Kennan Ferguson, "Cookbooks Politics" (U Penn Press, 2020)

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Many of us have stacks of cookbooks on our shelves, which we look through for ideas and inspiration, or to transport us to distant places with different foods, smells, experiences, and sometimes memories of our visits. Kennan Ferguson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argues that there is more going on in those cookbooks than just recipes. In fact, Cookbooks Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020) traces a variety of politics through a myriad of different kinds of cookbooks. Ferguson came to this project in an effort to try to understand where politics interacts with our everyday experiences. Cooking and seeking out recipes to guide our cooking is a very common experience that many of us pursue. At the same time, the compilation of recipes into a book—published with glossy photos, or copied and stapled in a church basement—creates a space where there is inclusion and exclusion.

Ferguson explores these dynamics in Cookbook Politics, coming to see how the culture and mores of a community are communicated through the cookbook as text. Some of the earlier American cookbooks not only provided recipes, but also went so far as to instruct women on how to manage their servants, thus also highlighting economic and class dimensions embedded in the conveying of cooking instruction and domestic management. Other cookbooks convey a sense of the nation-state and can serve, in unexpected ways, as a form of international relations and diplomacy. The most famous example of this is Julia Child, and how she served in an unofficial capacity as an American diplomat in bringing French cuisine and experiences to the United States. Ferguson devotes a chapter to examining the way that Child was able to shape the American imaginary of France in the post-war period, and how her cookbook also brings with it a discussion of Parisian manners and French disposition, while also noting that this relationship was interestingly one-sided, since Julia Child is not much known outside of the United States.

Ferguson also focuses attention on how we read and use cookbooks, not just in what they convey to us about nations, or regions, manners, or class, social position, and domesticity. Cookbook Politics asks us to consider what we do with our recipes, what we choose to omit, cross-out, or add in, and in so doing, we change the text, making it essentially a democratic text and format, where the person who engages the recipe may also alter it. This is distinct from how we engage more traditional texts in political theory, which we may confront and argue with, but which we don’t usually alter to our liking the way we do with a recipe. Ferguson’s Cookbook Politics examines and analyzes the democratic dimensions of cookbooks, while also teaching us how we might read cookbooks to best grasp contextual politics, urging us to pay attention to what is being communicated in unexpected and often under-explored political theory texts.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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