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Book Review: Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant-Garde

2 October 2020

Eilish Mulholland, The Queen’s University of Belfast

(eds) Jessica Martell, Adam Fajardo and Philip Keel Geheber, Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant-Garde (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2019)

Within literary studies, the topic of foodways and narrative subjects has been largely confined to culinary moments within texts. Often relating to specific foodstuffs or instances of culinary metaphors, this narrative is not beyond the realms of modernist thought. Works such as Cather’s Kitchens: Foodways in Literature and Life (2002)  by Roger and Linda K. Welsch, Tasting Modernism: An Introduction (2015) by J. Michelle Coghlan and most recently the collected volume Gastro-modernism: Food, Literature, Culture (2019) have shown a shifting attitude to contemplating modernism and its relationship with food as something more than an exercise in passive consumption.

In Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics, and the Avant-Garde, this message of culinary appreciation is marked from the outset. Aiming first and foremost to facilitate the subject of food studies as a crossroads filled with sizable avenues for modernist study, this approach in favour of inclusivity provides a rich site for debate on a number of modernist topics, texts and artwork. Including but not limited to aesthetics, authenticity, discussions of commodification, nationality, empire, gender, interiority, mass production, politics, tradition and the rhetoric of cuisine in contemporary media. (p.4) this introductory sample gives the reader a taste and a marvellous appetite for what is in store.

In the first chapter of the book entitled ‘Aesthetics and the Body,’ readers are given an induction into the very basics of modernist food studies. Ranging from the work of Giles Whiteley who explains how the epicurean stock of fin de siecle gluttony involving Oscar Wilde’s passionate London dinners whereby ‘Oscar and Bowsie had an insatiable appetite for both, an unquenching desire to consume, to gorge, to gormandise.’ (McKenna qtd.in 25) to Husyman’s parallels towards tea, tortoises and toast; Whiteley’s findings conclude that food becomes a utility for exploring the politics of eating as a methodology for homoerotic desire. Next, in Aimme Gasston’s essay entitled ‘Katherine Mansfield’s feminist aesthetics’ we see the first application of food in relation to the canon of modernist literature. Armed with the image of the humble egg, Gasston takes us through its assorted uses as detailed by Mansfield in both her work and private life. Starting with the various eggs of self-management as seen in the Daughters of the Late Colonel’s before diving into the frustrations of the creative bemoaning how she [Mansfield] sits ‘hungry beyond words. I ought to be writing my book & instead I am pretending here…and the desire for midday and an omelette is really awful.’ Mansfield’s fictional and real eggs come together to nest in the subconscious as a vehicle for feminist sympathies. Rendered as an embryonic ingredient ‘packed full of protein with its secret, glossy, burst of yolk, easily carried and consumed’ (p.47) Gasston claims that the egg’s versatility serves as a paradigm for female potential whether ingested at breakfast or inferred in writing makes for a refreshing study for fellow Mansfield enthusiasts.

Modernism and Food Studiescontinues to arrange this network involving food as  an integral component of lived experience by moving beyond the physical body. In the essay ‘Recipes for the Kitchen’, Sean Mark explores the cultural programme of eating as detailed by Marenetti and Manicave’s gastro-experimentation in Italian print culture. Mark’s detailing of the futurist attempts to change the Italian food system by a crusade against a national staple of pasta as ‘unmanly, spawning indigestion, impotence and bloated neutrality’ (p.97) provides an insightful commentary on the role of food as a weapon for furthering the futurist agenda. This sentiment  is mirrored in the discussion of culinary nationalism in Chapter Three with a study of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Charting the duplicitous nature ofIrish advertising in the late nineteenth century, Matthew Hayward reveals how the battle for ‘trade supremacy’ (p.153) between British domination and the buy Irish campaigns translated into Leopold Bloom’s dietary lifestyle. Moreover, in the latter sections of modernism and food studies the reader is quite spoilt for choice at the various gastronomic offerings which truly showcase the ingenuity of this book. Noteworthy essays such as ‘The Raw and the Rotten: Food and revolt in Early Modernist Film’ in Chapter Four details food as a sensory accompaniment to Soviet and French cinema which can offer insight into the coded language of foodstuffs. Focusing on the alternative, often taboo role of food away from ‘cultural practises of eating towards the less visible process of production, putrefaction and disposal’ (p.213) the raw and the rotten challenges the line between natural and cultural transformation in favour of rejecting mass produced foods for processes of consumptive individuality.

Yet it is in the fifth and final chapter of the book that the detailed work of Adam Fajardo for ‘Chocolate and Langston Hughes’ Utopian Impulses’  holds particular appeal to my own interest and experience in researching sugar and sweetness in relation to modernist poetics. Like my previous work involving Elizabeth Bishop and the use of sugar as a hidden network of identification for her lesbian desires and political agitation and the use of climatological analysis as a barometer for the poetics of race and the Harlem Reniassance, Fajardo’s chapter confirms the legacy of sugar and its mired history as a nerve centre for oppression. Though the legacy of chocolatiers bears a long history of social reform such as the Cadbury Brother’s who built a model village of Bournville for key workers to the vision of Joseph Rowntree’s Garden Village to encourage residents in living full and healthy lives none, Fajardo argues, were as committed as Milton S Hershey. ‘Decades before the golden ticket of Wonka… as Milton Hershey envisioned each of his five-cent bars uplifting the economy, the town and eventually the nation itself’ (p.300) this edible utopia was seized upon by the marginalized artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Fajardo offers close readings of Langston Hughes’ poems, stories and biography throughout, detailing Hughes’ time spent on an American Merchant boat in 1923 to descriptions of race, identity, displacement and belonging, he leaves us with an understanding of a painful aftertaste where the ‘all too real suffering endured under US racism’ still struggles to fully give way to a sweeter equality (p.310).

Overall, Modernism and Food Studies offers an innovative look into food studies. Concerning questions of gender, sexuality, personal identity and power, these registers of craving, appetite and food-centric imagery reside in the book’s strength to inform, educate and deliver a comprehensive study of the importance of food studies to the world of modernism.

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