Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Trials of Lady Ochikubo


Page references in parentheses are to the 1971 Doubleday Anchor paperback edition of the translation by Wilfred Whitehouse and Eizo Yanagisawa.
Bracketed numbers indicate footnotes.


The aristocrats of Heian Japan cultivated aesthetic sensibility to a subtlety unparalleled in ancient Greece or Rome. [1] Not so very many hundred of years after Japan had acquired writing and then Buddhism from the Chinese, a remarkable efflorescence of literature occurred, one in which women took a leading role. [2] In The Tale of Lady Ochikubo (the Ochikubo Monogatari) the main character and her antagonist, the nasty stepmother, are both female as is her loyal attendant Akogi. The lady’s lover is such a gentleman that he assists her in her sewing. The other principal works of the era were also written by women. In the Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and the so-called Mother of Michitsuna’s Kagerō Nikki the modern reader can glimpse the extraordinarily sophisticated development of the era’s taste for beauty. Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, touted by some as the earliest novel [3] (and by Kenneth Rexroth as “what may well be the world’s greatest novel” [4]), is a monumental and incredibly elaborately refined exploration of karma, sexual love, and Buddhist mysticism. The Tale of Lady Ochikubo written slightly earlier during the last quarter of the tenth century CE, can hardly fail to suffer by comparison, though it has substantial virtues of its own. Within the context of the hyper-aesthetic Heian society, this anonymous work [5] conveyed the prevailing social and artistic values of the period, though it also expressed certain tensions within these received ideas, but with a realistic narrative, sometimes comic or improper. The simplest theme the story suggests is karma, but the working out of revenge is so fanciful as to seem more a huge game than a matter of the highest importance. No one seems particularly enlightened, though some are more attractive and more virtuous than others.

People speak through poetry or allusions to older poetry which would be familiar to all those raised in courtly society. Even Hyōbu no Shōyu, mocked as “the White-faced Colt,” who defecates in his pants while trying to make love (93), is capable of composing lyrically encoded messages. A character’s intentions and integrity are discerned from poetry. (113)

These nobles often speak in other indirect ways as well. It was impolite to address someone by a personal name. Generally titles are used, though other by-names are used as well. Not only do these often change in the course of the story, but, in addition, several characters sometimes occupy the same position and are thus called by the same name. Though one’s status and thus identity are contained in the title, apart from a few visits to court, one hears nothing of their work. They seem highly competitive, spending prodigious energies on intrigues centered around sex or power.

Aesthetic cultivation is repeatedly evident. The author spares readers the inclusion of tedious and unnecessary detail. (148, 149-50, 193) At one point the author says that it would be “useless” to describe the grand celebrations for the old Chūnagon’s seventieth birthday and then proceeds to devote four pages to a single screen, though its scenes and verses have only the slightest relation to the narrative. (203) Precious reduplicative onomatopoetic expressions note the sound of tears falling (“tsubu, tsubu” 58), horse sounds (“hi hi”106), and intestinal rumbling (“koho, koho” and “hichi, hichi” 93). The Lady is so delicate that she finds it an exquisite torture when she is confined in a storeroom containing smelly sake, vinegar, and fish. (70) Such sensibility is tightly linked to wealth and status. Even religious objects, the rolls of sutras and other offerings, are described as luxury goods meant to impress in exactly the same way as clothing or carriages. [6]

The identification of social standing, quite literally defined as proximity to the emperor, with good taste, artistic ability, and skills as a lover is linked as well to powerful codes that justify pride, even to the extent of high-handedness, in the well-born, and corresponding disgrace, shame, and clumsiness for those on lower ranks. [7] Thus the Third and Fourth Ladies are abashed upon learning that their half-sister has far surpassed them in wealth and exclaim “how ashamed our father and mother must be at the contrast.” (187) The Kata no Kita is “humiliated when her carriage of forced off the road and her room is taken from her (124, 128) and when the old Chūnagon learns what happened, he feels such “disgrace” that he ponders renouncing the world (156) just as Fourth Lady had done. (178) Even at the end of his life the old Chūnagon feels he will be in “disgrace” if he does not achieve another promotion before he dies, worrying “it would be said of me that I was predestined never to rise to high rank.” (209) Even the powerful Minister of the Left fears social opprobrium when he advises his son, “Do not invite the criticism of the public.” (156)

In this context, so determined by social standing and concepts of shame and guilt, the theme of karma or of fate or destiny repeatedly recurs in the story, but it is always linked to these social and aesthetic values far more clearly than to moral or spiritual ones. Once she ascends above his station, the Lady’s father regrets mistreating her, but he consoles himself by reflecting that his behavior arose not from moral failing but “an unfortunate Fate.” He feels “ashamed” because the, now Taishō, for whom he had never done a favor, has elevated his social standing, while his own sons are thoughtless and negligent and “have done nothing but bring disgrace upon me.” (211)

