Middle-burner Modernism: Alice Toklas’s Culinary Aesthetics

In her famous essay on the middlebrow, Virginia Woolf memorably bemoans the “mixture of geniality and sentiment stuck together with a sticky slime of calf’s foot jelly” that is middlebrow writing. Nauseating as it might be, the image speaks to the social function of food as a mediator of classed experiences and aesthetics, as does her follow-up suggestion that her “friends the lowbrows” ought to invite Hamlet to tea.[1] Taking that suggestion perhaps dangerously literally, this essay considers the effects of inviting Alice Toklas—via The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook—to tea, or to any other meal. This is not to say that the “battle of the brows” will be resolved by inviting anyone to tea, but rather that it might be re-imagined. Indeed, Toklas herself takes an invitation to lunch as an occasion to demonstrate the permeability of class categories, comparing the menus of two lunches she was served in the same French home, one “whose food was famous.”[2] The first—a formal nine-course meal with fresh silverware and plates for every course—began, appropriately enough, with a jellied meat that is inarguably highbrow, an “Aspic de Foie Gras,” and continued with equal complexity and extravagance, while the second—a family dinner—opened with the more prosaic “Lentil Soup” and extended over only six courses, all relatively simple. Between courses, the family members “methodically . . . wiped their knives and forks on pieces of bread” (Toklas, Cookbook, 11, 13, 14) For Toklas, as for her readers, these meals are “a revelation of the way life was led in a French family of fashion” and a reminder that behaviors (like menus, and jellied meats) can both reinforce class boundaries and cross them (14). Following Toklas’s example, a literary reassessment of the “battle of the brows” might be accomplished by attending to the ways in which middlebrow writers of the early twentieth century—as well as their “high modernist” counterparts—used the discourse of gustatory taste to negotiate and theorize questions of literary and aesthetic taste. Scholars of the middlebrow are accustomed to thinking of taste as a cultural and institutional force that structures the literary field; food studies offers a reminder that taste is also subjective, bodily, and often surprising. Even calf’s foot jelly is someone’s favorite food.

How to Read a Banana: Global Modernism and Global Food Chains

While the supply chains for certain foods, such as spices, tea, or coffee, operated on a global scale for centuries, it was not until the early twentieth century that imported perishable foods, like bananas, became widely available to US consumers of all socio-economic classes. Bananas belong to a class of imported tropical foods that were absorbed into the US diet and foodways during the modernist era, changing from “their” foods to “our” foods in ways that parallel changing attitudes toward tropical countries during the early stages of US expansionism into the Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Philippines. In this regard, bananas are not a unique commodity, but they are quite important in that the history of US and corporate neocolonialism in Latin America is inexorably linked to the banana trade, as numerous studies have pointed out.[1] Attending to the supply chains for these imported foods offers scholars the opportunity to weigh their figurative value against the power dynamics of their production and often reveals surprising connections between disparate places, people, and texts.

Ready to Eat? Modernist Food-Objects and the Sculptural Avant-Garde

Whatever else it may also be—a marker of aesthetic taste, class or culture, a momentary sensory delectation, a means of nourishment or survival, a mere prop for social engagement—an item of food is also necessarily an object. As is clear from recent discussions of object-agency and object-contingency within forms of materialist scholarship such as “thing theory” and material-ecological vitalism, the category of the object is vast and tendrilic, encompassing issues of subject-object relations and hierarchies, commodification and production, and the properties and potentialities of objects both as distinct entities and as they interact with the human body. However, such object-centered theories have infrequently attended to the specific material concerns of food-objects and food-adjacent objects (such as silverware), a particularly complex category of objects that heavily implicate the presence, actions, and experiences of the human body in a variety of ways both consumptive and non-consumptive, whilst prompting consideration of the act of food consumption as a practice that may unite—or at least mutually alter—object and (human) body.

A Lobster Is Being Eaten

For Wallace Stevens, the lobster is a symbol of the high life. In Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction Stevens presents its consumption as a luxurious pleasure:

We drank Meursault, ate lobster Bombay with mango
Chutney. Then the Canon Aspirin declaimed
Of his sister [2]

The Canon Aspirin is, as Stevens wrote to Hi Simons, a figure for “[t]he sophisticated man,” “a man with a taste for Meursault, and lobster Bombay,” and his connoisseurship in gustatory matters possesses obvious affinities to the aesthetic satisfactions offered by Stevens’s own lush, Francophonic language.[3] One may or may not accede to Harold Bloom’s proposition that the mango is “visionary food for Stevens, perhaps his equivalent of Coleridge’s ‘honey-dew,’” but the lobster, served up in an Anglo-Indian recipe, accompanied by good French wine, surely signifies a cultivated, if orientalist, taste for recherché pleasures, what we might call the Canon’s culinary capital.[4] Of the lobster we can say what Stevens says of the poem: It Must Give Pleasure.

Wild Ecosystems, Culinary Abstractions and the Long Tails of Modernism

Writing for Wired magazine in 2004, Chris Anderson introduced readers to a statistical concept coined shortly after World War II: the long tail. In the abstract, the term describes a numerical distribution for which the aggregate share of rare occurrences outpaces the most popular or common occurrence—say, responses by one million different people to the question of the estimated number of books owned. More concretely, a long tail market is one in which lots of individual items (such as all of the coffee brands and roasts sold in 2018) comprise more of an industry’s total sales than its bestsellers (such as Folgers Classic). With the rise of digital commerce, analysts adapted the concept to apprehend the economics of highly subdivided online markets. Narrating a success story of the music platform Rhapsody (success that would prove fleeting), Anderson writes: “You can find everything out there on the Long Tail. . . . There are live tracks, B-sides, remixes, even (gasp) covers. There are niches by the thousands, genre within genre within genre. . . . ‘The biggest money is in the smallest sales.’”[1]

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.i 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.

Fixing the Interwar Meal: Positive Eugenics and Jewish Assimilation in Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square

Betty Miller opens her 1946 “Notes for an Unwritten Autobiography” provocatively, branding herself a “Fifth Columnist” who had at one time worked to undermine her country from within. Rather than any clandestine operation that she participated in as an adult, however, Miller’s stint as a “Fifth Columnist” occurred when she was just a child. While a young girl in a nursery in Ireland, Miller increasingly became captivated by the image of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although Miller understood that the Kaiser must be “the most wicked man on earth,” she nevertheless felt a combination of powerful fascination and pity because he was so seemingly friendless and ostracized.