Some people think that a cookbook is just a collection of recipes for dishes that feed the body. In Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano shows that cookbooks provide food for the mind and the soul as well. Looking beyond the ingredients and instructions, she shows how women have used cookbooks to assert their individuality, develop their minds, and structure their lives. Beginning in the seventeenth century and moving up through the present day, Theophano reads between the lines of recipes for dandelion wine, "Queen of Puddings," and half-pound cake to capture the stories and voices of these remarkable women.The selection of books looked at is enticing and wide-ranging. Theophano begins with seventeenth-century English estate housekeeping books that served as both cookbooks and reading primers so that women could educate themselves during long hours in the kitchen. She looks at A Date with a Dish, a classic African American cookbook that reveals the roots of many traditional American dishes, and she brings to life a 1950s cookbook written specifically for Americans by a Chinese émigré and transcribed into English by her daughter. Finally, Theophano looks at the contemporary cookbooks of Lynne Rosetto Kaspar, Madeleine Kamman, and Alice Waters to illustrate the sophistication and political activism present in modern cookbook writing. Janet Theophano harvests the rich history of cookbook writing to show how much more can be learned from a recipe than how to make a casserole, roast a chicken, or bake a cake. We discover that women's writings about food reveal--and revel in--the details of their lives, families, and the cultures they help to shape.
Beyond their recipes, what can cookbooks tell us? Much, says Janet Theophano, whose Eat My Words explores women's history as revealed by the cookbooks they wrote, used, or in many cases created, and through recipes, family and historical memorabilia, and other clippings. Beginning in the 17th century and bringing us to the present, Theophano examines cookbooks as repositories of female identity. Whether focusing on early English estate housekeeping books, which served as both cookbooks and primers for self-education; a 19th-century cookbook whose list of servants' tasks reveals aspects of female domestic life; or 20th-century works like Freda DeKnight's classic 1948 A Date with a Dish, which limns black female culture, the book, at its best, fulfills the promise of its exciting premise. But Theophano is hampered by her choice of materials. Though works like the above do tell about women's lives, others, like that of an early 20th-century Pennsylvania housewife, yield little of consequence no matter how dexterously Theophano squeezes them for meaning. This leads her into a speculative freefall and from there to overgeneralized (and often redundant) conclusions. ("Mrs. Downing gave a lot of thought to the delectable and proper meals she would serve her guests" is one of many examples.) Nonetheless, most readers will find the book an engrossing window through which to glimpse much more than how to roast a chicken or bake a cake. --Arthur Boehm