Cookbooks Not Novels

I have kept a running list of things students have called novels: plays, essays, articles, both primary and secondary sources of all sorts, poems, textbooks, memoirs, and cookbooks. Given how often I teach cookbooks in the scope of the American Literary tradition I have perhaps encountered this term-swapping with “cookbooks” at a disproportionate rate.

Before I write another word, I want to scream “NO this is not another ‘arrogant teacher complaining that students can’t write’ vent piece.” (I also want to warn you dear readers that I take pictures of my dog with my reading material. It’s a thing.)

Yes, I need to hold myself accountable and admit that a few years ago I was at that haughty place. Looking back on my own processing of this phenomena, my reactions followed a pattern that happened to mirror the stages of grief.

Denial: These are honest mistakes, or typos. No one would call a cookbook a novel on purpose.

Anger: How can students not know the difference between a cookbook and a novel?? Why didn’t anyone warn me about this sooner!? This. Is. Annoying.

Bargaining: If y’all consistently call them cookbooks in your papers I will bring donuts!

Depression: I’m a failure of a teacher. The education system is yet again failing us. I am really bad at my job, what else am I messing up?

Acceptance: Ok, so from now on sometimes folks will call cookbooks novels. This is a part of the literary landscape. That’s how language is now.

It took me a while to transition from teaching the difference between the genres (and ‘marking mistakes’) to actually going to the source and asking my students *why* this was happening. My students told me and turns out there is a reason why.

Many had the experience in high school where books are divided into two categories: fictitious novels and nonfiction novels. I don’t take it to be the case that high school teachers (or librarians) used these categories. Yet for whatever reason, it has stuck with many students as their truth for how to discuss book-objects. Nonfiction novels are basically any book that isn’t fiction—and book is also loosely understood, too. For students coming out of this classification system, of course a cookbook is a novel. I get that. I also regret not asking years sooner.

Even if their genre is undefined, cookbooks are great sites for teaching theory. Ten examples in no order! They are unfamiliar enough as a genre that they make an interesting place to learn, or practice, close reading. The economy of language (and ingredients) is not the only reason why cookbooks are a Marxist field day for discussions of material conditions, production, and power. Heck, it is impossible to have a full discussion about spices without a Postcolonial lens. All waves of Feminism and Critical Race Theory emerge when we ask who is doing what, in domestic and public spheres. The questions of who does what, where, why, how also insist we engage with Queer Theory, debates on Authorship (and imagined communities of readers or eaters). And for die hard rhetoricians, cookbooks are all about Burkeian equipment for living, and proverbs.

In terms of their potential for assignments, I’ve used cookbooks as the catalyst text for all sorts of projects, such as: Poems from the point of view of an ingredient; Twine choose your own adventure games about the global movement of food (like potatoes); Infographics on the history of a food/food adjacent commodity (like horses); Traditional Papers doing literary analysis and/or close reading of cookbooks; Podcasts exploring an idea from a cookbook as the idea exists in our communities.

In teaching American protest literature, I favor including cookbooks on the syllabus for many reasons. A big reason is that cookbooks easily open the conversation for material conditions in texts to investigate biases we might bring to texts (see Greg Spector’s prior post). For example, the combination of Julia Turshen’s cookbook Feed the Resistance, John Lewis’ collaborative text March, and the cult-classic, genre bending book Foxfire. John Lewis’ graphic novel series, March, (in collaboration with Aydin and Powell) takes us through Lewis’s resistance in the American South through the violence and complexity of fear and hope in the civil rights movement. He also takes us through his food memories starting at a young age, and move into dangerous food spaces (like lunch counters), and spaces for food that hold hope and action (like the restaurants and homes that fed members of the resistance).

I am the kind of instructor who does the thing of bringing in food for the last day of class, and I tend to ask my students what kind of food they would like. In a semester where I taught the above-mentioned texts (in combination with Birth of a Nation—and a guest visits from speakers like, Akila McConnell, on history of the stereotypes around fried chicken), students wanted fried chicken for their last class. So, I brought enough fried chicken to feed 25 twenty-somethings—with at least 100 packets of hot sauce—to class. The chicken had cooled by the time it got to them—a consideration students hadn’t made and were not too pleased with. Despite our shared knowledge of frying being a way to preserve chicken, and that they weren’t eating spoiled food, many noted that they didn’t vote for cold fried chicken.

That led to a conversation about the temperature of fried chicken in many of the texts we were reading. During the freedom rides people didn’t bring thermal lunch boxes to keep their chicken warm. It was suggested putting hot sauce on the chicken—while some students laughed at the idea of NOT putting hot sauce on the as-is chicken. Unanimously, the class agreed that hot sauce greatly improves room temperature chicken. And voila, here is an opportunity for experiential knowledge to bring to March—as well as identifying how food traditions like fried chicken are weaponized in coded language for racial stereotypes. It is one thing to read the history about why certain food stereotypes developed. It is another thing to experience the food (the food that has become rhetorically weaponized) in a set of sensory conditions that are historically different from their daily sensory experience.

