Informally, we have been thinking together about vegetarian cookbooks for about a decade. Interested as we both are in book history, social movements, subcultures, and, certainly, food, it has been a treat to periodically delve into the details of cookbook pages and sketch out historical trends in publishing and public reception using, among others, the Schlesinger Library’s collection.
In the early 2000s, we first turned to the Schlesinger’s already extensive collection of vegetarian cookbooks, marking the emergence of themes such as ahimsa, fruitarianism, raw cookery, veganism, and water cure. As the James C. Whitten Collection on the History of Vegetarianism became increasingly available, we discovered material that few, if any, other libraries owned. We have also watched with excitement as politically charged vegan and vegetarian cookzines (independently produced booklets) have been added to the collection. Our early forays into the Schlesinger have recently taken a more focused turn with our examination of the political rhetoric and aesthetics of vegetarian cookbooks from the 17th century to the present.
Scholars of the cookbook have long known that the well-worn covers and dog-eared, annotated, and stained pages of cookbooks testify to the ways in which readers are engaged in some of the most mundane activities of everyday life: selecting, preparing, and eating food. Yet despite their prosaic qualities, by communicating a moral vision of how day-to-day life should be conducted, cookbooks contain implicit—and sometimes explicit—political visions. While these political messages generally affirm and give guidance on how to uphold conventional social relations and practices, there are times when cookbooks act as beacons of social change, drawing far-flung readers into communities of dissent. We argue that this is a particularly notable feature of vegetarian cookbooks from their earliest inceptions.
Whether a cookbook should be understood as a document of protest depends not just on its manifest content, but also on its physical characteristics, from typeface and illustrations to binding. Most important, the oppositional nature of a cookbook is related to the social worlds in which it is embedded, including those groups with which an author identifies, the publisher and distributors that make a book available, and the networks of readers who attribute meanings to a text. This makes the Schlesinger cookzines, ephemeral objects generally produced in and for subcultural communities, especially significant for study. These zines are, arguably, under-collected by research libraries, especially in their originally issued states (even the Schlesinger collection is dominated by reissues that sometimes differ dramatically from their origins but tend to be presented in catalogs as though they were “first editions”). Zines are, additionally, difficult to accurately describe for access, making it even more important for those interested in this facet of culinary history to explore such materials deeply and offer insight into the social contexts and politics of their production.
Consider, for example, the puzzles presented by something like Cooking with Surplus 'n' Excess: Featuring Recipes for Large Hauls of One Item, Gov't Distro Food, Hiding Weird Stuff in Other Food, a cookzine in the Schlesinger collection. This fascinating photocopied document spends its center spread, literally the heart of the document, railing against the cultural insensitivity of stuck up, holier-than-thou, white, middle-class, college-educated vegans, arguing that it is impossible as a vegan to “connect with other cultures in a most intimate and human way.” Despite this passionately argued claim, the cookzine is itself, quietly, vegan. How also might we think about the cookzine, Bananarchy Now!: The Further Vegetarian Adventures of SoyBoi and Friends, a continuation of Soyboi!: Queer Adventures in My Vegetarian Kitchen, written by an admittedly non-strict vegetarian cook for whom the social primacy of vegetarianism and veganism is also about being part of a particular queer-positive community? There is as much work to do framing and exploring these texts as there is with texts such as William Alcott’s 19th-century vegetarian polemics.
Taken as a group, vegetarian cookbooks form a record in which difference, distinction, and dissent are described, whether it takes shape in instructions on how to produce an “unobjectionable pie” (such as in Alcott’s Vegetable Diet), or how to eat entirely outside corporate systems (as in We Need to Eat: A Guide to Consciously Cheap Eating and Feeding). Some of these cookbooks argue that not only what we eat, but how it is produced, distributed, purchased, and consumed are all political decisions with observable social impacts. They prescribe actions to remedy problems and reconceive the political landscape of food. Other cookbooks are necessarily framed by a social understanding of dissent against dominant modes of consumption, which include animal products, but try to mimic conventional styles of eating. The pursuit of answers to the question of how such difference is and will be manifest in the print record, as well as the study of the aesthetics and rhetoric deployed in endlessly surprising ways in cookbooks and zines, keeps us perpetually engaged with this dynamic print record.
Emilie Hardman and Laura J. Miller met in 2002 at Brandeis University, where Miller was teaching and Hardman was a PhD student. Hardman is the metadata and reference assistant at Harvard’s Houghton Library. She is trained as an archivist, a baker, and a sociologist. Miller is an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University. She is writing a book on natural foods as an industry and social movement.