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Modernist Food Studies

Until recently, modernist food studies has been like dinner at Clarissa Dalloway’s party: apparently on offer, but mostly offstage. While scholars have counted chestnuts peeled and cocktails quaffed by Ernest Hemingway, and contemplated the savor of urine in the kidneys gobbled by Leopold Bloom, it is not until quite recently that the methodologies of food studies—rather than merely its objects of study—have vitally shaped modernist inquiry and vice versa.[1] Early accounts of what modernism was and did pivoted on the role of the commodity. For critics from Walter Benjamin to Fredric Jameson, the formal complexity of modernism attempted to re-enchant a world reduced to mere marketplace. From this vantage point, the individual’s sensuous encounter with food—such as the Proustian reverie on the madeleine—could restore the consumer’s evacuated subjectivity, even as aero-planes advertised toffee in sky-writing.

This version of modernism posits a redemptive palate in both its corporeal and metaphorical senses achieved through the collaboration of perceiving sensorium and mediating form. Through this mimetic complexity, modernist art could infuse experience “with the distinctive flavor of [the perceiver’s] being.”[2] Indeed, one of the advantages of thinking food through modernism and modernism through food is the formal lability of both categories. If modernism is defined not merely by period but rather as a disposition to cultural materials—a desire to disarrange, collage, “make new”—then it seems a conceptual rhyme with the culinary arts, which variously cut, combine, heat, and plate. Indeed, the contemporary movement to surprise the senses and transform the medium and even the states of matter of familiar foodstuffs claimed the moniker “modernism” as its own.[3] These versions of modernism, one from the early twentieth century and the other from the early twenty-first, claim clinical objectivity and aesthetic piquancy. The lofty genius, whether T. S. Eliot or Ferran Adrià, manipulates the materials of terroir to generate a recuperative and exclusive version of modern art.

Digestion and Relation

This cluster does not focus on that version of modernism, though Eliot and haute cuisine will both make an appearance. The figure of digestion, which Eliot employs in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” acknowledges the flux in form that characterizes foodstuffs, bodies, and modernist art.[4] Jane Bennett rightly points out that food undoes the sovereignty and even the boundaries of the individual: “Eating appears as a series of mutual transformations in which the border between inside and outside becomes blurry: my meal both is and is not mine; you both are and are not what you eat.”[5]

In modernist cultural production, food crosses boundaries and evinces intimacies—sometimes far-flung, unseen relations between the metropole and former colonies, sometimes the daily rituals of commensality and conversation that create queer coteries. It violates norms of ingredient combination, values theatrical presentation, and interrogates ontological categories.[6]

1892 advertisement for Cadbury’s Chocolate
Fig. 1. This 1892 advertisement for Cadbury’s Chocolate occludes the imperial extraction of cacao and laboring black bodies from its ideal of the “absolutely pure and therefore best” white family. It appeared in a magazine offering “Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses.” Steaming cocoa and steamy confessions offered vicarious thrills to the middle-class urbanite. Modernist food studies recuperates the erotics and politics of such advertising. Image courtesy the British Library.

Food studies approaches modernist form as an index of relationality. In Global Appetites (2013), Allison Carruth argues for the “literature of food” as a vehicle for mapping the microcosm of individual life—farming, shopping, eating, etc.—within the macrocosm of military might, corporate exploitation, and industrial food.[7] She posits an alternative globalism, based not on rapacious capital, but rather on shared experiences of resistance, however contingent or fleeting. Cluster contributor Adam Fajardo has co-edited a collection on Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant-Garde with Jessica Martell and Philip Keel Geheber, which explores the continuities and tensions between somaticism, formalism, and globalism.[8] In a similar triangulation of consuming bodies, aesthetic forms, and global maps, my recent book, Artificial Color, proposes that when US writers think with and through modern food—new technologies, global geographies, and dietary regimens—they expose the mutability of the body and of the racial categories that body is assumed to metonymize.[9] Modernist food studies constellates genres and traditions that represent the body’s vulnerability to geopolitical conditions and planetary emergency, as J. Michelle Coghlan does in her reading of werewolf pulp fiction in the 2014 special issue of Resilience dedicated to “Tasting Modernisms” and Sonya Posmentier does by tracing black “lyric ecologies” in Cultivation and Catastrophe (2017).[10]

