Thursday, February 12, 2009

Influential Books

What are the most influential food books in American history, or for that matter in European history? I wondered this as I read Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America. Its author Jay Parini made a selection that shows what he thinks are the key issues of American history. He stopped in 1963, so he also didn't have to face the growing influence of TV and movies instead of books, or their combined influence (as with Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth).

One thing I'm sure of: anyone's list of influential food books would include Julia Child's books and combine them with her TV shows. And what could be a better indication of her importance than the presence of Julia Child's kitchen in the Smithsonian, which I saw last Sunday? (And photographed as shown.)

Julia Child of course not only changed the way people cook, she changed the way cooking shows were done on TV. This is an example of Parini's purity: he picked only books that had influence on intellectual thought, not on TV shows. (Well, intellectual except for his eccentric choice of Dale Carnegie and the creation of the self-help genre, but I'll skip that for now.)

I think there were several influential food and cooking books in the 19th century, and probably before that too, but the works on food history that I've read usually take a broader perspective about food. Rather than books, they focus on new food products and things like the Columbian exchange of produce between the Old and New Worlds. But I wonder: did some books play a role in this spread of new food in the Early Modern era?

In England in the 1940s and 50s, Elizabeth David was widely influential, but the biography of her that I read wasn't really that detailed: it talked about her life, but assumed you knew how her influence had happened. This is oddly similar to the way Parini just tells you the books were influential. I wonder how influential M.F.K.Fisher was, as well.

I have more questions than answers about the significance of food books. Would The Omnivore's Dilemma qualify as an influential book? Diet for a Small Planet? In his longer list of 100 books, Parini lists two food books: The Joy of Cooking and Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution. That doesn't help me at all.

To go back to Parini: he felt that women were marginal for most of American history; he's old-fashioned enough to think of food as a women's thing, too. So I guess it's no surprise that food books aren't on his radar screen.

For example, as I pointed out in my earlier discussion, in his description of the Federalist Papers he says "it is almost as if women did not exist at this time." (p. 35) As I read, I wondered if you could ever choose a short list of influential books without being eccentric and subjective. I think personal interest drives Parini's focus on the development of certain male characters. It's Parini who is fascinated by William Bradford's puritan, Benjamin Franklin's self-made man, Henry David Thoreau's nature lover, Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists' political man, Huckleberry Finn's wild child becoming a moral man, Jack Kerouac's beatnik, and even on the type of person created by Benjamin Spock's parenting advice.

At my other blog today, I discussed my reaction to Parini's book. In brief, I think he picked books that reinforced his personal opinions and tastes, and claimed that they were the most influential. Maybe anyone would do it. He made an interesting case for the importance of each book. But I think his interests completely determined what he meant by influential. If your interests are different, you'll think of other books. Maybe some food books would even be on the master list.

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