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.