Food Memoirs: Agency in Public and Private Rhetorical Domains

Food Memoirs: Agency in Public and Private Rhetorical Domains

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Kayla Bruce

Kayla Bruce, Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor of English at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Her research interests include feminist rhetorics, theory, and pedagogy, autobiographical rhetoric, and genre and CHAT theory.

Abstract: Diana Abu-Jaber’s food memoir The Language of Baklava is used as an example of the way that food narratives and recipes work within both public and private domains to speak from, to, and about the value of women’s lived experiences. Using two of Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s feminist rhetorical practices as a framework of inquiry, this text explores the importance of recognizing both public and private domains within women’s published food texts, specifically food memoirs.

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You know, eating is a form of listening, and I have something to tell you. (Abu-Jaber, The Language of Baklava, 192)

Last spring, I visited my family in New Mexico, and the first thing we did together, like always, was eat. My dad and my aunts are half Lebanese from my grandfather’s family, and our meals reflect that heritage. On the night of my arrival in Albuquerque we ate dolmades, kibbeh, tabbouleh, and lubia. When I asked my aunt for the lubia recipe, she opened up an old cookbook and showed me the recipe scrawled on a piece of scrap paper in my grandma’s handwriting taped inside the front cover. She then told me how my grandmother would make the dish weekly and serve it with rice and lamb. I didn’t remember my grandmother making this recipe but seeing the recipe written out in her handwriting and hearing my aunt tell stories about eating the food made me feel at home. These kinds of food stories and food texts are ones that create bridges. Like Jennifer Cognard-Black says in relation to her own grandmother’s recipe: “recipe writers elicit history, personal, communal, narrative, symbolic, and imagistic associations” (34). Each of these components of recipe writing, and I argue food writing more generally, has valuable implications to explore. But they must not be explored in isolation. It is through the crossing of rhetorical boundaries that we, as rhetorical scholars, can understand how food writing is a bridge.

Image is a photo of a recipe written on small, lined paper. The recipe is from the author's grandmother describing how to make lubia.
Fig. 1. The author’s grandmother’s handwritten lubia recipe.

In their 2012 book Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch say that feminist scholars must pay attention to the stories women tell, as well as “rhetorical domains—not just public ones but those that might be considered private or social” (134) that women occupy. They say that “such [public/private] binaries have been powerful in limiting the frameworks within which women’s practices have been expected to occur historically and even more powerfully in creating the hierarchies of sociopolitical favor that have functioned to devalue women’s accomplishments, whether women were actually participating in public domains or private ones” (99). Both public and private domains must be recognized, as must women’s experiences within both. Scholars like Karen A. Foss and Sonja K. Foss have done much in working towards “dismantling the public-private divide” (Royster and Kirsch 99), but more must be done in order for the value of experiences and knowledge to be recognized and equally granted to men and women within both domains.

The edited collection Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics takes up this work of interrogating not only what food writing is, but how it needs to be taken up in rhetorical studies. The editor, Melissa Goldthwaite, says that “feminist food writing is neither monolithic nor beyond critique—and that definitions of what it means to be feminist change over time” (7). I agree with this claim, and I would add to it that as being feminist changes, so does what it means to be a feminist food writer. I believe that author Diana Abu-Jaber exemplifies this as she gives specific examples of domain crossing within both her first and second memoirs. Her second memoir does the kind of shifting work that mirrors Goldthwaite’s assessment, as it is a food memoir that does not include food recipes. Instead, what both of Abu-Jaber’s memoirs accomplish is to fulfill a desire to better understand women’s experiences in both public and private domains.

Women’s food memoirs draw attention to stories within both of these domains because of the very focus of the texts—food. Food is made, consumed, and discussed every day in both public and private settings. Women’s food memoirs offer insightful, revealing, and tangible examples of individual women’s interactions with foods, as well as their intersectional identities and the way that those identities are formed and communicated. These memoirs address rhetorical domains in ways that can impact the readers’ rhetorical decision making in regards to constructions and conversations of intersectional identity markers as the memoirs ask readers to consider experiences that are different than their own but still revolve around the familiar material object of food. Indeed, through the publication of women’s food memoirs, attention is drawn to both the public and private domains of the authors and reflect the social and cultural climates in which they lived. Through attention to these domains, this article explores the definitions, history, and potency of women’s food memoirs in order to show how these memoirs ask readers to interrogate both public and private rhetorical domains and the ways that these domains are created and shared with others.

