Monday, July 14, 2014

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson's "Word of Mouth"

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. After publishing on French literary identity in Literary France: The Making of a Culture, she studied the urban culture of Paris in Paris as Revolution: Reading the Nineteenth-Century City. Her work on cuisine and food started with Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine and has moved into an ever more comparative perspective.

Ferguson applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food, and reported the following:
Just about half-way through the book, after analyzing different understandings of food over time and cultures, p. 99 comes to the encounter with France that changed the way many Americans think about food. The writer M.F.K. Fisher in the 1940s and the cookbook author and culinary personality Julia Child in the 1960s owed their success to their enthusiasm for French ways of doing food.
For it was in France that both women learned to cultivate a sense of flavor, to savor food, and to appreciate the pleasures of preparation and consumption. …Fisher and Child set America on a great culinary adventure.
But French foodways had to be translated in American terms. With their emphasis on sensual pleasure and practices perceived as aristocratic, French conceptions of food and cuisine came up against traditions that viewed pleasures of the flesh as not only frivolous but potentially dangerous for moral well being, Benjamin Franklin, in his iconic Autobiography, recounts that his father considered meals an educational opportunity.
He always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse which might tend to improve the minds of his children. Little or no notice was ever taken of what related to the victuals on the table.
Other more traveled Americans like the hugely popular author of the Last of the Mohicans James Fenimore Cooper on mission in France, complained about the predictable result of culinary resistance illustrated by Franklin’s father:
Americans are the grossest feeders of any civilized nation known. As a nation, their food is heavy, coarse, ill prepared and indigestable.
How times have changed! Subsequent chapters track the very different, highly sophisticated— many would say obsessed— food world of the 21st century. Neither Franklin nor Cooper would recognize the America in which food is the topic of so much conversation and where culinary identities are increasingly prominent. From blogs and reviews to menus, cookbooks, films and advertising, food talk focuses attention on the experimental and the creative, on new practices of production and consumption, on shifting identities for the home cook and the celebrity chef, the savvy, exigent consumer and the chef-host. Such is the wonderful, ever-changing disconcerting culinary world of America today, which Word of Mouth explores in detail and depth.
Learn more about Word of Mouth at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue