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Review: Culinary Poetics and Edible Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature

Culinary Poetics and Edible Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature by Stacie Cassarino is about art and its influence on everyday consumption. Cassarino argues that gastronomic avant-garde literary texts influence national consumption and that these shifts subsequentl...

Published onJun 10, 2020
Review: Culinary Poetics and Edible Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature

Stacie Cassarino. Culinary Poetics and Edible Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature. Ohio State University Press, 2018. x, 201 pp.

Culinary Poetics and Edible Images in Twentieth-Century American Literature by Stacie Cassarino is about art and its influence on everyday consumption. Cassarino argues that gastronomic avant-garde literary texts influence national consumption and that these shifts subsequently influence what’s for dinner. On a larger scale, these cultural ruptures can potentially feed back into food policy. Although art, particularly the avant-garde, is conceived of as being sequestered from reality and the everyday, Cassarino demonstrates how avant-garde cookbooks, poetry, live performance and visual art forms are in dialogue with the quotidian and how art maintains the power to “retell the story of food […] revolutionizing political, ethical, environmental, class-powered, and aesthetic choices around eating” (8,9).

Cassarino’s methodology draws on M.F.K. Fisher’s[1] literary technique of pairing the aesthetic with the mundane, or art and necessity. Fisher’s work problematized notions of mind-body dualism by demonstrating that food is a subject for the intellect and a good book can be a corporeal pleasure. Similarly, Cassarino’s Fisherian framework complicates common perceptions of the discrete boundaries between literary forms as a stimulant for the mind and food as a stimulant for the body. This methodology gets at the interpenetration, as Cassarino calls it, of food and art.

Each of the first three chapters pairs a cookbook author with a poet whose published works Cassarino analyzes to demonstrate how both are literary art forms that reflect and shape national consciousness about taste, politics, the environment, gender, race, class antagonisms, economics and pleasure. Her last chapter departs from her initial thematic of reading a cookbook author and poet together and instead looks to visual art projects that critique national food systems. While the previous chapters are dubious as to whether the cookbook and poem led to social and political change or were a result of it, her last effort is more grounded and explicit in how food can be an impetus towards change in national consumption through policy and legislation. This does not mean, however, that because the changes resulting from these contemporary food projects are more explicit than their literary counterparts that the latter did not affect national foodways. Rather, the reader is left to reflect on the subtle, nuanced change that occurs through literature compared to the more obvious kind of change affected through socially conscious art projects such as chef Dan Barber’s pop-up restaurant, wastED, which utilizes leftover scraps considered trash to create affordable meals and to “combat hunger, food scarcity, and inequity in the food system” (190).

 By reading the recipe as poem and the poem as recipe, Cassarino demonstrates how both participate in analogous dialogues about food, art and consumption. For instance, by reading Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons together, Cassarino suggests these texts are an impetus towards new, modernist tastes. Both leverage mundanity as access to the extraordinary: Child with her meticulous instructions on how to elevate the humble egg into the perfect omelette and Stein with her use of ordinary (yet recondite) language to create an avant-garde aesthetics of the particular and quotidian.

Poppy Cannon’s The Fast Gourmet Cookbook and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are read together to demonstrate the modernist, mid-twentieth-century inclination and fascination with industry, speed and efficiency. Cannon’s “can opener cookbook” praises the use of pre-made, processed food to prepare gourmet meals in minutes versus the hours Child’s recipes require. O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are snappy, quick and mostly composed while walking or taking his lunch break. The tempo and style of Cannon’s recipes and O’Hara’s poems reverberates through the consumption habits of America during the middle of the twentieth-century which valued convenience, speed and technological inventions intended to ease the time-consuming burdens of life such as cooking.

The third literary duo Cassarino examines is Black avant-garde cookbook author Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Black poet Harryette Mullen. Smart-Grosvenor’s cookbook, Vibration Cooking, and Mullen’s collection of poems, S*PeRM**K*T, recycle food practices of the Black community to recreate meaning within foodways that were previously considered “trash” or low-brow by Whites. These texts interrupt and dislodge hegemonic discourses of food that latently suggest Anglo-American and Western European foods to be the essence of “good” food, asserting Black consumption as a source of pleasure and empowerment.

In her last chapter, Cassarino looks to visual art projects that offer commentary on national food systems and consumption. Art projects such as Daniel Spoerri’s “Eat Art,” Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s performance meals at El Bulli, and David Burns and Austin Young’s art collective Fallen Fruit represent ways in which art is a catalyst towards policy change and a more democratic food system.

The last chapter illuminates how perceiving change in food systems is more clearly detectable than change infoodways, a point Cassarino does not make explicit in her work. Shifts in food systems are more apparent in revealing how food is processed, distributed and consumed. Thus, art that critiques the structure of food systems will exhibit more overt examples of success and change. Foodways, on the other hand, as seen in her examples of literature, proceed and morph non-coherently and are not as quantitatively analyzable as their food systems counterpart. This does not detract from her overall argument that art leads to structural change, but it leaves the reader to puzzle over the different ways change is perceived and enacted in policy versus culture.

Cassarino’s work is significant to the field of food studies, aesthetics, sociology, history and politics by offering new channels of inquiry to examine the influence of art on the everyday and not only the resulting change in national consumption, but how art motivates new avenues of thought about social justice and policy. This, at once, establishes art as possessing pragmatic qualities and food as being an important artistic medium through which to critique capitalist distribution, the environment, technology, gender, class and race relations and the ethics of consumption.


Hannah Brantley is a student in Boston University’s Gastronomy program. Primarily using feminist and critical theories, her research focuses on intersectional inequality within American foodways. She has an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is certified in Culinary Arts from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Boston, Massachusetts is her current home.

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