Avant-Garde Cookbooks


A book asks you to change your life. Great works get under your skin and into your being. They posses you. You can’t shake them off. You go back to them. Memorize passages. They work their way into your habits: how you move, what you see, where you go, how you shape your thoughts, and the cadence of your words. You don’t so much read great books as become their embodied offspring. They live beside us, above us and inside us.

We automatically think of literature when we talk of great books changing lives, but I think that the humble cookbook should take the pride of place in this regard. “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what  you are” is the famous fourth aphorism in The Physiology of Taste. Written in 1825 by Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer whose small claim to fame in life was a speech defending capital punishment early in the french revolution (he would fit in well with the stupid world of Chopped).  The “tell me what you eat…” is a so oft repeated phrase that has become a hollowed-out pop culture cliche. But that’s not the problem, we can find truth anywhere, even in the worst of cliches. The problem is that this cliche is fundamentally wrong. It is not “what” you eat that defines who you are. Bacteria, fungi, dogs, trees and people all eat salmon. That tells us little. Sure you can learn something from the fact that one group eat this or that plant or animal, but it is knowing how someone or something eats that actually tells us who we are. Enlightenment authors such as Brillat-Savarin and Wholefoods have taught us to focus on products, but we need to shift our focus to practices.

How does a bacteria prepare salmon in contrast to how a grizzly or a human does? This gets very real, complex and specific very fast. To see what we are or what we are becoming is to focus on how we eat. One way to go about this is to study foodways — something anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and ecologists do remarkably well. Especially those that see eating as an entangled multi-species adventure that does not begin in the kitchen, store, restaurant or even farmers market. Long before all of these places show up the story of how we eat has begun. How do microbes eat us? William H. McNeill’s Of Plagues and Peoples is a great history of this long standing gastronomic arrangement. Janet Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement is a recent popular and insightful anthropological take on the plant+animal+human making of NYC. Virginia D. Anderson tells the story of the settling of America from the perspective of ecosystems meeting in Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. It is a great corrective to the standard fare of exclusively human histories. All are great examples of books that follow our multi-species adventures of “how we eat makes us what we are” in profoundly insightful ways.

As important as these books are they are not the books that most directly embody the ethos of the equation “how we eat=what we are”. Answering this question leads us into the domain of the recipeA recipe explicates the how. The recipe is a condensation of a total way of life into a readily followable set of practices. The recipe, unlike literature, asks us directly to do things — and to do things right now in everyday life. To which we comply with a sense of adventure and joy. I can still remember the anticipation in watching my father cut-out from the weekend newspaper a new recipe as he announced that we would be trying it that week. Or him asking the fishermen at the beach how to cook some very odd looking fish gasping for its watery home at the bottom of a tall white bucket. We would memorize their recipe and dutifully head off to shop for new ingredients and learn new cooking techniques, carrying home some prickly squirming fish.

The most basic response to the recipe is to act, and how wonderful this is, we willing submit to going beyond the internal and imaginary world of reading to a full-on changing of our practices, palettes, and habits. We head out to new neighborhoods, talk with strangers, choose new plants and animals to bring home, and learn new skills. To me, this is the real home of the avant garde: all those mothers, grandmothers and anyone making and following recipes outside of where they are into what is as yet unknown — you are avant-garde

What makes the recipe really radical is this simple act of asking you to move your body and engage with the world differently. This sounds too simple to be radical — but think about all that this entails. New plants and animals enter our ecosystems, new forms of labor emerge, soils change, packaging and shipping systems transform, cooking tools are invented and perfected, stores and restaurants open, genes change across multiple species, ways of thinking emerge… (and this entangled quasi-utopian project is just the start)

If I were to add a phrase to the modified Brillat-Savarin formula it would be “How we act in making and eating = who we are”. You can see that in this formula we have reached the full reversal of Savarin’s and Descartes “I think therefore I am” enlightenment ethos. Anyway, history lessons aside, how we act shapes how we think, and far too often we are comfortable believing only in the opposite. We are our embodied actions. Moving is the first form of thinking. This framework has transformed the thinking about thinking in the brain sciences. What gets called the Enactive turn in neurology develops convincingly the idea that thinking is not something that happens in the brain alone but is a fully embodied, extended, embedded and enactive: entangled worldly doing is thinking. (Our own (SPURSE's) interest in cookbooks owes much to a twisted reading of Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life — in fact Petia and I imagined the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook as a kind of pragmatic and experimental sequel to his beautiful work of Enactive philosophy).

