By Rosa Durst ’17

The idea for my media and cultural studies capstone took root during my sophomore year when I enrolled in what would become one of my favorite courses: From the Counterculture to Digital Culture, taught by professor John Kim. For the class’s final project, I researched the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture publication produced between 1968 and 1972, which provided tools and instructions for living off the grid. After the class, I found myself constantly looking for artifacts from that era, such as books and clothing.

Last summer, at a book sale in a church basement, I came across a spiral-bound recipe book entitled The Whole Earth Cookbook. Just as I suspected, it was a 1974 spin-off of the Whole Earth Catalog. Despite having absolutely no intention of whipping up a batch of Super Soybean Casserole or Millet Soufflé, I snatched it up for a dollar and took it home.

When I started thinking about a capstone topic, the Whole Earth Cookbook kept wedging its way into my brain. It inspired me to consider other instances in which cookbooks had served a purpose beyond the ordinary. After all, food is ubiquitous in its inedible form: we’re inundated with cooking shows and food ads, we document meals on social media. After disregarding food’s seemingly most essential characteristic—its consumability—what’s left? Does the abstract idea of food hold more meaning than the fact that it tastes good and sustains life?

With these questions in mind, I decided to write about the intersections between cookbooks and radical movements, eventually ending up with a paper entitled “Beyond Betty Crocker: Cookbooks as a Means for Spreading a Radical Message.”

In the end I didn’t use the Whole Earth Cookbook, but instead explored three historical instances of radical movements producing cookbooks to help spread their message.

My first example was suffragette cookbooks, or compilations of recipes from supporters of women’s suffrage (including “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband”). Next I examined the Futurist Cookbook, produced by the Italian avant-garde Futurist movement, which dismissed pasta, suggesting instead elaborate banquets in which, for example, attendees would use their hands to shape food into model cities. Finally, I looked at a cookbook assembled by a woman who, in the early 1970s, hitchhiked around the country collecting recipes from communes.

Why do these cookbooks matter? We think of food as something represented in the media, but, in fact, food is often the medium itself. Food is one vehicle of cultural significance, with different foods and food practices carrying different connotations. This is what allows cookbooks like the ones I studied to become not just manuals for eating but manuals for performing activism, creating art, and finding new ways of living.

June 2 2017

Back to top