Books That Cook! My First Food Fiction Course

by Stacey Donohue, Humanities Department

chocolate_chip_cookiesOne of the many food blogs I read posts recipes, and one of the best is the recipe for delicious pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.   Another blogger I follow (an academic who shall remain anonymous, but let’s call her Sybil) noted in her recent re-posting of the pumpkin cookie recipe that she should just start a food blog, and the cheers of support in the comments section poured in.   That idea (a food blog, for those who cook, for those who eat, or for those who like to read about food) got me reflecting on the food fiction course I taught in fall 2008 for the first time.

Last spring I read an article in College English (70.4) titled “Books That Cook: Teaching Food and Food Literature in the English Classroom” by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite (the entire March 2008 issue is on food).   Since I was teaching a generically titled Eng 260: Introduction to Women Writers course, I decided to try out some of their ideas by focusing on “food fiction” by women writers.  I ended up (after much anguish—I struggle with this choice whenever I teach a literature course) with the following reading list:

like-water3

Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate 

dinneratthe-homesick3

Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant   

crescentcover

Diana Abu Jaber’s Crescent

&

babettes-feast

Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast

Other books I considered but couldn’t fit into our quarter system included the following (note that for all of these texts below, the books are significantly better than the film versions):

Joanne Harris’ Chocolat 
Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café
Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices

As it turns out, the novels worked well together, sharing many of the same themes (including elements of magical realism; fairy tale allusions; and, naturally, all used food as a central metaphor).   And because we focused on contemporary women’s fiction–fiction that is not “canonical”–there were engaging discussions of some issues I’ve explored when analyzing Oprah’s Book Club (high vs. “middlebrow” literature and reader response criticism, for example).

I decided to focus on fiction, but I know there are many, many food memoirs out there, too.  And, of course, I limited the selection to women writers, but someday I can see a separate food memoir course where I could include my favorites such as Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  

Please share any other titles you have for fiction, non-fiction or memoir:  my Food Fiction course was a joy to prepare and teach, and I’m looking forward to teaching it again next year. 

This spring, Amy Harper is offering Anthropology 299: Food and Culture, an elective course that has over 30 students enrolled.  As COCC looks forward to an expanded Culinary program, I imagine other faculty members will respond with food-related courses within their discipline, and who knows: is there a Food Studies program next?

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11 Responses to Books That Cook! My First Food Fiction Course

  1. Megan Neilans says:

    If you want read read mysteries set around food, Diane Mott Davidson is great choice.

  2. chloe says:

    What about Nosh New York, by Myra Alperson? It’d be a different genre or “read” – more of cultural food tourism. Not exactly literature, but it might be an interesting comparison? I met her when I was working for the Queens Botanical Garden with communities in the “most ethnically diverse neighborhood in North America”. You could use her work as an exploration of cultural consumption (in both senses of the term), tourism, hybridities, and ethnicity, perhaps?

  3. LiNCOLN PARK says:

    Hi Stacey —

    I’m writing a book (my 4th) about haphazard souls bound together in a national baking contest. Please enjoy the preview document here:

    Please also consider having a look at the finished work. If this interests you, please email me. I would be delighted to put you on the list for a complimentary copy to evaluate.

    This work strives to achieve several things; not the least of which is the idea of people seeking validation of self-worth through food. I’m not sure — but my novel may be the first food-related novel with a PARENTAL ADVISORY seal.

    As a book for study, your class may find my book additionally intriguing because they will be able to fully engage and interact with the characters in the book via-the Internet.

    (BTW — While probably not a surprise, I’d like to mention that I have gained an enormous amount of weight due to writing a food-related novel).

    Thank you for your attention and continued success with your fascinating course! I look forward to your reply.

    Best Regards,

    LiNCOLN PARK

  4. Stacey says:

    I wish I had more time to think about your question more, Tom: it’s an excellent one! I’d say that yes, many of us are probaby romanticizing food more: many of us have the time and leisure to discuss fond memories of both grandma’s apple pie and fluffernutter sandwiches.

