A literary scholar investigates the cultural meaning of food.
In this exuberant, wide-ranging look at what, how and why we eat, Gilbert (Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, 2011, etc.) turns to poets and novelists, movies and art, food critics and celebrity chefs, memoirists and historians to consider the myriad and surprising ways that food reflects culture. She quotes Bill Buford in an epigraph that aptly sums up the book: “One of the great charismas of food is that it’s about culture and grandmothers and death and art and self-expression and family and society—and at the same time, it’s just dinner.” Anyone who has ever written about food is likely to be found in these pages, including Proust, Woolf, Hemingway, Plath, Sartre, Homer and Shakespeare. Gilbert also looks at Wallace Stevens’ “Emperor of Ice-Cream,” William Carlos Williams’ stolen plums, Gertrude Stein’s many culinary references in Tender Buttons, and the Romantic poets, whose works frequently featured “magical or exotic foods” that heightened a sense of the fantastic. Julia Child takes center stage when Gilbert considers the popularity of food shows and the transformation of mainstream American cuisine; she also examines the influence of food critics (Ruth Reichl and others) and food memoirists. The genre called “foodoirs,” writes Gilbert, “proliferate[s] like cookies and cupcakes…on bookstore shelves that used to be crammed with romance novels.” These include celebrants, such as M.F.K. Fisher, and food avoiders, such as anorexic and bulimic women. Gilbert reveals her own rich food legacy from her Italian and Russian grandparents, making her early food experiences far different from that of her Jell-o–eating classmates. Although her mother prepared lamb chops and instant mashed potatoes, the author recalls a Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with a Ligurian recipe of spinach, mushrooms, sausage, parmesan cheese and garlic.
Gilbert wears her scholarship lightly in this warm, lively inquiry into the social, political, ethical and aesthetic meanings of “food, glorious food!”