“Kitchen Allegory,” Jessica Jackson Hutchins (2010) and Sideboard, Jan Martense Scheck house (mid 18th c., New York), both at the Brooklyn Museum.
Some great panels at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference last week in New York. I was really inspired by the folks browsing their way through hundreds of community cookbooks and entire runs of popular cooking magazines. Having done archival research on newspapers myself, I know how grueling that kind of reading is. I can’t imagine it would be easier with recipes involved.
Also saw what could happen if a researcher doesn’t put the time and effort into a holistic approach. Downright dismayed by the lack of understanding of and interest in food culture west of the Hudson. That’s long been a complaint of mine in New York culinary publishing, and you’ve probably heard me froth at the mouth about Cook’s Illustrated and the New York Times, in particular, treating California as if it’s a foreign land of exotic fruits in all senses of the word. To say nothing of Oregon. But at the conference, I saw this blindness in action at all levels of the industry, and it was sobering. To ignore California is to ignore the way our country produces and distributes food. And we all know what that means.
Possibly the most fascinating aspect of the conference was one we wouldn’t dream of managing at a literature conference (lest we litter the proceedings with litterateurs). The mingling of historians and food writers in two streams directed at research and industry! An intrepid voyager could take in the entire history of Jewish cookbooks in the West, for example, then learn how to profit from the latest cookbook app. Or hear more about the dishes featured in Willa Cather’s fiction, then receive advice on writing culinary fiction appealing to New York’s elite publishing houses. Need an agent? Fancy more information about 18th century French cooking? Having trouble with timing your recipes? Pondering the Chinese immigrant experience? They had us covered.
I was a little cowed, I’ll admit, by the blogging presence and emerging industry represented at the conference. I know for sure I don’t want this blog to become a moneymaking enterprise. Way too commercial for me. I need a place to freely write, not a venue for generating ever more traffic because of my concept and brand. My platform. That’s the term they used. But it was interesting to hear some of the possibilities for the field.
One of my favorite panels was on cookbooks as propaganda, led by Gastronomica editor Darra Goldstein. The participants were constitutional legal scholar, John Finn (left, above), a literature professor, Megan Elias (middle), and a chef/sociologist, Krishnendu Ray (right). I managed to snap a shot of Ray’s analysis of the visual rhetoric of cookbook covers. He’s gesturing toward The French Laundry Cookbook in its chef’s whites, and discussing subtle ways in which the culinary elite represents itself in design, comparing it to representations of “ethnic” cooking as in the Indian cookbook in front of him. Looking forward to reading more of his work on ethnography in the American restaurant.
And speaking of which, I was doing my own ethnography in the American restaurant when I wasn’t attending panels. Yes, more Chinese food, more dumplings, more Sichuan. If you’d like to take a look at a photo set of my trip to Chinatown or another of the food-related artwork I saw at the Brooklyn Museum, the albums are available to all on my Facebook page.
Hm, maybe dumplings could be my platform. Mmmm, doughy, soup-filled platform.