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PLEASURES OF A GOURMET

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By Fanny Todd Mitchell, 1961

This book is the recount of some of the places the author has gone, and the food she ate while there (in recipe format). At first I was interested in the book because I expected it to be about the frou frou foods of a highbrow woman, and I thought it might be interesting to use the altered book form to comment on the unapproachable “foodie� atmosphere that often surrounds “high-quality� cooking. And many of the recipes in this book are ostentatious. However, I became intrigued by much of the subtext that lies within her writing. This book is structured (chaptered) by locations. Each location section begins with a lush, expressive illustration (incidentally penned by her son). On the verso of these illustrations is a short paragraph explaining Mitchell’s connection to the place and / or foods. The recipes then follow. Even though the paragraphs are short, she makes remarks that seem to have deeper significance—for instance she was in Russia at some point during WWII. This book is also fascinating because of its description of cultures and “ethnic� foods during a time when much of this food (and the peoples it came from) were deeply stereotyped. But Mitchell seemed to travel widely, and appears to have had an open viewpoint. It is interesting to see her write about these exotic foods for an audience who knew little to nothing about them—foods we know well today needed explanation then. For instance, in the section titled “Arab Cookery�, she subtitles “kebebs� with “Hamburgers on a Skewer�, and “Homos� with “An Hors D’oeuvre� .

Concept & Intent

The concept I would like to explore with this book is “food as an experience�. The illustrations are presented in black and white, and this seems to me to be in stark contrast to Mitchell’s experiences and the experience of the food and the varied culture. When I think of food, I think of the sensory experience it brings—the colors, smells, tastes, textures. While taste—and perhaps smell—are not easily communicated through the book form, I would like to allude strongly to these important and enjoyable aspects of food by making the visual experience much richer.

I think this approach could then tie into the cultures experienced in a very strong way. As stated in the cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates, “Food, beyond meeting our basic need for nourishment, is a profoundly significant instrument of cultural identity. Through food we experience abundance, nurturing, generosity, pride, and fulfillment. It connects us to our past, reorients and centers us in the haste of the present, and is a practical, beautiful means of renewing, sharing, and passing our ethnic, regional, national, even ideological identities� (23).

I would like elaborate on, and make literal the connection of food to culture (and vice versa) by illuminating and further illustrating these pages to denote a rich and colorful experience. Secondly, I’d like to explore the places she describes at the time that she is describing them, to set these rich experiences and her slight narratives against what had to be tumultuous times. The success of this approach could very well depend on available research materials, and the ability of each section to be dated. If little is to be found, then the illustrations and her narratives will be set with explanatory narratives of the foods within, or contemporary investigations of the cultures and foods she depicts.

One of the last things I find so interesting about this book is Johanna Drucker’s notion that there are two kind of altered books—books that are well known and that carry significant cultural and regional importance, and books that would otherwise slide into obscurity. The Pleasures of a Gourmet clearly falls into the second category. Cursory internet-only based research reveals little about either the author, or her son the illustrator. The jacket flap of the book itself refers to the elder Mitchell as a widowed, failed actress who—because of pity—was offered a job transcribing plays, and subsequently became a writer, often adapting scripts for plays, and plays for cinema. What little mention is made to her online is either connected to these plays, or to the book in question. An illustration called “Fanny Todd Mitchell� , dated 1928 found on flickr could refer to her, and it depicts a 1920’s era woman. More information seems to be available for her son—the illustrator. He seems to be somewhat-known artist who did illusionistic, neo-romantic designs tinged with surrealism, but who is better known as a wallpaper, textile, and pattern designer. However, biographical information was not available on either person. Another interest I have is shedding some light on these forgotten people—unraveling the mystery of their lives that was seemingly exotic and whirlwind—through form and through illumination (artistic and informational).