In Tasteful Domesticity, Sarah Walden explores the scholarship on cookbooks and how they’ve served as a rhetorical space for women in nineteenth-century America. She claims that Tasteful Domesticity is the first book-length study of women’s rhetoric in American cookbooks (13). Walden posits that cookbooks not only “satisfy Aristotle’s famous definition of rhetoric as ‘locating the available mans of persuasion’”, but also allow women to engage in the cultural discourse that they were previously denied (4). Walden shows how the American cookbook has served as a rhetorical device that contributed to defining the ideal American body (both physically and ideologically) and social structure. While cookbooks are often assumed to be a collection of recipes with a simple list of ingredients and instructions, she argues that they are much more, articulating domestic philosophies and providing a platform for the author to establish an authoritative ethos. The book is organized into sections to focus on various components of rhetoric in American cookbooks, focusing on taste rhetoric in virtue, morality, regions, science, and race. Walden examines a variety of scholar’s work on rhetoric and cookbooks while adding her own empirical research, perspective, and rhetorical analysis.
Since women have historically had less education than men, the ‘training’ they did receive was given to cultivate ‘epistolary skills’, resulting in ‘parlor rhetoric’. Parlor rhetoric is a metaphor introduced by Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) for the “unending conversation that is going on at the point in history when we are born” (Nordquist, 2018). This parlor rhetoric was common in cookbooks and domestic manuals, where not only many of them were written by women, but they were written specifically for women. The cookbook was a space in which women could have an authoritative voice and communicate intellectual and physical standards. Embedded in this messaging was cultural hierarchies of race, class, and gender.
Walden explains in the first chapter “Taste and Virtue: Domestic Citizenship and the New Republic” that the first cookbooks helped define the character of American women and linked their domestic roles to their new national identity (28). The first cookbook written and published on American soil was American Cookery in 1796. There were specific, ideologic characteristics communicated to American wives and mothers, defined as “republican motherhood”, which is defined as “the relegation of women’s authority to the ‘private’ sphere” (29). A key component of this was the common understanding “that one’s passions and preferences must be regulated for the good of the republic” (29). Walden uses the examples of the most prominent early American cookery texts, American Cookery (1796), Frugal Housewife (1829) and Virginia Housewife (1824) to illustrate this point. All three of these cookbooks use ‘good taste’ to promote the public virtue of a republican economy and society. They do this by communicating that one must regulate their tastes to the cultural norm and not give in to individual passions. It was from these cookbooks that ‘American taste’ was born. The cookbook authors included local ingredients, such as cornmeal, which held rhetorical significance, creating the ideal of American taste, while avoiding the use of British goods, such as tea.
The first American cookbooks were written by women for women, thereby allowing women to enter a rhetorical space of power typically reserved for men. And while Child, author of The Frugal Housewife, claims she wrote for the poor, her audience was more likely middle class, specifically middle-class white women. Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife, attempts to build her ethos by stating she came from nothing and wrote this book for the common housewife with information she wished that she had when she was starting out. However, Walden points out that this is a fabrication or at best an exaggeration, as she grew up wealthy and most likely had domestic education.
Walden uses several examples of how these cookbooks served to define the role of the housewife, including the fact that these books often centered on the trope that the husband would bring home a friend from work and she would need to have the skill necessary to whip up a meal at a moment’s notice. These cookbooks also reinforced standards of women still held today, as Walden states, “Early republican society rhetorically cast women as rational beings with the ability to self-regulate,” (34). This demonstrates the continued notion that reinforces the notion that women should be viewed as beautiful objects meant for the male gaze.
Prior to reading this text, I had never thought of how cookbooks held rhetorical significance in defining “good taste”. But Walden provides plenty of research and evidence of how the early American cookbooks defined “good taste” through the use of specific ingredients, an indication of moral character and values. Early American cookbooks described bourgeois middle class tastes as “natural” while working class tastes were rarely described, but rather fictionalized or critiqued.
