A Recipe for Success: How Women Have Kept Their Heritage Alive through Cookbooks (by Mariana Rodríguez & Christian-Zaak Dubois)

We welcome two new guest bloggers this week. Mariana Rodríguez (she/her) is currently a Concordia graduate student in the Applied Linguistics program and a Research Assistant. She was born and raised in Mexico. Her interests are languages, music, and food. Christian-Zaak Dubois (he/him) recently graduated with a Master’s in Applied Linguistics at Concordia and alternates between working as a cook and an ESL teacher. Born and raised in Quebec of mixed Bulgarian and French-Canadian heritage, he tries to keep his endangered heritage language of Paulician Bulgarian alive by learning his great-grandmother’s recipes.

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

What is in a recipe?

Few of us dwell over this ubiquitous form of literature, yet recipes are behind almost every meal we have, and forming the foundation of our eating habits.

Those of us fortunate enough to have friends or relatives who know their kitchens like the back of their hands may have had the chance to receive some of their prized recipes. Perhaps great-aunt Flores’ renowned soufflé, whose vague measurements requiring “some eggs” and “flour as needed”, eluded you; just as your friend Minh’s “2.5 g of cinnamon” tested the limits of your kitchen scale. It may well be that trying to reproduce your grandmother’s recipe, you find that your version simply does not taste the same as when she used to make it.

“Even if a recipe could be recovered, the context might be lost, and with it, the authentic taste of the dish.”[1]

While recipes, at their core, aim to preserve and transmit knowledge of food preparation, there is much more that they can tell us about not only cooking, but about the language, culture and society behind them. Some scholars have argued that culture and language cannot be separated. Through language, our perceptions are embodied as words, and a people’s language is an intricate network of shared experiences. 

Since language and culture are intertwined, a language often dies when its culture dies. Many consider Latin and Greek “dead languages”, not because there aren’t any speakers left, but because it has no community creating and passing along shared experiences in either of these languages (Shaules, 2019). Recipes and cookbooks help us discover how cooking was viewed and how embedded they are in the fabric of society.

Many of the earliest collections of recipes are renowned for their ambiguous writing and vague instructions. In De re coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), a 5th century Roman cookbook, instructions include such helpful gems as “Taste; if anything is missing—add it.” Such written recipes were not meant for the average layperson, but rather relied heavily on a cook’s knowledge of their craft. In The Art of Cooking Made Easy and Refined, an 18th century collection of 629 English recipes, not one recipe details how to make basic pastry, as it was assumed that the reader, likely a housewife or cook, would be well acquainted with the process, making its addition to the recipe book redundant. (See the References section for online versions of both these cookbooks on the Project Gutenberg website.)

Other recipes, whether simple cooking techniques or complex dishes, were never put in writing; for much of history, such knowledge was transmitted orally from generation to generation, or within the community by Elders or women. This otherwise uninterrupted chain, often broken by trauma, displacement, oppression, or language loss, would not only serve as a way to retain the knowledge of how to prepare food, but would also be a way to preserve the community’s identity and culture.

“When my aunt Pauline died, five years ago, a vast knowledge of Alaska’s Arctic subsistence food, gleaned over her 84 years, went with her.”[2] 
Drawing of Panamanian woman cooking outdoors during rainy season (Kuper, 2016, p. 129)

The experience of preserving culture in cookbooks is universal, a shared experience. Especially in places and times where minorities’ voices were silenced, cookbooks kept them safe; safe from the oppression of a louder voice, and safe to be discovered and shared by future generations. 

Since ancient times, many women have been relegated to the household, and therefore pushed away from the public sphere. These matriarchs, however, hidden from a larger conversation happening outside the house due to their role as caretakers, found a way to let their voices be heard through cookbooks. 

Although the authorship of some cookbooks predating the 19th century can be questioned, since men sometimes compiled the recipes and published cookbooks under a woman’s name to make it more appealing to the masses (Notaker, 2017), cookbooks written by women have covertly shaped the fabric of society. In the case of American women, cookbooks were a space where their commentaries on cookery and domestic practices “played a vital role in forming an ever-changing national body” (Walden, 2018, p. 2).  

“Cookbooks allowed women marginalized by race, ethnicity, and class to evolve domestic discourse to influence a national citizenry.”[3]
Early 1600s English recipe handed down through generations to present-day Pennsylvania woman (Schenone, 2003, p.49)

While these women’s words often go unheard due to the juxtaposition of louder voices, such as those belonging to men speaking a non-minority language, cookbooks not only preserve thoughts that go unspoken, but also the culture and knowledge embedded in them. Furthermore, recipes gain power as they live on in their readers: sons and daughters eager to connect with their culture. Just as language cannot be separated from culture, the language of cookbooks carries not only the individual voice of the woman (or women) behind it, but also its culture (Williams-Forson, 2006).

 “Cookbooks represent cultural sites where food and memory intersect… These cultural documents shed some light on African American people and how food factors into the process of identity formation.”[4]

[1]  Kuper, J. (2016). The anthropologists’ cookbook. Routledge, p. xi

[2] Walker (2001), p.262

[3] Walden (2018), p.2

[4] Williams-Forson (2006), p.3


Kuper, J. (2016). The anthropologists’ cookbook. Routledge.

Notaker, H. (2017). A history of cookbooks: from kitchen to page over seven centuries. University of California Press.

Schenone, L. (2003). A thousand years over a hot stove: A history of American women told through food, recipes, and remembrances (1st ed.). W.W. Norton.

Shaules, J. (2019). Language, culture, and the embodied mind: a developmental model of linguaculture learning. Springer. 

Walden, S. (2018). Tasteful domesticity: women’s rhetoric & the American cookbook 1790-1940. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Walker, H. (2001). Food and the memory: Proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2000. Prospect Books.

Williams-Forson, P. A. (2006). Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. University of North Carolina Press.

De Re Coquinaria: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/29728/pg29728-images.html

The Art of Cooking Made Easy and Refined: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41352/41352-h/41352-h.htm

2 thoughts on “A Recipe for Success: How Women Have Kept Their Heritage Alive through Cookbooks (by Mariana Rodríguez & Christian-Zaak Dubois)

  1. Lovely article..food as love, food as history..the language of women through the ages. Thank you! Every year I make my grandmothers chili sauce as my mother did, and it connects me to them both. I’m 80 years old and still have childhood memories connected to the smell and taste of this chili sauce.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Beth! That’s amazing. Your anecdote encapsulates exactly what we were trying to capture with our blog post. Thank you for sharing!

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