We collectively make our thoughts via entangled actions within a world. My speculation in all of this is perhaps after nurturing, foraging for + preparing and eating food was and is our primary form of moving and hence a key developer of many of our most general conceptual frameworks. Thus recipes (especially informal ones) are a key, and unrecognized  way of reshaping our thinking. They are the ways in which we record techniques of organizing and reorganizing our everyday modes of being-of-a-world. Recipes: a choreographic suggestion to move, feel , engage and eventually think otherwise. Recipes: experimental philosophy and ecology + embodied political speculation?

Most recipes and cookbooks in their repetition of the same actions and habits actually reinforce and evolve our shared worldview. We keep our mental frameworks alive in making the same dishes with someone news novel twist (cooking shows). The growing of, following a recipe for, plus shopping for, baking and eating Lasagna is more relevant to understanding and transforming our political mindsets and socio-ecological problems today than whatever Trump might be on about at any moment. The nature of our religions, ethics, and definition of things including us as humans, emerges from and is shaped at a profound and embodied level by this full choreography of growing, shopping, cooking and eating that is abstracted into a recipe. Recipes are an incomplete glimpse into the continuous collective making of our existing cosmologies.

These more provisional recipes eventually get compiled and become remarkable cookbooks. I don’t mean the great books on cooking — the works of literature: M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, Jonathon Nossiter’s Liquid Memories, or Alison Knowles hidden masterpiece a Bean Concordance. They deserve every bit of their recognition, but these are more of meditations on an art of cooking than actually engaged in the sharing of recipes. Let us now turn to cookbooks in the sense of recipe books.

We live in a wonderful moment for all those who love this form of the book — we are in the midst of a fantastic explosion of  regional cookbooks, restaurant cookbooks, and those works whose ambition is remake cooking. While bookstores are shrinking every other section, the cookbook area is blossoming. Susan Musgraves’ A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feating at the Edge of the World is a remarkable regional cookbook that happens to be sitting on the kitchen table right now, along with an old favorite of the cookbook as world changing manifesto: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Meat. I am sure we could all while away many an afternoon going through the vast list of new favorites that are always circulating through our bodies sensory systems. As great as these cookbooks are at explicating the power of recipes I want to turn to our favorite sub category of the cookbook genre: the domain of the regional charity cookbook.

Think of entering your local used bookstore and wending your way to the cookbook section somewhere in the back. Mixed in with everything, or more often than not, at the very bottom of the selves all the way over in a far corner are the community charity cookbooks. You know these, they are usually cheaply printed, often photocopied or bound with a 3-ring binder. They are in the cookbook world at the equivalent distance that is between the church bake sale and Alinea in the restaurant world. They rarely sell and never get any recognition. SPURSE, having over the years done a number of restaurants and researched regional foodways, has amassed a collection: Applause, Applause! A Collection of Recipes from the Our Town Theatre Restoration Committee and Friends, or The Two Billion Dollar Cookbook: A collection of anecdotes and treasured recipes from the hearts and homes of the Alaskan oil spill cleanup workers, their families and friends are two of my personal favorites. They are what you would expect: simply made books with lots of dips, fried foods, and chicken every which way. But to stop at their obscurity or ironic surface is to miss their richness.

