Cookbooks, Culture, and Community
Written onSeptember 01 , 2010
Food and culture…the localvore movement, the Food Network, celebrity chefs, ubiquitous foodies, holiday dinners, ethnic recipes, and restaurants. Plenty of people would happily agree if you told them that food was an important part of culture. They may not know exactly what you (or they) mean by the word culture, but most people are pretty sure that food plays a large role within it. And many people take part in food culture by buying, reading, and using cookbooks.
I am an anthropologist and a folklorist, so I study culture for a living. In my day job, I’m a professor at Champlain College in Burlington, teaching courses in critical thinking and culture, while my academic research is ethnographic, which means that I interact with and observe people directly in order to understand their cultural beliefs, behaviors, and norms. By talking with people, both formally and informally, about their own lives and in their own contexts, I try to understand what is important to them and why.
When I moved to Vermont three years ago, never having lived in New England, I began focusing some of my research on the cultures of Vermont in order to start understanding my new home. I garden and cook myself, and food has always been personally, as well as professionally, important to me, so it seemed only natural to use food as an avenue for understanding Vermont culture. I wanted to learn how food was intersecting the lives of local, everyday people, rather than just a few, or the elite. I also wanted to explore some aspect of food that was out of the ordinary—food as a special event, so to speak. So I decided to talk to people who produced local cookbooks, the type created by individuals or organizations as fundraisers or to promote a certain aspect of Vermont. My goal was to get some idea of what they were trying to convey in their cookbooks. Specifically, I wanted to see how they were creating and presenting a sense of local identity.
I started by asking friends for cookbooks. Being new to Vermont, I needed to get the lay of the culinary land. People loaned me cookbooks of all types, from professional, widely available books down to ones created by their family to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. After some reconnoitering, I contacted the people who produced some of the cookbooks—the writers, editors, and publishers. I looked at more than 40 Vermont-based cookbooks in all and interviewed approximately a dozen people who had a hand in creating one. Some of the cookbooks were produced to raise money for a school district or church; others were promotional items for businesses. They ranged from barely more than pamphlets photocopied and distributed to friends and family all the way to professional publications with full-color photography.
One aspect shared by all the cookbooks was a conscious effort on the part of the authors, editors, or compilers to create a sense of locality in their cookbooks. Local cookbooks are very often firmly rooted in a place. That place can be, say, a parish church or a local tourist stop. Whatever scale the cookbook is trying to cover, each one attempts to connect itself to some identifiable place in the mind of the person viewing the cookbook. Why? Rooting a cookbook in a place makes it more than a recipe collection. It makes the collection an extension of that spot, a little portable piece of the place. This aspect is especially important in the tourist industry, which is dedicated to packaging places and experiences for consumption. When tourists visit an area, they often want to take away a small piece of that area as a souvenir (evidence of their visit) and a cookbook can play that role.
On the other hand, one interviewee who coordinated and edited a cookbook talked about her book as a response to a feeling of “rootlessness” in her town. She summed it up better than I could when she said, “We want this cookbook to be the voice of the community.” Local cookbooks often try to be just that. They try to speak of something essential to whatever community from which they come. As an anthropologist, I call that essential something ”cultural identity.”
One of my favorite cookbooks was created by a class of English language learners to celebrate their various homelands and the new bond they shared as Vermont residents. It especially resonated with me because it showed how these new Vermonters were integrating themselves into the culture of the state while maintaining their immigrant identities from places such as Sudan, Russia, and Morocco. Their cookbook was designed for the students to be “a tangible item that marks in some way one of their successes in this country,” as their teacher said. The recipes in this cookbook are surrounded with pictures of the students, emphasizing the memento role of the cookbook. The pictures also make a connection with the reader; I don’t have to know the students to feel connected to them through their smiling faces and their food.
Local cookbooks can also serve an internal community. The congregants of a church, for example, can buy a parish cookbook to represent their connection to the group, to financially support their church, or to send portions of their church metaphorically to others as a gift. The person is buying a symbolic piece of the church—but what is it symbolic of? The purchaser wants to remember the experience of visiting the church, or the congregant wants to represent their connection to the community that is represented by the church building.
