Tofu (料理豆腐):
“Ise tofu: First grate yam. Cut the sea bream and grate it. Add one-third of grated yam. Add the egg white into tofu and grate it. Grate them well together. Spread a cloth on a cedar box and wrap it. Put it in hot water, press it, and then cut it. Spread cloth on the cedar box. Put it into boiled water, hold, and cut. Serve with arrowroot and soy sauce. It is also very good to sprinkle with chicken miso or wasabi miso. Also, it is good to serve only the tofu. I sincerely report the above recipe” (Tales of Cooking, 183).
If we take a closer look at the recipes, we see that there is little to no information about measurements, sizes, or utensils that are required to actually prepare these dishes.
A distinct feature of the Tofu Hyakuchin that shows that the book was not strictly for the purpose of play are the detailed cut sizes, measurements, and cooking utensils, potentially allowing readers to follow and recreate the dish. For instructions of cutting Tofu in the 72nd recipe, it instructs readers to “remove the coarse cloth texture from the surface of a whole tofu and cut off the four corners of the tofu, then cut the newly formed corners to make an octagon. Cut that into five or six smaller pieces. Season using sake, salt, and soy sauce” (Tofu Hyakuchin, 28). Another example is in the 96th recipe, readers are asked to “cut tofu in 2.4cm x 2.4cm x1.2-1.5cm cubes. On one skewer, place three pieces. Follow recipe number two (Kiji-yaki dengaku), grill until golden brown. Once it is grilled, remove them from the skewer. Place them in a Raku-ware teapot with a lid. Pour on hot pepper-vinegar-miso and sprinkle poppy seeds on top” (35).
Other detailed measurements are also explained in the 56th recipe, for example, “mix grilled tofu and Fukusa miso in a 7:3 ratio. Pound the mixture with a kitchen knife until it is one solid piece. Make into desired size, and lightly fry them. Season to desired choice”(24). In the 81st recipe, furthermore, “use silken tofu. Boil six parts water to one-part sake. Once it is boiling add one-part soy sauce and let it reach a boil again. Place tofu into the mixture. The length of simmering is the same as number 92 of Yu-yakko. Remove the tofu right before it starts to float. Serve with grated daikon radish” (31). The recipes in Tofu Hyakuchin are in simple, syllabic writing and basic characters, with detailed measurements, and are easy for the reader to understand the method of cooking. In addition, it is easy to visualize the dish just by reading the instructions.
Introducing New Cooking Utensils
In one Tofu Hyakuchin recipe, it shows a new innovation: a charcoal stove specifically for making Kinome-Dengaku in the first tofu recipe. To proliferate varieties of cooking, it is essential to develop and invent new cooking tools. In the book, a new baking charcoal stove is introduced made of ceramic, which allowed for portability and better heat transfer than previous grills, as well as accessibility to a wider audience than traditional metal or steel grills. “Recently,” the book notes, “a new product was released for grilling miso dengaku (skewered tofu with miso sauce). About 60 cm in length; The width is about 8 cm; About 6 cm deep. This is made of pottery and has a hole in the bottom. There are many 1.8 cm holes (12).
There are also many cooking utensils made of metal introduced in the Tofu Haykuchin. We can assume that hardware stores were popular in the Edo period and selling metal products allowed more access for people to cook food at a higher temperature. For example, in the 40th recipe, a wire mesh (金の籠, Kane no amikago) is introduced:
“Simmer light-soy sauce with sake and salt. In a separate pan, bring a large amount of oil to a boil. Cut tofu into flat cubes and place them on a wire mesh. Fry the tofu by shaking it 2-3 times inside the oil. Once fried, immediately place the fried tofu in the pot of simmering soy sauce”(21).
The 54th recipe also uses a sieve made of metal: “To make the mashed potato, boil mountain yam very well. Remove excess water and sift through a metal sieve (銅飾, Kanasuhinou)” (24). Moreover, in the 57th recipe, a metal spoon (金匕, Kanesaji) is used to “simmer whole tofu in a pot with no liquid over small heat. Remove the liquid that comes out of the tofu with a metal ladle”(25).
The recipe book also mentions a specially shaped long wooden box (つきだし, tsukidashi) in the 100th tofu recipe, which has about the same cross section as that of a block of tofu, with a handle on one end, a screen over the opposite exit end, and a wooden pusher, which is used to push a block of tofu into the box and through the screen, thereby creating tofu noodles.
“To cut the tofu, use the tube used to make tokoroten [gelatin jelly strips]. Use silk string to make grids on the end of the tube. Point the tube directly into lukewarm water. Push the tofu through the tube to make a noodle-like shape. Let the tofu submerge in water as you push it through. Even when serving 100 people, it is important to cut the tofu immediately before serving”(37-38).
