Gitanjali G. Shahani’s edited collection “Food and Literature” prioritizes a variety of literary texts (not all Western-focused) to theorize the relationship between language and food, consumption as both reading practice and eating practice.
Gitanjali G. Shahani’s edited collection Food and Literature begins as many scholarly volumes on food do—with the eponymous epigraph. Here Shahani sketches out the relationship between food studies and literary studies in broad terms. The introduction moves from the micro to the macro level, from defining representations of food in literature as “gastronomic interjections” to theorizing an entire omnivorous method of literary food scholarship (4). For scholars first wading into the amorphous arena of literary food studies, Shahani’s introduction hits all the high notes, from mentions of Proust, Brillat-Savarin, and Barthes to broader discussions about literary food’s relationship to postcolonial, gender, and critical race studies. This isn’t to say there aren’t interesting diversions into particular areas within literary scholarship; Shahani herself betrays her own interests in passages weighted towards early modern food studies. However, the thrust of the introduction serves the overarching goal of this addition to the Cambridge Critical Concepts series; it prioritizes a variety of literary texts (not all Western-focused) to theorize the relationship between language and food, consumption as both reading practice and eating practice. It also lays out the structure of the collection, transitioning from Part One (the how, where, when, what, why of literary food studies) to Part Two (creating a framework that problematizes literary criticism within gender, race, and postcolonial studies) and finally Part Three (a series of observations and applications of food theory that tries to be omnivorous in its method and site of critical study).
This collection fills a gap in literary food studies, as no other volume of critical work has solely focused on food and literature to such a broad extent. The essays in this collection—such as those from well-known literary scholars like Susan Gilbert and Allison Carruth—establish a critical lens that does not view food as incidental to literary study, nor does it treat literary food studies as only driven by narratives concerned with ethnic difference, a pitfall of the field so far. This isn’t to say the collection does not engage with critical studies around race and ethnicity, but that it does not do so at the exclusion of other narratives. As pointed out by Anita Mannur in her 2009 work Culinary Fictions (and cited by Shahani), too often literary food studies simply become a method of shorthanding the experience of others as a way to make differences palatable (17).
The broad range of essays in the collection, however, can feel meandering and unfocused at times. The first two-thirds of the collection relies so heavily on theoretical formulations that the food texts themselves are often buried under jargon familiar only to the well-read literary critic. Instead of following Darra Goldstein’s call in the “Afterword” to “linger on the words themselves, to celebrate language, the essence—the distillate, if you will—of writing,” the volume overall skews towards making food the “handmaiden to ‘larger’ ideas’” (362). Her passionate plea for returning food studies to the humanities does not find alignment in the collection as a whole; too often the authors ignore language in its simplicity in favor of crafting complex theoretical arguments that make use of the text incidentally. However, this critique isn’t to suggest that these authors’ works are not interesting methodologically; in particular David B. Goldstein’s chapter on “Commensality” sets the tone for many of the chapters that follow. Yet I found myself regularly wishing for more literature, for authors to sit and attend to their chosen texts with more focus and care.
There are a few standout essays, however, that rein in their focus, positing interesting notions while hewing close to their textual matter under analysis. In particular, both J. Michelle Coghlan’s The Art of the Recipe: American Food Writing Avant la Lettre and Elspeth Probyn’s Eating Athwart and Queering Food Writing are standout examinations of similar areas of food writing, although Coghlan’s and Probyn’s respective focuses are on two very different writers. By uncovering the overlooked food writing of US writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Coghlan posits a proto-M.F.K. Fisher form that embraces the recipe as a site of women’s “unbridled gastronomical pleasure” (116). By returning to early nineteenth-century food writing, Coghlan historicizes the hybrid form while connecting it to powerful and modern feminist concerns. This same principle guides Probyn’s chapter, which uses the concept of the “athwart” to study how food unleashes desire, in particular through a complex and sometimes uncomfortable mingling of bodies, be they texts, food, or even the reader herself. It is in these discussions that scholars outside the literary sphere might locate a useful lens through which to examine their own food studies work, but in general, the collection is directed towards an audience that regularly engages with written text in their discipline, be it fiction or not.
While in possession of a rich body of diverse work, Shahani’s edited collection Food and Literature too often returns to the safety of straightforward literary criticism instead of playing with/in the genre. Perhaps this approach is an outcome of the oft-referenced anxiety about food studies as an illegitimate form of scholarly study. While the collection does offer the reader a large, diverse sampling of work in one volume, it leaves open the possibility for another volume to follow, one that takes up the call for more ingredients, more palates, more literature. For, as Shahani writes, “the process of revision must be constant and endless” much as the cook’s process (and the reader’s!) is a never-ending quest for pleasure (32).
Rhiannon Scharnhorst is a hybrid Ph.D. student specializing in nineteenth-century English literature, feminist rhetorics, and composition at the University of Cincinnati. Her work examines the intertwined relationship of food, feminisms, and writing practice; she most recently received a fellowship from the English Department at UC to continue her research in taste pedagogies as imagined through nineteenth-century American composition textbooks.