Still, the misdeeds of some characters are quite precisely balanced by the consequences they suffer, even if the instrument of retributive justice is the extraordinary Shōshō, who might seem an unlikely tool of Heaven, indulging in sentimental melancholy at first and noble magnanimity in the end, but displaying thoughtless light-heartedness as well as vindictiveness along the way. The entire vindication of the Lady is dependent on this individual, who is described as possessing almost superhuman beauty and ability as well as an unchallenged supremacy in the favor of the Mikado. Peculiarly qualified to right the Lady’s wrongs, he cannot be challenged and can rescue her from a lifetime in obscure servitude in her lower room.
His schemes take years to accomplish, during all of which time she is kept in obscurity. Meanwhile the shame and distress she had experienced is transferred to her oppressors until all is set right in the end. The comb box the Kata no Kita had taken eventually finds its way back. The Lady’s offensive suitor Tenyaku no Kata is repaid by Shōyu the White-faced Colt, though the latter actually sleeps with the Fourth Lady and engenders a child.

Though the book does portray realistic conditions and conversations and the action is, for the most part, plausible, the characters are more like simple counters in almost mathematical relationships than like fully rounded human beings. While perhaps too much is made of the story’s similarity to Cinderella, it does share the folk-take narrator’s unconcern for psychological subtlety. [8]

The Lady herself is primarily an object of pathos as she accepts indignities and thankless labors without a cross word, only weeping in her solitude. The European reader will recall the popularity of the theme of a delicate lady pursued by an unworthy would-be seducer in a later era in which many women produced and read novels. It matters little whether the cad reforms (as in Richardson’s Pamela), or is replaced by his better (The History of Sir Charles Grandison), or even if the lady dies virtuous though violated (as in Clarissa). The better part of these narratives are spent in contemplating suffering beauty. Lady Ochikubo rarely exhibits any characteristic not implied by her general excellence in every way, undimmed by for the difficult conditions imposed upon her. She forgives her wicked stepmother (e.g. 67) and is, in general, passive throughout.

Quite naturally her antagonist the Kita no Kata presents a mirror image. Wicked without motive, she is said on the very first page to be “peculiar.” Later her peculiarity is specified as “spite” (57, 222 and elsewhere), resulting in her being categorically “evil-minded.” (223) Unregenerate to the end (see 211, for example) she fumes, “I hated her so.” (178)
Her husband is a weak and faded fellow from the start. The old Chūnagon is described as dotty from the start, “stupid” (178), his memory fading (131), and soon to die (147), but he is capable not only of failing to see how his daughter is mistreated, but of saying such things as “starve her to death” (68) and “I don’t even want to look at her.” (70) He is however amenable to reconciliation despite having been “in his dotage for many years.” (195)

The Shōshō (later Minister of the Left), clearly the single heroic figure of the story, though invaluable to the heroine, might be questioned in several ways. He is lacking in filial piety toward the Lady’s family and his own. Though he is said to be “unforgiving” (81), he ultimately does forgive and make amends. At one point he tosses off a justification for his hostile actions on social grounds, saying he feels he had been treated with “intentional rudeness,” (180) but he later provides a fuller explanation, noting that, he had fallen in hopelessly and irreversibly in love with the Lady upon hearing her stepmother torment her. On the basis of this commitment he thereupon formulated the entire plan of revenge and subsequent munificence. (237) Thus romantic love, even an affair of which his mother does not fully approve, emerges as a preeminent value. [9] To Tachihaki his master’s power as a lover is legendary. “There has been nothing like his great love, neither in the present nor in olden times.” (42)

Thus, while The Tale of Lady Ochikubo is a profoundly conservative work in that it accepts without question the extremely hierarchical system of the Heian aristocracy and virtually all the social apparatus that accompanied it, the novel nonetheless spotlights a hero motivated by erotic desire combined with utter faithfulness. This irregularity allows him to ignore his own mother and makes possible the Lady’s rise in status. Her harsh early life only served to magnify her virtue and make her more attractive to her lover. The passions are exalted in a feudal game of intrigue and acting and oblique poetic composition. The lover must be won by one’s good taste which, it seems, must accompany moral character, beauty, intelligence, and skill. By secret meeting and furtive glances, the affair progresses. The putative Buddhism of all the characters plays no role.

Sophisticated and allusive, elitist and elegant as the book is, I suspect it also has some affinity with mass market romance novels. Arising as the monogatari did from oral story-telling on all levels of society, it would be surprising if it did not contain popular elements, but in this case, they are refined to a high level.



1. Of course the cultivated and opulent luxury of perhaps one-tenth of one percent of the population was possible only with the servitude of the rest of the population. The military, that is to say the samurai, later came to assume decisive power at the expense of the old aristocratic families.

2. To my knowledge, the closest parallels to the prominence of women writers during this era are in medieval Provence and archaic Greece.

3. For others The Tale of Ochikubo is the first, though such judgments can mean little as they are entirely determined by the critic’s definition of the genre. For the Japanese works to have priority one must exclude, for instance the five Greek romances, the Satyricon, Golden Ass, Dashakumaracharita and Kādambari in Sanskrit, etc. Quite often one finds a reference to Don Quixote as the first novel.

