Composing at the Kitchen Table (a draft)

This last month has been busy, what with two conferences, final essays, and all the end-of-semester meetings and tasks that somehow always pop up at the worst possible time. However, I want to share the start of a new project (born out of work I’ve done this semester in a class on Composing Practices). For now, I’m sticking with the ambiguous title of this post, “Composing at the Kitchen Table.” What I’m sharing with you today is the opening to that essay, which is both an intensely private moment from my life and a deeply moving experience that has certainly shaped my academic career. I look forward to writing and sharing more of it as my work progresses.


Growing up, I don’t remember ever having a kitchen table. The kitchen itself was a room barely larger than my small bedroom, and the only space for me to sit was in the doorway. I would lounge with my back against the doorframe as I watched my mom cook dinner. If anyone in our family hovered around her while she was cooking she would shoo us away, especially the the two cats always milling about her feet. She did not like to be hemmed in by too many hungry mouths in the kitchen.

After being married for a few years, she convinced my dad to renovate, turning the tiny kitchen into one of the biggest rooms in our small suburban home. I remember she spent months planning it out, reading books on kitchen design and sketching renderings of possible layouts. Not one to be outdone, she had a convection oven brought in (a new machine for the home cook at the time), a double-wide sink added, a new refrigerator that made ice that always tasted salty. I learned it was important to establish the triangle of stove-refrigerator-sink; books made it dance-like as they emphasized how the cook moved about the kitchen.

“Our successive living spaces never disappear completely; we leave them without leaving them because they live in turn, invisible and present, in our memories and in our dreams. They journey with us.
In the center of these dreams, there is often the kitchen…”
(Michel de Certeau, Pierre Mayol; The Practice of Everyday Life, volume 2, pg. 148)

The one constant in her renderings, though, was a space to sit; stepping over me in the doorway was probably getting old. She added a bar onto the backside of the far kitchen counter, creating a space where we could sit but still be out of her way (but close enough to grab samples of dishes left unobserved for a few seconds). While not the kitchen table of my imagination (something old and wooden, with deep scratches from years of use) it was a space where I wrote thank-you cards and to-do lists, where I watched her cook and asked her questions about life and love and the proper way to cut an onion (use frozen was her suggestion).

It was also the place where my dad and I sat most often while she deteriorated from cancer, and it was where we were sitting the morning after she died. It’s where we sit still, perhaps because the matching armchairs in the living room remind us too much of what’s missing. The difference now, though, is that I’m the one cooking while my dad and partner sit at the counter.

I share this personal story as a way into understanding the value of the kitchen as a powerful, moving space; it functions as a central figure in our lives, especially in moments of crisis. It wasn’t until I started to grieve the loss of my mother that I realized how integral that space was to my life, and especially to my life as a writer and an academic. My love for food and my deep-seated desire to understand the many ways in which women like my mother survived hardships only known to women (and in particular women who lived through the 1950s) was born in that space. It was at that counter that I learned more than how to cook; it was where I learned strength, resilience, how to assert my own voice. Yet, until recently, I had never considered it as a space of resistance to all that women have endured at the hands of a toxic culture divided by gender, class, and race. I had never before considered how what I wrote in that space, including work during my Master’s, was made profoundly political by association. Indeed I wasn’t sure if the kitchen was considered off-limits for feminists after Virginia Woolf’s assertion that we needed rooms of our own. If the kitchen had ostensibly always been ours, did it still count as a place in which to do important work, or were we simply trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools?

As I’ve matured I’ve come to a better understanding of my own practice; if I write in the kitchen and I’m a feminist, of course it can be and is a feminist writing space. But I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling the tension that circulates around writing in the kitchen.

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”