Describing a food chain as “farm to fork” may miss a crucial link: post-meal conversation. In Word of Mouth, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson assesses this gap in the food studies literature by examining the rhetoric of food, that which comes out of our mouths rather than in. Drawing on varied secondary sources as well as her own previous research on world-class chefs, Ferguson illustrates how “food talk” both informs and reflects the ways that cultures understand food. In three parts, she leads the reader to an understanding of the close relationship between food discourse of all kinds and the lived food experience.
Ferguson’s sociological background leads her to situate her data firmly within a social and historical context. She gives equal analytical weight to the venerable and the quotidian, the haute menu and the comic strip. Guiding her methodology is cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, an unconventional history of Paris told through texts of all types. In Ferguson’s adaptation of this method, culinary sources from cookbooks to New Yorker cartoons share a stage. This assortment of cultural miscellany, which she dubs “methodological eclecticism,” guides a larger narrative of the history of hosting and dining, cooking and chefing, eating and talking (xviii). Throughout, Ferguson sees a changing culinary landscape—one becoming less formal and more global—and shows how this landscape is reflected by the discourse around it.
The book is divided into three discrete sections, brought together by an epilogue centered around the Pixar film Ratatouille. Part one introduces food texts that reveal historical patterns in the U.S. and France: culinary nationalism, culinary individualism, and the tension between food safety and pleasure. It is in this section that Ferguson’s definition of food talk is the widest: she analyzes events, like the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, alongside children’s stories like Winnie-the-Pooh. In these varied sources she emphasizes the difference between French and American food culture and, conversely, the unifying nature of those cultures within their contexts. She says,
We do not share food, we share the experience of food (51).
Part two focuses on cooks and chefs and their representation within food media. Much of the food talk here comes from interviews with chefs from Ferguson’s previous research on culinary France, giving the term a more literal, and understandable, definition. Ferguson argues that cooks and chefs have taught America how to engage in food talk and gives spotlight to iconic chefs who have shaped the culinary imagination: Julia Child, Irma Rombauer, and modern tastemakers like Ferran Adrià of elBulli restaurant. She celebrates Rombauer in particular for her conversational writing style that brought joy to the experience of women cooking within budgetary and health constraints. She cites chapters in the Joy of Cooking that demonstrate Rombauer’s ebullient spirit: “Favors for Children’s Parties” and a chapter on cocktails in the midst of Prohibition.
Finally, part three illustrates food talk on the other side of the kitchen door, tracing the shift of the dining experience from “haute cuisine” to “haute food.” Haute food represents a restaurant culture that has become informalized, Ferguson argues, even as it continues to produce and reflect class status. This informalization, marked by a “loosening of the forms” that previously dictated the dining experience, brings a more democratic era in dining but does not eliminate disagreement (141). Food talk, from the menus of five star restaurants to the jargon used by restaurant industry members to describe and categorize patrons, is the primary mode of negotiation for the tensions between tradition and innovation, chefs and reviewers, and the evolving manifestations of conspicuous consumption.
A lack of previous research in the field of food rhetoric or food discourse allows Ferguson room to explore what she sees as being important or poignant, much like her methodological mentor Walter Benjamin. Her analysis of selected sources, though sometimes seeming to be chosen at random, showcases her skill in connecting food talk to its larger cultural and social contexts. Drawing on her previous research in France, nearly all of her selected texts come from French or American culinary history. These texts underline the differences in how those cultures’ cooking and eating patterns have evolved over the centuries as well as how those patterns have emerged through discourse. Narrowing her constraints to two countries allows Ferguson to dive deeper into the minutiae of her subjects, a task she does with verve and joy.
Ferguson takes her texts for what they are: snapshots of a culinary event or opinion, representative of a speaker at a certain point in time. She does not privilege one over another, but because of this, an exploration of power relationships or outside cultural factors is missing. She leaves this question from her prologue unanswered:
[W]hy is need surprisingly muted in discussions of what makes our contemporary food world so different from what it was not all that long ago? (xxi)
It may be that those who do not have enough to eat cannot participate in food talk, and this missing material goes unmentioned.
Despite this shortcoming, Ferguson pulls together an informative culinary history covering hundreds of years while using a diverse, though limited, collection of sources. Her analyses are insightful and serve to deftly weave together texts of all different types and genres, taking the reader along for the ride. Perhaps most importantly, Ferguson showcases just how far-reaching food talk really is, opening up for analysis source material traditionally eschewed by sociologists and anthropologists. This book is an excellent addition to the developing field of food media studies as well as a unique expansion on the field of culinary history.
Hailey Grohman is an MS candidate in the University of Vermont’s Food Systems program. Her research interests include food media and communications as well as place-based foods and working landscapes of all types. She is a member of a Maine farming family and a lover of all things dairy.