Sandra Gilbert gets real about the truths and lies we tell ourselves about food
In her new book, The Culinary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert asks the question “What do we talk about when we talk about food?” It turns out we talk about art, history, politics, literature, and of course, ourselves. She dives into the vast pool of ideas swirling around the culture of food, and reveals the ways it delights, surprises and disturbs us. Indeed, she graciously sets the table of her own life, and invites us to break bread with luminaries like Pablo Neruda, Wayne Thiebaud, and Gertrude Stein, the better to share her delectable blend of curiosity and insight. I recently got the chance to talk with her in anticipation of her appearance at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Sunday, Sept. 14.
GT: How has the discussion of food culture evolved?
Sandra Gilbert: I’m amazed by the evolution in our thinking about food. Food and poetry was my original intent for the content of this book, but it expanded as I wrote it. We add food and stir when we write poetry, but also essays, novels, and history. That stirring of food stirred around everything for me: food and the sacred, food and the secular; food politics engage us all the time. It used to be, until about the 1920s, that it wasn’t polite to talk about food. When M.F.K. Fisher was growing up, people couldn’t even say food was delicious at the table. Now we talk about it endlessly.
Do you think there’s a place for compromise between slow food and fast food?
There’s a tension between our desire for convenience and a post-modern pastoral fantasy. My own mother used to say, when I was a kid, that she dreamed of having a farm, but she lived in Queens. When she did go back to Sicily, she stayed with cousins in a farm house where the animals slept on the ground floor. She was horrified. “Convenient” doesn’t have to mean fast. I’ve spent 25 years on and off in Paris, where there’s a long tradition of food shops and markets where you can buy convenient slow food.
You write about what it means to give up the tastes of home and travel into the unknown. How does the assimilation of foreign foods affect our food culture?
I actually believe that because we’ve become so steeped in food culture, the foreign foods that we bring into our mainstream culture have become increasingly authentic. When I was growing up, Chinese food here was nothing that you’d recognize in China, but as food of all kinds has become more available and less expensive, it’s also become more varied and complex. At the same time, people everywhere spend more time in the kitchen, so it’s more necessary to talk about food—and more fun.
How do we maintain an ethical approach to food while feeding the world?
We have to be realistic. While I admire the aim not to eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t have eaten, my grandmother grew up outside of Moscow. At that time, the human diet for many was not the beautiful cornucopia that we like to think it was. That said, if you think about Michael Pollan’s hunting adventure or Barbara Kingsolver’s farm, they don’t mean to say we should all go do that. They give us the idea, the dream of fresh food, and the desire to pursue it any way we can. They write food fables for our time. Because of them, we go to farmers markets, cook better, and call out food corporations. But we shouldn’t sentimentalize the food of poverty. Much of the developing world lives in a sustenance culture, where the fantasy of self-sufficiency doesn’t apply. We have to talk about agricultural practices, even controversial ones, in order to feed people.
Info: 7 p.m. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Sunday, Sept. 14, Free. PHOTO: Peter Basmajian