4. In “The World of Genji.”

5. In early times the book was attributed to the celebrated tenth century scholar Minamoto no Shitagau along with the Taketori Monogatari and the Utsobo Monogatari. Other suggestions have been made, but today most scholars regard the author as unknown. Curiously, several have ventured the opinion, on impressionistic stylistic ground, that the author must be male. This makes little sense. I like the suggestion of Whitehouse and Yanagisawa that it may have been someone resembling the character of the noble lady-in-waiting Akogi who, in the last line of the story, was said to have lived two hundred years.

6. See 196 for the sutras, and 194 for clothing and carriages. Clearly both are examples of conspicuous consumption.

7. The modern reader is apt to be shocked when the Tenyaku no Suke is beaten. One learns that he never really recovered and died. Within the book’s values, however, the Shōshō’s actions are beyond criticism due to his lofty position, while the Kata no Kita’s mistreatment of the Lady is totally blameworthy. Apart from this physical attack, in order to discomfit the Kata no Kita, he sees to it that the Fourth Lady has sex, and indeed becomes pregnant, with Hyōbu no Shōyu.

8. The step mother and, to a lesser degree the step-sisters are similar, and the trip to Ishiyama temple has something in common with the royal ball. Surely both stories play on sibling rivalry and a terrible mother archetype, but the Japanese story is fundamentally realistic. Its themes of social disgrace and hyper-aesthetic pastimes are absent in the European story.

9. Thus the genre of aristocratic romances (tsukuri-monogatari) came to be more popular than war stories (gunki-monogatari) or historical chronicles (rekishi-monogatari).
Those familiar with medieval European literature will note how ideals of courtly love spread through the courts and shaped the poetry in a similar way even to the concept of love at first sight.

Are Uncle Tom’s Children Bound by History?

Page references are to the 1965 paperback Harper Perennial edition.

Uncle Tom’s Children is a remarkable first book, all the more for the fact that these insightful and artful stories were the work of an author who, due to American racism, had only an elementary school education. Apart from that severe limitation, Wright also spent his youth in his grandmother’s Seventh Day Adventist household in which worldly amusements such as non-scriptural reading were forbidden. Through heroic exertions of will, he managed to educate himself and write several of the most important works of the American twentieth century. He did receive aid in his development from the Communist Party that sponsored the John Reed Clubs and the Left Front literary journal that had given him critical support and recognition and from the cultural commitment of the New Deal whose WPA Writers Project had supported him.
Wright had, of course, a troubled relationship with the Party, having left Chicago partly to escape the political scene that had allowed him to emerge as a writer. Though he later resigned his membership and contributed to the anti-communist The God that Failed in 1949, he remained a principled leftist. He avoided, for instance, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, correctly suspecting its roots in the CIA.

Critics who comment on Wright’s political evolution often say explicitly that his motive for leaving the Party was his refusal to write agit-prop with plots guided by vulgar notions of revolutionary art. Indeed, in spite of the unsparing, precise, and detailed picture of American racism he details, he never succeeded in integrating his social view with his artistic practice, and most of his fiction is ultimately more psychological and philosophical than political.

In fact his theoretical call to arms, “The Blueprint for Black Writers,” criticizes not reactionary literature but rather phony literature, either the museum-like preservation of folk culture or the second-rate imitation of mainstream writers. He devastatingly quotes Lenin to the effect that the petty bourgeois in their attempt to emulate the rich often succeed only in caricature. Reference to Lenin may seem doctrinaire, yet what he was insisting upon was the presentation of the truth of his own experience, neither more nor less than, say, Hemingway might have done.

Even the essay “I Tried to be a Communist” [1], his apologia for leaving the Party, has no mention of any conflicts over literary principles, no critique of Marxist ideology, or even of the Party’s shifting views of a correct line – his criticism of the Party is virtually entirely about the jockeying for power of individuals, each so bizarre and groundless in their accusations that an escaped mental patient claiming higher party standing can command authority. The jealousy, backstabbing, and cynical manipulation in pursuit of power he describes in the CPUSA, far from peculiar to that group, are familiar to workers in many educational institutions and corporate offices.

He describes the first conflict in the Chicago group as between the clique of painters who held the leadership and that of writers who challenged them. [2] In the shadow cast by Stalin’s purges, his friend Ross is accused of betraying the movement He mentions the publication of “Big Boy Leaves Home” without a word about any criticism of his writing. Apart from this unjust condemnation, his other major policy conflict is over the dissolution of the John Reed Clubs which he presents as an example of the Party’s top-down management in which members were expected to support any decision from above without discussion or dissent. Serious though it is, this criticism of the Communist Party has nothing to do with censorship or nonartistic influence on his own work. Indeed he more than once reports praise for his writing by Party members.