In the second chapter, “Taste and Morality: Motherhood and the Making of a National Body”, Walden outlines how American cookbooks participated in the rhetorical construction of ideal motherhood (55). Beecher, co-author of The American Women’s Home, “was the first American domestic expert to synthesize the many duties of a domestic woman – “heath, child care, housebuilding, and cooking,” (56). Her book even served as a textbook in women’s seminaries and as a handbook for domestic education. Walden points out that because society tied women’s roles to morality and the church, many of these domestic handbooks took on the sacred significance and states, “Mary Kelley calls the domestic advice literature written between 1830 and 1860 the ‘liturgy of a cult of domesticity” (56). The taste discourse in American cookbooks implied that womanhood in America was white, Protestant and middle class. Women were treated as a homogenous group. Given that women were grouped into this homogenous group, they were also all told what a ‘good housekeeper’, ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ should do. Domestic texts constructed a moral motherhood who exemplified American tastes. Hale, author of The Good Housekeeper (1839) defines ideal motherhood: “The mother appears more in relation to her children than in any other position: therefore, here mind and thoughts should chiefly be given to there are and training” (65).
The role of the ‘moral mother’ was to ensure to nurture her children and her role was defined more through her character than her financial state. From a morality perspective, Walden furthers her argument that ideal motherhood is defined by these texts when she quotes child-rearing advice in Mother’s Magazine, “the tastes and habits of children are usually formed from what they see and hear from their mother, they copy her likes and dislikes, and when very young, will often do and suffer much to win her smile of approbation” (67). Walden explains that both Beecher and Mother Magazine rely upon Protestant context to describe women’s work. What I find interesting is that not much has changed on this perspective today. If one is to look in a parenting magazine today, one would find many of the same perceptions and attitudes about motherhood, which further demonstrates the power of the early rhetoric on motherhood in America.
In the third chapter, “Taste and Religion: The Constitutive Function of Southern Cookbooks”, Walden argues that “southern cookbooks in part constitute, rather than merely represent, southern identity (82-83). Few southern cookbooks were published prior to the Civil War. Walden states, “cooking literature not only reflects a culture; it also marks its boundaries or produces that culture” (86). Using Kenneth Burke’s (1897-1993) persuasive process theory that shared meaning and value are attached to “common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, [and] attitudes” (57) Walden posits that audiences can “embody a discourse”. As the southern public emerged, there were limited educational opportunities for anyone outside of the wealthiest of the population, couple that with the lack of printing technology and unequal social structure and the southern cookbook was slow to emerge. Southern cookbooks were less likely than their northern counterparts to emphasize the moral implications of taste. Rutledge published the first southern cookbook, originally titled Carolina Housewife or House and Home: By a Lady of Charleston (95). Walden notes that she had to carefully negotiate her domestic authority with the expectations of a ‘southern lady’, which is why Rutledge states there are no names in the book, explaining, “a true Carolina lady’s name appeared in print only three times in her life: when born, when married and when buried – the legal necessities” (95).
In the fourth chapter, “Taste and Science: Cooking Schools, Home Economics, and the Progressive Impulse” (113) Walden posits that women used taste discourse in cookbooks to contribute to public reform. Walden builds on three arguments in relationship to taste, race, class and morality in domestic writings, including 1) domestic science caused the downfall of the American palate 2) 19th and 20th centuries sparked a new interest in the science of taste and chemical composition of food and 3) even though taste is variable, it didn’t increase the categories of people who can use it to promote their goals. Walden states that American cooking schools set out to rebrand cooking and housework as a characterization of a woman’s love for her family, as until the end of the nineteenth century, servants performed domestic labor. I thought this was a thought-provoking assertion, as I had never thought of how America managed the shift from servants and slaves performing domestic duties to non-hired help, the housewife. Previously, I did not think critically about how or why cooking contributed to the associations of a woman’s maternal identity. In the 1890s, there was an emergence of nutritional science, including the discovery of taste buds contributed to a sensory experience. The discovery of the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter led to the use of taste to contribute to a cultural standard. The concept of “good taste” became correlated with class. Walden states, “Rhetorically, taste now indicates rational food choices based on modern science, while the palate connotes uneducated food choices based on tradition and emotion. In either application, the message is clear: Americans need an intellectual understanding of food and the body to promote good taste and cultural betterment,” (124). This particularly hit a chord with me, as I see how this is still true today. There are certain foods associated with class structures. Walden also correlates the old adage, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” with taste, using the example of rhetorical blending in women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Redbook referencing taste and love. These magazines reinforced that good taste is an intellectual ability that should transcend physical appetite.