We have a pedagogical responsibility to encourage the use of terms with their corresponding objects. Yes. Then we shouldn’t abide calling cookbooks novels. However, is there anything we can do with a cookbook that we can’t do with a novel? Or the other way around?

When we juxtapose cookbooks with literature, we don’t have to use cookbooks as a historical guide to better understand the things happening in literature—anymore than we should use literature only to historically emplace cookbooks. We can study food as a cultural object, as we can with literature or film. Why not read cookbooks as the evidence of the storytelling that has literally fed us, mind, body, and soul? And from what I understand about the canon, “novels” end up there because they feed us in similar ways.

To recap (and reframe) some of the Pros and Cons for calling a cookbook a “novel,”:

Pros:
1) Who cares what students are calling the material as long as they’re reading it.
2) Calling a “cookbook” a “novel” allows broad understandings of reading.
3) Cookbooks-as-novels are great sites for doing theory. They can illustrate how to bridge the gap between doing theory in the classroom and in everyday life.
4) We can also benefit from cross-genre and interdisciplinary perspectives.
5) Cookbooks and novels both create imagined communities.
6) Cookbook-novels also let us introduce genre theory.
7) Is the term “cookbook” really that accurate anyway? When we say “cookbook” do we mean a collection of recipes, or a book about cooking? What about novels and non-fiction novels that have recipes in them and cookbooks filled with creative non-fiction or poetry-proper?

Cons:
1) Words matter, and the issue of calling objects by the noun they are matters.
2) Calling everything a “novel” is indicative of something learned before students get to my college classroom. In the way that many of us aim to have students “unlearn” the five-paragraph essay, we have a responsibility to teach students how different texts fit into different genres.
3) Moreover, we want to give students the benefit of knowing what to call texts in different classification systems so that they can better engage with the critical conversation about those genres.
4) When students use “novel” instead of “cookbook” when pointing to a cookbook, it makes me question their comprehension of the material.

Trying to look at the pros and cons from an objective point of view immediately shows me three things. First, one list clearly wins over the other. Next, the cons list is more about me. It indicates teacher-frustrations, whereas the pros list has an uncanny resemblance to many intended “learning outcomes” for literature classrooms.

With compassion fatigue as high as it is for students and faculty alike, it is important to give students aesthetic, critical and practical tools to manage that fatigue. Of course, that opens the can of worms about the role of emotional labor in the literature classroom and how those affective demands hit humanities departments where it hurts. Until we solve those big systemic questions, we all have the responsibility to ask ourselves what should be teaching in the American Literature classroom while the world literally burns. I suggest adding a cookbook. Feed The Resistance is a favorite of mine.

My classroom needs both cookbooks and literature. I think I am ok if “novel” sometimes slips from one to the other. I still want students to know the words specific to different genres. But I also want the flexibility to do work on cookbooks that we would do on novels. In Feed the Resistance, the recipes take budget, audience, and culture into account, and it also gives a step by step guide for ‘getting involved’—without overwhelming yourself. I like a text that teaches one of my intended learning outcomes: learn to use effective communication to take care of yourself and others, while maintaining a focus on community in critical thinking. Novels teach that learning outcome a good part of the time, but I trust cookbooks to do that consistently.

Bio:

Darcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She tweets pictures of what she reads (#bookselfies with #souphound: @FarmsWatson). For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt, books and art.

Try an “I”: Essayistic Narration for Journalists

I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?

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While I taught Bootcamp in a classroom, much of the Stories North curriculum occurred out on land and in the remote community of Old Crow, where we spent ten days. Here, an Old Crow community member checks fish he’s been drying over the woodstove.

The teaching situation: in dialogue with history

Stories North responds to Canada’s national reckoning with its Indigenous boarding schools—a fundamentally genocidal history rooted in aggressive assimilationist policies. It’s important to note that government-initiated, church-run, often neglectful and violent residential schools existed in the US as well. The US, however, has yet to initiate a response of national scope. Canada, on the other hand, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Beginning in 2009, Canada’s TRC led the country’s national reckoning with its legacy of sustained, state-sponsored attack on Indigenous communities. The TRC gathered testimony from 7,000 survivors and, in the spring of 2015, issued a formal call to action delineating ninety-four recommendations.

Stories North responds to the TRC’s “call to action No. 86”—a call for the transformation of journalism education.

“Our goals,” states the program website, “are to shift narratives, [and] help cultivate the

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This map shows the traditional territories of the fourteen First Nations currently creating sovereign governments in Yukon.

next generation of media storytellers so that they approach their work with more context, empathy, and understanding. Stories North seeks to open pathways of understanding and accountability as we grapple with the meanings of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.”

My job at Stories North was to bring literary methods and mindsets into a journalism program. The vision: design a creative nonfiction curriculum that would expand journalists’ capacity to report on the complexities of today’s Indigenous issues.

Literature and journalism: cousins? or aliens?