This book, along with Native Son and Black Boy, are the most accurate and highly charged accounts of incidents in the latter part of the hundred years of terror in the South that followed the withdrawal of federal troops as part of the corrupt election deal allowing Hayes to take the presidency in 1877, called the Great Compromise by some and the Great Betrayal by others. Though none of the picture Wright paints contradicts Marxist analysis, little of what he implies requires it either. Wright clearly seeks to set down the terms of his own profound experience of Jim Crow.

Apart from Wright’s expert use of dialect [3], he is notable for foregrounding the psychological concomitants of racism, including its strong sexual element. [4] Significantly less evident in the two stories in which Communists play a role, sexual motives are prominent in all the others. In the autobiographical piece “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Wright relates the case of a man who was castrated for having sex with a white prostitute. In “Big Boy Leaves Home” the crisis of transgression is dramatically intensified by the fact that the white women saw naked black bodies. Action arises from a rape in “Long Black Song.” In “Down by the Riverside” Mann’s questioners suspect him of improprieties with Mrs. Heartfield.

Apart from the neuroses of the oppressor, Wright is equally eloquent on the consequences for the oppressed. In his own version Wright restates DuBois’ classic formulation of double consciousness: “Here I learned to lie, , to steal, to dissemble. I learned to play that dual role which every Negro must play if he wants to eat and live.” (13) Silas of “Long Black Song” rages “Ah’m gonna be hard! When they come fer me Ah’m gonna be here!” while next lamenting “But, Lawd, Ah don wanna be this way!” (152-3) In “Fire and Cloud” Rev. Taylor retreats into a dissociative state. “When Taylor spoke he seemed to be outside of himself, listening to his own words, aghast and fearful.” (185) Mann has “wild impulse” to shoot blindly. (120)
Yet the greatness of Wright’s vision utterly transcends these historically bound themes. Wright found in France both an escape from the American racial atmosphere and the congenial philosophy of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus (who were all like him intellectuals of the left), but the existentialist moments are already present in his work long before The Outsider and The Long Dream. Silas’ monologue, cited above, continues “It don mean nothing! Yuh die ef yuh fight! Yuh die ef yuh doin fight. Either way yuh die n it don mean nothing . . .” (153) To him “It don make no difference which way Ah go.” (152) When Mann inadvertently kills, it reminds the reader of nothing so much as Meursault’s murder in The Stranger.

Wright’s rural Southern characters have much in common with Sartre’s man of good faith [5] who strives for the impossible and can experience freedom only with angoisse. They resemble Camus’ man of action who defies human limitation by breaking the paralysis of helplessness: Silas in his desperation sounds rather like Camus when he wrote “all I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.” [6] Far from being shaped by Negrophiles in France, Wright’s later, more explicitly existential books were a natural growth from his earlier work.

In the concluding lines of “Bright and Morning Star” which ends Uncle Tom’s Children, Sue dies by violence, but remains defiant to the end and finds this lethal assault “forced her to live again, intensely.” (263) In her strength of will she finds her affirmation, her “morning star,” neither in the promises of her church nor in the promise of revolution. Communist organizing provided the terms of her rebellion in the time and place in which she finds herself in history, but her psychology is not dependent on the specific conditions of her life. In the same way Wright’s vision included but was not limited by a sensitive and informed response to social conditions of his time.



1. Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and later reprinted in the hugely successful The God that Failed edited by the anti-communist British Labourite Richard Crossman.

2. It is surely noteworthy that both these contending groups were artists. Though Wright had been introduced to the Communists through his fellow workers in the post office, one finds no mention of them or of stockyard or steel workers in the accounts of leadership.

3. His unimpeachable bona fides as a proletarian was challenged by fellow Communists because, though self-educated, he spoke in an educated and genteel manner.

4. See Advertisements for Myself for an account of the piece Norman Mailer had written for Lyle Stuart’s The Independent which asked, “Can’t we have some honesty about what’s going o in the South? Everybody who knows the South knows that the white man fears the sexual potency of the Negro,” provoking Faulkner to attack his masculinity. Eleanor Roosevelt may have been doing the same thing when she reacted to the statement by calling him “horrible.” Few white writers equaled Mailer’s insight when he wrote in “The White Negro,” “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.”

5. See Being and Nothingness, Washington Square Press edition, 1977, p. 724..

6. Albert Camus, “Neither Victims nor Executioners.”

Cookbooks

This is not placed among critical writings because, as I note below, cookbooks, like other technical manuals, are not primarily literary texts. My intention is to define a profile, a personality from the data presented, just as we sometimes do when browsing the shelves of a new friend. In this it resembles my piece titled “A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities” posted for May 2011. Perhaps these both belong among memoirs.