As the essays in this cluster make clear, modernist artists were both interested in the stuff of food—calves’ foot jelly, sugar cubes, bananas, and boiled lobster—and also employed charged corporeal metaphors of taste, incorporation, disgust, and expulsion. Two recent monographs that do not situate themselves in modernist studies and yet use an early twentieth century archive for at least a few of their chapters demonstrate the power of this approach. In Alimentary Tracts (2010), Parama Roy argues that colonialism in India produced a corporeal imaginary that encompassed the biopolitics of diet and the imperial pharmacopeia: “the stomach served as a kind of somatic political unconscious in which the phantasmagoria of colonialism came to be embodied.”[11] Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion (2012) describes the dynamic of nation-building in nineteenth-century America, the symbolic attempt to swallow and excrete ethnic others, and the resistance of black bodies, which “stuck in the craw of whiteness.”[12] Her last chapter addresses the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a key time period for the study of Anglo-American modernism, an “era [when] all aspects of food production in the United States experienced the most radical changes since the beginning of agriculture in the Middle East, some ten thousand years earlier,” in its consideration of mass marketing, racial stereotype, and the “theatricalization of commodity use” (Tompkins, Racial Indigestion, 145, 179). Both her methodology—which she names “critical eating studies” for its focus on social and material relationality rather than commodity fetishism—and her print cultural archive offer much to the modernist scholar (2).

Some important critics treat renunciation and compulsion as the central modes of modernist eating, as in Maud Ellman’s The Hunger Artists (1993) and Jennifer Fleissner’s brilliant ELH article on Henry James and Fletcherian mastication.[13] This cluster does not explore modernism as an instantiation of formal and dietary discipline—though there is surely more to be said on the subject of canonical modernism and anal retention. Instead, it devotes itself—with gusto—to modernism as often ecstatic and sometimes terrifying dissolution: man becomes lobster, queer coteries eat cake, Surrealists stage inedible objects in a mind-bending (and stomach-turning) buffet.

Flavor, Pleasure, and (De)Formalism

In The Speed Handbook, Enda Duffy proposes that the only new pleasure of modernity is speed, which may well be true (I have not myself come up with an alternative candidate), but Western modernity is also characterized by the pursuit of flavor intensity, whether synthetic or tropical.[14] In their foundational works of food studies, Sidney Mintz and Wolfgang Schivelbusch argue that colonialism served as an engine to extract sweetness and spices.[15] Mintz goes on to argue that industrial production, that cornerstone of capitalist modernity, came out of the sugar plantation and its regimented labor force.[16] Twentieth-century modernity is shaped by these imperial histories and legacies. As Amy Clukey observes, “the plantation irrupts into the streets” of metropolitan modernism.[17] Even a Dublin novel like “Ulysses reflects the global scale of the plantation complex and its cultural influence as it transitioned out of settler-colonial models based on African slavery and into corporate forms” (172). Modernist literature registers these repressed continuities and transnational circuits.

Perhaps because the term “modernism” is still redolent of aesthetic snobbery, implicit and explicit masculinism, and whiteness coded as impersonality, some of the most important work in food studies and twentieth-century cultural production does not call itself modernist. I think here of Colleen Lye’s America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945 (2005); Roy’s Alimentary Tracts (2010); Psyche Williams-Forson’s Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2005)—though there are undoubtedly other titles that fit the bill. This bibliography both demonstrates the conceptual work food studies can do in connecting modernism to dynamics of colonialism and racialization—or, as Fajardo proposes in his essay for this cluster, provincializing (in Chakrabarty’s sense) the often white cast of modernist characters. But it also suggests that food studies can help us loosen the hold that the term “modernist” retains over the field, to the detriment of its descriptive ability and interpretive latitude. As Paul Saint-Amour proposes in Modernism/modernity’s recent special issue on “Weak Theory,” “[w]ith an immanent theory of modernism weak enough to permit the horizontal frictions and attachments necessary for field formation, modernist studies could be imagined as a capacious and self-reflexive problem space.”[18] Perhaps food studies will allow us to trace twentieth century “deformalisms,” a term recently coined by Tompkins, building on George Bataille and Jacques Rancière. She invites scholars to “center the art—and the artfulness—that emerges from the everyday life of socially deviant peoples, people rendered deformed by capital, or simply understood as deformed within normative aesthetic frame.”[19] This deformalizing project calls for new archives and messy forms that speak of, with, and to queerness, labor, indigeneity, subalternity, blackness, diaspora, and disability. Furthermore, if we take seriously Elizabeth Freeman’s claim for “erotohistoriography,” that historical materials encountered in the present can create sense memories that disarrange the social order and call up alternative ways of being in the world, then the sensuousness of food has untapped queer and radical potential that may require us to rethink our archives.[20]

