A friend of mine posted a blog post on Facebook last week. The post’s author, food historian Ian Mosby, writes:
History has a distinct taste. Actually, it also has a distinct smell, feel, sound, and look to it but – as a historian of food and nutrition – I always find myself coming back to the taste of history. No, I’m not talking about the musty, acrid taste of dust and mildew as you open up a long neglected archival box or that weird metallic aftertaste you get after sitting in front of a microfilm reader for way, way too long. History can also taste like molasses, cloves, nutmeg, raisins. You know, the good stuff.
It’s a wonderful piece on the sensual rhetorics of food: food as not only a sensual experience, but also as a communal experience; that is, as a way of marshalling community and belonging in different historical eras. In many ways, it brought me back to my colleague, Diane Tye’s fabulous book, Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes.
I don’t explore food at all in my work with the letters addressed to Tissot, although I’ve commented in my research notes that it would most definitely be a rich area for discovery. Food is a common topic in many letters, as individuals seek to articulate not only their sufferings, but the steps they are taking to improve their health. Wine. Coffee. Chocolate – these three vices make regular appearances, as do butter and the deadly sin of gluttony. An interested food historian would find much to ponder in these letters and I really hope one comes along to explore them from that angle.
So where did this Mosby’s post take me?
Perhaps surprisingly, it took me to the classroom. I don’t talk about food history in the classroom. But I do talk about power, politics, nation, gender, class, race… and food can be a powerful force in all of these discussions.
Take, for example, the Presidential cookie bake off. A public relations ploy originally engineered by the Democratic Party as a way of making Hillary Rodham Clinton more palatable to the mythical ‘average American voter’ after her televised faux pas, the event requires presumptuous First Ladies to strut their cookie baking stuff to a panel of judges.
(I know. Right?)
Since then, the cookie bake-off has taken on gargantuan proportions: every First Lady wannabe has to take part, and each cookie comes with a carefully constructed narrative designed to situate the wannabe firmly in the hearts of the nation’s voters.
For the record, Hillary Clinton’s recipe won the first formal bake off, with the hearty oatmeal just edging out Barbara Bush’s concoction.
It’s perfect fodder for discussions in a gender studies classroom. So every year, I set to work, baking up a batch of cookies. I’ve stuck to the original cookies: Hillary Clinton’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip and Barbara Bush’s traditional chocolate chip. That’s partly due to my own dedication to what can sometimes be a rather essentialist view of “authenticity” (thanks, early music), but it’s also due to matters of more pragmatic concern. Over the years, the recipes have become more complex, so much so that Michelle Obama’s 2012 winning version required ingredients that I didn’t immediately have to hand.
What’s interesting to me about the cookies is not the cookie itself, which is a useful tool designed to get students thinking while munching appreciatively, but the stories that come along with it. According to their creators, these cookie recipes can reveal much about the importance of families, intergenerational harmony, and class affinity.
Mrs. President “Arugula” Obama, aka the “angry black woman” pretender to the First Lady throne, missed the mark in 2008. Putting forward a zesty lemon shortbread cookie that recalled the furor about her husband’s supposed elitist pretensions to arugula, she lost the bake-off to Cindy McCain’s wholesome oatmeal butterscotch cookies. A variation on the traditional oatmeal chocolate chip, this recipe didn’t stray too far from tradition and Cindy McCain’s competitive success likely derived from this. Sadly, however, McCain’s recipe – a shared recipe from a ‘good friend’ (as opposed to Michelle Obama’s recipe, which came from her daughters’ godmother) proved to have been plagiarized from the Hershey’s website and, just a few short months later, Michelle Obama ascended to First Lady stardom.
Ah, the fatal fallout from recipegate….
By 2012, the presiding First Lady had learned her lesson. Not for her amaretto, orange zest and lemon zest. Nope. This time, she opted for a variation on a classic theme: White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies. Apart from the white chocolate chips, the recipe draws on ingredients common to most kitchens, with a nice added touch of Crisco shortening, an all-American staple since its introduction in 1911 (for an interesting blog post about Crisco, click here). Ann Romney took a similar path, offering up a flourless, peanut butter, oatmeal cookie with M & M’s. Again, a hearkening back to simpler times (oatmeal and peanut butter) and an engagement with an all-American company, Mars, Incorporated (the third largest privately held company in the USA, according to Forbes magazine). The company’s size (65,000 employees) and brand recognition would assure the cookie’s resonance in the households of the nation.
More important than the ingredients, however, are the narratives that accompany them. Ann Romney stated that she got her recipe from her Welsh grandmother, thus bringing forward an intergenerational, hard-working immigrant family narrative. (Her forebears, it is worth noting, were of the good Anglo-Saxon variety rather than the bad Kenyan and potentially Muslim – gasp! – variety).
Michelle Obama also positioned herself carefully: her cookies came from the recipe collection of her daughter’s godmother, Eleanor “Mama Kaye” Wilson, a woman who is also apparently close friends with Michelle Obama’s mother.
And more importantly still: Christian? Check.
Ms. Wilson’s further credentials including an extensive professional background as an educator and a “Martha Stewart”-like talent for cooking (perhaps unsurprisingly, she was also cast by Rush Limbaugh as the hired help.
Threatening? Not at all.
Michelle Obama also used her carefully-constructed narrative to situate herself firmly within Let’s Move, her chosen First Lady cause in the area of anti-obesity education, stating:
Every evening, Barack and I sit down for a family dinner with good conversation and healthy food,” Mrs. Obama wrote with her recipe submission. “If we want to splurge, these White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies, created by the girls’ godmother, are the perfect special treat.
(Isn’t that sweet … oh, sorry, is my cynicism showing?… also, it’s worth noting that Crisco would be a no-no in this narrative, all-American or not…)
The competition between these two variations on a theme was close, but in the end, Michelle Obama’s cookies edged out those of her competition by just 287 votes.
It’s hard to believe that a cookie bake-off dreamed up in 1992 would have such staying power, that it could purport to tell us so much about narratives of national belonging. Indeed, while we might hearken back to an idyllic past where moms baked cookies as a way of demonstrating their love and concern for their families, many busy parents today are just as apt to pick from an array of packaged options in the grocery store.
But these cookies, their ingredients and the narratives that accompany them, can tell us a lot about who belongs, and who doesn’t. They can tell us about myths of citizenship and national identity. They can tell us about the political role of the First Lady. They can tell us about houses, yards, picket fences and apple pie. They can tell us about family, class, race, gender. They can tell us that myths of national belonging run deep, and that such myths are founded on profoundly gendered, classed and raced tropes.
For the record, my students have, in each iteration, overwhelming chosen Hillary Clinton’s cookies over Barbara Bush’s. Something about the oatmeal.