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The Literatures of Food


September 2, 2014
Press Release #14-064

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Turn to the back jacket of Jennifer Cognard-Black’s newly published book and there is a quote by Scott Miller, a professor of writing at Sonoma State, that reads: “Food serves as a powerful hook into conversations about class, ethnicity, gender, politics, and aesthetics….”

If you ask Cognard-Black, she would say that this quote speaks not only to her book, Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal (NYUP 2014), but to the crux of her course of the same name offered at St. Mary’s.  

Cognard-Black’s Books that Cook anthology, co-authored with her colleague Melissa Goldthwaite of Saint Joseph’s University, is a collection of American literature written on the theme of food. It is inspired by her popular upper-level “Topics in Literature:  Books that Cook” English course that she has been teaching at the college since 2002.

“My students and I talk a lot about what it means not just to consume a book through words metaphorically, but what it means actually to cook a dish out of a poem or a piece of fiction and then eat it,” Cognard-Black said about her course.   

As part of the emerging field of food studies, Cognard-Black’s “Books that Cook” seminar takes students through a critical examination of the cultural, historical, and sociological aspects of food as represented in poetry, prose, and film. A service-learning component connects students to food production in St. Mary’s County through volunteerism at the St. Mary’s Campus Farm and with local businesses engaging sustainable foodways.

Course texts include novels to polemics, documentaries, and memoirs—all of which Cognard-Black has chosen through a strict criterion.  “We do not read or view anything that doesn’t include bona fide recipes,” she said about the materials taught in her class. “The recipes don’t have to be in a traditional format, but they have to include a list of ingredients followed by instructions, so that my students can cook something out of a book, hence ‘Books that Cook.’”

The same is true for her anthology. Each selection of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction includes at least one recipe, such as that for caramel cake from part of Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table and canned meals from Sherman Alexie’s poem, “13/16.” And like the ingredients within a favorite recipe, each piece in the anthology was selected deliberately. “We didn’t choose any piece we didn’t love,” said Cognard-Black. “This [book] is a ‘meal’ we would sit down to ‘eat.’”

For the collection, Cognard-Black drew upon community members at St. Mary’s. In the midst of Angelou, Alexie, and other notable literary figures, there are original pieces by Cognard-Black’s former students Caitlin Newcomer ’05 and Cheryl Quimba ’05, both having earned master’s degrees in creative writing after graduating from St. Mary’s. Associate Professor Karen Leona Anderson and Professor Emeritus Michael Glaser also have poems in the book. The cover art and illustrations are by Professor Sue Johnson.

Mixing such “ingredients” from her place of occupation as well as her hometown of Lincoln, Neb., Cognard-Black also made sure to pay homage to her Nebraska roots by beginning and ending the book with pieces by two prominent plains poets:  Bill Kloefkorn, former state poet and Cognard-Black’s undergraduate poetry professor, and Ted Kooser, former U.S. poet laureate.

Finding novels with recipes has not always been an easy task. Cognard-Black explained that the fusion of food and literature—beyond that within literary cookbooks—is a very recent phenomenon.  “What we’ve seen in the last three-to-four years is an absolute explosion of food novels,” she said. “Where I used to struggle a decade ago to find enough material for my syllabus, I now have more than I can handle! Right now, I have sitting on my office shelves ten food novels that I have not yet had the chance to read—all including recipes.”

These brand-new novels will be considered for Cognard-Black’s upcoming summer 2015 offering of her seminar, “Books that Cook: Sustainability Edition.” Then, in the spring of 2016, Cognard-Black will again offer this course as a service-learning seminar, “Books that Cook: Serving Suggestions.” In the meantime, this fall, Cognard-Black is teaching both a 400-level seminar and an Introduction to Creative Writing course as well as launching a book tour for Books that Cook.

She is also heading the College’s annual VOICES Reading Series. Alumnae and Books that Cook contributors Newcomer and Quimba will both return to campus as guest readers for the series. Quimba and Newcomer will both read for a special Alumni VOICES Reading on Thursday, Oct. 16, in Daugherty-Palmer Commons.

The Books that Cook anthology, which Cognard-Black fondly considers as her own “St. Mary’s Project” and dedicates to the many students she’s had in the course, is now available on Amazon.com and through its publisher, New York University Press. This collection is Cognard-Black’s fourth book. 

For more information about the anthology and for a schedule of Cognard-Black’s book tour, kicking off Sept. 6 at DC’s historic bookstore Politics & Prose, visit www.jennifercognard-black.com