Royster and Kirsch define four feminist rhetorical practices that value the interrogation of public and personal domains because they are practices that invite readers to engage with both the published texts and the authors of the texts. In the first section of their book, Royster and Kirsch write that their four feminist rhetorical practices of “critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization” (19 emphasis original) are “critical terms of engagement” because they “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar in order to call forward what we believe now constitutes a more clearly articulated vista of feminist rhetorical practices” (19). These terms of engagement offer a feminist rhetorical lens through which readers can understand the power and potency of both the lived narratives and recipes included in food memoirs. In this text, I apply these terms of engagement to Abu-Jaber’s 2005 food memoir The Language of Baklava. One reason that I am analyzing Abu-Jaber’s food memoir is because my father’s family comes from Lebanon and her family comes from Jordan, so I can relate to many of her cultural, food, and familial experiences. When reading memoirs, the most powerful ones are those that can speak to or align with the readers’ experiences. Her memoir follows her personal and familial experience living and loving in both Jordan and America. Abu-Jaber’s food memoir also speaks to lived experience in a way that prompts discussions of private and public domains by sharing experiences from both. Finally, I appreciate the way that Abu-Jaber weaves recipes throughout her memoir in a way that both invites engagement with the recipes and adds to the narratives within the text. She recreates her family’s story through fragments of both individual and communal experiences, specifically experiences with food.

I employ the tenets of critical imagination and social circulation in rhetorically analyzing this text. I focus on these two terms because critical imagination and social circulation respectively work to answer the questions “how do we render the work and lives [of female authors] meaningfully?” (Royster and Kirsch 20) and “how do we locate both writers and readers in relation to new textual forms?” (Royster and Kirsch 24). The exploration of women’s food memoirs offers feminist scholars a way to better account for women’s unheard voices and unaccounted for experiences, especially in relationship to food. Food is a material object that has been traditionally assigned to women without recognition of their agency or the opportunity to speak back to marginalizing norms.

As a genre, food memoirs offer scholars and everyday readers alike a glimpse into the life of an author as well as an embodied taste of their lived experience through the description and inclusion of food experiences and recipes. Understanding the genre of food memoirs means recognizing the various types of genres included in one published text, as well as the historical complexity of the term. The current genre of the food memoir has a foundation in the published work of women like M.F.K Fisher and Julia Child. In “Cooking Up Lives,” Arlene Avakian says, “contemporary food memoirs put food at the center of their narratives, but they are more systematically autobiographical, chronicling the author’s lives through cooking and eating rather than narratives about food that include personal anecdotes” (279). In addition to the focus on interpersonal narratives and anecdotes, the notion of authorial identity is a crucial part of why food memoirs are written and why they are so widely received.

I then add this definition of food texts from Massimo Montanari, that “through such pathways food takes shape as a decisive element of human identity and as one of the most effective means of expressing and communicating that identity” (xii). These two definitions of food memoir provide a nuanced definition of the term with Avakian’s focus on central narratives about the authors and food and Montanari’s definition of food texts as identity pathways. Together, both show why the focus on food is valuable to memoir work. Both also offer a framework through which to read Royster and Kirsch’s work as it applies to memoirs, as they call feminist scholars to attend to “genres that we have not considered carefully enough” and to “think again about what women’s patterns of action seem to suggest about rhetoric, writing, leadership, activism, and rhetorical expertise” (72). These understandings of food memoirs point to authorial agency, specifically in terms of the ways that women have taken up writing about individual and communal food experiences.

While the food memoir genre is growing, Diana Abu-Jaber’s now well-known food memoir The Language of Baklava represents unique food pathways as she discusses literal and figurative border crossing. She speaks from within marginalized identities and communities, and she weaves the three notions of “food, memory, and identity” expertly and smoothly together as she relates her food experiences to her readers (Avakian, “Cooking”, 283). Abu-Jaber’s food memoir shows how one woman dealt with marginalization both as an Arab woman in the United States and as an American woman in the Middle East. Abu-Jaber does this work through examinations and discussions of various aspects of her identity. She posits identity as individual, familial, and communal all at once, and she discusses specific food experiences that informed or challenge each of these understandings of marginalized identity.

This transcribing of identity can be understood through Chela Sandoval’s theory of differential consciousness. Sandoval discusses the way that Indigenous women and other women of color privilege specific components of their identities in response to varying situational and activist causes. In this way, we understand women as having the agency to choose whether or not to activate parts of their identities. What women must choose, then, is to either privilege these parts of their individual and communal identities, or to let those aspects of their identity lie dormant (127). Sandoval’s idea responds to a history of oppression, but the theory offers a hopeful agenda to the women, specifically the women of color, whose identities have been transcribed by others, such as Abu-Jaber’s. Avakian posits Abu-Jaber’s work as feminist because it has wide reaching implications for readers and other women authors, especially those in minority or misrepresented groups. Avakian writes, “The Language of Baklava is a stellar example of the literary use of food practices to interrogate the ethnic ‘we’ through the multilayered connections among food, memory, and identity” (“Cooking” 283). It is through the literary use of food practices that a connection to individuals and communities in both public and private domains is established. Food memoirs, then, become a revelatory text through which food, rhetorical domains, and individual and communal identity intertwine and can be explored.

