Words from the Culinary Crypt: Reading the Cookbook as a Haunted/Haunting Text





Cookbooks, crypt, Gothic, identity,

How to Cite

Piatti-Farnell, L. (2013). Words from the Culinary Crypt: Reading the Cookbook as a Haunted/Haunting Text. M/C Journal, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.640
Vol. 16 No. 3 (2013): cookbook
Published 2013-06-23

Cookbooks can be interpreted as sites of exchange and transformation. This is not only due to their practical use as written instructions that assist in turning ingredients into dishes, but also to their significance as interconnecting mediums between teacher and student, perceiver and perceived, past and present. Hinging on inescapable notions of apprenticeship, occasion, and the passing of time—and being at once familiar and unfamiliar to both the reader and the writer—the recipe “as text” renders a specific brand of culinary uncanny. In outlining the function of cookbooks as chronicles of the everyday, Janet Theophano points out that they “are one of a variety of written forms, such as diaries and journals, that [people] have adapted to recount and enrich their lives […] blending raw ingredients into a new configuration” (122). The cookbook unveils the peculiar ability of the ephemeral “text” to find permanence and materiality through the embodied framework action and repetition. In view of its propensity to be read, evaluated, and reconfigured, the cookbook can be read as a manifestation of voice, a site of interpretation and communication between writer and reader which is defined not by static assessment, but by dynamic and often incongruous exchanges of emotions, mysteries, and riddles.

Taking the in-between status of the cookbook as point of departure, this paper analyses the cookbook as a “living dead” entity, a revenant text bridging the gap between the ephemerality of the word and the tangibility of the physical action. Using Joanne Harris’s fictional treatment of the trans-generational cookbook in Five Quarters of the Orange (2001) as an evocative example, the cookbook is read as a site of “memory, mourning and melancholia” which is also inevitably connected—in its aesthetic, political and intellectual contexts—to the concept of “return.” The “dead” voice in the cookbook is resurrected through practice. Re-enacting instructions brings with it a sense of transformative exchange that, in both its conceptual and factual dimensions, recalls those uncanny structural principles that are the definitive characteristic of the Gothic. These find particular resonance, at least as far as cookbooks are concerned, in “a sense of the unspeakable” and a “correspondence between dreams, language, writing” (Castricano 13).

Understanding the cookbook as a “Gothic text” unveils one of the most intriguing aspects of the recipe as a vault of knowledge and memory that, in an appropriately mysterious twist, can be connected to the literary framework of the uncanny through the theme of “live burial.” As an example of the written word, a cookbook is a text that “calls” to the reader; that call is not only sited in interpretation—as it can be arguably claimed for the majority of written texts—but it is also strongly linked to a sense of lived experience on the writer’s part. This connection between “presences” is particularly evident in examples of cookbooks belonging to what is known as “autobiographical cookbooks”, a specific genre of culinary writing where “recipes play an integral part in the revelation of the personal history” (Kelly 258). Known examples from this category include Alice B. Toklas’s famous Cook Book (1954) and, more recently, Nigel Slater’s Toast (2003). In the autobiographical cookbook, the food recipes are fully intertwined with the writer’s memories and experiences, so that the two things, as Kelly suggests, “could not be separated” (258). The writer of this type of cookbook is, one might venture to argue, always present, always “alive”, indistinguishable and indivisible from the experience of any recipe that is read and re-enacted.

The culinary phantom—understood here as the “voice” of the writer and how it re-lives through the re-enacted recipe—functions as a literary revenant through the culturally prescribed readability of the recipes as a “transtextual” (Rashkin 45) piece. The term, put forward by Esther Rashkin, suggests a close relationship between written and “lived” narratives that is reliant on encrypted messages of haunting, memory, and spectrality (45). This fundamental concept—essential to grasp the status of cookbooks as a haunted text—helps us to understand the writer and instructor of recipes as “being there” without necessarily being present. The writers of cookbooks are phantomised in that their presence—recalling the materiality of action and motion—is buried alive in the pages of the cookbook. It remains tacit and unheard until it is resurrected through reading and recreating the recipe. Although this idea of “coming alive” finds resonance in virtually all forms of textual exchange, the phantomatic nature of the relationship between writer and reader finds its most tangible expression in the cookbook precisely because of the practical and “lived in” nature of the text itself. While all texts, Jacques Derrida suggests, call to us to inherit their knowledge through “secrecy” and choice, cookbooks are specifically bound to a dynamic injunction of response, where the reader transforms the written word into action, and, in so doing, revives the embodied nature of the recipe as much as it resurrects the ghostly presence of its writer (Spectres of Marx 158).

