The broad topic of this debate embodies the age-old question of what constitutes literature? As a society, why do we view the complete works of William Shakespeare as literature but not my weekly shopping list? In an attempt to answer this, most people point towards author’s intended meaning. When I wrote out my shopping list, it wasn’t intended to be read by anyone else or invoke emotion (aside from perhaps hunger). When Shakespeare wrote Othello, a series of ideas, emotions and images are posited: in essence it means something; it has connotations that do not appear at a surface level. But when it comes down to it, the definition of literature is loose. Even when looking in a dictionary, the definition of literature varies from “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit” to “books and writings published on a particular subject” and lastly “leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice”. This final definition is interesting, posing the question as to whether there is a difference between “written works of artistic merit” and “printed matter used to advertise or give advice”. If both these items are considered literature, recipe books are the missing puzzle piece which connects the two. Cookery books both offer advice and advertise a product (i.e. how to cook and what to cook with), whilst simultaneously being works of art themselves. It cannot be ignored that some recipe books are almost poetic, merging the beauty of food and cooking with mastery over language to make this food sound appetising. Cookery books use language to sell themselves to a consumer, just as the novel does. Thus, can we consider cookery books to be a type of literature?
We find them in bookstores, and at some point in your life you will have picked one up. Perhaps in Food Technology class at school you were assigned a recipe book to cook from, just as in English class you were assigned a novel to read. Some recipes were enjoyable and well written enough for a thirteen-year-old girl who didn’t even know how to boil the kettle (only me?) to follow and produce something edible. Others were dull, confusing or uninspired. The same feelings are invoked upon reading a novel or other forms of literature. Sometimes it inspires, other times it falls flat. Some recipes were inspiring enough to make you appreciate cooking. The parallels between secondary school Food Technology and English class is enough to warrant the debate of whether cookery books can be viewed as literature, as they draw upon similar emotional responses to the material presented.
Recently, I spoke to River Cottage’s Head Chef Gill Mellor about his recent recipe book Time and one of the questions I posed to him was whether he thought cookery books could be considered literature. I feel that his books in particular read like literature because of the progression in the recipes which follow like a story. Time is split into what feels like chapters, plotting a progression of food over a period of time. It begins with breakfast and moves through the seasons, giving us summer, autumn, spring and winter breakfasts, then moving onto lunches, dinners and desserts. The structure of this book is like a story. Each recipe has a series of emotions and memories behind it which led to its production. The process of writing a cookery book feels like that of writing a novel. These chefs take a memory and produce an image which they associate with this memory, with said memory having emotional value to them. They then write in such a way that the reader feels the emotion in what they have produced. Reading a recipe is so much more than reading say an Ikea instruction manual on how to build a desk. When you read a recipe, you read a glimmer of someone’s life, of someone’s story: a product of associations which has led to a creation of both food and words on a page. Later in conversation, Gill recommended other cookery books to look at if I’m interested in the literature aspect of recipe books. He suggested books which were well written and poetic in the language used to discuss food. Here, we can see the 21st century market for cookery books is heading towards the personal story telling style of presentation, rendering the market as more literary than matter-of-fact and instruction based. In a market so competitive, the literary aspect of cookery books feels more important than ever.
This conversation got me thinking. We study poetry about food; what’s the difference between this and a well written cookery book? Both stimulate feelings of hunger or mouth-watering desire. Both move us to part with our hard-earned cash to own a copy of this work. Both use metaphors and similes. One need only look towards the erotic language used in recipe titles, for which Nigella Lawson is prime example of. Take Lawson’s “Sambuca Kisses”: this is a recipe for doughnuts stuffed with a Sambuca cream cheese flavouring, but the title gives no indication as to the nature of the dessert. All we know is it contains Sambuca, which has connotations of naughtiness and when tied to the word kisses, this extends further into a sensual sphere. In the description of this dessert, Lawson says they are “pleasurable” to indulge in and it is tempting to eat them all at once. Food is given connotations of lust and sin, becoming overtly sexualised. This can be seen in other titles such as Lawson’s “Devil’s Food Cake”. By associating this food with the devil, it has connotations of being bad, and depending on your outlook this could provoke guilt as it’s deemed naughty for being ‘unhealthy,’ or it could become something eroticised and sensationalised given the links between the devil and promiscuity. In literature, sex sells, and the same can be said for recipe books. Words such as “devil”, “kisses” and “sensual” eroticise food and eating, placing a different kind of emotional value upon food. Recipe books turn the shift away from eating as a necessity for survival, to eating as sensual or indulgent. This is done so through words and clever uses of language, a technique employed in literature to convey a message which is different from the norm or assumptive signification.