Part of that potential is the unruliness of pleasure, long a modernist bugbear, as Laura Frost observes.[21] If modernism strained to differentiate itself from too-easy pleasures—the “ice-cream sundaes” of mass culture that Ezra Pound found both too sweet and too sticky—it also attempted to invent new ones, flaunting its artifice and its complexity. As Judith Brown and Frost have both suggested in their work on modernism and perfume, we might still correlate this material history of synthetics with the cultural history of modernist production.[22] But food studies might also unearth aesthetic categories and communicable affects that modernism seems on the surface to abjure.[23] Stickiness and humidity, for example, characterize Zelda Fitzgerald’s lavish descriptions of adulterated foods in “The Continental Angle.”[24] The fermenting pickles in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer provide a regenerative view of decay and ethnic particularity.[25] Gustatory pleasures on the verge of—or indeed partaking in—disgust refuse the regulatory fantasies of purity, hygenicism, and good taste.[26]

Today’s Specials

Resisting narrow periodization and traversing the culinary, the visual, and the literary, this Print Plus cluster attends to what is too seldom called the long twentieth century—from Surrealist readymades to contemporary cookbooks. If we adopt the traditional historical parameters for modernity in the U.S. and the U.K., from loosely the 1880s through the second World War, it becomes immediately evident that this was a transformational epoch in the industrialization of our food. As Carruth points out in Global Appetites, though the second half of the twentieth century saw the consolidation and expansion of agribusiness as a form of global power, this movement began significantly earlier and was recognized and criticized by modernist writers during World War I and its aftermath.[27] The food system of the early twentieth century employed artificial flavors and colors; chemical fertilizers and industrial slaughterhouses; refrigerated trains and an expanded cold chain; canned goods and home kitchen appliances; supermarkets, soda fountains, and automats.[28] This cursory catalog can do little justice to all of the places, networks, technologies, and sensory experiences that changed how modern producers and consumers experienced food.

These networks of extraction, production, and distribution were global, and even local articulations of modernism, whether set in Mississippi or Jamaica, gestured to that interdependence. Fajardo considers the banana, which connects William Faulkner’s representation of white rural poverty and Southern consumerism in As I Lay Dying with Claude McKay’s labor activism and black diasporic imagination in Banana Bottom. Through the trope of tropical fruit, scholars of modernism can trace the structures of colonialism into the twentieth century as they transmogrify into state-supported corporatism.[29] As Fajardo amply demonstrates, commodity histories need not fetishize their objects of study but can historicize their implications and draw a clearer map of global modernity.

The essays in this cluster play with time and history in their elastic approaches to modernism. Elizabeth Blake considers middlebrow cookery and modernist taste at midcentury; Carruth explores contemporary cookbooks and restaurant culture, amplifying the echoes between past avant-garde moments and this one; and Jonathan Greenberg follows the trope of the suffering lobster from Samuel Beckett to David Foster Wallace, bridging the purported historical and representational gap between modernism and postmodernism. In its mobility, food exceeds nation-based definitions of literary or artistic movements. In its long histories and speculative futures, it problematizes periodization.

Eating also exposes the uncanny entanglement of human, animal, and plant bodies, not to mention compost, soil, and fertilizer. The epistemological frame of the food chain presumes species hierarchies but perhaps inevitably erodes those supposedly stark and natural distinctions. Modernist art blurs the body of the eater with the object that is eaten, and this uncanny identification produces existential angst about corporeality and mortality, as Greenberg points out in his analysis of Beckett’s Belacqua and lobster suffering. Greenberg argues, however, that the sense of shared “creatureliness” underscored by the slippages between dining and suffering can provide an ethical basis for human rights.

As Greenberg’s consideration of the lobster—not to mention David Foster Wallace’s—reveals, cracking shells and rending flesh dramatizes the violence of predation and consumption, the disassembly of one body to feed another, the mundane violence of cutting apart, chewing, and digesting. This uncanny echo between human and non-human bodies finds grotesque materialization in the assisted ready-mades of the French surrealists, as Jennifer Malone contends. By drawing attention to the commodification of flesh as fur or leather, these visual artists also insist upon our own terrifying edibility.

Malone’s work on the ready-mades as a parody of mass production brings us to another important critical crux that unites food studies and modernism: the problem of taste. As Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, where taste reigns, class distinction is never far behind.[30] The term “taste” moves deliciously, even perversely, from the realm of cultural appraisal into the mouth and palate and back again. The papers in this cluster insist on that bodily engagement in the process of social definition. Blake considers the modernist avant-garde’s cultivation of banal, bourgeois taste as a sign of their subjective aesthetic—an effect she dubs “middle-burner modernism.” Blake brings together this sincere embrace of accessible, middle-class pleasures with queer studies’ reclamation of quotidian pleasures for counterpublics, such as the coteries created by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Even highly aestheticized culinary projects participate in a global chain of resource extraction that demands fossil fuels and transforms and denudes ecosystems. Modernist writers registered the costs of anthropogenic damage in the service of agribusiness and empire.[31] They also idealized the authenticity of local foods as a redemptive force in light of global industry. In her essay, Carruth focuses on a contemporary culinary modernism, restaurants and cookbooks that espouse the use of local resources and sustainable practices. These restaurants and cookbooks, celebrating their access to rare ingredients and their repurposing of these materials, overlook indigenous peoples and injurious practices (like cooking endangered plant or animal species) in their effort to cultivate a posture of global cosmopolitanism.

