A pile of cookbooks on a kitchen chair

A Day spent with Cookbooks: Presenting at the ‘Cookbooks: Past, Present, and Future’ Symposium

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Lindsay Middleton is a first year PhD student researching nineteenth-century food writing. Her love of cookbooks, Twitter connections and a College of Arts Research Support Award gave her the opportunity to present at the perfect symposium – on cookbooks.


A love of cookbooks

While researching my Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities-funded PhD project, ‘The Technical Recipe: A formal analysis of nineteenth-century food writing,’ I am lucky enough to have an excuse to spend my days reading and engaging with my favourite kinds of texts: cookbooks and recipes.

Since my Mum taught me to cook, using her implicit talent and enviably large cookbook collection, my loves of reading and food have found their perfect marriage in the cookbook. Taking one to bed to read like a literary midnight snack is one of my favourite pastimes, and I take as much delight from perusing the pages of cookbooks as I do from eating the dishes I create from them.

Moreover, since beginning my PhD in October in 2018, I have found that most people connect with cookbooks and food in some way. When I tell people about my research, their most common reaction (other than asking about the weirdest Victorian recipe I have found so far) is to immediately launch into a personal anecdote about their favourite recipe. So, when some considerate Twitter connections tagged me in a call for papers advertising an academic symposium dedicated to cookbooks, I couldn’t believe my luck.

The ‘Cookbooks: Past, Present and Future’ Symposium was to be held at the University of Portsmouth, and the call for papers asked for abstracts that engaged with cookbooks in a variety of ways: their history, representations of gender, interaction with other media, and future in the digital age, etc. It seemed too good to be true for this to spring up in my first year of study, so I came up with an idea and sent off an abstract. I was so sold on the chance to listen to a group of academics discuss cookbooks that I would have gone just to listen, but to my delight my paper was accepted. That the first academic conference I would present at (outside of the University of Glasgow) was going to be about cookbooks, is just about as on-brand as it could possibly get.

Research Training Support Award

One thing stood in the way of me attending and presenting at the symposium of my dreams, and that was the cost of getting to Portsmouth. I hadn’t fully grasped when sending my abstract how far away Portsmouth is, so much so that I would need to spend the night before and after the symposium in order to be there for registration and listen to all the papers. The University of Glasgow, however, had sent round application details for Research Training Support Grants, or Research Support Awards.

By sheer luck, I had my paper accepted the week of the grant application deadline. I set out a budget for my travels and accommodation, wrote out a summary of the event and its benefits to my research and networking, and got a statement of support from my primary supervisor, Dr. Dahlia Porter. Happily, I was awarded funding to cover the trip, and so I could head down to Portsmouth to present and listen.

Characters in Cookbooks

The paper I wrote, ‘Characters in Cookbooks: The Victorian Trend of the Fictional Housewife,’ considered cookbooks from two Victorian authors: Alexis Soyer (1810-1858) and Eliza Warren Francis (1810-1890). Both Warren Francis and Soyer wrote cookbooks that are interesting because they do not follow the format of typical Victorian cookbooks. Instead of being collections of recipes, grouped and listed together practically, Soyer and Warren Francis write their cookbooks from the perspective of fictional housewives. Using an epistolary and memoir format respectively, these authors create cookbooks that rely on characterisation to invite the reader into the text in an intimate manner, connecting with them on a personal level. As part of a panel entitled ‘Gender, Identity and the Cookbook’ I explored this unusual characterisation, examining how the authors’ gender influenced their use of fictional housewives, and analysing how gender itself was used as a publishing strategy in these Victorian cookbooks.

Food for thought at the symposium

Even as an avid reader and collector of cookbooks, I was surprised by the variety of papers presented at the symposium. With speakers from Edinburgh to Israel, and subjects as different as orthorexia nervosa, Fanny Cradock, and Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking, the day was full of delicious anecdotes and appetite-inducing discussions. The delivery of my paper went well and some wonderful questions I was asked and networking connections I made, have sparked further ideas that feed directly into my thesis.

The event culminated in a talk and book signing from bestselling cookbook author Jack Monroe (another one to add to my collection – yay!) and then a panel discussion from Monroe, BBC Good Food editor Lulu Grimes, and food vlogger Katie Quinn.

The overall takeaway from the symposium was just how effective cookbooks are in creating, disseminating and exposing different communities, cultures and ideological issues. With talk of a publication coming out of the event, attending the symposium was beneficial to me on both an academic and personal level. With the help of Research Support Funding from the University of Glasgow, I was able to engage with international academics on the topic I love, widen the reach of my own research and – if you’ll pardon the pun – come away with plenty of food for thought.


You can follow Lindsay on Twitter at @lindsmiddleton or find out more about her research on her blog: Well Fed and Well Read.

Post Author: Kelly Arnstein

Kelly is Digital Content Officer for the College of Arts.

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