My Kitchen, Myself: Constructing the Feminine Identity in Contemporary Cookbooks

Carody Culver

Abstract


Sometimes ... we don’t want to feel like a post-modern, post-feminist, overstretched woman but, rather, a domestic goddess, trailing nutmeggy fumes of baking pie in our languorous wake (Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess vii).

Introduction

For today’s female readers, the idea of trailing “nutmeggy fumes” of home-baked pie through their kitchens could be as much a source of gender-stereotyping outrage as one of desire or longing. Regardless of personal response, there seems little doubt that the image Lawson’s words create prevails even in the 21st century: an apron-clad, kitchen-bound woman, cooking for others as an expression of love and communication.

This is particularly true of contemporary cookbooks written by and aimed at women. Two examples are Sophie Dahl’s Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights (2010) and Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess (2000). This paper explores how Dahl and Lawson use three narrative strategies—sequence, description and voice—to frame their recipes; it also analyses how these narrative strategies encourage readers to embrace traditional constructs of domestic femininity, albeit in a contemporary and celebratory light. The authors’ use of these strategies also makes their cookbooks more than simply instruction manuals—instead, they become engaging and pleasurable texts that use memoir, humour and nostalgia to convey their recipes and create distinct authorial personas and cultural ideas about food and femininity.

While primary purpose of cookbooks is to instruct, what makes them distinctive—and, arguably, so popular—is their mix of pleasure and utility. The stories they tell, both cultural and personal, are what make us continue to buy and read them, despite bookshelves that may already bend beneath the weight of three hundred different versions of chicken risotto and chocolate cake; as Anne Bower notes, many women read cookbooks for escapism and enjoyment.

This concept of escapism and enjoyment is closely tied to the role of narrative. Cognitive narratology, a more recent strand of narrative theory, emphasises what readers bring to a text, and how narrative allows readers to frame and understand texts and the world around them. Therefore, cookbooks that situate their recipes among personal anecdotes and familiar cultural ideals or myths—such as the woman in the kitchen—appeal to our experiences and emotions. Cookbooks thus become engaging and resonant on personal and sociocultural levels: Gvion argues that cookbooks are “social texts” (54), which seems appropriate when considering the meanings we ascribe to food—it remains a fundamental part of our culture and identity (Lupton). Certain cookbooks—those that emphasise the social and emotional aspects of what we consume—can be regarded as a reflection of how we attach meanings to foods in particular contexts (Mintz). The books discussed in this paper combine the societal and personal aspects of this process: their authors blend familiar cultural tropes with their own engaging autobiographical anecdotes using sequence, description and voice.

Narrative theory has traditionally been applied to fiction, and cookbooks obviously lack fictional elements such as plot and character. However, cognitivist narratology, which directs its focus to humans’ cognitive understanding and perception of various actions and events (Fludernik, Histories), makes it applicable to a range of texts. Cookbooks’ use of sequence, description, and voice create “storyworlds” for readers, which “can be viewed as [a] global mental representation enabling interpreters to draw inferences about items and occurrences either explicitly or implicitly included in a narrative” (Herman 9). Cookbook authors use memories, anecdotes and imagery to conjure scenes to which readers can aspire or relate, perhaps prompting responses similar to those experienced when reading fiction.

Prince characterises narrative as a “representation of events in a time sequence” (82). The sequence of information and anecdotes in a cookbook—its introduction, chapter structure and recipe structure—positions readers to read and interpret the text in a particular way; it is both part of how the texts authors construct a sense of self and of how they encourage readers to construct their own meanings in response. Dahl, for example, arranges her recipes according to season, since she places great importance on seasonal eating.

Description is the cornerstone of any successful cookbook, since it becomes impossible to successfully replicate a dish if you cannot make sense of the instructions. However, in a narrative sense, description operates as part of a narrator’s “rhetorical strategy” (Bal 36); it helps construct their narrative persona and enables them to reinforce the associations between food, culture and identity in evocative language.