In the realm of nonfiction, the fields of journalism and literature overlap. Sometimes this gets messy. In fact, I took an English graduate seminar in “Literary Reportage” (rather than “Literary Journalism”) not because there is any distinction between the terms, but because my alma mater’s school of journalism objected to an outside department claiming their word, journalism.

But my attitude as a teacher of writing is: let’s use fuzzy genre boundaries to our advantage. Difficult dialogues call for cooperation, collaboration, and cross-pollination. So I saw Nonfiction Bootcamp as an opportunity to blend and borrow.

The essayistic “I”

Most practically, it seems to me that narration is the area in which literary journalism finds its “literary” sea-legs, gaining traction as a mode of creative writing. And so that is what I chose as Bootcamp’s primary focus: I designed a course that explored (1) ways to construct a first-person singular pronoun, and (2) avenues by which to assess its value.

In the spirit of the essay, students learned methods of creating an idiosyncratic and self-questioning narrator. They critically considered when and why a text might want to construct and convey both a personal lens, and/or self-doubt. Overall, they spent a week creating mini-essays that avoided the omniscient and traditionally-journalistic assertion here’s what’s going on, learning to adjust their textual voices and to convey a stance aligned with the tradition of the essay—one that says, I am on a search. Here are its fruits; here are its mysteries. Still, I search.

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On the mountain behind Old Crow: wildfire smoke, blooming fireweed, and prime blueberry picking.

Course Goals | students should leave bootcamp with grounding in these questions

  • What’s possible in shortform cnf / what’s possible to do with forms of the essay?(gain familiarity with a range of published examples; experiment with structure)
  • How do writers construct and convey a narrator/persona/voice—an “I”—on the page? (identify and practice techniques; grow a writerly bag of narration tools)
  • Where and how does my “I” belong? What is gained and what is lost by writing “I” into a text? (critical assessment: Politics? Ethics? Social responsibility? Human respect?)

The Radical Revision assignment

Here is a summary of what students learned during days one and two.

In Aldous Huxley’s language, an essay travels “between three poles.” They are

  • “the personal” (he means lived life and sensory experience),
  • the “concrete particular” (he means something outside the self, something in-the-world)
  • and the “abstract universal” (he means thinking; i.e., reflection).

A distilled wording (borrowed from Julija Šukys post on “the holy trinity of the essay”) looks like this:

  • Experience
  • Research
  • Reflection

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An outing: Old Crow community members skiffed us up the Porcupine River to a fish camp out on the land.

At the end of day two, I asked students to go home and write a piece that travels—as essays do—between these three components. The prompt: write a 500-word mini-essay that includes

  • Part of the poignant memory students probed in class with their in-class Kitchen Table Exercises (which I adopted from Lynda Barry to get students engaging personal experience, memory, and self)
  • A Yukon anecdote/factoid-discovery/image (research from the outside world)
  • Thinking (reflection—one sweet insight)

On day four, we discussed Philip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, gathering his concepts about narration (i.e., “the conversational elements,” “the role of contrariety,” “the problem of egotism,” “cheek and irony,” etc.). With Lopate in mind, we workshopped the previous day’s mini-essays.

In the end, I asked: “if you were to use what you learned from Lopate, how would you rewrite the mini-essays we’ve just workshopped?”

Once I was satisfied that each student could envision a clear set of narration-based revision goals, I made the assignment official: they had to go home and rewrite their mini essays from the ground up. Same personal experience, same research component, and same reflective insight—in an essayistic voice.

Reflections

This Radical Revision assignment marked the class’s most visible collective step forward. I think the reason for this was that the assignment isolated one thing: voice—persona—lens—i.e., the upright pronoun, the idiosyncratic, individual “I”—at a delicate moment.

The students had struggled to combine all three required elements in the first drafts of their mini-essays. A load of theory from Lopate hit the spot: because they had struggled to link the three puzzle pieces that make an essay an essay, they were now invested in methods by which to more successfully connect those puzzle pieces. In other words, their radical revisions forced them to reconfigure the relationship between self, world, and insight. It was in this exercise that the students transitioned from thinking of creative writing as a just-for-fun break from the rules of their reporting, and experienced it as hard work with serious textual payoff.

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Yukon College has a campus building in Old Crow. Here is the college’s mental health whiteboard; a living document of exchange and healing that emphasized to all of us the importance of treading with great care in gathering and telling Old Crow’s community stories.

In the context of difficult dialogues, we all need to wrestle with where we’re coming from, what we’re bringing to the table, and what exceeds us. That is, a good contribution  tunes into its own blind spots. And narration is a good tool by which to construct this degree of sensitivity in text. Furthermore, when crafted with sophistication, narration is also a good way to situate a text’s sensitivity squarely alongside its commitment to rigorous investigation and analysis. In sum, I champion narration studies because I see the methodically probing and self-questioning “I” as one of the more nuanced methods writers can marshal as they step up to tell their communities’ most urgent stories.