Cooking, and writing about cooking has, traditionally, been considered women’s work. Elizabeth Fleitz says,

from its origins as an apprentice-based oral culture to the preponderance of food blogs and online recipe sharing forums, the authors of and audience for cookery texts is primarily female. Even with the inclusion of male hosts on Food Network cooking shows such as Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, the majority of viewers—and consumers—are women. (2)

Fleitz argues that what has happened, then, is that women have formed a community in which they can act, speak, and affirm one another in this “private sphere, [which] has gone mostly unnoticed” (2). As this private sphere has become more public through media, like the cooking shows mentioned previously, typical patriarchal patterns of domination and silencing have started imposing on this sphere as well, as “the public/private division separates men and women unequally, as not only are men separate from women, but they are also dominant over women as well” (Fleitz 3). Food memoirs represent a space of authorial agency that speaks back to these patriarchal conventions and conversations by offering a space in which women can share their personal and communal experiences and show that “women’s traditional lives are worth thinking about, worth writing about, worth reading about” (Bower 9). Similar work can, and often does, happen on food blogs; however, for better or worse the permanency and accolades attached to published work does speak to the recognition and ability to share and reference these stories and experiences. Royster and Kirsch highlight the “shift in the commitment to engage dialectically and dialogically” with women authored texts, like food memoirs, “to actually use tension, conflicts, balances, and counterbalances” to better inquire and engage with not only the texts themselves but the “women whom we study” (72). This call asks readers and scholars to not just consider these texts a-contextually but to engage with both the narratives and recipes as representations of the author who wrote them. In this way, we recognize the way that food memoirs invite agency and demonstrate the value of sharing these texts and experiences as we explicitly affirm the value of the women who wrote them.

Crossing from a private to public domain, then, is about both engaging with published women’s texts but also about crossing borders of what we consider serious scholarship or narratives worth analyzing. Smith and Watson theorize the study of life writing, including genres like cookbooks and memoirs. The implications of Smith and Watson’s theory speak to the way that autobiographical texts, including memoirs, are currently conceived and the work that they can do within the university. Smith and Watson write of their three autobiographical theoretical tenets, performativity, positionality, and relationality, that they are “enabling concepts of recent theory [that] energize and redefine the terms of life narrative by calling formerly established critical norms into question” (217-8). Like Royster and Kirsch’s four feminist rhetorical practices, I see these three theoretical elements as asking rhetorical scholars to further engage with the material like Abu-Jaber’s text. Indeed, Smith and Watson say, “as we consider the complex ways in which new genres and new subjects may energize one another, these concepts enable more flexible reading practices and more inclusive approaches to the field of life writing” (218). This quote exemplifies my reason for choosing to use Abu-Jaber’s memoir as a site for analysis, as it shows not only Abu-Jaber’s crossing from a private (personally known) to a public (generally known) domain, but it asks the reader and researcher to do this same kind of crossing over, as many of the cited texts also ask researchers to do.

Smith and Watson assert that food memoirs “offer readers tasty pleasures and ‘food’ for self-revision” (148). Reading and writing about food is about so much more than simply sharing meals or recipes. It is about sharing culture, heritage, and individual experiences. Smith and Watson write that by including recipes in texts, “traditional foods become part of the cultural folklore that gastrophy revives and revalues in calling people to their cultures of origin and educating the dominant community about historical adventures occluded in urban life” (149). In this way, they discuss food memoirs as texts that reintroduce and revise narratives around food and food traditions. Memoirs interrupt traditional conceptions of food and food traditions and ask people to consider what it is they are cooking and eating. As Abu-Jaber demonstrates, crossing borders is about collectively becoming oneself—through historical, cultural, and communal experiences. Women authors like her

have conserved a whole world, past and present, in the idiom of food. In their personal manuscripts, in locally distributed community recipe compilations, and in commercially printed cookbooks, women have given history and memory a permanent loading. The knowledge contained in cookbooks transcends generations. (Theopano 49)

The crossing borders, specifically those of public and private domains, does this working of revaluing and preserving whole generations of history.