As a textual medium housing kitchen phantoms, cookbooks designate “a place” that, as Derrida puts it, draws attention to the culinary manuscript’s ability to communicate a legacy that, although not “natural, transparent and univocal”, still calls for an “interpretation” whose textual choices form the basis of enigma, inhabitation, and haunting (Spectres of Marx 16). It is this mystery that animates the interaction between memory, ghostly figures and recipes in Five Quarters of the Orange. Whilst evoking Derrida’s understanding of the written texts as a site of secrecy, exchange and (one may argue) haunting, Harris simultaneously illustrates Kelly’s contention that the cookbook breaks the barriers between the seemingly common everyday and personal narratives. In the story, Framboise Dartigen—a mysterious woman in her sixties—returns to the village of her childhood in the Loire region of France. Here she rescues the old family farm from fifty years of abandonment and under the acquired identity of the veuve Simone, opens a local crêperie, serving simple, traditional dishes.

Harris stresses how, upon her return to the village, Framboise brings with her resentment, shameful family secrets and, most importantly, her mother Mirabelle’s “album”: a strange hybrid of recipe book and diary, written during the German occupation of the Loire region in World War II. The recipe album was left to Framboise as an inheritance after her mother’s death: “She gave me the album, valueless, then, except for the thoughts and insights jotted in the margins alongside recipes and newspaper cuttings and herbal cures. Not a diary, precisely; there are no dates in the album, no precise order” (Harris 14). It soon becomes clear that Mirabelle had an extraordinary relationship with her recipe album, keeping it as a life transcript in which food preparation figures as a main focus of attention: “My mother marked the events in her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favourites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity” (14). The album is described by Framboise as her mother’s only confidant, its pages the sole means of expression of events, thoughts and preoccupations. In this sense, the recipes contain knowledge of the past and, at the same time, come to represent a trans-temporal coordinate from which to begin understanding Mirabelle’s life and the social situations she experienced while writing the album.

As the cookery album acts as a medium of self-representation for Mirabelle, Harris also gestures towards the idea that recipes offer an insight into a person that history may have otherwise forgotten. The culinary album in Five Quarters of the Orange establishes itself as a bonding element and a trans-temporal gateway through which an exchange ensues between mother and daughter. The etymological origin of the word “recipe” offers a further insight into the nature of the exchange. The word finds its root in the Latin word reciperere, meaning simultaneously “to give and to receive” (Floyd and Forster 6). Mirabelle’s recipes are not only the textual representation of the patterns and behaviours on which her life was based but, most importantly, position themselves in a process of an uncanny exchange. Acting as the surrogate of the long-passed Mirabelle, the album’s existence as a haunted culinary document ushers in the possibility of secrets and revelations, contradictions, and concealment.

On numerous occasions, Framboise confesses that the translation of the recipe book was a task with which she did not want to engage. Forcing herself, she describes the reading as a personal “struggle” (276). Fearing what the book could reveal—literally, the recipes of a lifetime—she suspects that the album will demand a deep involvement with her mother’s existence: “I had avoided looking at the album, feeling absurdly at fault, a voyeuse, as if my mother might come in at any time and see me reading her strange secrets. Truth is, I didn’t want to know her secrets” (30). On the one hand, Framboise’s fear could be interpreted as apprehension at the prospect of unveiling unpleasant truths. On the other, she is reluctant to re-live her mother’s emotions, passions and anxieties, feeling they may actually be “sublimated into her recipes” (270). Framboise’s initial resistance to the secrets of the recipe book is quickly followed by an almost obsessive quest to “translate” the text: “I read through the album little by little during those lengthening nights. I deciphered the code [and] wrote down and cross-referenced everything by means of small cards, trying to put everything in sequence” (225).

As Harris exposes Framboise’s personal struggle in unravelling Mirabelle’s individual history, the daughter’s hermeneutic excavation into the past is problematised by her mother’s strange style: “The language […] in which much of the album was written was alien to me, and after a few abortive attempts to decipher it, I abandoned the idea […] the mad scrawlings, poems, drawings and accounts […] were written with no apparent logic, no order that I could discover” (31). Only after a period of careful interpretation does Framboise understand the confused organisation of her mother’s culinary thoughts. Once the daughter has decoded the recipes, she is able to use them: “I began to make cakes [...] the brioche and pain d’épices of the region, as well as some [...] Breton specialties, packets of crêpes dentelle, fruit tarts and packs de sablés, biscuits, nutbread, cinnamon snaps [...] I used my mother’s old recipes” (22). As Framboise engages with her mother’s album, Mirabelle’s memory is celebrated in the act of reading, deciphering, and recreating the recipes. As a metaphorically buried collection waiting to be interpreted, the cookbook is the catalyst through which the memory of Mirabelle can be passed to her daughter and live on. Discussing the haunted nature of texts, Derrida suggests that once one interprets a text written by another, that text “comes back” and “lives on” (‘Roundtable on Translation’ 158). In this framework of return and exchange, the replication of the Mirabelle’s recipes, by her daughter Framboise, is the tangible expression of the mother’s life.

