Exploring homesickness through condiments

Something I’ve realized lately is just how many condiments I owned before moving to Ohio. Every night when I reach into the fridge, searching for some of Ben’s tamari or that bottle of Tapatio or that jar of Trader Joe’s harissa I bought on a trip to Wisconsin, I’m reminded that I left everything in a refrigerator in Kansas. Sometimes I just want to slam the fridge closed and open it again, hoping I’ll inspire some sort of food fantasy reverse Wizard of Oz situation and all my beloved jars will appear.

Instead, I’ve been shopping. One of my first priorities after moving was to find and replace all of those condiments, and in doing so I’ve realized how much condiments serve as totems of familiarity and reminders of home for me. Eating a breakfast sandwich at a local diner, the Proud Rooster, was the inspiration; a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot was sitting on the table, and I snapped a picture to send to my dad with the caption “they have it here too!” His response: “Good. I put that shit on everything.”

There’s something so comforting in finding a place or a person that shares a love of Frank’s. It’s different than sharing a favourite dish; condiments speak to a more personal level of attachment. They add flavor in a way that an individual is in control of, even if she wasn’t the cook of the meal. There’s a level of “doctoring-up” at play that ties the personal to the historical. While Frank’s is one of a million hot sauces (and only one of the many I keep in stock), I still associate it with my family, like some sort of family “secret” ingredient. In the same way that my dad’s joke is a long-running response to any Frank’s sighting, just having a bottle of Frank’s somehow makes me feel closer to those I’ve left.

Perhaps that’s why the loss of all my fridge condiments hit me so hard, harder than anything else about moving so far. They were a collection, a jumble of jars and containers that spoke not only to my familial ties, but to my explorations as well. I certainly didn’t grow up with harissa, or tapatio, or Maille dijon mustard. Those were additions I’d made, ones that somehow bolstered my identity as a culinary experimenter. In seeking out new flavors, I’d pushed beyond the boundaries of my Midwest upbringing to discover a side of myself that I’m just now beginning to understand—a side that is wholly fascinated with how food speaks to both personal and national cultural identity.

So I’d found those condiments, and in a hokey way some idea of who I want to be (#phdlife), only to lose them again in a 14-hour move. But even after losing them, it takes just one trip to Jungle Jim’s to replace them all. Perhaps that’s what’s so startling to me about condiments in general—they’re so important, yet so easily replaceable.

The simplest way to feel just a little bit closer to home.


Recipe Blogs as Remix

I find most food blogs at best unoriginal, and at worst insulting. For those who aren’t perusing the foodie Internet regularly, these blogs are typically run by an individual who has left their (insert career here) to pursue cooking and (being a mom/making candles/running a farm) full-time. In many cases, these blogs read more like a catalogue of one family’s dinner than anything that comes close to resembling a more traditional recipe book intended for an audience to use. And perhaps for a cultural historian that information would prove useful and interesting. But, the stated function of these blogs is usually to provide instructions for creating a meal, and in many cases they aren’t adding anything new to the conversation.

For the most part, receipes are not protected under U.S. copyright. No one can, say, copyright a particular list of ingredients. What can be protected, though, must be a “substantial literary expression” according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Thus, if I take a list of ingredients from another blog without alterations, it’s not in violation as long as I write up the steps differently, take photos of the food, or explain my process. In a nutshell this is remix culture, where the arrangement of information creates a new piece.

But to distinguish a good remix from a bad one requires an examination of intention and addition. If the intention of the recipe is only to document one particular individual’s experience recreating a dish, that’s not a clearly delineated inventive process. The majority of the work is just mimicry. However, if the individual is taking a recipe and creating it within their own particular set of limitations—whether that’s altering, adding, or subtracting something—then the argument should stand that the remixed product and the documentation of that process is a form of invention. To further analyze this process, I aim to trace this development in the form of one particular recipe from one particular food blog I enjoy, Deb Perelman’s smitten kitchen. Continue reading “Recipe Blogs as Remix”

Invention twice-over: The use of marginalia in recipe books

Recipe books may not immediately seem particularly inventive. Indeed, their very form— a list of steps to recreate a particular meal—automatically seems more straightforward and scientific in its approach. However, by examining the way receipe books are actually used, I intend to argue that they are repositories of inventive thought. My argument centers on examining two early modern English recipe books in particular—that of Anne Goodenough as well as a collection authored by multiple women. By examining the marginalia in these books, the modern day reader gleans not only how these women were utilizing these books in the kitchen, but in some ways how these books destabilized the domestic spaces they occupied.

Wendy Wall, a prominent scholar in domesticity in early modern England, has written a number of articles and two books that deal directly with cookbooks. Her argument in “Literacy and the Domestic Arts” provides a particular reading of cookbooks as practice spaces for the growing population of literate women. Not only were women compiling information about household chores, they were also using these spaces to practice their handwriting. By tying the act of writing to the act of cooking, these women were practicing what Wall dubs “artisanal literary,” which ties knowledge to experience and labor within these domestic spaces. She further argues that this artisanal literacy is fostered by a “kitchen literacy,” where the idea of “making” ties together writing and cooking (386).

By thinking about cookbooks in this way, it isn’t difficult to extend the concept of making to the actual books themselves. As Wall argues: “Writing recipes and undertaking particular types of manual work trained women in alphabetic literacy and the conventions of book use, but handicrafts in the home also signified in their own right as forms of ‘writing’ within a functional thoery of making” (387). If this idea of the physical act of making can be extended into the theoretical dimension of thought, then the marginalia in addition to the compiled recipe books function as further evidence of the inventive process. Continue reading “Invention twice-over: The use of marginalia in recipe books”