Middle Eastern Cooking

Abu-Jaber shares story after story about cooking Middle Eastern food both in America and in Jordan. These are stories that I recognize, as they are similar to my cooking and eating experiences with my Lebanese family members. Abu-Jaber’s memoir is divided into 24 different chapters. Although the chapters are arranged chronologically, each one focuses on one memory or specific period in her life. The first chapter, titled “Raising an Arab Father in America,” details her experiences as a six-year-old living in Syracuse, New York with her family, including her Jordanian father who she refers to throughout the text by his nickname, Bud. The reason for this nickname is that “he flags down men and women alike with the same greeting: ‘Hey, bud!’” even though, Abu-Jaber points out, “my father’s name is Ghassan Saleh Abu-Jaber” (4). This difference in naming is just one way that Abu-Jaber sees her family as “Arab at home and American in the streets” (5). Assimilation is not easy for her family, especially not her father.

The final chapter of the memoir is called “The First Meal,” and it describes Bud opening a restaurant—the realization of his lifelong dream. The restaurant does not feature Jordanian classics as he had once envisioned, but he serves “rows of burgers, sizzling French fries, blistering hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches” (324). Bud realized his dream in America but in a very different way than he had once imagined. He now has a new name as well, used by his American grandchildren. They cry out, “Jiddo! Jiddo! Grandpa!” when they see him (326 emphasis original). There is still a sense of “the in-between, the borderlands” for both Bud and his family who “live their lives in the air” going back and forth from Jordan and America, and also for Abu-Jaber herself (326). She identifies herself as “a reluctant Bedouin—I miss and I long for every place, every country, I have ever lived” (327). Abu-Jaber concludes her book with the sense that the “coming over” is never quite complete (6). She feels that she has pieces of herself left in all of the places where she has spent time. She identifies with two very different cultures and with cities all over the world.

These two chapters bookend her memoir, but the chapters in between cover a wide variety of subjects and memories. Abu-Jaber tells stories from both her childhood and adulthood in the United States and in Jordan. She talks about an abusive uncle, a strict but naive grandmother, a homesickness that leads to an eating disorder, failed marriages, and finding a man that she wants to take to her “amazing country” and show her “beautiful history” (323). These 24 chapters are interspersed with 43 different recipes. There are recipes for “Gram’s Easy Roast Beef” (109), “Lost Childhood Pita Bread” (136-7), and “Spinach-Stuffed Fetayer For Those In Search Of Home” (261-2). These recipes, though completely usable as recipes alone, correspond with the subjects of the chapters and offer the readers a chance to not only better see the work of the narratives, but, if they choose to actually make the recipes, offers a literal taste of the struggles or joys that Abu-Jaber is describing.

These various examples, and even the way Abu-Jaber orients her text, draws attention to both the public and private domains that she occupies as a Jordanian-American woman. This tradition of eating and cooking Middle Eastern food was not always an individual or communal cultural identifier for Abu-Jaber, though. She recounts one story of telling her aunt, “‘I hate Arabic food!’ Then I look away quickly, afraid to see her reaction and frightened of my terrible words. Worse even, it seems at that moment, than saying, ‘I’m not an Arab’” (185). What this childhood obstiance demonstrates is Abu-Jaber testing the waters of her relationship with family and with own identity by declaring that she does not like the food she knows best and grew up eating. What Abu-Jaber is rejecting here is a part of herself, not just her aunt’s baklava.

It is food, though, that draws Abu-Jaber into her culture and helps her to find her identity in this space. Abu-Jaber does this work of meaningfully rendering her own identity in the context of real women’s identities and domains as important and worthy of attention. She illuminates the contexts in which they lived and works to make the women’s lives of the past have significance and meaning to current audience by sharing her own experiences. In the chapter called “Native Foods,” the Abu-Jaber family travels to visit their Bedouin family in the place that her father calls “the source of the winds, at the center of the valley. This is where our family started” (60). As they travel and stay in this place, Abu-Jaber senses, sees, tastes, and smells the history of her family. In a place where “the whiteness of the sky separates itself from the pale earth” and there are “baby goats and blatting lambs” hanging around the tents and open spaces (61), Abu-Jaber begins to understand her familial history. She focuses her recollections on one woman named Munira, a Bedouin woman who works for them in the city and travels with them to the desert. When the other Bedouin women ask where Abu-Jaber comes from, Munira says “She is mine!…She belongs to me” (62). They eat and dance in this place, and to Abu-Jaber it seems that “there is so much food that it seems limitless” (66). Munira asks Abu-Jaber “in the city Arabic” if she would like to stay there with her forever (66) and she says yes. It is Abu-Jaber’s mother who finally breaks the revelry and asks “you ready to go?…I think it’s time” (67). Abu-Jaber represents her ancestors by painting beautiful pictures of their world with her words. By describing the endless sky, food, and laughter, she describes lives that, too, seem endless. Indeed, she says “if I had stayed by Munira’s fire for one more moment, I might never have left at all” (68). Abu-Jaber critically reimagines the life of a Bedouin, basing her reflection in a way that invites readers who have never experienced anything like this to understand and rest in her past experiences.

