The Modernist Review #24: A (Moveable) Feast of Modernism

2 October 2020

2020 has meant, among many other things, spending a lot more time in our homes and, as a result, in our kitchens. Our relationship with food feels like it has changed this year. What feel like distant memories of lockdown bring back the smell of banana bread in the oven, the yeasty squidge of sourdough starters and the frustration at all the unavailable food delivery slots and seemingly-random shortages (who bought up all the flour in the country?). A seriously surreal section of the internet claimed everything is cake (including, we suppose, this editorial), Robert Pattinson sprinkled cornflakes on pasta and blew up his microwave, Boris Johnson banned fast food adverts and asked us to count calories, and the nation found a sudden new compulsion to stockpile tins of baked beans. A quick trip to the supermarket or a meal out at a restaurant now carries its own set of risks. The gnawing anxieties about the state of the world are eating away at us and we’ve all had a lot on our respective plates. 

Food is not just about eating. It can serve up comfort and evoke fond or forgotten memories (just ask Proust about his petit madeleine). It is profoundly practical: it sustains and fuels us; it creates and nourishes communities (just ask Mrs Ramsay about her Bœuf en Daube) and it richly evokes our varying ways of life. Food is not always tasty; it threatens to revolt as well as delight (… we don’t really want to ask Samuel Beckett about anything to do with food). It offers spaces for structure, ritual and performance (just ask Eileen Agar about her ceremonial hat for eating bouillabaisse). It underpins social engagements (ask just about any modernist about cocktails). Food might even pave the way into the future (just ask F.T. Marinetti about his gastronomical blueprint for a future Italy, which is sadly devoid of pasta), as well as informing the present everyday (just ask Leopold Bloom about his offally good breakfast).

This issue, we’re thinking with our stomachs and cooking up a few reflections on food and modernism. There has been a number of recent foodie revelations in modernist studies: Catherine Keyser’s Artificial Color: Modern Food and Racial Fictions (2019), Maria Christou’s Eating Otherwise: The Philosophy of Food in Twentieth-Century Literature (2017) and Literature and Food Studies (2017) by Amy L. Tigner and Allison Carruth, to name just a few recent studies, have all contributed fruitful additions to the growing field of food studies. Jessica Martell, Adam Fajardo and Philip Keel Geheber demonstrate exactly how expanding this field is in their edited collection, Modernism and Food Studies: Politics, Aesthetics and the Avant-Garde (2019), with its exploration ofaesthetics, authenticity, discussions of commodification, nationality, empire, gender, interiority, mass production, politics, tradition and the rhetoric of cuisine in contemporary mediashows’. Modernism and Food Studies is reviewed here by Eilish Mulholland, who finds that the collection reveals ‘a shifting attitude to contemplating modernism and its relationship with food as something more than an exercise in passive consumption’. The Modernism/modernity Print+ cluster on ‘Modernist Food Studies’ brought together some delicious articles on the topic last year, including writing on how to read a banana, edible sculpture, lobsters, ecosystems and Alice Toklas’s culinary aesthetics. Keyser wrote in her introduction to the cluster that, ‘[u]ntil recently, modernist food studies has been like dinner at Clarissa Dalloway’s party: apparently on offer, but mostly offstage’, and now the methodologies of food studies—rather than food as simply an object of study—are beginning to shape modernist scholarship. This themed issue feeds our appetite for new ways that food can tell us something about the culture of modernity. 

Our eyes are definitely bigger than our stomachs, as we have served up a vast buffet of articles and reviews for you to sample. Starting with a meaty offering to get your teeth into, Catherine Dent discusses the ethics of consumption in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. Looking at Lady Bruton’s lunch party, Bernard’s conflicted reaction to ‘taking into our mouths the bodies of dead birds’, and the obfuscation of nonhuman bodies, Dent looks at Woolf’s complicated relationship with meat. From the violence of eating nonhuman bodies to cannibalism, Zoë Miller draws attention to the fact that images of food in T. S. Eliot’s poetry are often tied to consumption, ‘whether of convenience food, indulgent breakfast-in-bed, or, perversely, other people’. In Eliot’s ‘Fragment of an Agon’, Sweeney announces to Doris ‘I’ll gobble you up. I’ll be the cannibal’. Miller boils down these ‘thorny interstices between food, culture, and sex’ to show that consumerist culture, in Eliot’s work, ‘represents a double-edged sword for the women who must both eat and be eaten’.

Whilst corrupt consumption bites through Eliot’s poetry, it is a lack of nourishment that defines Jean Rhys’s The Left Bank Short Stories. As Jennifer Cameron writes in her article, ‘Rhys is not an author who immediately springs to mind when discussing food – alcohol maybe, but not food’. Instead, Cameron explores how Rhys’s protagonists are repeatedly defined by lacking in food, and how this is intricately connected to fashion and social status. Society has had a troubled history with food and body shape. In Rhys’s short stories, Cameron shows how society privileges thinness and Rafael Hernandez explores the relationship between modernism and manufactured foods that promised men virility and muscularity in his article ‘Protein Powders and Pastes: Muscle Foods for the Twentieth Century Man’. Hernandez looks at how protein ‘was a new staple in pantries and in the collective imagination’ of modernity that married food and industry which could, the adverts promised, solve a number of modernity’s crises, ‘produc[ing] foods—and bodies—suitable for the twentieth century’.