Food is surely one of the chief pleasures of life. On my list of five, food scrambles against the four others that first occur to me for the pride of second place. Though cookbooks [1] are, in general, non-literary, as their primary goal is not beauty in themselves, but rather the product of food on the table, each has individual stylistic characteristics and some possess considerable charm whether the reader ever brings them to the kitchen counter. Over a lifetime of consulting cookbooks, cooking, and eating, a considerable shelf of volumes that have never seen my library has accumulated in my kitchen. Each represents a particular vision of food; each has its own style, and many have charm. As a whole, the collection resembles without duplicating the patterns of my diet. In the present time, when seeking a desired recipe in isolation on the internet, printing a copy and discarding it after use has become the dominant mode of research for the practical cook, the shelves of books have acquired the additional appeal of endangered artifacts.

Though some of my cookbooks have the graces of style, wit, or originality, and others command interest due to age, exoticism, or the circumstances of their coming to me, all are fully functional. And their value is the more powerful for my generation which grew up with such an exceedingly restricted palate. In her often acerbic 1832 account of her travels, Frances Trollope had conceded that in America “The bread is every where excellent.” [2] Yet my own cohort, born shortly after World War II, felt Henry Miller knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “You can travel for fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread.” And I am far from alone in having taken his advice: “Begin today by baking your own bread.” [3]

In this era of Trader Joe’s in the strip mall and organics in the Shop-rite, it is difficult to imagine how narrow the American food world was a generation or two ago. Living in the suburbs of a great American city, I never tasted pizza before my middle school years. Indeed, I never saw a fresh head of garlic until after college, though now I use it almost every day. I have read that broccoli, now common enough to be the butt of jokes, was all but unknown until after World War II, while today even a supermarket in a boring suburb will offer eight different Caribbean tubers.

During this era, even for the diet of babies, formula outpaced breast-feeding. Its very artificiality seemed to many a recommendation. My father-in-law considered margarine a scientific advance, more modern and thus preferable to butter. As a child I consumed prodigious quantities of powdered milk, but I believe economy, not modernity, was the value in this case. Instant coffee held prestige it now has lost except in remote corners of the globe where, like Spam in Asia, it yet retains a sheen of luxury altogether absent in the American home. We can only be grateful that the susceptible homemaker did not undergo a vogue for powdered eggs during the fifties. It was the age of imaginative gelatin presentations and many casseroles, often compounded with the use of a can of soup and topped with the use of dry onion soup mix. Monosodium glutamate, seasoning salt, and coarse grind black pepper were the principal seasonings favored by connoisseurs.

Admittedly, the US had not yet entered the nadir of their food experience which was to arrive only with the proliferation of fast food chains which replaced the great variety of short order places, many with engaging atmosphere even if they offered indifferent food. Now, of course, any place in the land the McDonald’s customer can pass from hungry to overfull without any actual sensation of eating at all. Those wishing to go beyond A Hundred Recipes for Hamburger during the 1950s might have come upon the works of James Beard, who catered to unfailingly hearty, middlebrow, mainstream (apparently masculine) tastes to remain on best-seller lists with only a gesture now and then toward the French cooking he fondly remembered from his youth.

Even as a suburban child I sought out food experiences beyond the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I began with a leaning toward rebellion that led me to eschew beefsteak simply because it was such an icon, particularly for men, and I had in addition inherent tendencies toward both the gourmet and the gourmand. Welcoming to tastes like Limburger and all the varieties of the piquant, I would order duck blood soup at the Warsawianka and squid at the old Diana’s in Chicago once I was in high school and able to visit these places on my own. Had I ever seen the inside of a French restaurant, I would have made mine sweetbreads even if I hadn’t known what they were. Though aware it was a sin, I relished sheer quantity of food as well. As a child I confess I raided the freezer for ice cream at all hours and repeatedly made myself nearly sick with potato chips. (This is a genuine confession because none of this has changed, though potato chips have been replaced by good bread. Throughout my life I have retained the ability to consume virtually any quantity of popcorn.)

I am today sufficiently experienced in the kitchen that I would feel confident putting together a meal from any pantry with no cookbook. I could make bread, cookies, and galettes de sarrasin without as much as a measuring cup. Yet at the time that I finished college, I had virtually no experience as a cook. Patricia and I cooked from two Chinese cookbooks which, though neither was particularly well-executed or even complete, did provide a basis for simultaneously exotic and inexpensive eating. For when I began experimenting in the kitchen, I was committed to voluntary poverty and driven primarily by a search for the very cheapest sustenance. Patricia and I pioneered the many uses of canned mackerel. We began to seek out recipes that were at once inexpensive and exotic. The fact is, of course, that costly ingredients such as sea bass or Porterhouse steak often invite only the simplest preparation while inexpensive cuts of meat and vegetarian meals often require substantial preparation. Research into cookbooks began.

As a scholar, I would be likely to begin with the so-called Apicius, whose work, sometimes called De Re Coquinaria, is a real cookbook with enough detail to use today, but it is no more than functional, launching right into recipes without a preliminary word. For reading I pick up Athenaeus, where discussions of foodstuffs wander for pages, mixing with all sorts of other civilized discourse. Chapters cover fish, vegetables, and wine, but also perfumes, “worthless philosophers,” “love of boys,” and virtually everything else under the sun. Here, just as in lived experience, the social context of dining sometimes gains prominence over the culinary aspects. It is not a bad notion of paradise, this imaginary congregation of the learned, enjoying their food and drink and each other’s clever and erudite discourse. But I drift -- neither the Latin nor Greek has been a source for my own table.