The recounting of these food experiences does more than just point to individual memories that make up Abu-Jaber’s story. Anne Bower says, “the tendency to trivialize food culture scholarship…the tradition of western philosophy has tended to privilege questions about the rational, the unchanging and eternal, the abstract and mental, and to denigrate questions about embodied, concrete, practical experience” (7). What this focus on food culture points to is the agency needed within both public and private spheres where food is discussed and food stories are shared. Royster and Kirsch “emphasize, then, that feminist rhetorical practices have helped us to embody the idea that rhetoric is action—past, present, and future” (73). The rhetoric of food has a kind of double agency attached to it, then. Both the sharing of food texts and the making of food is agentive and both acts are often dismissed both within and outside of the academy, especially when they are enacted by women.

One of the most poignant stories that Abu-Jaber includes in her memoir points to the power of inclusion and agency even within the private sphere of the home and family. She tells the story of when her cousin, Sami, was forced by his father and uncles to come to the United States. They say he needed to come because he is a “poet,” but they are actually trying to “cure” him of his implied homosexuality. Sami is not eating and is obviously miserable, so Abu-Jaber recounts: “I pluck a morsel [of lamb] from the plate and run to him while it burns my fingertips. To my mind, this is the best way to show love—to offer food from your own hand” (8). Sami initially refuses the food, but then ultimately decides to take it, and “he says quietly, ‘it’s good’” (9). Abu-Jaber’s memory and retelling of this instance shows her agency within this very private space, and she brings it to the public sphere as she remembers and discusses it. She offers Sami a piece of their heritage in this place that is very new and foreign to him. Eves says that by sharing recipes and recounting food traditions, “what’s transmitted is not so much for the ‘living knowledge’ of memory but the structures for this knowledge—the narrative framework around which memories, both individual and communal, are constructed and invested with meaning” (282). This food memory is invested with meaning; meaning about culture, inclusion, heritage, and hope. Abu-Jaber’s agency in giving the food and recounting the experience creates this kind of narrative framework through which outside audiences can see and recognize her agency in both these public and private rhetorical spheres.

Critically Imagining Food Consumption

When considering the ways that these private and public rhetorical domains or spheres are created and discussed, we, as feminist scholars, must account for not only the present day realities but also the past and future implications of this work as well. Royster and Kirsch state that the first of their four rhetorical practices, critical imagination, “functions as one of several inquiry tools available for developing a critical stance in order to engage more intentionally and intensely in various intellectual processes” (71). This does not mean viewing past or future discussions of food writing through skewed, rose-colored glasses, but it does mean recognizing those who have come before and will come after. In “Cooking Up Lives,” Avakian argues for a feminist reading of Abu-Jaber’s novel, saying: “Abu-Jaber’s descriptions of eating Arab food convey comfort and clarity about who she is, but they are not nostalgic or romantic representations in which diasporic characters recreate home through ‘authentic’ food” (284). Abu-Jaber is very aware of the personal, cultural, and political struggles and that the food practices that she discusses represent. Yet, with respect and honesty, Abu-Jaber looks at the history of her food culture, the present understandings of it, and the future ramifications—just as critical imagination calls the feminist scholar to do. And through doing so, she represents both the private and public domains of the food culture in which she grew up and about which she is writing.

In Abu-Jaber’s text, she is engaging in critical imagination by piecing together both her family’s story through fragments, as well as her own story. She does this work by attaching moments of grief, pain, joy, and purpose to food. To better understand this I go back to one of Royster and Kirsch’s first articulations of this concept in their article “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence,” in which they talk about how their feminist rhetorical practices work “is grounded in and points back to the pioneering women, both contemporary and historical, who have insisted on being heard, being valued, and being understood as rhetorical agents” (643). I argue that that is the kind of work that Abu-Jaber is taking up through critical imagination—she is a contemporary woman who makes sure that her voice and experiences are heard and valued, starting in her own family. Royster and Kirsch often use critical imagination as a way to engage with women historically, but they assert that this term is not limited to that scope. They write that critical imagination takes into account women “whom we have not looked at before” (650), women’s “own cultural frameworks” (652), and ambitiously “enacting [an] ethos of care” that is “connected neither to the past or present. Instead, it connects both us as scholars and the women as rhetorical subjects to the future” (653). This connecting of historical tradition, like Abu-Jaber learning to make baklava from her aunt, with future generations, like her daughter, shows she is doing this bridging work of accounting for what she knows (650) through these narratives. In fact, in a recent article about Abu-Jaber’s fictional work, Arlene Avakian describes how Abu-Jaber uses “food and cooking in the novel to help count[er] Arab American stereotypes” (“Baklava as Home” 132). I argue that Abu-Jaber does similar work in her food memoir through the uptake of tenets of critical imagination and thus proving “a more robust capacity” for her readers to “reach insights” about not only the food she is cooking but the life she is living.

