Subconscious Cultural Signifiers and Self-Discovery through Food: Freedgood’s “Reading Things”

Elaine Freedgood’s “Introduction: Reading Things,” from The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel, introduces Freedgood’s goal to glean novelistic meaning from “things” in Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and Mary Barton. But Freedgood neglects to emphasize, perhaps because it would distract from her purpose, that this tactic can be applied to arguably any “thing” a culture produces: namely, my own subject of ingredients and cooking habits in the Victorian, Turn of the Century, WWI, and WWII eras. By modeling my research perspective on Freedgood’s argument that “things” in the Victorian novel expose historic and character-centered meaning, I can apply her ideology to my subject of “food in crisis” and tease out “fugitive meanings” that cookbook recipes, culinary articles, and domestic cooking habits divulge of their recipe-makers and the people who interact with those culinary texts.

Freedgood writes, “[E]ach of these objects, if we investigate them in their ‘objectness,’ was highly consequential in the world in which the text was produced” (2) – I would add, the culture in which the people or characters are produced. I included two novels on my reading list for the purpose of connecting the cookbooks and Victorian journal articles I read to a personal experience, to illustrate my larger discoveries on a personal scale. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie’s weekly trip to the candy store and her mother’s insistence that Francie throw out her coffee if she prefers (even though the family is scraping by in 1911 Brooklyn) shows that food poses a mode of empowerment for the young girl, and gives the family a sense of worth among degrading jobs and being forced to buy the tongue of a cow, an undesirable but cheap cut of meat. Interactions with food in this novel and the Victorian and wartime cookbooks I am reading illustrate the cooks and Francie defining their self-worth by the food they can afford or are savvy enough to get ahold of – even Fannie Farmer’s recipe for “mock turtle soup,” which uses a cow head, illustrates this (Fannie’s Last Supper). For these consumers, food becomes a precious commodity of self-worth.

Freedgood’s introduction focuses heavily on the examples she will provide in the novel’s subsequent chapters, which does not pose useful to my work. But her contextualizing passages do help to frame my research. One meaning Freedgood represses throughout her article is the possibility that her chosen Victorian authors’ inclusion of “things” “at crucial narrative moments” (2) could be subconscious – this is the assumption my fledgling thesis argument seeks to unearth or recover. As stated in the previous paragraph, Francie Nolan’s self-definition relies on her ability to access food; Laura Shapiro emphasizes in Perfection Salad that turn of the century housewives channeled their measuring of themselves into writing to housekeeping columns and removing blemishes from their domestic skills – “culinary idealism,” Shapiro calls it (3). Shapiro even notes that Mary Lincoln “asked,” “Now, what does all this interest in cookery mean?” (71). Cultural (and here culinary) fads often appear to the consumer to emerge out of the air, without predictors or precedent, framing them as subconscious. For my purposes, “subconscious” refers to symptoms, ones from existing in a culture (in this case, British and American culture from about 1880-1945) and seeking self-definition and reassurance via that culture’s fads (“this interest in cooking”) or contemporary causes (wartime recipes designed to reduce food consumption and waste).

Freedgood does not attend to the subconscious in her argument, and instead asserts, for instance, that the cultural implications of mahogany in Jane Eyre (2) are intentional and crafted by the author. I cannot rationalize why Freedgood neglects to explore the subconscious, since it would assist her argument rather than undermine it: Freedgood argues that the prevalence of mahogany in Jane Eyre signifies the culture in which Jane’s story occurs; but Jane uses her story to define herself, and undergoes a journey of self-discovery. So even if I challenge Freedgood’s assertion that the novel intentionally features mahogany “at crucial narrative moments” (2), those moments still exist; they continue to hold all the historical and colonial implications Freedgood identifies, but more tellingly of the impact Jane’s culture has on her self-perception, they do this un- or subconsciously. In the novels and cookbooks I am examining, the people interacting with food utilize cuisine in the same self-defining way.


Works Cited: (the blog software wouldn’t let me indent lines so I apologize for the incorrect MLA formatting)

Fannie’s Last Supper. Directed by Michael Rothenberg, American     Public Television, 2010.

Freedgood, Elaine. “Introduction: Reading Things.” The Ideas in Things: Fugitive   Meaning in the Victorian Novel. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. Collins Publishers, 1986.

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Harper Collins, 1947.

4 thoughts on “Subconscious Cultural Signifiers and Self-Discovery through Food: Freedgood’s “Reading Things””

  1. This topic is so interesting, Charlotte. I especially liked where you said, “food becomes a precious commodity of self-worth”. It reminds me of the vicious cycle in America of classism. The system in place that oppresses the lower classes also makes it impossible for them to enjoy meals of the same caliber and nutritional value that others have access to. Not to mention issues of health and healthcare in the U.S.

  2. While you’ve changed your thesis idea has changed a bit since this post, I think that the core concepts of objects in literature is an interesting concept to explore. Coming back to this post after a month, I found it especially interesting how you read Smith’s novel in class. While you see foods such as tongue as symbolic of poverty and class-ism, I find that the deli and tongue have a more poetic meaning. Conversation and flirtation in the deli display a vibrant community, and thus the tongue has a subtext meaning of communicating with others. I wonder if you can find subtext object meaning from other stories using Freegood as a lens. I might suggest “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’ Brian as a start.

  3. Charlotte, I think that you have made tremendous progress in narrowing the topic of your thesis and have clearly discerned the ways in which you can effectively analyze the overlap that exists between food and Victorian literature. I think that your tactic of adjusting Freedgood’s theory and method in order to understand the value of food in Victorian texts will be both fruitful and interesting, and I think that your class presentation regarding your thesis demonstrated that you are moving in the right direction. As I mentioned briefly during our class discussion, I think that Laura Esquivel’s novel “Water for Chocolate” (originally in Spanish and titled “Como agua para chocolate”) is a primary text that would be perfect for your topic, as it describes the importance of food and cooking in the lives of the characters. While this text originated in Mexico and might not fit within your focus of Victorian literature, I think that this text would offer you ample examples of how you can use food to discern meaning. Great post!

  4. What strikes me most about what you write here is thinking about food as a cultural signifier that speaks broadly of the social context in which the food is consumed. In your blog post, I felt ‘consumed’ was definitely a key word, especially in considering the capitalist conditions under which we (and the texts you mention) are accessing food. The excerpt that you provided from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was also so clearly immersed in class dynamics that I wonder if thinking more critically about class, capitalism, and perhaps Marxist approaches, might be helpful to your analysis of what role food is playing in the texts you read. It also could be interesting to think about how much space food takes up / the frequency of food descriptions in a text (or in a particular section of a text) and what those implications are, especially in thinking about class. For example, is food mentioned more in situations of poverty versus wealth, mentioned less in stable/middle class settings? Some things to think about!

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