walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_Eat My Words_, Janet Theophano (unfinished)

I don't think I can finish this. I'll try to explain why. First, a quote:

p 124

"As I excavated history's mines -- archives -- in search of cookbooks, it was my hope that I would find just one instance in which a cookbook writer left behind another manuscript or cookbook in a collection with other documents, letters, or a journal. With one exception, though, they left nothing behind that I could find to supplement the meager evidence of their cookery writings." She then goes on to tell a complicated little story about "Jane Campbell, a Philadelphian who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries". The only reason she figured out who Jane Campbell was was because she ran into a woman researching Jane Campbell for other reasons, and after a while, they realized they were researching the same woman. Given that this woman was the founder of the Woman Suffrage Society of Philadelphia in 1892, it _really_ would have been a crime not to have figured this out.

Obviously, she did not find Abiah Darby's diary. Or maybe she did, and it doesn't count because the only other thing she had in Darby's hand was an inscription in Bailey's book.

What is Ms. Theophano's research process, that she was totally unable to navigate the massively documented Quaker communities of Pennsylvania and Delaware, to find out a little more about Hannah Trimble, her husband James and their lack of children? James was a genealogy buff at the times, cited as a living source when he was still alive. James and Hannah show up as interesting sidelights in genealogies being assembled more recently. Ms. Theophano _lives_ in Pennsylvania. She _drives past_ the Trimble farm. But her idea of evidence that the Mendenhall name is still a big deal in Chester County is that there's a community called that.

That's a sorry excuse for research.

Maybe these things got trimmed in preparing the book for publication. But that does not explain failing to understand the front pages of Hopestill Brett's booke as a legal document of what she brought to her marriage to Francis Pellatt. It does not explain speculating that Hopestill was a Quaker. Just because every other book Theophano laid hands on seems to have been written by a Quaker (seems, I said, seems) is no excuse for assuming that any self-respecting Quaker would have named their daughter Hopestill (whereas a Puritan wouldn't so much as blink). That does not explain projecting mid 20th century household organization onto a nineteenth century Quaker marriage that gave every evidence of that communities economic arrangements.

I'm not a historian, or even a genealogist. But I do have a bit of an interest in a whole lot of things. When I was attempting to resolve a family puzzle (the origin of my maternal grandfather's surname), I tried a variety of things unsuccessfully. Then I read a book about Anabaptists through history, and decided to tackle the problem by learning more about the Russian Mennonites who moved to Canada. Along that path, I suddenly realized that I could just look that surname up in one of my New Favorite Sources (GAMEO), and voila! A complete explanation of that mysterious last name.

Genealogy is like that. The people being researched are, more often than not, not going to show up in a Britannica, nor, for that matter, will their personal documents and ephemera have remained together through the vicissitudes of time. You have to go to the small town, and dig through the history books that some local wrote and had published in small numbers of copies. You have to find someone else's genealogical work (who did the scut work first so you can mooch off it). But you go to the _place_ (physically or figuratively) and work your way from there. When Theophano is holding a volume with limited or no provenance and a common name (Jane anything, which makes it doubly ironic that was one of the few people she identified) or no name at all, I sympathize with her dilemma. But she couldn't even seem to figure out women with wildly improbable names (Abiah! Hopestill!) and absolutely clearly identified locations (I don't _care_ that she had trouble figuring out Horncroft; it really wasn't that difficult -- and she drove by Fairville almost every day) and month-day-year for a marriage. If you are holding a manuscript cookbook written by a woman, you are researching a woman who lived in well-documented times, and had enough resources to _not_ fall through the cracks the way so many of the poor always have, down to today.

These are teeny tiny little details. If Theophano had written a book that dryly summarized the primary materials she had in her hands and what was inscribed in them and what collections they were located in and left it at that, I would not have complained. But Theophano is explicitly trying to recreate women's lives, without doing the legwork that ordinary, non-historian, amateur genealogists do when recreating their ancestors lives. If Theophano had imaginatively reconstructed without reference to the facts, but done so in a way compatible with the easily findable facts, I would have been okay with that. But in numerous instances, Theophano makes shit up that makes absolutely _no sense whatsoever_: not in terms of the time period being discussed, not in terms of basic human nature, definitely not once you do the legwork to understand Abiah's and Hopestill's and Hannah's life trajectories.