Royster and Kirsch posit that critical imagination asks us to “attend to our own levels of comfort and discomfort, to withhold quick judgment, to read and reread texts and interpret artifacts within the contexts of the women’s chronologies, to interrogate the extent to which our own presence, values, and attitudes shape our interpretations of historical figures and periods” (76). Through this rhetorical practice they are asking scholars to “account for what we ‘know’” and then “think between, above, around, and beyond this evidence” (71) to better understand and represent the histories we are reading. In accounting for what we know, Eves argues that this work is commonly done through food texts, and she specifically discusses African-American women’s cookbooks. Of the history and memory represented in the texts, she writes, “both the dynamic body of knowledge that can be transmitted between individuals and within communities, as well as to the more static mechanisms through which we store and retrieve this knowledge” (281). In this way, she is arguing that it is both what and how this traditional food knowledge is transferred that matters.

In her memoir, Abu-Jaber represents this awareness of past experiences as shaping who and what she identifies with as she grows up. As Avakian discusses, Abu-Jaber’s Aunt Aya is the primary, strong, Arab female figure within the memoir. Abu-Jaber does discuss her mother’s mother, Grace, in some detail within the memoir as well, but Grace was far more representative of food other than the Middle Eastern food that Abu-Jaber’s father, Bud, would cook. Abu-Jaber remembers a conversation with her Aunt Aya focused on various meanings behind production and consumption: Aunt Aya says, “‘You ate some baklawa?’ She curls her hand as if making a point so essential, it can be held only in the tips of the fingers. ‘I looked. I tasted, I spoke kindly and truthfully. I invited’” (190). This consumption of baklava (or baklawa) is representative of being an assertive woman in America and not just conforming to a father or husband’s desire or wishes. In addition to that subversion of sexist stereotypes, though, this conversation is also quite literally an invitation for Abu-Jaber to not only accept her past but explore it. Her aunt was offering a piece of her heritage, and it wasn’t until Abu-Jaber learned to appreciate the historical precedence attached to the food that she could actually enjoy the food itself. Susan Leonardi says that “a recipe’s reproducibility can have a literal result, the dish itself. This kinship to the literality of human reproducibility, along with the social context of the recipe, contributes to the gendered nature of this form of embedded discourse” (344). When Abu-Jaber recreated the baklava recipe with her aunt, she was doing more than recreating a recipe. She was recreating a meaning, an identity. The critical imagining and piecing together of her identity comes from not only making food but from experiencing it. In this case, Abu-Jaber initially pushed against the experience before accepting it as her own.

When discussing Abu-Jaber’s father eating the same food, Aunt Aya says that what he is actually doing is “eating the shadow of a memory” (190). She states that he “cooks to remember” (190). This memory does its work on Abu-Jaber, as well. She says “when I inhale Auntie Aya’s baklava, I press my hand to my sternum, as if I am smelling something too dear for this world. The scent contains the mysteries of time, loss, and grief, as well as promises of journeys and rebirth. I pick up a piece and taste it. I eat and eat. The baklava is so good, it gives me a new way of tasting Arabic food. It is like a poem about the deeply bred luxuries of Eastern cultures” (191). When her father, Bud, ate the baklava as a memory Abu-Jaber deemed it “well, dramatic” (190), but when her aunt offers it to her as part of their own history made from “our homemade phyllo” (191), Abu-Jaber begins to understand. And she begins to eat.

In recognizing the past, food experiences within both public and private domains must then be brought into the present. The way that food is taken up or discussed in the present, specifically within the academy, seems to continue to carry the patriarchal understandings of food texts and cultures. Royster and Kirsch say that critical imagination then asks scholars to be “attuned also to our blind spots in order to consider with critical intensity what may be more in shadow, muted, and not immediately obvious” (76). We must be continually aware of what is in front of us in order to best shape discussions about and around food practices in public and private domains. Bower says that “scholars working with such fragmentary forms as women’s scrapbooks and samplers, ‘artifacts’ that were produced by women relegated to a private, domestic sphere, are learning to read the stories these texts relate” (5). This reading of stories is done differently within food memoirs because in food memoirs there are literal narratives, but the work of reading the stories then falls to scholars in order to understand the social, cultural, and political realities these stories and recipes are representing.

