The poet and literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert has made a career of throwing her arms around big topics. Having completed a capacious study in 2006 of death and grieving, she now turns her attention to life: specifically, to food and its cultural manifestations.
Gilbert is best known for her collaborative study of the 19th-century novel, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” with which she and Susan Gubar brought feminist criticism into the mainstream and transformed our understanding of Victorian culture. Her new book is a testament to her wide-ranging curiosity and enthusiasm for her subject (the text is generously peppered with exclamation points), but like an all-you-can-eat buffet, the abundance of choices leaves the diner-reader overstuffed, with a blunted palate. It is best enjoyed, as a buffet also may be, with targeted restraint; dipped into rather than worked through methodically, an experience that reveals repetition and diminishing returns.
The book opens by surveying contemporary American food-fascination and its ironies: the rise of the Food Network and food-as-entertainment amid exploding rates of obesity; the urban obsession with “farm to table” dining set against the rural reality of Big Food domination. Gilbert quotes extensively from the ever-expanding library of foodie lit, from memoirs to novels to poems to polemics, but it’s not always clear just what her own contribution will be to these glutted shelves. Do we need to be convinced again of the cultural importance of Julia Child, the literary influence of Proust’s madeleine or the political impact of Michael Pollan’s food manifestos?
Perhaps not, but then the virtues of a buffet are its boundless choices and unusual juxtapositions. If some dishes on the table are familiar, there are plenty of more-surprising offerings, such as analyses of Ruth Ozeki’s novel “My Year of Meats” and John Lanchester’s “The Debt to Pleasure,” or a survey of recipe poems by Pablo Neruda, Carol Ann Duffy and Patricia Smith, among others.
Academic literary-historical studies are often attacked for their narrowness. But it’s hard to make the profound claims that the best scholarly writing makes about how things change, when the subject is as large “The Culinary Imagination” and the historical parameters are as wide as “myth to modernity.” Gilbert’s notes and index are rich resources for following up on the fascinating moments she studies, such as the 1960s “Eat Art” movement, which trafficked in revulsion (cheese sculptures rotting on display) to protest overfed American culture, or the collections of remembered and fantasized recipes assembled by women in the Terezín concentration camp, or the fungal poisoning that might explain the hallucinations that seized the girls in the Salem witch trials. These vivid examples are strung together on a deliberately light, suggestive thread, inviting readers to wonder and admire. However, these radiant parts do not add up to a greater argument about the place of food in Western culture.
The most rewarding sections of the book are those that form Gilbert’s fragmentary memoir of her culinary upbringing in an immigrant Sicilian-Niçois-Russian family. What she calls the “foodoir” is now a literary genre that conforms to a well-worn formula and whose familiarity risks contempt: “We hyphenated Americans have produced so many recipes for and of nostalgia that any memoirist must now fear her ancestral kitchen can no longer yield much more than kitsch: Nonna’s marinara sauce, Zia Teresa’s inimitable polpette, or for that matter Grandma Molly’s gefilte fish.” Gilbert is also astute in her critique of what she calls the “Tale of American Culinary Transformation,” that fable of the 1950s Jello-and-Wonder Bread kitchen giving way to the fresh herbs brandished by Julia Child, James Beard et al. She points out that this WASP-centric story, and the mid-century menu, were very different for urban immigrants trying to shed the garlic-reeking ethnic markers of their origins — and for their children, like Gilbert, who cautiously experimented with a new cosmopolitanism: “One of my best girlfriends was Colombian, another Peruvian, and several of my earliest boyfriends were Spanish or Latin American too: one introduced me to paella, which we regularly sampled at the Sevilla in the Village.”
But there’s a different kind of class myopia evident when Gilbert, a University of California at Davis professor emerita living in Berkeley, turns to contemporary commentary and assumptions about how “we” modern foodies think and behave: “My friends and colleagues sometimes wait weeks or months for reservations at The French Laundry, Gary Danko, Babbo, Momofuku, Per Se, Jean-Georges and on and on — and so do I.” The hardest and most vital issues raised by a detailed analysis of how Americans eat now are those of class, poverty and exclusion — who gets to eat what and why. But when these issues appear, Gilbert tends to turn away, to appeal to the reader with a question that’s almost a shrug: “Are the impoverished and lonely trapped among real rats, or can we hope that some might, sooner or later, have a chance to savor the amazing vegetable stew cooked up by Remy, the rodent hero” of the movie Ratatouille?”
It’s no surprise that Gilbert is most confident and comfortable when she’s close-reading literature — deftly explicating a poem like Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream” or probing the delicate balance between relish and horror in Roald Dahl’s stories. But although these explorations form fascinating individual chapters or sections, they don’t make a convincing overall point or even really express a point of view.
Concluding a survey of modernist representations of food and eating, Gilbert approvingly quotes Gertrude Stein’s assertion that food is always interesting: “Now what has all this to do with anything, well anything always has something to do with something and nothing is more interesting than that something that you eat.” That may be true for the eater, but it’s a dangerous assumption for a writer.
THE CULINARY IMAGINATION
From Myth to Modernity
By Sandra M. Gilbert
Norton. 404 pp. $29.95