I have only occasionally used Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook which was published in 1896, though my copy dates from 1930 and is supplemented by someone’s handwritten additions, most of them Italian dishes. It includes as well no less than thirty pages of advertisements, including one for Foss’ Vanilla which the reader learns received a medal from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association and another for a carpet cleaning service that offers moth prevention.
The Boston Cooking School (whose own ad touts their classes “for men and women from sixteen to sixty”) and Farmer’s book mark the era of the origins of the home economics movement and a more scientific vision of cooking. She opens with definitions and statistics: “FOOD is anything which nourishes the body. Thirteen elements enter into the composition of the body: oxygen, 62 1/2%; carbon, 21 1/2%; hydrogen, 10%; nitrogen, 3%; calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, chlorine, sodium, magnesium, iron, and fluorine the remaining 3%.” The reader may wonder what purpose is served from learning the chemical formulae given for starch and sugar, but it must have seemed quite enlightened and modern, even as it suggested a challenging midterm examination more than an inviting spread.

During my life I have most commonly joined my fellow-countrymen in using America’s most popular cookbook, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Four versions now occupy my shelves – one from 1936 was my mother’s, a 1968 version has been with me since my marriage and two are subsequent revisions. These are not merely archival. Corn dodgers and thumbprint cookies, among other recipes, have lost their place in newer editions and I must seek out the volume in which they can be found. The book’s excellence is somewhat mysterious. Rombauer was far from a professional cook or author. Her own tastes were very Midwestern and middle-of-the-road. Yet she produced a work as comprehensive as could be while maintaining a beguiling if intermittent presence behind the recipes with her wit and anecdotes. Though cookbooks had existed for several hundred years, and Miss Farmer’s had attained impressive sales, most housewives worked without such resources. The Boston School taught cooks as well as matrons, while the Joy of Cooking was resolutely for non-professional domestic use, with a view toward combining general practicality with gracious entertaining.

The author was herself a consumer and the book almost accidental. In 1931 when the author was in her early fifties after the suicide of Mr. Rombauer and the collapse of the family’s fortunes, she collected recipes from personal acquaintances and self-published the volume at a local label printer. Rombauer’s clever comments and digressions, what her original subtitle called “culinary chat,” became fewer with every edition, but the content became considerably more cosmopolitan. Today it includes negi maki, kamut, and pâté maison, but not scalloped potatoes.

Her first commercial edition had a dust-jacket by her daughter Marion (later to assume the duties of revision) depicting St. Martha of Bethany, the one who was “cumbered about much serving” when Christ came calling and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. On the cookbook cover Martha defeats a dragon, though I am unsure whether the monster represents kitchen drudgery or a messily turned omelet. (Martha is considered by some the patron saint of cooking and with better title to my mind than St. Lawrence whose rights are supported by his comment while being martyred on a gridiron: “Turn me over. I am done on this side.”)

Though the moralistic Sylvester Graham’s whole-grain bread recipe first appeared in The New Hydropathic Cookbook in 1855 and his followers, the Kelloggs, began making their breakfast cereals only fifty years later, [4] little in an American supermarket could have been called “health food.” Even the stores dedicated to such products seemed to deal mainly in overpriced vitamin supplements for the hypochondriac and the infirm and protein powders for body-builders. It would be years before Chez Panisse demonstrated that organic and healthy ingredients could be compounded into America’s most elegant meals. Yoghurt was completely unavailable most places; until the seventies we used to order yoghurt starter and stone ground whole wheat flour by mail.

As time went on, though health food became a recognized niche and then mainstream, and we did accumulate some books that linger on my shelves. The earliest stratum includes a little hardcover copy of Edna Thompson’s Yoga Cookbook (from Dagobert Runes’ redoubtable Philosophical Library, 1959), an international miscellany. A mass market of sorts had developed by the time The Yogi Cook Book appeared in 1968. Attributed to Yogi Vithaldas (who had taught Yehudi Menuhin) and Susan Roberts, this is primarily a primer on Indian cooking. I retain also Diet for a Small Planet, by the astute food policy analyst Francis Moore Lappé, the Deaf Smith book (sugarless and vegan), and several of Molly Katzen’s volumes. Though I saw it in the homes of many friends for years, I never possessed the book featuring the “macrobiotic” regime of George Ohsawa, who predicted the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy due to their sanpaku eyes. Brown rice and vegetables, though, was the fall-back dish in the late sixties.