Voice is the final piece of the narrative puzzle. These cookbooks are all “narrated” by their authors, who offer selected anecdotes and stories to support their authorial intentions and position readers to interpret their texts in a particular way. Feminist narratologist Susan Lanser regards voice as the “intersection of social identity and textual form” (14), a definition that recognises the broader social and cultural significance of cookbooks. Since they tend to be narrated “directly” from author to readers, authorial voice serves not only to engage readers, but also to establish authors’ culinary authority.

The two cookbooks analysed here are written by—and, arguably, primarily aimed at—women, and this paper contends that their authors use narrative to reclaim a powerful sense of feminine ownership. While they are just two of many contemporary cookbooks that arguably strive to achieve similar ends (Tessa Kiros’s 2010 Apples for Jam, and Monica Trapaga’s 2010 She’s Leaving Home, are two recent Australian examples), Dahl’s and Lawson’s texts are apt case studies: both are commercially successful and their authors occupy a significant space in the public imagination, particularly where women’s identity is concerned. Dahl is a former plus-size model who lost weight “rather publicly” (Dahl xi) and whose book charts the evolution of her complex relationship with food; Lawson’s books and cooking programs have seen her variously characterised as “prefeminist housewife … antifeminist Stepford wife … the saviour of downshifting middle-class career women and as both the negative and positive product of postfeminism” (Hollows 180). Dahl and Lawson narrate the knowledge and skill of their recipes in a context of experiences and memories related to their lives as mothers and/or partners and food professionals, which underscores the weight of their kitchen authority as women while still maintaining that rather mythic connection between the feminine and domestic.

Sequence

The introductory pages and internal structure of each book reflects both its author’s intentions, and the persona they construct within the text that speaks directly to readers. It also foregrounds the link between women and food.

The link between this domesticity and feminine identity is explicit in both texts. Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights is a food memoir as well as a cookbook, and Dahl’s use of narrative sequence makes this clear: in her introduction, she reveals that “the second word I ever spoke was ‘crunch,’ muddled baby-speak for fudge” (viii). Interspersed between the book’s four sections (Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer) are essays that chart Dahl’s evolving relationship with food and cooking, framed particularly in terms of her female identity: they detail her progression from a plump-cheeked teenager unhappy about carrying a few extra pounds to a woman at ease with her body and appetite who cannot “get away from the siren call of the kitchen” (15). Dahl often introduces her recipes with reference to their personal significance, particularly in relation to cooking as an act of love or communication—“Musician’s Breakfast,” for example, is so named because it is a favourite of her boyfriend, jazz musician Jamie Cullum (152).

Lawson’s book is ostensibly more practical—her chapters are arranged according to types of dish, such cakes or biscuits. She also explicitly summons the familiar vision of the woman at home in the kitchen. Although she draws on the clichéd image of the domestic goddess, her preface seems aimed at making female readers feel at ease. For example, she writes that she does not want her audience to think of baking as a “land you do not inhabit” or to “confine you to kitchen quarters” (vii); rather, her aim is to make them “feel” (vii) like a domestic goddess rather than be one, an act that might be interpreted as an attempt to put a more contemporary spin on a dated archetype.

Nonetheless, throughout Lawson’s book, the prose that introduces her recipes draws on those associations between baking and homely comfort: cake-baking “implies effort and domestic prowess,” (2) but is easy in practice, and baking loaf cakes makes one feel “humble and worthy and brimming with good things” (5). Again, Lawson’s own experience—particularly as a busy mother and career woman—shapes the introductory words for each recipe and establishes a sense of her authorial persona in relation to broader social constructs of food and the feminine.

Description

Vivid, evocative descriptions of food and food-related memories and experiences are an integral part of what makes these texts narratively engaging, and how they continue to enforce and idealise that connection between the feminine and the domestic.