    When I was choosing texts for the class, the fictional works I found that focused on food were written from within a particular ethnic perspective (Mexican, Iraqi, French, for example). The one text we discussed that did not focus on the connection between food and a specific cultural group was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and, interestingly, food was used as a way to reflect on each character’s relationship with him or herself and others (thus a non-giving mother was a terrible cook, and the nuturing son opens a restaurant).

    There are so many avenues to explore with this topic, that it simply must be an interdisciplinary course or set of courses!

  5. Tom Barry says:

    As you stated books with food themes are found in the 1800s and 1900s, with more recent writings specifically using food as a metaphor. In the post-industrial world we live in we have a different relationship with food. More food is packaged and processed and we lose a connection between the growers and the consumers. In Marxist terminology, food has become fetishized. As this change in our interactions with food has occured, do you think we are drawn back to the past and its more organic relationship with food? And if this is the case, do we romanticize the way food was understood and consumed in the past? Is it our way of collectively making sense of being a member of rationalized society?

    Tom

  6. staceyleedonohue says:

    Thank you, Tom. The article Mick posted addresses part of the reason why Food Studies is becoming more popular: there are now so many books on the subject, ranging from essays to memoir, that allow us to study the subject in a interdisciplinary context.

    When I was searching for food-related fiction, however, I did find a greater number of novels (those written in English) that focused on food in the late 20th century than earlier, and I suppose there are many socioeconomic and cultural factors for that: not that earlier novels don’t mention food or use food as a metaphor (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s early 20th century novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse), but they it’s much rarer. Jane Austen and Emily Bronte just didn’t linger on food descriptions: food was eaten, but since our heroines weren’t involved in its production or preparation, it was all done behind the scenes. Women (and my focus was on women writers, so I’ll stick that here) who were involved in production and preparation were rarely writers–they either didn’t have the literacy or the time, or both. Interestingly, even in the early immigrant fiction of the 19th century, where the women characters clearly cooked, food is just a necessity, not a subject of fiction. It’s not until the late 20th century that food becomes an art form for more than just chefs, and that food is recognized as a form of communion and an aid to community.

    Such an interdisciplinary discussion: economics, culture, sociology, anthropology and literary studies all in one comment, Tom!

  7. Tom Barry says:

    Stacey:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I also applaud you for your creative approaches in creating engaging curriculum.

    If you created a catalog of “food books,” such as those you listed, would you find a consistent interest in these stories about food or life or are they a more recent phenomena? I was wondering the production of food in contemporary high-income countries draws us back to a time of food as community versus food as mass production.

    Tom

  8. staceyleedonohue says:

    Chloe

    Excellent suggestion: in fact, one student in the Food Fiction class did her final project on that book (a book I bought and read while travelling in Italy last year—it went well with the foodie sensibility we encountered there).

  9. Michael Van Meter says:

    Witnessing the preparation for such a course is one of the very nice benefits of being married to Dr. Donohue. This was fun! (I must confess that I didn’t read nearly so much as I watched the movies, though.)

    The notion of expanded Food Studies “program” sorts of offerings is interesting and definitely worth pondering, but I think it’s also valuable to think about the implicit recognition that food literacy — like math, geography, humanities, etc. — is an essential part of being a well-rounded and well-educated person. Our experience last May traveling in Italy reinforced how much we as Americans (even in so-called fine dining establishments) are lacking in this important aspect of being whole.

  10. chloe frommer says:

    Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver?

  11. mick mccann says:

    Interesting that there are so many ways to study food! I’m offering a Special topics “Geography of Food” in Spring 2010. There is a good article in the Washington Post (8/19/08) about food related classes hitting the Academic Mainstream. The link to the article which is authored by Jane Black is
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/19/AR2008081900599.htm

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