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Do you know that food recipes are not just about food but more about society and culture? You can gage a lot about a person by their preferred cooking method, food recipes allow you to take a peek inside a stranger’s fridge, some recipes have political sentiment and sometimes serve as an idealised culinary projection for a whole community of people. What do literature and cooking have in common? Why a recipe book can be as exciting as an autobiographical novel? How could food recipes help implement government policies and establish national brands? How can our family recipes be messages from the past and at the same time a window into the future? And, finally, how the recipes we bring from our travels can become the best souvenirs? 

Svitlana Bohdanets, an expert on literature and researcher in the linguistics of food, answers all of those questions in her lecture. The event was organised in the framework of the Sweet Home project where Bohdanets has focused on recipes as means of cultural communication and analysed food recipes from a linguistic stand-point, viewing it as exciting reading material which can exist independently outside of the kitchens. 


Just like any other form of art the food recipes are devoted to a specific subject, like festive cooking, regional food traditions or re-created old recipes; recipes follow a specific genre, which ranges from first courses to dessert; and, finally, they have their own principal characters, the dishes per se.

The personality of the cook book writer, geography and cultural context are absolutely vital to conducting a comprehensive review. The food recipes are nothing more than cooking instructions. However, one dish can be created following different guidelines. This wholly depends on the writer’s vision and this human touch makes it literature. When developing recipes, the writer draws on their own experience which is shaped by the current society and historical period. By using this approach any recipe could be “un-wound back” to reveal the writer’s personality, their life style and the time the writer was living in.   

With time the food recipes have become longer and more imaginative, the instructions are much more detailed. A simple list of directions has transformed into a cooking narrative. It was mainly due to the fact that before the 19th century cook books were mainly written for an expert audience and usually by professional chefs. Later recipes have transferred to the private households. Now they aim to teaching women household management skills, teaching them how to cook and serve food. 



In essence cookery books are created in the genre of a women’s novel. At the time they were written by women and gave guided them in what seemed to be a woman’s job. The women’s opportunities as professional writers were significantly limited, so they expressed themselves in cookery books instead.  

Food recipes are perfectly executed texts in a sense that they could be totally absorbed by the reader. The reader starts off with studying the cooking instructions and all the while follows the main plot, the process is the same as reading a novel. We already imagine the final product in our head and let the writer take us through the emotional stages involved in creating it. Then we start cooking – that is making it real, the process is followed by eating - a truly tangible result is achieved.

Sometimes the opposite happens. Some recipes are fun to read, but we never cook according to them. These recipes are used for mass entertainment, just like the ones we have on cookery shows and in the magazines’ culinary section. They serve no practical purpose and this is what makes them literature: they are there to entertain, to inform, provide an emotional boost, and support a special life-style. This is exactly the function of food recipes printed in glossy magazines for women. These recipes are impractical; they are all about creating a certain beautiful aesthetic. Glossy magazines feature dream cuisine designed solely for visual consumption as Roland Barthes has pointed out in his essay “Ornamental Cooking”.

The food recipes we see are not always for cooking. The cook books present the food’s potential and help shape our culinary aspirations. However, all of it exists more in the realm of imagination, rather than reality. Cook books are like exciting novels or autobiographies - they feed our imagination but often have little bearing on reality. 



Food recipes deserve to be studied systematically and comprehensively. They go beyond simple practical instructions, as they are saturated with cultural and commercial information, reflect the writer’s personality and society’s ideas on every-day and fantasy cuisine.



Photos: їzhakultura, America House



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