Elizabeth Blake

Elizabeth Blake is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Writing Program at Haverford College. She is currently at work on a project called In the Mouth: Modernism and the Queering of Eating.


 

Contributions

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.