Though I regularly produce whole wheat loaves with added flaxseed meal, oatmeal, and whole wheatberries, my goal in bread-baking has regularly been a French-style loaf. My mother, a farm girl, baked bread at home even while working, and I myself have long taken Miller’s advice to make bread at home. Over time, I have tried countless varieties, including maintaining sourdoughs for as much as a few years at a stretch. [5] Since youth I have used the unimaginative A World of Breads by Dolores Casella, though my favorite recipe from it is not a risen bread but fetayer, the Near Eastern whole wheat turnover stuffed with greens and pine nuts. I recently found in Daniel Leader’s Bread Alone a highly successful method for beginning a sourdough.

In this country, of course, France had been accustomed to pride of place among national cuisines. I have long relished the telling anecdotes and odd data available in Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste (1825), and my belief remains strong in his signature apothegm “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” but he expected someone to cook for him, and his book has no recipes. His “gastronomical meditations,” however, are unique in the blend of high spirits and utter seriousness with which he approaches the table. His associative essays are not unworthy successors to Montaigne’s. In the piece on fish (chapter VI, section 6) he begins with speculations on the origin of humanity from the sea, then proceeds to an anecdote about Vadius Pollio who fed his slaves to his eels. A few paragraphs later he is calculating the weight of a gross of oysters, a quantity he says was commonly eaten as an appetizer. This introduces his reminiscence of a gentleman who ate nearly four hundred as a prelude to dining. After passing through ancient fish sauces and a number of other topics, he relates the tale of a Turkish sultan who tested the sexual self-control of some dervishes who accepted the rich meat diet he provided while refusing the available “odalisques.” After some time on an equally luxurious diet of fish, however, “the too happy cenobites succumbed . . . most marvelously.” Yet he caps even this amusing story by calling fish “an endless source of meditation and surprise” and reflecting that the flood in Genesis, while a “cataclysm” to the human population must have been “a time of rejoicing, conquest, and festivity for the fishes.” Surely the French jurist would have been welcome at Athenaeus’ table; I know he would be at mine.

Some of the same rambling may be observed in Alan and Jane Davidson’s abridged translation of the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (1873) by Dumas père in spite of the book’s dictionary format. Dumas does provide basic definitions and description, but he often goes on into anecdotes and curiosities. One would hardly guess that the article on onions, for instance, contains an account of a fist-fight between a partisan of French onions against one for the English. Under madeleines one finds not only an recipe but an narrative of a traveler in need of shelter and sustenance who knocked at an isolated country door late at night only to encounter a wild man, naked to the waist, his face smeared with flour who spoke with a “sepulchral” voice. In spite of reservations he enetered and eventually was fed most satisfyingly with madeleines and Bordeaux of the first quality.”

I do have an American version of Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire, but it is primarily a reference book for the haute cuisine hotel menus of over a hundred years ago. It allows the cook to appreciate even more the role of Julia Child in domesticating French food without compromising it. And, of course, I have her two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) as well as three or four of her later works. I have yet to follow one of her recipes with care and to find the end product wanting. Yet her broader cultural influence – she was the opening wedge for good eating in general and “foreign” foods in particular – surely arose from her television series. Cooking instruction may seem unsuited to television unless viewers are taking notes, but her persona found greater expressive scope on WGBH than on the printed page, and her influence has been wholly beneficial.

Elizabeth David’s writing is sufficiently polished for the reader to believe in her judgments. Her recipes, which are often presented is a charmingly casual fashion, rarely fail. She is as good with traditional British dishes as with French and Mediterranean. Though when young she had been presented at court as a debutante, her life turned out to be thoroughly Bohemian, and consistently devoted to exploring the pleasures of the table.

We soon learned that peasant cooks throughout the world had shared our interest in inexpensive ingredients. We discovered how Indian spices can make a tasty meal of anything whatever. In my tattered old Penguin edition of Dharamjit Singh’s Indian Cookery nearly every recipe has a dozen “aromatics.” (Later the actress Madhur Jaffrey produced a number of successful cookbooks, though these are impossibly assimilationist in my opinion.)

My fondness for Fes vu par sa cuisine by the redoubtable Zette Guinaudeau is surely magnified by my partiality for Morocco and for Fes in particular, but the book has much to recommend it even to those who prefer to stay at home and eschew Maghrebi dishes. Mme. Guinaudeau was a pioneer with excellent taste who resided in Fes for over thirty years. Her appreciation for the subtleties of Fassi cooking is of a piece with her skills as a sketcher of scenes of daily life. And, like Alice Toklas, she includes a recipe for majoun, that “mélange fait de drogues et dépices, de hachich et de miel.” My copy is a fascinating object itself, a 1966 reprint by J. E. Laurent of Oudaia and Rabat of their 1958 first edition. An English translation by J. E. Harris was published in 1964 with the title Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fez. I regret that I have not seen her more comprehensive Les Secrets des Cuisine en Terre Marocaine which I understand includes this earlier book.