These kinds of cookbooks, while invisible to the likes of the NY Times book review editors, have been a boon to ecologists and ethnobotanists. Not to bore you, or go on too many tangents, but here are two great examples: Phillip S Levin and Aaron Dufault collected over 3000 recipes from these historical micro-local cookbooks in the pacific Northwest dating from 1885 to 2007 to track the ecological ups and downs of abundance and human fishing practices over the last century (I would give a kidney to see their cookbook collection). Ted Ames, a fisherman up in Maine, and occasional collaborator, won a MacArthur Fellowship for his research based on the everyday stories, recipes and knowledge of local generations of fishermen. With this informal information he was better able to show what historical and contemporary marine ecosystems looked like as opposed to the poor models derived via modern marine sampling techniques.  The micro-regional charity cookbook genre offers a way to see in a much less edited manner what we are up to in our homes, cosmologies and local biomes. For us, these books allow us to meet a recipe without any commentary, and by extension a cosmology that often we do not understand. Here is a favorite example of this:

Soured Seal Liver
Soured seal liver is made in the summer time. Place liver in an enamel pot or dish and cover with blubber. Put in a warm place days until sour. Most boys and girls don’t like it, except the grown-ups and old people. I don’t like it either.
Agnes Kiyutelluk.


This is from the Eskimo Cookbook Prepared by Students of the Shishmaref Day School. Published 1952 for the Alaska Crippled Children's Association. The personal shock that Petia and I received upon reading this cookbook began the whole Eat Your Sidewalk adventure. Here we were confronted in utter simplicity, without any narrative with a series of recipes that demanded of us a rethinking of our understanding of “how we eat is what we are.” You can read the whole first chapter of our cookbook that recounts how this encounter changed our lives and cosmologies here.

A quality that I so love in these recipes is that they offer only the most general of an outline of how you should go about making the recipe. There is no attempt to spell out every detail -- or even any detail. I don’t think that this is a form of laziness, lack of knowledge or arrogance, it is, I think, the outcome of a profound realization that no recipe can ever offer enough. You need to enter the total complex of practices, the totality of "how." This can never be spelt out, but only suggested. What is being suggested in the Soured Seal Liver recipe? I think it is the seemingly simplest things that matter the most. It is a recipe, like so many in this cookbook where nothing is cooked -- by this I mean nothing is transformed using heat. We, in the west, use heat as the primary recipe to produce ourselves as "civilized" aka "not wild". Heat is what imagine separates us from "the animals.” (We wrote another blog about this and Michael Pollan). So here is a recipe that does not shape us as separate from other creatures. The categories, the cosmology is different. Making a recipe for uncooked "spoiled" raw seal liver will do that to you. This dish inspired a number of our recipes including this one:



Perhaps the shortest and in many ways most problematic of recipes.

Agnes Kiyutelluk’s simple recipe suggests to us something missed by the world of ever more complex and complete recipes such as those catalogued in cookbooks like Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine. In these recipes striving to give a complete accounting of how to make a dish they miss the worldmaking and cosmological aspect of cooking. I suspect that Nathan Myhrvold would be delighted by the novelty of a new process and ingredients but be world-blind to the power of Soured Seal Liver.

Anyway, It is not about the specifics of a gram more or less, it is about a shared world of variations. While restaurants and restaurant cookbooks in the style of Modernist Cuisine are ever more obsessed with repeatable (timeless) perfection, and a flat world of novelty -- vernacular recipes and home cooks can do something quite different: cosmologically wonder and wander. We can and do evolve multiple new modes of being-of-a-world via our recipes.


In the end all these diverse forms of cookbooks have fundamentally shaped how we at SPURSE went about designing and writing our cookbook. It is contains parts of all of them. The rough recipe is:

Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook
2 parts coffee-table book (33% images + 33% diagrams/drawings + 33% text)
Mix with the anthropological and enactive philosophy (to taste)
Fold through personal stories (levening agent)
Sieve through embodied alternative cosmologies
Add 1 part of each: foraging guide, regional charity cookbook and non-human perspectives
Mix and transform via the introduction of deep geo-eco-social histories
Ferment in activity till all is completely transformed.
Treat as a small hopeful cosmological and pragmatic postcard sent out to meet lives and worlds…
Use while negotiating with the actuality of your world in an expansive adventure
Draw some of us along — making a path come into being in cooking — its repetition into reality will be our shared future cosmological recipe


Just for the fun of it I posted a list of all of our recipes  and bibliography here. You can find the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook here


1 comment

  • John Halonen

    I like this, a social recipe too!
    Design disruption, get unstuck!
    Very creative. It’s on my reading list in my bucket!

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