Thursday, November 28, 2002

I work for a company that does monthly newsletters, so when it comes time every year to prepare the December newsletters I get to see every sentimental or amusing Christmas story, every "origin of" or "this symbolizes" explanation, whether real or just urban legend (candy canes were not first made to represent Jesus!). And so, I'm usually pretty sick of Christmas before December even starts.

Nonetheless, Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas was new and informative, as well as quite interesting. Nissenbaum discusses the true history of Christmas in the United States, rather than the vague Victorian images most Americans have. The Puritan settlements' governments, for example, did their best to ban Christmas celebrations, both for the theological reason that the Bible gives no date or season for Jesus' birth, and the practical reason that the primary way people celebrated the holiday was to go a-wassailing -- essentially trick-or-treating for alcoholic drinks and the best food the better-off could provide. This often degenerated into drunken carousing. The Puritans did not succeed in completely suppressing the holiday, but American authors of the 1800s tried another method and managed to get rid of the less respectable aspects, turning Christmas into a household celebration. Santa Claus and Christmas trees are traditions for which these well-traveled writers are more responsible than immigrants from Europe, though both are based on European traditions.

The commercialism we complain about in modern Christmases also turns out to date from the 1800s -- the advertisements for holiday sales that the book reproduces differ from current ones only in that they are printed in newspapers rather than spouted over TV and radio. Author Catherine Maria Sedgwick's letters from the 1820s and 1830s mention so many of the problems that still plague Christmas: finding the right presents, the accumulation of useless gifts (particularly in the children's toy cabinets), spending money, finding time to shop, things getting broken, package delivery being late, people opening gifts too early, and trying to keep the children from thinking of Christmas only as a time when they got presents. Weirdly enough, the one place where Christmas stayed relatively non-commercial during the early 19th century was on Southern plantations, where the slaves held the place of the peasant farmworkers who were fed by the rich in previous centuries; Nissenbaum's chronicles of slave and post-Civil-War freedmen's Christmas traditions (and the conflicts with what the white people around them wanted) are also not what Americans imagine when they think of Christmas Past. These truths about this holiday's history are not sentimental or miraculous like the Christmas stories that have become standard, but they are fascinating and provide a useful view behind the facade of Perfect Christmas that it's easy to accept.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I'm usually fascinated by books that explain a niche field one would think about without prompting. So Don Foster's Author Unknown: On The Trail of Anonymous (later republished with a different subtitle) fit the bill -- analyzing the words and their use in various texts to determine who probably wrote them. My undergraduate degree is in English, so I've certainly done plenty of analyzing texts, but that was always "What did Shakespeare mean by this?" rather than "Did Shakespeare actually write this?" Foster's methods of finding out whether a particular poem is by Shakespeare are not those of the many people who have insisted that some completely different person than the actor from Stratford wrote the works now known under the Shakespeare name. Instead of arguing that the Bard didn't have enough education to have come up with the complex references in the plays, or digging through them counting every fifth word to try and find a confession of another name as the author, Foster actually analyzes the word and grammar choices of the disputed work and known works to compare them.

"So what?" those not interested in literature might say. Well, a bit of publicity for identifying a poem as definitely Shakespeare got people asking if he could figure out the identity of the "Anonymous" credited as the author of Primary Colors out of the many politicos and journalists who had the exposure to do such a pointed skewering of the Clinton campaign. Foster's description of the comparisons he did here show how hard it can be to disguise one's writing habits and makes it seem odd the author (journalist Joe Klein) wasn't obvious all along. Like the stories of Sherlock Holmes, it all seems terribly obvious once it's been explained. Foster's dissections of the Unabomber case, the documents of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and even more literary issues (was Thomas Pynchon writing outrageous letters to the editor in a northern California paper? Has the authorship of the famous poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas," been mis-attributed for more than a century?) kept both me and my boyfriend reading (in fact, he may have been annoyed that I had the book at the dinner table, since he was the one who checked it out of the library).

Friday, November 15, 2002

"Great cookbooks are more like novels than like home-improvement manuals. What these culinary bibles tell you to do is far less beguiling than the thought of a world in which things might be done."

Anthony Lane, critic

This quotation (repeated in Janet Theophano's Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through The Cookbooks They Wrote) certainly explains why I spend more time leafing through The Joy Of Cooking grimacing at the recipes for walnut ketchup than I do actually making things following its recipes, and why I have a box full of recipe cards out of which I have actually cooked perhaps five dishes. But after reading Eat My Words, I'll never look at cookbooks the same way again. Theophano's studies of not only centuries' worth of cookbooks published in print, but hand-written collections and recipe-scrapbooks with pasted on the pages of old accounting ledgers, reveal just how much can be revealed about a person (or a family) by their preferred instructions for making food (and the other things that are considered to fit into the same collection). Though men have been chefs and written cookbooks as long as such a form has existed, the ones written by women in the Western world have been more everyday; it has been the women who have been charged with getting the household fed until perhaps the past few decades, if not still. It would be very difficult to get a book's worth of information about men's lives from male-authored cookbooks.

One doesn't usually think about the social issues and assumptions implicit in a cookbook. They may be compiled to preserve tradition, handing down ingredients and methods to a younger generation or spreading them to a new audience. People are truly wedded to some foods; I have been scouring used-book web sites to try and find my mother a replacement copy of the same edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook that she has had since the 1960s (and which is barely a sheaf of loose pages now). The story of the Chinese-American woman dictating the process of preparation of the foods she ate growing up to her daughter and husband, who could write them down in English, gives us not only the foods (and the etiquette of eating them) but references to family arguments over the best translation of the name of a dish -- truly a way to step into another world, but one which has familiar elements. On the other hand, cookbooks and related works can try to change the world -- the manuals for running a household of the 1800s attempt to shape servant-employer relations, and the 1940s collection of African-American cooking attempts to dispel stereotypes about what black people cook and eat. These presage such books as Diet For A Small Planet. There can even be elements of fighting back, as in the compilations of recipes put on scraps of paper by inmates of World War II concentration camps -- their memories could take them away from their near-starvation.

Oddly enough, I picked up Eat My Words before I had started The Garden of Eating: Food, Sex, And The Hunger For Meaning by Jeremy Iggers. This one isn't nearly as easy to read as Theophano's -- more academic analysis, despite fewer pages -- but it mentioned another cookbook with a huge influence, Julia Child et al.'s Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Iggers credits this book and Julia Child's TV show "The French Chef" with essentially starting a revolution in American eating habits in the early 1960s -- ethnic food, gourmet food for ordinary people, and in many ways a new world of variety (at least in restaurants). Of course, he goes on to talk about all the other changes in the past few decades -- ever-increasing amounts of processed food, social changes that changed where people eat, and ideals of beauty that make high-fat food more guilt-inducing for some people than any "sin" by Judeo-Christian religious ideals. Although there's a lot of interesting information in The Garden of Eating, things I didn't know before, I didn't finish that book with a different way of looking at everyday items. Theophano's Eat My Words did make run-of-the-mill items seem new for me, and I hope its influence lives on the next time I'm browsing my grandfather's cooking magazines or the bargain racks at Barnes & Noble.