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I would like the slow remembrance of your gestures in the kitchen to prompt me with words that will remain faithful to you. I would like the poetry of words to translate that of gestures; I would like a writing of words and letters to correspond to your writing of recipes and tastes.– Luce Giard, The Practice of Everyday Life
In Baking As Biography, Diane Tye reads her mother's recipes for more than the practical, prescriptive information they impart. They are written, or may be read, as life stories. Within or between ingredient lists and instructions, recipes reveal cultural conventions, social networks, social obligations, social restrictions, and foodways. These texts, Tye insists, are worthy of study. Tye's work falls within a recent trend in culinary scholarship, one which recognizes and analyzes a recipe's rich narrative text and subtext. As such, Baking As Biography may be read alongside the critical offerings of Janet Theopheno, Anne Bower, Lisa Heldke, Debra Castillo, Linda Murray Berzok, Elizabeth Telfer, Estelle Jelinek, and Nathalie Cooke. Tye locates her work within this body of scholarship (33), while also managing to carve out a personal and academic space that is all her own.
At the centre of Baking As Biography is Laurene Tye, who “did not like to bake” (4), “did not consciously choose to define herself” through her baking, and “would not want to be read through her recipes” (42). Her 350 recipes for baked goods consist of a metal box of 3 by 5-inch cards, scraps of paper, and a well-used community cookbook. They are short, spare, matter-of-fact recipes, yet they yield a considerable amount of information or “hidden messages” (5) through Tye's close readings, interviews, personal musings, and recollections.
For example, “Mark likes this” is written across the top of a recipe for chocolate chip squares. From this succinct bit of marginalia emerge several lines of enquiry: Tye's younger brother Mark's selective palate and its effect on the family diet; Laurene’s attempts to accommodate her children's tastes while “working within the parameters of [her husband's] preferences” (85); the creativity, care, work, and worry that went into feeding her family well. This same recipe for squares was passed on to Laurene by her friend and neighbour, Helen Farrow. This detail does not go unnoticed by Tye, who traces, at various instances within the text, the complexities of her mother's recipe networks. Most of the recipes in Laurene's collection have not been acquired from generations past, Tye discovers. They come from friends, magazines, community cookbooks, and the backs of packages (of chocolate chips, for instance). Many are passed up from daughter to mother. Recipes, Tye's study reminds us, move in all directions: not just downwards (through the generations) but also upwards and, especially, laterally, amongst contemporaries. Helen Farrow's name on a recipe card is a reminder of the extent to which recipes are about relationships.
Two of the central questions this book seeks to address and unpack are how best to preserve memories of a life, and why do so through a vehicle as ephemeral as baking. “Like many other women,” writes Tye, Laurene Tye “did not leave much in the way of a written record” (5). Baking As Biography is partly an attempt to fill in the gaps between these 350 recipes gathered over a lifetime. It is an effort to record and translate Laurene's foodwork, her kitchen gestures, into words. Tye also recognizes that this work of “giv[ing] substance to [her] fading memories” (6) is not dependent upon words alone. In the final chapter, “Tasting the Past,” Tye acknowledges and explores a range of gestures made by family members in their own attempts to connect with past tastes and memories. Tye herself prepares her mother's recipes so that her son, who never met his grandmother, will know “what [her] cookies taste like” (212). Laurene's husband, Henry, makes strawberry jam and pumpkin pies to mark the seasons. Mark, who does not bake, might finish his meal with a store-bought dessert. Ironically, Tye discovers that it is her younger sister Cathy, who does not seek out her mother's recipes but obtains her own from the library or her circle of friends, who “most faithfully reproduces” (224) Laurene's own approach to baking.
“Many stories are told simultaneously in this study” writes Tye. Each of the 37 recipes included in this deceptively slender volume is a foray into the life of Laurene Tye and beyond. Strawberry Jell-O squares become a lesson in the increased and increasingly creative use of industrial foods, an expression of middleclass notions of sophistication and daintiness, an act of resistance to social strictures, a childhood memory, an exercise in culinary tourism, and a dessert, all in one. This book therefore lends itself well to multiple readings. It may be read as a biography or as a careful work of scholarship that sits between Folklore and Women's Studies, or one can read and make use of its recipes. In the interest of becoming a culinary tourist in my own right, I will be making “Molasses Drop Cookies,” “Thimble Cookies,” “Chow,” and “Chiffon Cake,” all of which may be found in this delightful book.
Luce Giard, “Doing-Cooking,” The Practice of Everyday Life: Living and Cooking, by Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol, trans. Timothy J. Tomasik (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1998), 154.