Creative Eats: An Interview with Dr. Delores B. Philips

by Caleb True

Delores B. Phillips is Assistant Professor of English at Old Dominion University, where she specializes in Postcolonial Literature and Theory, Critical Theory, and Food Cultures. She earned her B.A. in Philosophy and English Language and Literatures from Gettysburg College, her M.A. in English Literature and Critical Theory and her Ph.D. in Postcolonial Theory and Literature from University of Maryland-College Park.

Caleb True: First off, tell me about your presentation for the literary festival.

Delores B Philips: I titled my presentation “Creative Eats,” but it might just as well been titled “Cool Stuff I Found Lying Around.” The presentation is something of a grab-bag of delightfully scandalous things that I had encountered in the course of my research: people doing incredible things with trash, excrement, vomit, semen, breast milk, and all manner of other extra-edible or marginally-edible fare. Because my research troubles the easy relationships we appear to forge with food and because I allege that these affective connections are exploitative in nature, I am intrigued by works of art and literature that disrupt or make these connections difficult.

CT: How do you define “food literature?”

DBP: I define food literature in two ways. The first is formal, as a text that shapes itself using the didactic conventions associated with food culture—teaching people how to cook, how to taste, how to eat, what to eat, and so on. This means that food literature includes cookbooks, culinary memoirs, recipe collections, individual recipes, restaurant and food reviews, etc. Fictitious Dishes, for example, is a wonderful book that fiddles with the distinctions between the edible, the visual, and the literary, as it is a series of photo spreads of meals in literature. It challenges the genre of “food literature” in multiple ways.

The second definition is one that is far more familiar to readers who enjoy food literature: the food in the book plays a starring role or is an organizational element. Here, I think of The Epicure’s Lament, where Hugo cooks, eats, and feeds others throughout the book, or Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting in which acts of cooking, eating, feeding and serving appear throughout the text and are the principal arenas of negotiation between characters.

But I also think of films such as Hunger, about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. The dietetics of that film include excrement smeared on walls and dams of food used to funnel urine into a prison hallway. Nervous Conditions uses anorexia as a way to explore colonized women’s bodies. The film La Grande Bouffe straddles an odd divide here, as it features people gorging themselves to death and there’s shitting and farting and sex all over the place. There are, of course, others.

I don’t think that we can separate food writing into categories by suggesting that some acts of writing are more literary than others. The recipe is food literature at its most basic: “Here is what to eat and how to make it.” We also cannot separate food from its alters: eating, expulsion, and excretion are all conjoined. Food literature as a body has to accommodate these formal and thematic extensions of eating because they are as tied to consumption as pleasurable ingestion is.

CT: What are some of the “exciting things” in your presentation?

DBP: The presentation was admittedly a bit polemical, but then all of my research and thinking is. I begin from a foundation of certain assumptions about food and eating and, from there, the work begins.

I started with some interesting variations on the cookbook form. I presented books that are consumed in the process of transforming something from being inedible to being edible (or potable, as in the case of the Water is Life book of water filters). If a cookbook has a didactic, archival purpose, then what does it mean when it disappears? How does that disappearance connect to the evanescence of food itself, the material object that vanishes as a necessary aspect of our relationship with it, that is transformed into something we thrust away from ourselves, something we don’t want to talk about, think about, or deal with?

As soon as we readmit these notions into the discussion about food, something radical happens. It allows us to think, for example, about our ethical relationships with food and the people who produce it. Mindful eating and mindful buying result from thinking about the fact that one-third of our food is wasted, and that a huge source of this waste is our supermarkets, for example, as dramatized by Klaus Pichler’s One Third Project.

I also discussed Kara Walker’s exhibit, A Subtlety, and I pointed out how heedless we are as we eat, ignoring the bodies of the people we also consume as we dine, feeding on their labor as an extension of their invisible corporeal forms.