I wanted to love this book. I'm a part of this community being described by Theophano. I had a handwritten recipe book that got so damaged I dismantled it and put it into a three ring binder with page protectors. I've taken the best of that binder -- the things I've made repeatedly and enjoyed -- and put them online with the kinds of stories that end up in published cookbooks. I know this process by living this process. I know my motivations, and I understand the motivations of cooks like me well enough that if I can get to talking about this kind of thing and trading recipes with someone, I don't have to worry about my more general social-skills disabilities getting me into trouble. It's exactly like gardeners and cuttings, or bulbs that have gone crazy and you need to cull them. As long as the recipient is excited about getting what you've got to give, you're going to turn it over. We're not restaurants that make a living off our cooking. We're people who cook.

But what Theophano describes doesn't sound like me and doesn't feel like this world which I know through the church of my childhood and early adulthood, my Mennonite relatives, my family in the Netherlands, my cousins-by-marriage-family from Mexico, the families of a series of men I used to be in relationships with, and countless friends and acquaintance over the thirty some odd years I have been cooking. When she's describing the books, it sounds right. When she's imaginatively reconstructing their lives, and their feelings, and their motives, it feels like someone taking a nail to a blackboard. I cringe. I complain. I go do research. I blog. Anything rather than read more of this idiocy that makes no sense to me at all.

Seriously, Theophano obsesses about the ideal transmission of these working documents to future generations. Really? This is _so_ unimaginable to me! Do _you_ obsess about leaving your quicken files to your children and grandchildren? Hand written cookbooks are the tools of the trade. You don't leave your kids your old worn out, obsolete crap (that, btw, you've replaced a half dozen times over the course of your life anyway, at least these days); you buy them a new kit of their own. Theophano had a ton of evidence that this is what was happening, but kept trying to find indications that women had a plan for who was going to "inherit" their cookbook. As if it were a Family Bible. She's weirded out that these things aren't in wills and death inventories. Well, _no_. Virtually everyone who had one that wanted to pass it along would have a lot of warning (old age, lingering illness) that she wasn't going to be needing it any more and would have made arrangements to hand it over personally. It would have required a surprise death due to trauma to prevent that from happening -- and we see in those instances that families often turned the book into a memorial and kept it in the family on that basis, no longer a working document having been touched by too great a tragedy.

It hurts, too, that Theophano doesn't seem to even understand the contemporary genre of published cookbooks, expressing surprise that recipes are just lists of ingredients. When an older recipe says "tea cup full" or "great spoon full", she calls that "whimsical", when it was just the normal way of cooking and describing cooking before the home economists tried to make it like chemistry. She calls something "just" a list of ingredients, when it has clear amounts in modern units specified and directions on beating the eggs and whites separately. To Theophano, cooking is _such_ a mystery, that she can't look at a cake recipe and figure out how it was put together -- altho, give her credit, she did realize that the author and others in her household could figure it out.

It also hurts that Theophano runs across little things that the women wrote or pasted into their books because they liked the sound of them, or wanted to remember them -- and then apparently can't figure out where they are from or what they might mean. I can't quite forgive her for not tracking down Samuel Dowse Robbins ear-worm of a poem, "Father, take my hand, for I am prone", altho I suspect I ought to. Can anyone expect me to forgive her for this, however? Upon encountering a fragment of William Jennings Bryant's first major speech to Congress on March 16, 1892, written out in Ms. Campbell's hand:

"to these inconsistencies for the purpose merely of showing the confusion into which those are led who attempt to prove that you can benefit one man by legislation without taking something from somebody else -- Here are two estranged products of one mental effort yearning for reconciliation"

Theophano says (in a note, no less):

"I am tempted to interpret the meaning of this fragment of speech as an argument for universal suffrage. It may represent the speaker's effort to reconcile those within the movement who advanced black male suffrage and those who continued to believe that 'black suffrage and woman suffrage should be equal and inseparable demands.' Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism & Suffrage..."

No, dear. That quote is about _taxation_, specifically, about tariffs on wool, which Bryant was supporting a move to reduce. Certainly, Bryant favored women's suffrage, but that was hardly what he was discussing at the time, much less universal suffrage. After all, he defended Southern literacy tests that were designed to limit black suffrage. Even if you _didn't_ recognize that it was Bryant, it should have been apparent it was about taxation -- and given the time period, obviously Populist.

This book is _painful_ to read. It is published by Palgrave, which is Macmillan's academic imprint. And I have to say, more grist for the don't-buy-from-Macmillan theory I've been working on. If you are fascinated by the topic, it might be worthwhile to wade through it to extract her primary sources, but she sure doesn't make it easy on the reader in doing so. Good luck.
Tags: book review, taxation
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