This is a common theme in Walden’s research, as she mentions several studies that evaluate the rhetoric of taste, valuing intellect, science and self-control over taste, enjoyment and emotional experience. The American middle-class diet was formed as a result of dietary adaptations to better fulfill American Progressive ideals of productivity, efficiency and hygiene (138). Walden says the key term was “simplicity” and was grounded in “New England staples” such as meat, wheat and boiled vegetables (138). Walden encourages us to notice the difference between this “simple” diet and the rich sauces associated with the wealthy or mixed dishes that use beans, grains and vegetables to compensate for a lack of meat, which were correlated with the poor. She uses these examples to posit that taste is cultivated rather than inborn.
In the fifth chapter, “Revisions of Labor and Domestic Literacy in the Early Twentieth Century” (143). Walden explores the narratives of ‘mammy cookbooks’. ‘Mammy cookbooks’ were written by white women who were creating a narrative around the plantation mythology, reinforcing the ‘mammy’ archetype. “Mammy” is a stereotype in America of the southern, black woman who worked for a white family, taking care of the kids and working in the kitchen. She was often portrayed an older, overweight, dark-skinned, loyal, obedient and submissive, the most well-known example being Aunt Jemima, who was introduced at the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and came to represent “antebellum romanticism” (154). “Mammy cookbooks” were introduced in the late 1890s, were written entirely in dialect by the 1920s and continued with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. White domestic writers capitalized on the marketability of the southern mammy. Walden explains that these cookbooks served several purposes, including romanticizing the image of the Old South, continuing to impede racial progress and defining a southern community based on print representation (154). The “mammy cookbooks” served to further divide the classes between white and black Americans as the cookbooks removed white women from “culinary “labor”.
In later years, when African American women wrote domestic texts, it served to bridge the divide between classes and races. Walden explains this in regards to the fact that white Americans withheld literacy education, even making it a crime to teach a slave to read. Literacy marked a class distinction and “became imbued with a capitalist sense of possession” (154). By authoring a text, an African American woman could demonstrate that she not only had literacy skill, but she also portrayed authority.
In conclusion, Walden makes a compelling argument regarding how women have used the cookbook as a rhetorical space. Walden guides us through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, providing examples of how the rhetoric used in cooking and domestic manuals has contributed to societal expectations. By organizing the book around different components of taste discourse, Walden is able to present research from other scholars on taste discourse and contribute her additions to their assertions. She makes an excellent argument for how women, who have typically been excluded from public forums, have used the domestic space of cookbooks to contribute powerful rhetoric that has formed cultural norms in America. The issue of the rhetoric of body image and weight in cookbooks is one that Walden could have explored further. She touches on the morality of taste and how cookbooks have contributed to the rhetoric that promotes “good taste” relating to ones’ ability to self-re
gulate. The notion being that a woman can demonstrated her strong self-regulation through weight management and prioritizing how she looks over giving in to her individual temptations. Walden’s research is critical to the field of food, rhetoric and feminism.
Nordquist, R. (2018, Aug. 10). What is Burkean Parlor? ThoughCo. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-burkean-parlor-1689042 on January 2, 2019.
Walden, Sarah. Tasteful Domesticity Women’s Rhetoric & the American Cookbook 1790-1940. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.