To amend the popular saying, then, critical imagination asks us to consider the reality that with great knowledge comes great responsibility. As these various experiences that Abu-Jaber recounts in her memoir shaped her experience of recognizing historical context as well as the importance of understanding cultural and societal norms in the present, she also began to feel the weight of this responsibility as she grew. Within the academy, this responsibility is tangibly felt by feminist scholars as well. Royster and Kirsch state that one of the “paramount” responsibilities that accompanies critical imagination is “recognizing the need to construct consciously a role and place for ourselves in the work and to understand our specific professional and personal relationships to it” (78). As we know by now, this space is not created for us as scholars; it is a space that we must create ourselves. That is where the work of bridging the private and public domains becomes so important. By recognizing and studying food experiences in printed texts we do the work of collectively revaluing shared experience as worthy of scholarly focus. Regarding community cookbooks, Fleitz says, “existing in the private space of the home, recipes and the discourses they reflect have often been overlooked as a cultural text. Upon closer inspection, these forms of women’s writing carry significance beyond a list of rules and measurements, hinting at the values and desires of their authors and the communities they lived in” (1). This is exactly the work that Abu-Jaber’s text does, as an example of the way that food texts and food stories must move out of individual kitchens and into larger circulation.

Abu-Jaber becomes a very globally aware citizen, and she discusses her moves to and from the United States and Jordan several times in her memoir. She begins to feel the pull that comes with recognizing global realities and responsibility as she writes, “like a second, invisible body, I sit up out of my sleep at night, wander across the room, stop beside a darkened window, and dream my way through the glass…Come back, I want to say to my second self, there is tea and mint here, there is sugar, there is dark bread and oil” (327). She does not want to feel split in her personality and goals, but she also recognizes the need to feel the pull from both places, both cultures, both versions of her individual self. She writes, “I must have these things near me: children, hometown, fresh bread, long conversations, animals; I must bring them very near. The second self draws close, like a wild bird, easy to startle away: It owns nothing, and it wants nothing, only to see, to taste, and to describe” (327). The first and second selves are not defined, as they are both parts of herself, and yet are informed and influenced by global experiences and realities. Abu-Jaber draws on food texts and traditions to position her individual identity in order to make way for identities like hers to be expressed in the future. She writes about eating food in Jordan and says, “tonight, this is the purest food in the world. Mother’s milk. It is the sort of food that can’t be replaced by anything else” (229), and even when she moves back to the United States she attempts to “cook all the dishes that I ate in Jordan, the simple Bedouin flavors—meat, oil, and fire; like Bud, I am trying to live in the taste of things” (318). She eats and writes not to erase parts of herself, but to keep as many parts of herself and global experiences as alive as possible. She does and shares this work as a way to make space not only for her own stories but for the stories of those that come after her.

Abu-Jaber wrote a second food memoir called Life Without a Recipe in 2016, and in that memoir she recounts stories mainly with and about her daughter, Gracie, named for her maternal grandmother. This memoir, like the name suggests, does not include recipes, but instead is a text in which Abu-Jaber’s daughter is represented and has her earliest experiences recorded. This is building on the work of critical imagination and moving into a space of circulation. The circulation of recipes within The Language of Baklava does the work of bridging between the private domain of the kitchen and the public domain of sharing these texts and stories. This memoir, like the edited collection Nestle was discussing, “argues for the human hunger and passion for narratives as well as sustenance” (Nestle). Though Abu-Jaber does not share specific recipes in this text, she provides a different kind of sustenance: stories and answers. In the first memoir readers got attached to Abu-Jaber’s family through the stories she told, and in the second memoir we can better understand Abu-Jaber’s family’s story, as well as the importance of understanding both the private and public domain.

In the introduction to her text, Abu-Jaber writes of a childhood experience eating a sandwich at a neighbor’s house. She writes, “I felt better at the table, which I thought of not just as a place to eat but also as a story-telling, argument-having, useful and plain-faced and reassuring” (12). Abu-Jaber describes another border crossing here. She describes the table not just as a place to eat but as a place to share. Nestle says that “food writing…fiercely connects the life of the body to the life of the mind” (xvii). Writing about food is not just about understanding—it’s about sharing. And sharing helps us to overcome barriers of resistance, oppression, or misunderstanding because we are no longer viewing those in different domains as the other. We are viewing them as we view ourselves.