As the collective history of wartime France and the memory of Mirabelle’s life are reaffirmed in the cookbook, the recipes allow Framboise to understand what is “staring [her] in the face”, and finally see “the reason for her [mother’s] actions and the terrible repercussions on [her] own” life (268). As the process of culinary translating takes place, it becomes clear that her deceased mother’s album conceals a legacy that goes beyond material possessions. Mirabelle “returns” through the cookbook and that return, in Jodey Castricano’s words, “acts as inheritance.” In the hauntingly autobiographical context of the culinary album, the mother’s phantom and the recipes become “inseparable” (29). Within the resistant and at times contradictory framework of the Gothic text, legacy is always passed on through a process of haunting which must be accepted in order to understand and decode the writing. This exchange becomes even more significant when cookbooks are concerned, since the intended engagement with the recipes is one of acceptance and response. When the cookbook “calls”, the reader is asked “to respond to an injunction” (Castricano 17). In this framework, Mirabelle’s album in Five Quarters of the Orange becomes the haunted channel through which the reader can communicate with her “ghost” or, to be more specific, her “spectral signature.”

In these terms, the cookbook is a vector for reincarnation and haunting, while recipes themselves function as the vehicle for the parallel consciousness of culinary phantoms to find a status of reincarnated identification through their connection to a series of repeated gestures. The concept of “phantom” here is particularly useful in the understanding put forward by Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok—and later developed by Derrida and Castricano—as “the buried speech of another”, the shadow of perception and experience that returns through the subject’s text (Castricano 11). In the framework of the culinary, the phantom returns in the cookbook through an interaction between the explicit or implied “I” of the recipe’s instructions, and the physical and psychological dimension of the “you” that finds lodging in the reader as re-enactor. In the cookbook, the intertextual relationship between the reader’s present and the writer’s past can be identified, as Rashkin claims, “in narratives organised by phantoms” (45).

Indeed, as Framboise’s relationship with the recipe book is troubled by her mother’s spectral presence, it becomes apparent that even the writing of the text was a mysterious process. Mirabelle’s album, in places, offers “cryptic references” (14): moments that are impenetrable, indecipherable, enigmatic. This is a text written “with ghosts”: “the first page is given to my father’s death—the ribbon of his Légion d’Honneur pasted thickly to the paper beneath a blurry photograph and a neat recipe for buck-wheat pancakes—and carries a kind of gruesome humour. Under the picture my mother has pencilled 'Remember—dig up Jerusalem artichokes. Ha! Ha! Ha!'” (14).

The writing of the recipe book is initiated by the death of Mirabelle’s husband, Yannick, and his passing is marked by her wish to eradicate from the garden the Jerusalem artichokes which, as it is revealed later, were his favourite food. According to culinary folklore, Jerusalem artichokes are meant to be highly “spermatogenic”, so their consumption can make men fertile (Amato 3). Their uprooting from Mirabelle’s garden, after the husband’s death, signifies the loss of male presence and reproductive function, as if Mirabelle herself were rejecting the symbol of Yannick’s control of the house. Her bittersweet, mocking comments at this disappearance—the insensitive “Ha! Ha! Ha!”—are indicative of Mirabelle’s desire to detach herself from the restraints of married life. Considering women’s traditional function as family cooks, her happiness at the lack of marital duties extends to the kitchen as much as to the bedroom.

The destruction of Yannick’s artichokes is juxtaposed with a recipe for black-wheat pancakes which the family then “ate with everything” (15). It is at this point that Framboise recalls suddenly and with a sense of shock that her mother never mentioned her father after his death. It is as if a mixture of grief and trauma animate Mirabelle’s feeling towards her deceased husband. The only confirmation of Yannick’s existence persists in the pages of the cookbook through Mirabelle’s occasional use of the undecipherable “bilini-enverlini”, a language of “inverted syllables, reversed words, nonsense prefixes and suffices”: “Ini tnawini inoti plainexini [...] Minini toni nierus niohwbi inoti” (42). The cryptic language was, we are told, “invented” by Yannick, who used to “speak it all the time” (42). Yannick’s presence thus is inscribed in the album, which is thereby transformed into an evocative historical document. Although he disappears from his wife’s everyday life, Yannick’s ghost—to which the recipe book is almost dedicated on the initial page—remains and haunts the pages. The cryptic cookbook is thus also a “crypt.”