So, when someone decides to create a local cookbook, it’s usually a good idea to make sure the book can serve as that symbolic vessel. In Vermont, one of the easiest ways to make a cookbook symbolically “Vermonty” is to include a maple recipe. Maple is the paradigmatic Vermont flavor, and you would be hard-pressed to find a cookbook that claims Vermont provenience without at least one maple syrup recipe. Other ingredients can stand in for Vermont, of course. Wild game, apples, cheddar cheese, and milk can all be employed to evoke a characteristic sense of Vermont in recipes. By evoking Vermont with such ingredients, a cookbook can connect someone to the state and the experiences they have had (or even wish to have) here.
I am still working on this research, so there are no complete answers yet, but I’ve learned a few things about Vermont so far. People here have a very strong sense of identity, and they very consciously use their food as part of that identity. I would like to be able to tell you what that identity is, but I can’t, and I won’t. There is no singular Vermont identity. People living here have many different ways to be Vermonters, and those ways come out in the cookbooks they create, the recipes they cook, and the foods they enjoy. There are certain common themes, like maple syrup, but you only need to leaf through a cookbook or visit a sugarhouse to see all the different things that maple can mean. The fact is that for every person who states categorically, “This is Vermont’s identity,” there are five people standing behind them doing things differently. It is the mix of these individual personalities—and the connections between the people—that makes Vermont what it is, just as it does any other place.
Local cookbooks make connections. They do so in different ways, but they all attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to link people to a place, a person, or an experience. This process of affiliation is more important in local cookbooks than in nationally distributed ones. Rachael Ray, Rick Bayless, and Mario Batali try to create symbolic connections in their cookbooks as well, but they want you to connect to their public persona. For a small-scale, local cookbook, there is no cult of personality on which to draw. By evoking a memory or symbolizing a place or experience, a local cookbook trades on an identity. As soon as a reader can relate to the identity that is being constructed and presented in a local cookbook, then that cookbook becomes meaningful to them. And meaning is where culture resides.
Photo by Meg Lucas
A sampling of Vermont cookbooks
Large-scale cookbooks designed for wide distribution
Cooking Close to Home, by Diane Imrie and Richard Jarmusz
Dishing Up Vermont, by Tracey Medeiros
Cooking with Shelburne Farms, by Melissa Pasanen and Rick Gencarelli
The River Run Cookbook, by Jimmy and Maya Kennedy and Marialisa Calta
The Cook's Garden, by Shepherd and Ellen Ogden
Small-scale cookbooks for local distribution
Treasured Recipes from Burlington Convalescent Center
Now You’re Cookin’ with Vermont Gas, by Vermont Gas
A Collection of Recipes and Memories from the Converse Home, Burlington
Green Mountain Favorites from the Northern Vermont Chapter of the American Red Cross
Cooking Up Community from F. H. Tuttle Middle School PTO in South Burlington
VPT Cooks! from Vermont Public Television
Living Soil, Thriving Farms, Healthy Communities from Rural Vermont
The Vermont Beekeepers’ Cookbook from the Vermont Beekeepers Association
Vermonters’ Guide to Gathering, Growing & Cooking with Local Foods, by Sue Greenall
The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook series from the Vermont Maple Foundation
Out of Vermont Kitchens from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington
IBM Club Favorite Recipes
Home Cooking from Hinesburg Elementary School
Spider Bread, Cider Pie & Rhubarb Wine, Hundreds of Recipes, Ancient & Modern, from Members & Friends of the Weathersfield Historical Society
Kristina's Kitchen Cookbook, by Kristina Creighton
The Vermont Village Cook Book, published by The Alpha Press, Landgrove, VT, 1963 for the benefit of the Community Fund.
Congregation Beth El: A History with Recipes of the Jewish Community in St. Johnsbury, Vermont (2009). Published by Congregation Beth El, PO Box 568, St Johnsbury VT 05819. Watch for updates at http://kitchenrevision.blogspot.com