This extends to online platforms. As students, how many times have you googled ‘Quick and easy stir fry recipe’, only to be bombarded with Jenny’s recipe that she learnt when she went backpacking and her five children love it, even picky eater Karen who has been picky since she was a terrible toddler. The backstory given to a recipe can be frustrating, especially when you specified you wanted it to be quick, and trawling through what feels like Jenny’s life story in order to get to the recipe is by no means quick. However, can this not be considered literature? Someone’s story, someone’s memories, all put on a page and tied to food. When we read food similes in literature, we associate them with an author’s message or life and the story they wish to convey. In the same way, in reading these recipes and seeing people’s stories, we are learning about them and experiencing the message that they want to send. This message can be varied and like with literature it can be a comment on society: perhaps a comment on the need for quick consumption in modern society; perhaps a comment on the value of visiting places and trying local cuisine; perhaps it is a comment on the social aspects of eating given the emotional value we place upon food. However we choose to read a recipe, there is always meaning behind it. When we read a book, we imagine the characters existing in the described scenario. The same happens when we read a recipe and prepare food. When we eat Jenny’s stir fry, we can imagine Jenny backpacking, or Jenny trying to force her picky children to eat a meal she’s laboured over in the kitchen.
As a society, we are obsessed with the language that gets tied to food and cooking. Take the BBC show Eat Well for Less as an example. Health is something we become conscious of as a society, tying words such as ‘treat’ or ‘naughty’ to foods we feel are indulgent. Looking at the Eat Well for Less recipe book tells a story of a society which is obsessed with calorie consumption and concerned about health. The popularity of this book reflects a society living in fear of an obesity crisis which pushes a healthy eating agenda. These kind of books also convey another side to society in the connotations: the rise of eating disorders which stems from the emotional attachment society places on food and negative words we attach to food. When reading a piece of literature, we are encouraged to think about what it says about society. This occurs when we read recipe books as well. Healthy eating recipe books tell us a lot about the society they are written in, acknowledging that people both desire to eat healthily and on a budget, positing an understanding of health and financial disparity in society. This book also acts as a comment on consumerism, showing that there are ways in which we can save money providing we almost ‘cheat’ the capitalist system. You can employ a Marxist reading of Eat Well for Less if you so desire, emphasising that the comments recipe books make about society earn them their status as literature. This is not to discredit Eat Well for Less as a recipe book, as I have found many a delicious meal within its pages. Just as with a novel, you can read it and enjoy it whilst simultaneously being concerned about the message it portrays about the society which produces it. Message doesn’t take away from value, and the multiple possibilities to read into cookery books to this extent positions them within the scope of literature, giving them a stamp of literary value.
Perhaps the broader debate here is whether food preparation in itself is an art. This debate cannot have a finite conclusion, as there are always more recipes to be produced which sees a change in the writing trend. Historically, recipes feel more matter of fact than artistic, however, the 21st century production and portrayal of cookery books is moving towards a poetic scope, and ultimately by using the beauty of words to sell your ideas and products there is the simultaneous production of what must be considered a piece of literature. Recipe books, like literature, employ language to invoke feeling; tell us a story through the production of images and associations; generate a following or community through encouraging discourse; get taught in schools; have various platforms by which we can come across them; are sold alongside literature; and perhaps most importantly they reflect the society they are written in. By all accounts, cookery books can be viewed under the umbrella term of ‘literature’.