In their recent, quasi-Gothic revision of classical psychoanalysis, Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok write about the trauma of loss in relation to psychic crypts. In mourning a loved one, they argue, the individual can slip into melancholia by erecting what they call an “inner crypt.” In the psychological crypt, the dead—or, more precisely, the memory of the dead—can be hidden or introjectively “devoured”, metaphorically speaking, as a way of denying its demise. This form of introjection—understood here in clear connection to the Freudian concept of literally “consuming” one’s enemy—is interpreted as the “normal” progression through which the subject accepts the death of a loved one and slowly removes its memory from consciousness. However, when this process of detachment encounters resistance, a “crypt” is formed. The crypt maps, as Abraham and Torok claim, the psychological topography of “the untold and unsayable secret, the feeling unfelt, the pain denied” (21). In its locus of mystery and concealment, the crypt is haunted by the memory of the dead which, paradoxically, inhabits it as a “living-dead.” Through the crypt, the dead can “return” to disturb consciousness.

In Five Quarters of the Orange, the encoded nature of Mirabelle’s recipes—emerging as such on multiple levels of interpretation—enables the memory of Yannick to “return” within the writing itself. In his preface to Abraham and Torok’s The Wolf-Man’s Magic Word, Derrida argues that the psychological crypt houses “the ghost that comes haunting out the Unconscious of the other” (‘Fors’ xxi). Mirabelle’s cookbook might therefore be read as an encrypted reincarnation of her husband’s ghostly memory. The recipe book functions as the encrypted passageway through which the dead re-join the living in a responsive cycle of exchange and experience. Writing, in this sense, re-creates the subject through the culinary framework and transforms the cookbook into a revenant text colonised by the living-dead. Abraham and Torok suggest that “reconstituted from the memories of words, scenes and affects, the objective correlative of loss is buried alive in the crypt” (130). With this idea in mind, it is possible to suggest that, among Mirabelle’s recipes, the Gothicised Yannick inhabits a culinary crypt. It is through his associations with both the written and the practical dimension food that he remains, to borrow Derrida’s words, a haunting presence that Mirabelle is “perfectly willing to keep alive” within the bounds of the culinary vault (‘Fors’ xxi).

As far as the mourning crypt is concerned, the exchange of consciousness that is embedded in the text takes place by producing a level of experiential concealment, based on the overarching effect of Gothicised interiority. Derrida remarks that “the crypt from which the ghost comes back belongs to someone else” (‘Fors’ 119). This suggestion throws into sharp relief the ability of the cookbook as a haunted text to draw the reader into a process of consciousness transmission and reception that is always and necessarily a form of “living-dead” exchange. In these terms, the recipe itself—especially in its embodiment as instructed actions—needs to be understood as a vector for establishing the uncanny barriers of signification erected by the bounds of the cookbook itself as a haunted site of death, enchantment, and revenant signs. In this way, eating, a vital and animated activity, is “disturbingly blended with death, decomposition and the corpse” (Piatti-Farnell 146). And far from simply providing nourishment for the living, Mirabelle’s encrypted recipes continue to feed the dead through cycles of mourning and melancholia. Mirabelle’s cookbook, therefore, becomes a textual example of “cryptomimeses”, a writing practice that, echoing the convention of the Gothic framework, generates its ghostly effects through embodying the structures of remembrance and the dynamics of autobiographic deconstructive writing (Castricano 8). As heimliche and unheimliche collide in practices of culinary reading and writing, the cookbook acts as quasi-mystical, haunted space through which the uncanny frameworks of language and experience can become actualised.


Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Amato, Joseph. The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Castricano, Jodey. Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida’s Ghost Writing. London: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. “Fors: the Anglish words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.” Eds. Nicholas Abraham, and Maria Torok. The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Pr, 1986. xi–xlviii

---. “Roundtable on Translation.” The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. London: U of Nebraska P, 1985. 91–161.

Floyd, Janet, and Laurel Foster. The Recipe Reader: NarrativesContextsTraditions. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

Harris, Joanne. Five Quarters of the Orange. Maidenhead: Black Swan, 2002.

Kelly, Traci Marie. “‘If I Were a Voodoo Priestess’: Women’s Culinary Autobiographies.” Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender and Race. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2001. 251–70.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. Food and Culture in Contemporary American Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Rashkin, Esther. Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Slater, Nigel. Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through The Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Toklas, Alice B. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. New York: Perennial,1984.



Author Biography

Lorna Piatti-Farnell, Auckland University of Technology

Dr Lorna Piatti-Farnell is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Industries at Auckland University of Technology. She is also President of the Gothic Association of New Zealand and Australia (GANZA), and Gothic Area Chair for the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ). Her research interests focus mainly on twentieth and twenty-first century popular culture, Gothic fiction, cultural history, and food studies. Her publications to date include two monographs: Food and Culture in Contemporary American Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2011), and Beef: A Global History (London: Reaktion, Forthcoming March 2013). She is currently writing her third monograph, The Vampire in Contemporary Popular Literature, to be published by Routledge in 2013.