What does it mean to cook a meal?
Amy Trubek’s recent book Making Modern Meals will help scholars answer that challenging question. It is no criticism of the project to say that it raises more questions than it answers; in fact, that may be its greatest strength. This ambitious book opens hallways full of doors for young scholars in food studies to one day walk through. While it may not grapple with every concept to satisfaction, this book eloquently raises many topics worthy of deep and serious discussion.
One of the most important contributions of the book is that Making Modern Meals problematizes the concept of cooking at every turn. How much of a meal must be made from scratch to count as cooking? What processes define cooking: heat, chopping, mixing, all or none of these? How is cooking taught as knowledge, skill, and embodied practice? When is one cooking, and when does one become “a cook”? Where does cooking happen and who does it? What determines individual decisions to cook food or to purchase food cooked by others? Trubek concludes: “The complexity of cooking…lies in its very fluidity; an accurate investigation requires engaging with it as a constantly morphing hybrid that involves both domestic duty and paid labor” (7). As for how scholars can grapple with it, Trubek suggests: “[p]erhaps cooking’s increased complexity is best served by acknowledging its breadth while simultaneously accounting for all the ways we seek to contain it” (13).
Trubek, Associate Professor and Faculty Director for the Food Systems Graduate Program at the University of Vermont, began her research for this project by conducting ethnographic videos of home cooks within northern New England. These brought her first breakthrough: “Americans have a decent basic level of cooking ability and understanding but simply do not use it all the time” (17). Seeking to explain this finding, Trubek conducted further research, recruited more subjects, made more videos, and organized more interviews. Most laudably, she realized that historical research was necessary to her project. The resulting book is an ambitiously interdisciplinary product of contemporary anthropology that also incorporates a century’s worth of history into an analysis of the present. It is this reviewer’s hope that many future scholars will emulate Trubek’s choice to contextualize and explain contemporary phenomena in light of the past through the use of historical sources and scholarship.
The chapters of this book represent an analytical taxonomy of the most common meanings food preparation can hold. Depending upon one’s perspective, situation, and even mood, cooking in the twenty-first-century United States could be a chore, occupation, art-form, craftwork, or an exercise in building health. Each of these five topics receives their own chapter, although each theme inevitably bleeds into many others. Trubek saves “cooking as pleasure” for her conclusion, probing the communal and social aspects that make cooking so compelling for so many people. For each topic, Trubek generally begins with a slice of her contemporary research. Luckily for the reader, the lyrical and engaging writing does justice to the richness of information conveyed in her video research. Trubek alternates drawing her reader into the cooking practices and lives of people in the United States with passages that trace the origins of that function of cooking in history. Relying primarily on the scholarship of historians, Trubek nonetheless makes a point to grapple with original sources: some of the most famous cookbooks from United States’s history. Unfortunately, the historical and the contemporary research occasionally sit in uneasy relation to each other; ahistorical claims intrude in historical arguments, for example. But this is a small price to pay for the insights derived from Trubek’s commitment to putting the past in conversation with the present. Indeed, each chapter contains a plethora of incisive and interesting points, well beyond the ability of a short review to capture.
Inevitably for a book so rich in thought and content, many evocative ideas throughout the book are left underdeveloped, tantalizingly inviting future scholars to flesh them out. For example, I was grabbed by Trubek’s assertion: “Thinking about making meals as a necessary and instrumental element of the human experience, casting cooking as elemental human labor writ large, expands our analytical horizons” (25). It remains for future scholars to capitalize on this insight, and complicate it: in what ways is food work emblematic of all human labor, and in what ways is food work unique? What precisely does this perspective do for our analytical horizons, and how can it help to reframe the place of food studies within the academy and outside it? This book will certainly spark many such crucial conversations going forward.
At its base, Making Modern Meals operates from the popular notion that traditional home cooking is at risk in the twenty-first-century United States. Responding to that anxiety, this book provides a historically contextualized contemporary benchmark against which to measure subsequent change. Furthermore, Trubek gives those who share her firm commitment to the value of home-cooked meals compelling reasons not to fear for the future. “Change does not necessarily mean decline. I am hopeful about cooking,” she assures the reader at the start (25). By the end of this informative, innovative, and insightful book, this reader was as well. This book sings because Trubek has not just interviewed her subjects; it is clear that she has listened to them, understands them, and identifies with them. Indeed, Trubek shares with her subjects a hopeful vision for the future. Her closing lines will speak to any home cook: “Cooking together to help build a better world, and all of us knowing how to make a meal but not always feeling obligated to do so. These are dreams that should come true” (242).
Disclaimer: Amy B. Trubek serves as a member of the faculty board for GAFS.
Anastasia Day is a history doctoral candidate and Hagley Scholar in Capitalism, Technology, and Culture at the University of Delaware. She identifies as a historian of environment, technology, business, and society, themes that collide uniquely in food. Her dissertation is entitled “Productive Plots: Nature, Nation, and Industry in the Victory Gardens of the U.S. World War II Home Front.” Anastasia is also the current president of the Graduate Association of Food Studies. She tweets @Anastasia_C_Day and her website can be found here: www.thehistorianinthegarden.com.