A Domesticated Idea: Cooking the Victorian Recipe
A Domesticated Idea: Cooking the Victorian Recipe is part cooking class, part literary study in the food writings of British Victorian (primarily, women) writers. Here’s why: until recently, critics have devalued the Victorian cookbook as an object of literary inquiry, regularly dismissing it as “Victoriana”—cultural, anthropological histories detailing bland culinary traditions. A Domesticated Idea: Cooking the Victorian Recipe seeks to provide students with a framework by which they can explore the Victorian cookbook as a literary text appropriated by writers responding to and advocating for cultural, educational, and artistic reform during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Looking specifically at how women used recipes to discuss food preparation, dining, and household management, we will explore the ways British women writers participated in a collaborative tradition, borrowing and sharing knowledge, imagining communities, and generating large bodies of women’s work.
Why and how mid-century writers composed, shared, and stylized their food writings coalesced into a complicated relationship. In this project, students will focus on one particular manifestation of that relationship, the generative effects of cookbook recipes. This effect explains why women pursued, shared, and composed recipes, appropriating the medium for their own purposes. Because recipes are an instructional form of prose that creates something the reader may eat and regard as delicious (especially if made correctly), it is the recipe’s very nature to engender readers as creators. This is not to say that a recipe or a cookbook are living things, but that the testing and eating from a recipe’s instructions are a living process. In it, a life cycle exists that separates the recipe from other forms of prose. After the initial stages of reading, testing, eating, sharing, and improving upon a recipe, writers respond to new contexts and “reasons-to-be”: they share again, revise again, and continue this cycle. All recipes exist, essentially, in a complex system of collaboration. By inviting us to read and eat, they also invite us to alter.
Prerequisites: Students should have an interest in the Victorian period and a desire to learn how to cook from some of the time period’s most important (yet unsung) British women writers. Students must also be able to participate in the theoretical discussion of a unique style of English prose (the Victorian woman’s recipe) and produce final real, cooked dishes, using pre-supplied recipes from the Victorian period. The class will require some short readings and much eating.