Cooking the books

A workshop at Cambridge University tomorrow will celebrate the rich and varied relationship between words and food, both metaphorically and literally.

The text that can be eaten, or that accompanies eating, represents writing at its most material.

Dr Jason Scott-Warren

As Stephen Fry put it in a recent edition of Fry's English Delight (BBC Radio 4), the 'hole in our face we call the mouth' is marvellously multifunctional, with eating and speaking high on the long list of things it can do. The words that we hold in our mouths are flavoured by association, each syllable packing a bundle of sensory experiences as we get our tongues around it. Alternatively, words can be spat out, regurgitated or - in bad cases of verbal diarrhoea - excreted. And those other useful holes in the head, the eyes and ears, allow us to devour huge assemblages of words, to swallow texts whole.

Tomorrow a Cambridge University conference called Eating Words will bring arts and humanities scholars together to discuss the relationship between words and food across a broad swathe of history. Via cookery-books and kitchen equipment, monastic refectories and tea-tables, gory revenge tragedies and refined literary banquets, the conference will consider how texts were produced to be consumed - both metaphorically and literally. As befits a conference organised by Cambridge's new Centre for Material Texts, the papers will be united in their attention to the particularities of the medium in which 'edible texts' were circulated - even down to the use of salad oil in the printing-house.

Cookery books are a fascinating genre - of the millions that are sold (and salivated over) each year, how many are actually used for cooking? Their contents may tell us more about our foodie aspirations than our daily diet of junk food and ready-meals. Our gormandising is experienced vicariously: we tuck into baked beans on toast while watching celebrity TV chefs conjure up fancy four-course meals. The Jamie Olivers and Nigella Lawsons of today have a long prehistory, whether in printed books or in handwritten texts passed down through the generations.

Deborah Krohn (Bard Graduate Centre) is one of several speakers who will be exploring what cookery books can tell us about past cultures - whether of Renaissance Europe, Mughal and post-Mughal India, or 19th century Holland. Emma Spary (Cambridge University) will introduce the forerunners of Heston Blumenthal's scientific gastronomy, as she investigates the intermingling of chemistry and cuisine in 18th-century Paris. The historian Sarah Pennell (Roehampton University) will consider the presence of religion and morality in the kitchen, showing how the heart of the domestic sphere was used to circulate improving messages throughout the home.

Eating and drinking are important to many a literary work - whether we're talking about Proust's madeleine, Prufrock's coffee-spoons, Falstaff's pickled-herring, or the dinner for which the tellers of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales compete. Raphael Lyne (Cambridge University) will be sampling a variety of literary stews - macaronis, pastiches, olios, and satires which take foodstuffs as a model for creating rough-and-ready banquets of readerly delights. Erin Weinberg (Queen's University, Canada) will reconsider the act of cannibalism that concludes Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in the light of Margaret Visser's claim that 'behind every rule of etiquette lurks the determination of each person present to be a diner, not a dish'. And Sara Thornton (University College London) will be putting the jam back into James - Henry James, that is, whose novels use tea-times to mark the passing of time, and set groceries in the scales with human emotions.  Food provides a way of structuring a narrative and a set of readily-understood social rituals and taboos which can be twisted to delicious effect.

Other contributors will show how the very way in which we think about writing is inflected by our mouths and our stomachs. Elizabeth Swann (York University) will show how men and women in the 17th-century used collections of verse to display their taste, turning the bitter gall of ink into the sweet flowers of poetry. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming (King's College London) will contend that modern pseudo-Victorian novels effectively devour their precursors, while Rachel Cruikshank of Royal Holloway will tell the story of 20th-century literary theory in terms of 'leftovers' - the scraps and remnants of the meal, that which for some reason cannot or will not be assimilated.

Babies like to gnaw books and toddlers delight in ripping pages. From Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Oliver Jeffers’ The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, children's writers (hyper-aware of the tangibility of their texts) have long been interested in the ways that the physical book interacts with the physical body. Gill Partington of Birkbeck College will provide the conference's most visceral example of book-eating by grown-ups, telling the story of the conceptual artist John Latham. In 1966, Latham and his students at St Martin's College of Art chewed up and spat out a library copy of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture in 1966, provoking outrage, disgust and widespread incomprehension.

Book-destruction is, in our culture, already a fraught business. What does it mean to destroy a book with tongue and teeth? “The text that can be eaten, or that accompanies eating, represents writing at its most material,” says Jason Scott-Warren, Director of the Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge University. “You only have to think of your cookery books at home, spattered with the remnants of past meals. But we habitually use images associated with eating to describe processes of reading and writing. Eating Words will help us to understand this confluence of metaphor and materiality.”

A one-day workshop organised by the Cambridge Centre for Material Texts, Eating Words will take place at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, tomorrow (13 September).


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