Both authors frequently describe food in terms that create concepts of cosy domesticity: Lawson describes baking as a metaphor for “familial warmth” (vii), and for Dahl, roast chicken “is Sunday ... there’s something about that smell wafting through the house” (53). A distinct sense of nostalgia is at play here; as Linda Hutcheon observes, one can “look and reject” or “look and linger longingly” (online), and this apparent yearning to return to simpler times summons a “mythical past of comfort and stability” (Duruz 57), seemingly embodied in images of wholesome foods cooked for us by mothers or wives.

This idea of food as emotionally nourishing is frequently related in terms of the author’s duties as domestic providers and as women who occasionally—and by choice—inhabit traditional female roles. However, Lawson and Dahl reveal the tensions between past and present: while they embrace the pleasures of old-fashioned domesticity, they do not—and cannot—wholly recreate it. Instead, they must balance it with other priorities, making space for a more liberated and contemporary female home cook who can choose to occupy a place at the stove.

Of course, the title of Lawson’s book—and the wording of its preface, quoted at the start of this paper—refers explicitly to the old-fashioned idea of the domestic goddess. But Lawson aims to update or demystify the concept for today’s busy women: she expresses the view that many have become “alienated” from the domestic sphere, but that “it can actually make us feel better to claim back some of that space, make it comforting rather than frightening” (vii). While she summons very traditional images—for example, “a pie is just what we all know should be emanating from the kitchen of a domestic goddess” (81)—she also puts a new spin on them, perhaps in an attempt to make them seem less patronising or intimidating while still enforcing how satisfying it can be to feel like a domestic goddess without slaving in the kitchen. She frequently emphasises the simplicity of her recipes and describes food in terms of the pleasure it brings the cook as well as those for whom she is cooking: while baking bread brings “crucial satisfaction, that warm feeling of homespun achievement,” she also notes that “my way of baking bread is designed to fit more easily into the sort of lives we lead” (291).

As Hollows notes, the “Nigella cooking philosophy” is that “cooking should be pleasurable and should start from the desire to eat” (182), a concept far removed from the traditional construct of women as “providers of food for others” who have difficulty “experiencing food as pleasurable themselves, particularly in a domestic context” (184).

Dahl also emphasises pleasure, ease and practicality, and describes food in terms of its nostalgic and emotional associations, particularly in relation to her female relatives. As a child, Dahl attended boarding school, and on the last night of her holidays—before she returned to terrible school food, with its “gristly stew, grey Scotch eggs and collapsed beetroot” (7)—her mother would cook her a special dinner, and she remembers feasting on “roast chicken wrapped in bacon with tarragon creeping wistfully over its breast, potatoes golden and gloriously crispy on the outside and flaking softly from within” (7). Although Dahl’s mother taught her the importance of “cooking for your man,” this very old-fashioned idea is presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, with the caveat, “woe betide any man who doesn’t appreciate it” (73). Again, the act of cooking is described as something that brings intense domestic satisfaction, and represents a conscious choice to relive the past in a contemporary, and perhaps slightly ironic (albeit still enjoyable), context: making tawny granola “makes one feel very fifties housewife, because as it bakes the house is bathed in a warm cinnamon-y glow” (25).

Such descriptions of food and cooking are both evocative and romantic, even while they emphasise convenience and practicality. This perhaps reflects the realities of modern life for busy modern women juggling work and family commitments; it emphasises that tension between the ideal of the past and the reality of the present. While Lawson and Dahl still idealise the correlation between women, food and the domestic, drawing on familiar and perhaps comforting associations, they nonetheless manage to make their cookbooks both narratively engaging and culturally revealing: as Susan Leonardi points out, recipes are an exchange between reader and writer, and they require “a recommendation, a context ... a reason to be” (340). Descriptions of memories, emotions and sensations in relation to cooking and women’s identity help to create a particular narrative “storyworld” (Herman 9) or familiar context; the authors here describe experiences that are likely to resonate with female readers to enforce that connection between women and their kitchens.