For Mexican recipes we relied for years on Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz’ The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking. At some point, in a Salvation Army most likely, I picked up a 1955 copy of Josefina Velazquez de Leon’s Mexican Cook Book Devoted to American Homes, which, despite its title was printed in Mexico City. Untrained except by her mother, Velazquez de Leon came to occupy a central place in the recognition of Mexican cooking. A widow whose family’s wealth was lost in the 1910 revolution, she operated a cooking school, founded her own publishing company to put out her book and a long list of others, many with a regional focus. Her volume, directed toward Americans, unfortunately, suffers from the same defect as Ortiz’ – an overemphasis on the corn kitchen much of which might be regarded as antojitos, neglecting the rich variety of other sorts of dishes. I have only consulted from the library the best resource for those curious about other aspects of Mexican food -- Diana Kennedy’s books, The Cuisines of Mexico, The Art of Mexican Cooking, and others. Kennedy brings real delighted appreciation to the broadest range of dishes, though her recipes are sometimes more informative than functional, for instance, when she writes about the kitchen uses of ant eggs. Her emphasis on the offbeat and the wholly authentic is a useful corrective, though, and provides many recipes unavailable elsewhere. (Why is it that the narrow scope of most Mexican cookbooks is even more pronounced in Mexican restaurants? There are so very few presenting regional cuisine or even main dishes without tortillas beyond huevos rancheros and a few treatments of beefsteak.)

Among my other surveys of national cuisine I count Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food (especially good for use legumes and grains in main dishes), Fiona Dunlop’s Medina Kitchen with its excellent pictures, Food from the Arab World by Marie Khayat and Margaret Chase Keating (published, oddly, in Italy), a delightfully old-fashioned Hungarian Cookery Book by Károly Gundel, The Complete Greek Cookbook by Teresa Yanilos, The Spanish Cookbook by Barbara Norman, Joza Břízová's Czechoslovakian Cookbook (one of an admirable series that translates for English-speakers a wide variety of popular cookbooks), Gretel Beer’s Austrian Cooking and Baking, Monica Bayley’s Black Africa Cook Book, Sky Juice and Flying Fish: Traditional Caribbean Cooking by Jessica B. Harris (source of “blessed bullas,” a most satisfying bread-like cookie), At Home with Japanese Cooking by Elizabeth Andoh , New Cantonese Cooking by Yin-Fei Lo, Susan Anderson’s Indonesian Flavors, and Jenny Grossinger’s Jewish Cooking for unpretentious Ashkenazi dishes.

And then we have as well a collection of single recipes, some handwritten, most on clippings from newspapers and magazine, food coop and daycare newsletters, more and more of course from the internet. Oyster-shucking instructions I have never successfully followed, Jamaican jerk, Chinese moon cakes, cannabis cookies, marrons glacés, the Story of Pecans, natural remedies from the Emma Goldman Clinic, lots of sourdough, carrot ginger soup, How to Make Yoghurt at Home, Sprout Your Own Beans, my mother’s shipwreck stew and kolaches and what she called Mrs. O’Donoghue’s bread, fried sage leaves, cantaloupe ice, sorrel punch, and Ethiopian spice tea.

A meal is like a book in that it embodies a vision. The cooking patterns of an individual are an oeuvre, a body of work that cannot avoid significant patterns. Further, the kitchen usages of a country or a region relay a sense of place, an identity, more effectively than photographs. Through cookbooks the cook may in a sense recreate a culture with immediacy. Varying values emerge not only through religious, aesthetic, and intellectual systems, but also through a prediction for wheat, rice, or cassava, for steaming or sautéing, for rose water, capsicum, tarragon, or the mysterious asafetida. Reading a novel, one consistently measures the author’s vision against one’s own lived experience, but the user of a cookbook can add to the enriching pleasure of temporarily inhabiting the consciousness of another the substantial benefit of a meal on the table, new in some way to one’s palate, with its own rewards. These may be more modest but they are surely also more dependable that those available from volumes of more metaphysical inclination.



1. Cookbook and cook book are both used by equally careful writers. Cook-book or cookery book sound out-of-date or British to Americans.

2. In Domestic Manners of the Americans. She adds, “They rarely enjoy it themselves, as they insist on eating horrible half-baked hot rolls, both morning and evening” which leaves the reader wondering both whether she was speaking of biscuits and, more mysterious, who ate the excellent bread. Mrs. Trollope was certainly not shy about ridiculing Americans, but, then, perhaps, as an Englishwoman, she was not really familiar with good bread.

3. Miller’s comments are from “The Staff of Life” in Remember to Remember.

4. It may seem ironic that American breakfast cereal began as a health food promoted by men who wished to promote a diet that would most effectively suppress sexuality. Since T. Coraghessan Boyle's 1993 comic novel The Road to Wellville and the subsequent movie, their practices, including the use of machines of their own invention which rapidly administered enemas of water and then of yoghurt.
The term “health food” dates only from the twenties.

5. In California I was once given one that was said to date from Gold Rush days. The responsibility of such a legacy kept me going on that one a year and a half. Its antiquity was doubtless a fable, and in my hands it eventually succumbed to neglect.