This cluster provides a series of provocations—an amuse bouche, if you will—to encourage further experimentation at the intersection of modernism and food studies.[32] Recent work in modernist studies elucidates how modern disciplines of reducing and body-sculpting performed emergent anxieties about racial categorization, gender roles, and assimilation in the modern period.[33] It connects the epistemological break of modern philosophy with intoxicants and narcotics.[34] There is yet more work to do. The eating imperative connects us to other people and other creatures—to the social, economic, political, and ecological world. In this experience of enmeshed embodiment, modernism explores the eccentric, the aesthetic, the excessive, and the immersive—even the disgusting. As Stein famously put it: “There is nothing more interesting than that something that you eat.”


[1] I am no exception. See Catherine Keyser, “An All-Too-Moveable Feast: Ernest Hemingway and the Stakes of Terroir,” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 1 (2015): 10–23.

[2] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 541.

[3] See Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, Vol. 1–6 (Bellevue, WA: Cooking Lab, 2011). See also Dwight Garner, “The End of Cuisine,” New York Times, June 13, 2014.

[4] Eliot suggests that “the mind digest[s] and transmute[s] the passions which are its material” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode [New York: Harcourt, 1975], 41).

[5] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 49. In pursuing this argument about food as an actant, Bennett draws upon Nietzsche and Maud Ellmann, citations that suggest the existing if understated debt that contemporary food studies owes to modernism.

[6] See Maria Christou, Eating Otherwise: The Philosophy of Food in Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[7] Allison Carruth, Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5.

[8] See Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant Garde, ed. Jessica Martell, Adam Fajardo, and Philip Keel Geheber (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019).

[9] Catherine Keyser, Artificial Color: Modern Food and Racial Fictions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[10] Sonya Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 3. See J. Michelle Coghlan, “Tasting Horror: Radical Forms of Feeding in Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris,” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 1 (2014): 24–38.

[11] Parama Roy, Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 7.

[12] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 92.

[13] See Maud Ellmann, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), and Jennifer Fleissner, “Henry James’s Art of Eating,” ELH 75, no. 1 (2008): 27–62.

[14] See Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 5.

[15] See Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986), and Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, trans. David Jacobson (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).

[16] See Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 51–52.

[17] Amy Clukey, “Dreaming of Palestine: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Plantation Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 26, no. 1 (2019): 167–84, 168.

[18] Paul Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–60, 441. I like to think of this weakening of historical, formal, or affective definitions of modernism as a turn to modernist flavor.

[19] Kyla Tompkins, “Crude Matter, Queer Form,” ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (2017): 264–68, 267–68.

[20] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 95. Freeman argues that eating is a potentially “queer social practice . . . involving enjoyable bodily sensations” that can “intervene into the material damage done in the name of development, civilization, and so on” (120).

[21] See Laura Frost, The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 3.

[22] See Judith Brown, Glamour in Six Dimensions: Modernism and the Radiance of Form (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), 20–43; and Frost, The Problem with Pleasure, 33–62.

[23] I imagine here an expanded set of aesthetic categories for the modern era of synthetic chemistry and mass production, such as Sianne Ngai has developed for postmodern, late capitalist culture. See Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). On communicable affects, see Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[24] See Zelda Fitzgerald, “The Continental Angle,” New Yorker 8, June 4, 1932, 25.

[25] See John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[26] Tompkins’s work-in-progress, So Moved: Ferment, Jelly, Intoxication, Rot explores the biopolitics of the Progressive Era and the lively, racialized materials that exceed its parameters of purity and governmentality.

[27] See Carruth, Global Appetites.

[28] See Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Harvey Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Andrew F. Smith, Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[29] See Michael North, The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 111–12.

[30] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[31] See Anne Raine, “Ecocriticism and Modernism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 98–117. See also, by way of example, Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006).

[32] See “Gustatory Narrative: Meals, Memory, and Modernist Fiction,” in Amy L. Tigner and Allison Carruth, Literature and Food Studies (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[33] Kate M. Nash, “Fixing the Interwar Meal: Positive Eugenics and Jewish Assimilation in Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, no. 4 (2017); Mark Whalan, “‘Taking Myself in Hand’: Jean Toomer and Physical Culture,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 4 (2003): 597–615.

[34] Jason Ciaccio, “Between Intoxication and Narcosis: Nietzsche’s Pharmacology of Modernity,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 1 (2018): 115–33.