Jean Anthelme Brilat-Savarin proclaimed ‘tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are’. Nanette O’Brien shows how this ‘gastronomic transliteration of the Cartesian subjective of the world—‘I think therefore I am’—provides a curious connection to both Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. In her article, ‘Tasting Notes and Ways of Seeing in Brillat-Savarin, Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford’, O’Brien examines Stein and Ford’s relationships to Brillat-Savarin and how it results in their love of French food, cookery and modern culture. 

From delicious French cuisine to rotting apples and decaying snails, Guy Webster’s article, ‘Monstrous Rot: Fearing Food in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, examines the similar tasting notes that appear between Woolf’s treatment of food and death. Within food, Webster argues, Woolf exposes the ‘impersonal violence found in the quotidian’. We don’t recommend reading over a snack – but if you could stomach it, it turns out that your digestive system has a pretty modernist aesthetic. As Alessandra Occhiolini tells us in her article on Walter Benjamin and waste, ‘the stomach of the twentieth century is metaphorically retentive’. Digesting the work of Benjamin and the philosophy of Georg Hegel comes with an imperative that speaks to our times: ‘As we take up the task of modernist study, we must take care how we digest our archive, and exactly whom we risk laying to waste in our own forgetting.’ Mairi Power also reflects on canonicity in her article on ‘Food, Femaleness and Friendship in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Fiction’, where she highlights the ‘tension between African and European modernism’ to ‘push for a less euro-centric presentation of modernist studies.’ In her article, food ‘marks difference, not only in geographical landscape, but in cultural understanding, education, and visibility.’    

2020 has served up so much already – we’re about fit to burst. But the metaphors haven’t all been homely or humorous. The tidal waves of unsettling news (most recently, the grand jury’s decision not to charge the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor as she slept and President Trump refusing to condemn white supremacy) have made us sick to our stomachs. 2020 has witnessed a growing hunger for change, and modernist studies is not exempt from that. We have been thrilled by the response to our CfP for an issue on ‘Black Lives Matter and Modernist Studies’, and we hope that you will join us next month to read articles, reviews and reflections on Black modernist studies. The deadline for October’s special issue has now passed, but the concerns of this CfP are not confined to one month of TMR. Please consider it an open and rolling Call for Papers and email any ideas to tmr@bams.ac.uk

TMR is no stranger to a foodie introduction. In fact, our editorial for the September 2019 issue was all about the KitKat Chunky. KitKats aside, how could we write an editorial about modernist studies and food, and not mention the slightly stale conference sandwich, or a luke-warm filter coffee, the tiny thimble cup full of tea, or good old conference wine? We, like so many others, miss these spaces for conversation that open up over coffee breaks, lunches and receptions. The New Work in Modernist Studies conference in early December usually boasts the first mince pie of the season, as well as allowing new PhD students to meet one another. The mince pies will have to be enjoyed at home in front of our own computers with familiar mugs of tea, but this wonderful conference is going full steam ahead online, giving new students the opportunity to present their work and make connections with other modernists. Please submit all abstracts to nwims@bams.ac.uk by 20th October – we can’t wait to see what’s on the menu. In the meantime, should you be hungry for some company while you’re working, our #ModZoom virtual writing sessions are still running every Wednesday at 3pm. Brilliantly re-named by Josh Phillips, we warmly invite you to ‘A Zoom of One’s Own’ where researchers can come together to chat about what’s on their to-do list that day, work in timed Pomodoro-style (no, not the tomato) sessions and reflection. Email info@bams.ac.uk to join!

Woolf wrote: ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ At TMR, we take these words very seriously – especially when it comes to #ModWrite, which are always vastly improved by adding a #ModBake in the mix as well. Everyone is warmly invited to join in with #ModWrite, our virtual Twitter writing session that runs on Mondays at 2-5pm where you can share what you’re working on that day (and what snacks are powering you through, be it ice cream, brownies, or more brownies). 

We know this is a lot to digest, but we also want to draw your attention to Kristin Bluemel’s continuation of ‘The Trouble With Modernism’ ongoing dialogue: Vegetable Careers or, Beating Mr. McGregor at His Own Game’. If, like many of us, you’ve got a funny feeling in your stomach about the current state of the academic job market, Bluemel’s reflections on the direction of modernist studies and sound advice to newly minted PhDs is a must-eat – sorry, must-read.

We hope you enjoyed this food for thought this month. Thank you to all our wonderful writers, it has been a delight to work on this issue with you all *chef’s kiss*. If you would like to write for TMR or guest edit a special issue, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at tmr@bams.ac.uk – we would love to hear from you.

Best wishes and bon appetit,

Polly Hember, Bryony Armstrong, Josh Phillips & Cécile Varry 


Image credit: ‘Still Life with Carrots’ (1921) by Duncan Grant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started