Women have mixed feelings about food. I don’t mean indifferent, as in stay in or dine out, whatever.” I mean mixed, as in a combination Cobb-Caesar-Waldorf salad of tossed emotions. We use food in so many ways to express ourselves, from a lavish Thanksgiving dinner served with love and pride to the opening of a Snickers bar with lust and revulsion. Guilt, seduction, and competition can all be summoned with the faintest of aromas.
No one understands the power of food to manipulate emotions better than Tita in Like Water for Chocolate. Denied the chance to marry her love, Pedro, Tita watches him marry her older sister and must bake their wedding cake. Thereafter, everything that comes out of Tita’s kitchen is a recipe for disaster, desire, and anguish. Readers and foodies alike have no trouble understanding the magic Tita mixes into her meals for emotional release, but we’ve probably dreamed of a heavier hand with the arsenic.
Anytime someone throws a potluck, at least two women go into Olympic-level competition mode. We’ve all witnessed the dueling-cupcake-mommy stereotype, but it’s raised to higher stakes in Amy Sutherland’s Cookoff, which tours the world of cooking contests, from chili rests to the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The ladies who make “contesting” a hobby could make the Iron Chefs’ knives shrivel. These competitors are gracious, tenacious, creative, and combative. But the food is all good, even if some of the contestants are sour.
Food can make us feel slightly superior, especially when we look back at the edible trends our mothers and grandmothers espoused. Who knew they hated hosting cocktail parties during the 1950s? According to Sylvia Lovegren’s Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, they hated them with a passion. Why? Because the fashionable attire of the time required standing, and it’s not easy juggling a martini, a cigarette, and a toothpick speared with UFOs (unidentified food objects). Hawaiian-themed meals were all the rage in the 1960s. Just add rum, pineapple, and limbo! Full of recipes and lore only Great-Aunt Hortense could love, Lovegren’s account makes us chorde over the chorizo while secretly updating these recipes for our own cocktail parties (during which we always dress in sit-downable attire).
Food also can make us feel wildly inferior, and Stephanie Klein shows how in her heart- and taste-bud-searing Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp. When she was 14, Stephanie and her sister, Lea, attended Camp Yanisin. For the first time in her life, Stephanie felt normal, and she experienced all the highs and lows (beyond a weight scale) of being a teenager at coed sleepaway camp for the first time.
I can be had for cake. Seriously. Forget Swiss chocolates. Give me cake, and I’m yours, which is why I can’t resist paging through any collection of Colette Peters’ edible art. These mouthwatering photos of elaborately decorated cakes are dessert porn at its best. The “Carat” Cake is seductively embellished with rock candy and is the culinary equivalent of Clive Owen.
Ever since the Tramp nosed Lady off the last meatball, women have recognized the power of the plate.
Colette’s Birthday Cakes. By Colette Peters. 2000. Little, Brown, $35 (9780316702744).
Cookoff. Recipe Fever in America. By Amy Sutherland. 2003. Penguin, $14 (9780142004746).
Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. By Sylvia Lovegren. 1995. Univ. of Chicago, $19 (9780226494074).
Like Water for Chocolate. By Laura Esquivel. 1992. Doubleday, $14 (9780385420174).
Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp. By Stephanie Klein. 2008. HarperCollins, $14.99 (9780061672866).
Kaite Mediatore Stover is Head, Central Readers’ and Circulation Services, Kansas City (MO) Public Library.
Stover, Kaite Mediatore