Since they draw so heavily on their authors’ lives, these cookbooks are almost forms of life narrative; by drawing on their own recollections to appeal to readers and share recipes, their narrators are “performing several rhetorical acts, justifying their own perceptions, conveying cultural information” (Smith and Watson 10). This is a fundamental aspect of narrative voice: who “speaks” in the text (Genette 185).

Voice

Both authors use their identity as women and home cooks to enforce the feminine/domestic connection and relate to their audience. They each create a distinct narrating voice or authorial persona that speaks directly to readers and aims to win their trust and sympathy.

Lawson positions herself as a busy mother and wife; Dahl focuses on her evolving relationship with food, particularly in the context of her former career as a plus-size model and her subsequent weight loss. Both women share cooking anecdotes, and often, significantly, their kitchen failures—Dahl’s recipe for asparagus soup reveals that one of her attempts at trialling the recipe resulted in soup spurting from her blender, “covering me, the walls and floor in a thick slick of green” (168). Both women write as passionate home cooks: what seems most important is a love of food and what it represents, the joy of cooking as much as the culinary skill it may require. Lanser writes that “the authority of a given voice or text is produced from a conjunction of social and rhetorical properties” (6), and both Dahl’s and Lawson’s authority comes from their domestic experience and their roles as women who cook for themselves and for the pleasure it brings them as much as for their families.

Although they advocate this sense of enjoyment over duty, there remains in each text a distinctly romantic idea of what it means to cook; specifically, to be a female home cook. This is most explicit in how Dahl and Lawson narrate their texts, particularly in terms of the confidences they share. Both confess their shortcomings in relaxed and informal tones: Lawson writes about an occasion when she found herself in “dire straits” when trying to make marzipan (6), and confesses to being a “negligent mother” because all she does with her children is cook with them (209); Dahl says that she “would plant tarragon in my garden in London, but the neighbour’s cat is partial to peeing on every herb I have” (58). Both imbue their actual recipes, as well as the prose that surrounds them, with a very personal tone, offering tips and advice drawn from their own experience: Dahl advises readers to “go by instinct and taste, adding or taking away as you want” (52) and Lawson suggests leaving “a decent amount of uncooked cake batter in the bowl for scraping-out purposes” (183).

Conclusion

Pasupathi’s work on constructing identity in storytelling, and how recounting stories becomes a way of establishing a sense of self, is particularly relevant here; a similar concept is evident in cookbooks. Lawson and Dahl choose familiar life stories and situations that readers, (particularly female), might recognise and engage with. As Fludernik observes, narrators are integral to narrative texts, since they help to establish narrative meaning and interest (An Introduction to Narratology). The narrating voices of Dahl’s and Lawson’s cookbooks foreground their identity as women and home cooks to highlight experiences and issues relevant to women.

All three of the narrative strategies discussed in this paper contribute to this. Both texts do, to a degree, enforce cultural stereotypes—most obviously, the idea of a woman’s kitchen as a kind of natural habitat—but they also emphasise the pleasures of cooking. Despite the clichéd imagery and heavy nostalgia, Dahl’s and Lawson’s appropriation of the domestic goddess image exposes and reconfigures the contradictions between the idealised past and more liberated present; offering female readers and cooks “beguiling possibilities … for re-enactment” (Duruz 57).

Lawson and Dahl’s use of narrative strategies not only makes their texts more engaging to read, but reflects the social and cultural relevance of cookbooks, and how they can embody and reshape our engrained values and ideas. In their own way, they seek to affirm the female domestic experience and position it as something celebratory rather than oppressive.

Perhaps no one puts it so aptly as Lawson: “I know the idea of being in the kitchen faffing around with bottles and jars and hot pans might seem confining to many, but honestly, I have found it liberating. The sense of connectedness you get, with your kitchen, your home, your food, is the very opposite of constraint” (334). This seems an apt reflection of cookbooks’ narrative power and ability to explore fundamental social and cultural ideas; they engage us, inspire us and entertain us.

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Keywords


cookbooks; narrative; food; feminine; domestic; gender identity



Copyright (c) 2013 Carody Culver

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