Review: The Culinary Imagination

Julieta Flores Jurado

Sandra M. Gilbert. The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. W. W. Norton, 2014. xx, 404 pp.

The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity is a book that has grown from Sandra M. Gilbert’s enduring interest in food and its representations, both as a scholar and as a poet. Known for her groundbreaking work The Madwoman in the Attic (co-authored with Susan Gubar), a feminist analysis of nineteenth-century women authors, Gilbert approaches the subject of Western culinary imagination with an eclectic methodology that combines art history, philosophy, anthropology, and literary criticism with personal testimony. This interdisciplinary perspective is well suited to explore the many ironies in the ways people relate to food. How can food be inextricably linked to festivities and celebrations and at the same time so inevitably evocative of mortality? How does food simultaneously symbolize pleasure and disgust, comfort and danger, everyday life, and the sacred or magical? Contemporary writers such as Michael Pollan have noted that in our time, as fascination with food in the media continues to grow, the rituals of home cooking are declining. Tracing our fascination with food to myth and to fundamental facts of the food chain, The Culinary Imagination demonstrates that food has always been the site of paradox and conflict.

Departing from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous adage “what is good to eat is good to think,” Gilbert explores contemporary ways of thinking and writing about food by focusing mostly on visual arts and literature from Europe and North America. She reworks and expands Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” as:

“[t]ell me how you envision food in stories and poems, memoirs and biographies, films and pictures and fantasies, and we shall begin to understand how you think about your life” (6). The works of Chaucer, Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Paul Cézanne, Franz Kafka, Roald Dahl, Kate Chopin, M. F. K. Fisher and Wayne Thiebaud provide some of the inspiration for this lavish menu.

It would be reductive to classify this book under “literary studies” because Gilbert’s sources and theoretical influences come from a wide range of humanistic disciplines, and the works discussed include cookbooks, films, and paintings; nevertheless, the chapter on literary modernism is one of the strongest sections. Gilbert reads the poetry of William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence through the motif of the fruit bowl: plums in Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” peaches in Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and peaches, pomegranates, and figs in Lawrence’s poems. The intimate encounter of poets with the quotidian sensuality of these fruits “changed the taste of poetry” (129). This thematic perspective contrasts with the more common periodical approach to the study of food in literature. The close reading of well-known poems through this original lens could serve as an innovative model for syllabi of poetry or twentieth-century literature, and may also encourage students in this discipline to become acquainted with food studies.

Gilbert’s discussion of the food memoir stands at the intersection of food and gender studies. The sixth chapter presents a complete account of the genre’s predecessors: the domestic scenes of novels like To the Lighthouse and Ulysses, and the journey of the cook “from stove to study, dishpan to desk” (147). The in-depth analysis of M. F. K. Fisher’s creation of an alluring, femme-fatale-like public persona in The Gastronomical Me illustrates some of the challenges of female gastronomes in a male-dominated discipline. From Fisher we also learn about the struggle of writers to legitimize their work in the literary field when their subject is food. In a subsequent chapter, Gilbert’s exploration of the meanings of food in children’s literature by authors including Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl is both illuminating and eerie. It is always stimulating to read scholars who are directing their attention and experience to cultural products that only a few decades ago were not considered worthy of critical attention in literature departments, especially when these efforts go hand in hand with a revision of the traditional canons.

Even though The Culinary Imagination is over 300 pages long, some topics and discussions are constrained to a very small space. Several chapters have the potential of becoming whole books on their own. This may be due to the author’s decision to design the book as a survey rather than one study focused in a few case studies. Still, sometimes it is difficult to find a unifying thread. The final chapter is concerned with food anxieties and their translation into utopic/dystopic narratives and is followed immediately by the notes and bibliography with no epilogue to recapitulate and assess the findings of the project. Other than this, The Culinary Imagination is a versatile, conscientiously researched book and a recommendable text for readers who are interested in the role of humanities in food studies and in the convergences of food discourses and literary criticism.


Julieta Flores Jurado studied English literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she is now a masters student specializing in comparative literature. Her research interests include theories of authorship, feminist food studies, and the intersections of literature and gastronomy.

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