The strongest reaction I received was to the Semenology and Natural Harvest cookbooks, both described on cookingwithcum.com, and both the centerpieces of our discussion about the culinary arts. (The “Macho Mojito” is especially choice and is an incredibly evocative, visually provocative drink. A glorious photo of it is on the site.) I paired these books with a breast milk cookbook currently under production and with other examples of restaurants cooking with breast milk to highlight how gender, eroticism, and nourishment collide. Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite is a memoir cookbook that is all about a woman who explores sexuality and power through food. Cum cookbooks perform the same work but place the bodies of men at the center of acts of eroticism and feeding. We are accustomed to women’s bodies providing pleasure and being the source of nourishment; I asked what happens when men’s bodies become this source.

After the talk, one of my more mature audience members was struck by the level of hypocrisy in an audience of sexually-active young adults. We had a good laugh about that.

CT: Food literature, commercially, sells pleasure; how can the outs (not just the pleasurable ins) of food culture find their way into the dialogue?

DBP: That’s a great question because they can’t. They mustn’t. When they do, it’s usually under the rubric of an activist posture. In other words, the outs come in to shame the ins. The two never seem to exist together in tension.

This creates a huge problem for me as a reader and a critic. The Hundred Foot Journey and Pastries are two appalling examples of what happens when we uncritically accept the pleasures of food as compensatory for other literary ills. Both are books that celebrate the pleasures of the palate and do so with lush language. But they both commit sins against their protagonists. Both rob their protagonists of agency and both have plots that earnestly trudge along. The most infuriating thing about both books is that the true power that moves them rests outside the borders of the text and in other people’s hands. In Pastries, all the action occurs after the novel ends, so you never see it and the protagonist doesn’t even give a hint of how she’ll resolve the agonisms that the book sets into motion. The Hundred Foot Journeyhas a protagonist who second-guesses his own authority throughout a plotless, meandering shamble of a novel. It has all sorts of problems with difference: even though it uses food to overcome them, it reinforces the same old orthodoxies that the protagonist supposedly overcomes. The protagonist neurotically polices himself to assure his flawless performance of them. Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, for example, laments the absence of men of color and women in the top kitchens (in spite of what we see on the Food Network) as French cuisine still reigns supreme. The Hundred Foot Journey is not at all liberating or progressive because it instantiates the very thing that its protagonist supposedly resists.

The result (and these are but two of a regiment of plodding bad books about food) is usually weakened agency, weak characterization, weak plots, and limp climaxes, all excused by the glory of food.

But there are notable counterexamples to the rule and these were the focus of my talk. In a week celebrating the connections between people and food and pleasure and universal humanity, I sought to remind us all of what it looks like when miscreants crash the gates. Some of the postures they assume demand activism. Others are a bit more waggish.

CT: How do cookbooks and novels transmit (or ‘sell’) foodways and/or food culture differently?

DBP: Depending on the book, they don’t. They rely on the same tired truisms that make food such an ethical anodyne. I argue in my work that cookbooks and novels can activate the same reading practices, particularly when the task that cookbooks undertake is culturally didactic.

This actually makes them dangerous—very dangerous.

I don’t want to lapse into the false dichotomy that situates novels as superior to cookbooks in transmitting difference in nuanced, ethically-attentive ways. However, it is difficult to dismiss the degree to which novels have been used to theorize difference. Spivak, for example, in her Critique of Postcolonial Literature, uses the English novel to formulate key tenets of postcolonial theory that deal with difference, gender, power, and cultural authority. The novel form itself, as a fixture of Western epistemology, has long been assailed by theorists who see it as a weapon that has bludgeoned cultures into submission. Reacting against this miseducation, a legion of authors has written against the novel form.

Cookbooks are at least as coercive as some of the most egregious examples of ideologically questionable masterworks in English. Yet they get away with erasures and oblique references to history as they prostitute ethnicity because we simply don’t read them that way and we readily pair them with the acts of cooking and eating that they describe. How can we read a cookbook as committing all sorts of nefarious misdeeds when the things we see in its pages, the things it entices us to produce are the very things that roots us to this existence, that after air and water, are impossible to live without? Our first encounter with another person is one of feeding; cookbooks allow us to extend this gesture ad infinitum. They teach us to feed ourselves and to feed others. How can I question them? How dare I?