Examining the contents of the Tofu Hyakuchin, this cookbook was not just a hobby of a cultured person, but all recipes are easy to make, delicious, and still seen today. It introduced detailed cut size and specific measurements of ingredients. It also introduced cooking methods such as frying, steaming, and boiling that could be easily done with the new invention of high-heat cooking utensils. From the other popular culture materials and Tokugawa edicts regarding the development of soybean production, we can see the possible accessibility of tofu. This paper is not to discredit previous scholars on this subject, whom I greatly respect, but to complicate our understanding and analysis of Edo period cookbooks.
2 Recently, the Kenan Ofuregaki is considered forged document issued by the Edo Shogunate in 1649. It is believed that first issued in the territory of the Kofu domain in Kai Province in 1697, with the addition of a tradition that it is a curtain law of the Keian era. See, Yamamoto Eiji. Kenan no Furegagi wa dasaretaka (慶安の触書はだされたか). Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 2002.
When you use ‘thrift’ in conversations today, the word carries connotations of frugality and, perhaps, tightfistedness. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, however, the meaning of ‘thrift’ was being reinvigorated. Cookbooks and etiquette guides such as Samuel Smiles’s Thrift (1875) told their middle- and working-class readers to return to thriftier ways of living. By doing so, people would supposedly be morally superior, living without wastefulness and making society more efficient. Food was one of the ways readers could adopt thrift into their lifestyles, and as Smiles said: ‘[h]ealth, morals, and family enjoyments are all connected with the question of cookery. Above all, it is the handmaid of Thrift’ (Smiles 1876: 370). Speaking at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference, my paper explored how thrift and food preservation were framed within Victorian food texts. Looking at three recipes from cookbooks and three from periodicals – published between 1866 and 1895 – I structurally analysed recipes to examine how they use words, space on the page, different textual forms and food technologies. Changes between these characteristics can be compared to reach wider conclusions: for instance, the way innovations in food preservation influenced cooking times.
What my paper showed, was that recipes were engaging with thrift and preservation and attempting to bring them into the Victorian home. Furthermore, both of these topics were intertwined in the debates of the time. The recipe for ‘Gravy Soup’ found in Charles Buckmaster’s Buckmaster’s Cookery (1874) uses a tin of preserved meat, boiling it to make soup. Tinned meat circulated in Britain from 1813, when Donkin and Hall supplied it to the Navy, and it was slowly adopted as a domestic ingredient from that point. A scandal in 1852, however, concerning 264 rotten cans destined for the Navy, meant the public were suspicious of canned meat when Buckmaster was writing. Despite public concern, tinned meat was fast becoming a valuable food resource, as British livestock quantities were failing to feed an ever-growing population. Buckmaster’s way of convincing readers to try the soup is to appeal to the middle-classes, who could have afforded his book and were involved in setting trends. He declares that ‘prejudice against preserved meat can only be gradually overcome by the middle and upper classes eating it’ (1874: 106) and suggests serving the soup in a decorative tureen. This elevates ideas of thrift and preservation away from the notion that people who were thrifty had to be, because they were poor. By making thrift a fashionable thing that appeals to the middle-classes, Buckmaster implicates it in the class relations of the time as well as discussions of food supply, demonstrating that thrift and food preservation were integrated into Victorian current affairs.
Other recipes demonstrate that thrift was framed using nutrition, economy and self-sufficiency. A satirical story published in All the Year Round in 1874, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens and then Charles Dickens Jr., shows that thrifty foods were so ubiquitous they were being used for entertainment. In the story, the female narrator describes her cooking-school instructress making mutton croquettes from a leftover joint. The tutor misses the point, telling students to use the finest cut of mutton and expensive ingredients. The narrator scorns this approach, advocating that people should properly adopt thrift in their kitchens. I compared this recipe to one for croquettes in Eliza Warren Francis’s How I Managed my House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year (1864) which uses the last scraps of meat available. Though the recipes stand in opposition to one another, they each convey the same message: thrift was to be encouraged. These recipe authors address a range of people, different physical spaces, and use different textual spaces to demonstrate that thrift and preservation were issues that occupied a myriad of spaces within Victorian society.
What delivering this paper at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference showed, was that the Victorian recipes I studied were revitalising ideas of thrift and economy that had been around for centuries past. The other papers determined that these ideas were in no way new, but were often refashioned at times of societal change. By making thrifty foods fashionable and a matter of morals, the Victorians were attempting to discourage wastefulness, so that Britain could adapt to changes such as increasing industrialisation and a still-growing population. Throughout history, then, an analysis of these ideologies through the lens of food can be a window into the realities of the past.
