Do you have a favorite family recipe? Have you ever noticed how that recipe is documented? Was it orally passed down or written down? Recently, I’ve been reading a book titled Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. This book is inspiring in countless ways including but not limited to the idea of family, community, and identity.

The author proclaims herself a “folklorist trained in an appreciation of aesthetic forms” (pg. 5) and uses this skill to find, collect, and analyze cookbooks. Not just any cookbooks, but ones that might be centuries old. And not just to analyze them but “to consider them worthy objects of serious textual analysis” (pg. 5). Read “textual analysis” as discourse analysis and I find a worthy subject for this blog. Here, I’m not necessarily interested in the role women play in recipe writing and collecting but more in heirloom recipes and how they’re passed on and transformed.

Historically, paper was hard to come by and often expensive. Even if people, women in particular, could obtain paper they had to be literate in order to record recipes. Slaves, for example, often passed down recipes orally due to the fact that many slaves were not afforded advancement in literacy skills. Today, many of us are literate and have access to paper but we still utilize the oral tradition to communicate recipes.

Years ago I asked my mom about a certain recipe for a soup we had growing up. I learned it was my great-grandmother who taught the recipe to my mother who then taught it to me. I wrote down every step as my mom and I cooked the soup together. Towards the end she told me “that’s probably the first time that recipe’s been written down.”











Notes of how a recipe is transformed are often documented once a recipe is written out. I’m unsure if Uncle Albert wrote the entire strudel recipe himself but you can see where he made notes and started making the recipe truly his own. I especially like ½ cup raisins optional ½ cup chopped nuts not optional. Theophano writes in her book that people “began to experiment with their formulas, altering some proportions, deleting ingredients, and frequently commenting on their contributions as if it were an ongoing conversation among friends” (pg. 12). I like the thought that written text, especially recipes that seem so stable, are being transformed and interpreted “among friends” through time and place.

My point is this: Think about your favorite family recipes and where they came from. How have they been passed on to you? How, if at all, have they changed over time? Recipes are a snapshot of a particular time, place, culture, and identity of their author. Recipes and cookbooks deserve to be considered valuable texts and analyzed as such even if analysis is just a personal reflection kept to oneself.





I believe every graduate student needs a distraction. My most commonly used distraction is cooking. As I’ve previously posted, I love books and cookbooks are some of my favorite books to buy or receive as gifts. Cooking is a way for me to take my mind off of things because my attention needs to be on chopping, managing heat, and tasting (duh!).

I was recently inspired by a tweet posted by Bon Appetit magazine (@bonappetit). They posted a photo of a famous chef’s cookbook station and said “you can learn a lot about a chef by the cookbooks on their station”. I by no means want to degrade chefs by saying that I am one, but it got me thinking about what my shelf of cookbooks says about me.


A selection of my cookbooks

I have cookbooks I turn to all the time for the basic recipes that every cook needs in their arsenal. And I have other cookbooks that I proudly own, thinking one day I’ll have the time to cook the recipes in them. For instance, I love the entree recipes in Tartine Bread, but the bread recipes are just out of my range at the moment. Bread, to me, is something so down home and I love, love, love making it by hand. That’s probably why I have two bread books (and the pizza book that contains pizza dough and focaccia recipes). I think bread making is in our roots, our heritage. I use the same ingredients and techniques as my great grandmother. Bread doesn’t change with food trends, it doesn’t need to.

I think we all need to respect the forgotten skills of cooking (coincidentally the title of a great book by an Irish woman), but I do like following food trends. My husband often tells people that when I cook you don’t get a hamburger, you get a hamburger. Cooking new foods keeps things interesting in the kitchen.

Some of my favorite books on my shelf are ones published by Junior Leagues. Of course, I own Honest to Goodness from my hometown of Springfield, IL (also Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, hint the name of the book). Other Junior League publications I own include Peoria, IL, Chicago, St. Louis (specifically the Italian-American neighborhood called The Hill), and one from my favorite city, San Francisco.

When I told my mom about this blog post she asked me, “So what do your cookbooks say about you?” I laughed and replied, “That I like carbs.” She then proceeded to tell me hers represent “comfort.” Sadly, I couldn’t get a picture of my mom’s cookbook station in time for this post. I did tell my advisor, Dr. Shawn Rowe, about this post and he and Dr. Olga Rowe so kindly shared a photo of their cookbook shelf. I’ll have to follow up on what their cookbook shelf says about who they are.


Shawn and Olga’s cookbook shelf

So, what do your cookbooks say about you?