Cookbooks have the one thing at their beck that novels do not: they directly engage with the materiality of other objects and they insist on their own materiality when we read them. Cookbooks purport to offer something concrete. But they actually bend cultures to fit the needs of the writer and the audience he or she serves. They warp, they distort, they represent, they fictionalize. It is this representational aspect of the affair that seems to get lost when cookbook writers insist that they are faithfully transcribing culture and instructing the reader in its reproduction. I maintain that this is usually an act of bad faith anyway, as the culture in the book is packaged and commodified in ways that readers are justified to suspect.

I would be misrepresenting the labor of others were I to represent myself as a lonely figure on a distant promontory. Arjun Appadurai’s reading of Indian regional cookbooks teaches us how to do this work and a number of critics are engaging with American cookbooks in ways that follow suit: cookbooks are ideological works that perform specific cultural labor that they mask by the gesture of feeding someone something delicious and satisfying.

CT: I did some snooping and found your PhD dissertation. Regarding “memoir cookbooks,” is there a growing divide between the “coffee table glossy” cookbook and the Eat, Pray, Love-style gustatory memoir (or the analogous “novel with recipes”)? Does the genre of cookbook (glossy v. memoir) drastically alter the depiction of instability between a culture & its food?

DBP: Oh, that! I loved writing every word of that project. I am one of the lucky few who found a topic that delivers endless pleasure.

The divide is actually closing between the glossy memoir and the glossy cookbook. The coffee-table cookbook is the cookbook form’s last resort because the days of going to the bookstore to get a book from which to learn how to cook (or inheriting a stained, well-worn volume from a parent) are on the wane. Cookbooks are increasingly sentimental, affective objects instead of the references they used to be. I might be overstating my case a bit when I say that mine is the last generation to receive a cookbook from a parent as a principal source of culinary knowledge, but I don’t think so. Instead, the cookbook will take on talismanic fascination because it will be redolent of memory. It will be an object that conjures the past and resurrects the dead. It will become too precious to use for its original purpose because it will never again be opened in a kitchen. We will instead use our outdated tablets as kitchen references as we hook them up to the internet to visit Food.com for recipes and cooking tips. Cooking will be something we do for pleasure or politics instead of as part of the everyday grind of being human. We will take pictures of our food and memorialize it on Tumblr.

These are a few of the major reasons that there has been a collapse between what might once have been successfully-argued as completely separate genres. It might be said that the one thing memoirs do that most cookbooks either refuse to do or cannot do is (attempt to) faithfully portray a difficult, painful, or problematic past. These books are built using nostalgia—the pain of remembrance, the pain of returning home. Cookbooks must offer a strategy for satisfying discomfort—the hungry body, the lost soul, etc. Will I go so far as to state that the cookbook’s palliative task compromises its allegiance to the truth? I’m not sure. Will a sad cookbook sell (and I mean kick-in-the-stomach-Ross-Raisin’s-Waterline sad, and not merely poignant)?

If cookbooks work in affective realms, what would a cookbook look like that incited all the complex emotions attendant to intercultural encounters: the confusion, the dismay, the missed connections and miscommunication, the awkward negotiations, the difficult work of understanding without mastery when understanding necessarily implies mastery? What would a cookbook look like when it refuses to ossify cultures; when it captures an everyday elsewhere that we can’t possibly imagine, because it actually resembles our own; when it captures the fact that culture is contagious, that we taint each other? What would it mean for a cookbook to refuse its task as a cultural snapshot?

I don’t know how that book would read, who would write it, nor do I know who would risk publishing it. I’d read it, though.

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Caleb True is an MFA student at Old Dominion University and Assistant Editor of Barely South Review. His fiction has appeared in Sonora Review, Whiskey Island, The Madison Review and many others. Find him online at Calebtrue.tumblr.com.