Buckmaster, Charles. Buckmaster’s Cookery. London: George, Routledge and Sons, 1874.
Dickens, Charles, Jr (ed.). ‘Learning to Cook.’ All the Year Round, 12.306 (1874): 611-617.
Smiles, Samuel. Thrift. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875.
Warren Francis, Eliza. How I Managed My House on Two Hundred Pounds a Year. London: Houlston and Wright, 1864.
This is the second in a planned series of posts on nutrition science and government-sanctioned recipes in imperial Japan.
Imagine a national cookbook. What would that look like? What would it say about the values and ideology of the society in which it was produced and the individuals and governmental organizations involved? Well, Japan gave us at least one answer to this almost a century ago, in 1924.
The first post in this series examined the “Nutrition Song,” a 1922 Japanese song with lyrics by the founding director of Japan’s Government Institution for Nutrition (IGIN). This song was part of an extensive and diverse media strategy that included early adoption of radio as a medium; IGIN-approved recipes were broadcast daily beginning in 1926 and printed the following day in the major newspapers. More remarkable as a manifesto than as a musical achievement, this song articulated a program for a rational, economical, modern diet. The lyrics encapsulate the IGIN’s advocacy of nutrition science as a win-win tool to improve individual quality of life and national strength.
In fact, the Institute began publishing daily “cheap, delicious recipes” on May 29, 1922 (figure 1), calling for a “kitchen revolution” to realize “an economical life and increased health for the Japanese.” Radio was a tantalizingly novel, fashionable, quintessentially modern medium rapidly adopted in urban Japan. Along with popular programs like radio calisthenics, the IGIN’s menus du jour, which carried the imprimatur of a premier government science laboratory and its celebrity chief, “modernized and ‘rationalized’ conceptions of the body, health, physical fitness, and exercise.” The appeal of both calisthenics and the Institute’s meal plans was both positive and negative, personal and patriotic. On the one hand, there was the possibility of personal betterment. On the other, many Japanese were plagued by “a nagging sense of physical inferiority vis-à-vis” the Western imperial powers.
even before its foray into radio, in 1924 the IGIN compiled a year’s worth of
recipes originally published in newspapers into a cookbook called Daily Recipes for Home Cooking. A few
columns explaining basic facts about nutrition, hygiene, etc., are sprinkled
throughout, but otherwise Daily Recipes
is a straightforward day-by-day guide to preparing “nutritious, delicious, and
economical” breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a middle-class family of three.
I picked up a copy of this book, I was delighted to find that the May 29 menu
is in fact the same as that for the Institute’s memorable 1922 newspaper debut:
shellfish simmered in soy sauce and mirin (tsukudani) and miso soup with
cabbage for breakfast, fried bamboo shoots and salted salmon sashimi for lunch,
and a pork and vegetable curry accompanied by spicy
pickled bamboo shoots and wakame for dinner.
are two marked differences between the 1922 Asahi
article and the Daily Recipes
version. First, the former explicitly lists rice as the main course, while the
latter does not. (Conversely, the cookbook includes seasonings like soy sauce
and sugar, not listed in the 1922 version.) The inclusion of rice is
significant because, despite the IGIN’s open antagonism to white rice as
wasteful and even a threat to national security (teaser!), the Institute expected
a family of three to consume almost two liters of cooked rice daily. Second, the
newspaper itemizes nutritional information, while the cookbook does not. This
speaks to a difference in context. Cookbook buyers were likely to be converts
to the IGIN’s ideology of “economical nutrition” and believers in the Institute’s
bona fides and its scientized menu based on the principles of quantification
and substitution. If the newspaper recipes were proselytization for the New
Nutrition-style IGIN diet, the cookbook was more “preaching to the choir.”
Table 1 Nutrition information for IGIN’s May 29, 1922/1924 daily recipes (serves 3)
*Amounts approximate; calculated from Japanese Imperial units **Sen = ¥1/100
To return to my original question, as exemplified by this
daily menu plan from Daily Recipes, the
IGIN relentlessly backed a national dietary reform program couched in the Fordist/Taylorist
logic of quantification and substitution. In doing so, the Institute appealed
to the self-interest of the new professionalizing housewife, who was increasingly
expected to mobilize modern science to improve the efficiency and quality of life
of her family—and by extension, the nation.
 Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868-1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018), 120.
Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history at Nagoya University, Japan. His first book, Ennobling Japan’s Savage Northeast: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought, 1945-2011 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2017) treated the place of Tōhoku (northeast Honshu) in modern Japanese national history. He is currently researching the history of school lunches in Japan and their relationship to the development and application of nutrition science as a technology of national strengthening, focusing on the history of governmental “nutritional activism” and the school lunch program, 1920-present.