Aesthetic Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Women’s Food Writing examines the gender politics of gastronomic writing and culinary experience in England and America. Focusing on M.F.K. Fisher, Alice B. Toklas, Elizabeth David, and, more briefly, the contemporary writers Patience Gray, Vertamae Smart Grosvenor, and Monique Truong: McLean brings into focus these authors’ contributions to women’s food writing in the framework of a literary history of the gendered genres of domestic cookbooks, traditionally penned by women, and professional cookbooks and gastronomic literature, the domain of male gastronomes. Beginning with the nineteenth century, McLean explores how women writers came to exercise their right to articulate the pleasures begotten by gastronomic and literary practices in ways that simultaneously transformed the very genre of food writing. In McLean’s words, “Creating a language that configures female desire, Fisher, Toklas, and David expanded women’s food writing beyond the domestic realm to establish a tradition of English and American literature that celebrates female appetite for pleasure and for gastronomic adventure” (p.1).
Chapter 1 charts the male tradition of gastronomic literature that began in post-Revolutionary France and migrated to England and America. The chapter thereby sets the historical stage for the emergence of the female gastronome from the ideologically segregated space of domestic cookbook writing, a genre devoted to instructing women about nourishing male appetite and ideologically serving to regulating female desire. From the shadows of domestic cookbook writing, the female gastronome appears as a literary pleasure-seeker attuned to “the power of gastronomy to transform the satisfaction of a physical need into nourishment for the soul” (p.33).
Chapter 2 focuses on M.F.K. Fisher in the context of changes within the genre of women’s food writing. The image of Fisher that comes to the fore is of a literary innovator through whose writings the female appetite came into focus as a motor of action and as a legitimate object of literary reflection. Because Fisher’s gastronomic sensibility is intertwined with her literary talent, it is impossible to talk about her food writing without addressing the quality and characteristics of the prose itself. To this end, the chapter conceptualizes “gastronomical satisfaction” as an experience of dynamic border crossing, “when eater and eaten converge, instances when the boundaries between inside and outside, self and other are temporarily dissolved” (p.83). This understanding of gastronomic pleasure serves as a recurring leitmotif throughout the study. Chapter 3 approaches The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook as a “queer text” in order to make two kinds of arguments: the first about its intervention into the history of the heteronormative food writing tradition; the second about the “power of genre-bending food writing to transgress and reconfigure conventional gender ideologies” (p.93). One of the most interesting parts of the chapter—which also illustrates its reach beyond its expressed intention—is its reading of the unstable power relations among Toklas, her partner Gertrude Stein, and their household employees. McLean argues that the instability in the distribution of power between employers and employees was not only a reflection of the domestic labor shortage in the households of the privileged, hastened by the World Wars, it also indicated Toklas’s openness to the multicultural influences of her French, Martiniquean, and Vietnamese cooks.
Chapter 4 focuses on Elizabeth David, whose writings revolutionized British home cooking in the aftermath of WWII by introducing the food cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East into the domestic kitchen. McLean emphasizes how the cosmopolitan influences on David had an enlivening effect on domestic cookery, gastronomic writing, and, more broadly, the British cultural imaginary: McLean writes, “David foregrounds food as a medium through which the self can be constructed in relation to other nations, other cultures and other individuals” (p.144). Chapter 5 considers three contemporary texts: Gray’s Honey from a Weed (1986), Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking (1979), and Truong’s Book of Salt (2003), all of which exemplify “a postcolonial culinary aesthetic that illuminates cookery as a means of mediating cultural dissonance” (p.12). With the democratization of the cosmopolitan palate through the globalization of the food supply and the increasing divorce of food from nature, McLean argues that an ambivalence develops in modern food writing traceable to a felt tension between the global and the local, and the chapter teases out the unique manifestation of this tension in each of the three texts under consideration.
If occasionally the book’s analyses, especially its discussions of the poetics of food writing, verge on the cursory, this is only because of the ambitious scope of the study: part cultural history of the sexual politics of food writing, part historical survey of female pleasure as articulated through physical appetite, and part examination of the way food can serve as metaphoric material for a feminine literary voice and sensibility. Aesthetic Pleasure in Twentieth-Century Women’s Food Writing makes a clear and persuasive case for the power of women’s gastronomic writing to make significant interventions into the social underpinnings of food culture in England and America.