Socially Circulating Family Recipes

Royster and Kirsch define social circulation as “understanding rhetorical interactions across space and time” (98). In order to understand what these recipes, in particular, are doing, we must understand where they come from. Reading the text through the lens of critical imagination has shown that as feminist scholars we must work to understand women rhetors not just in the present day but in the past, through their relationship to other women, and within patriarchal hierarchies of power. Royster and Kirsch go on to posit that “the concept of social circulation might well begin with a disruption of the dichotomies associated with rhetoric being defined within what has been considered historically to be public domains of men, rather than within the private domains of women” (98). This disruption of the binaries of private versus public domains is exactly what published women’s food memoirs help to accomplish. The memoirs, and texts like them, “explicitly bring our attention to the importance of the fact that the study of communication and rhetoric had been confined to formal public arenas, the very places where historically the practices and the eloquence of women have been ignored” (99) and suggest that this sense of the fluidity of language use—as well as the fluidity of the power those uses generate—can help us see how traditions are carried on, changed, reinvented, and reused when they pass from one generation to the next” (101). This sense of fluidity is what takes the reader from the pages of the text and asks them to enact embodied engagement by making, smelling, and eating these exact recipes that Abu-Jaber shares. The fact that she has chosen to share these recipes by publishing them in her memoir text is what gives us, as readers, the opportunity to not only read about the narratives that Abu-Jaber describes but actually get a taste of them.

In Abu-Jaber’s text, the social circulation occurs as the following happens: recipes or traditions are shared with Abu-Jaber, Abu-Jaber shares recipes and traditions in her text, and readers are invited to take up the circulation process as they read about and engage with the recipes and traditions. As a reader, one may not make all or any of the recipes described in the text, but the invitation for continued social circulation is offered by providing the readers with the specific recipes discussed. Janet Theophano discusses the importance of this kind of circulation in the introduction to her text, Eat My Words. She says that women “carefully construc[t]” cookbooks and recipe books, “we could learn a great deal by studying them” (5). She also says that that doing this kind of studying “expand[s] the significance” of both the experiences described and the recipes included because they are shared (5). She discusses how reading cookbooks and recipes is about much more than learning how to cook a certain food or meal. She says it is about “discovering the stories told in the spaces between the recipes or within the recipes themselves” (6). That is where Abu-Jaber takes up the work of social circulation—by repeating the stories and recipes given to her and offering them to an outside audience.

In relation to these foundational concepts of social circulation, Royster and Kirsch discuss “language use as a symbolic materiality for building circles of meanings that are shareable and usable in social interactions” (102). This is what these recipes do within texts like Abu-Jaber’s. The sharing of the recipes moves the opportunity to interact with this food and recognize the value of by giving both shareable and usable texts with the food memoir narrative. Although referring to community cookbooks, Lisa Mastrangelo states that we must read the recipes and the collections—their social, textual, geographical, and historical clues—in order to garner a greater understanding of the meaning of the texts” (74). What food memoirs offer that some cookbooks or other collections of recipes do not is contextual information for the recipes that are included. As might be expected, the recipes included in the memoir correspond with the narratives described in the chapters and many times were foods actually mentioned within the chapter. Recipes are significant texts because they “convey information not only for women but about them” (Eves 282). Abu-Jaber’s text describes her and many times, the descriptions are through food texts or experiences. As Leonardi says, “even the root of recipe– the Latin recipere– implies an exchange, a giver and a receiver. Like a story, a recipe needs a recommendation, a context, a point, a reason to be” (340). Food memoirs do this exchange work, as do more traditional cookbooks. Food memoirs don’t necessarily allow for easier social circulation than cookbooks, but they do open up opportunities to share recipes with different readers. As a reader, I don’t particularly enjoy thumbing through cookbooks; however, the pages of many of my food memoirs are dog-eared, marked, and splattered with oils or sauces from multiple uses in the kitchen. The sharing of recipes that happens through food memoirs invites readers into spaces they might not otherwise occupy.

As we consider the rhetorical work of recipes and how they help to carry women’s experiences across the unnecessary binary of private and public domains, we must consider what it means to share recipes. Does it mean just calling up an aunt or friend and asking them how they make something? Does it mean writing a recipe down by hand and sending it in the mail? Does it mean sending a link to a food blog via text or email? It might mean all of these things, but sharing recipes, like sharing other personal texts also means much more. One thing that sharing recipes does is that it “argue[s] a specific communal identity… in other words, we signal our group affiliation through food choices” (Eves 288). By asking for a recipe or giving a recipe, we are inviting ourselves into a fold or inviting others to be part of our community.

In the chapter “Hot Lunch,” Abu-Jaber includes a half-page recipe called “Bud’s Special Rice for Special Company.” In this chapter Abu-Jaber explains how a lonely nun from her school liked to be invited to her house to eat Bud’s cooking. The nun’s extreme revelry in the food, and seemingly in Bud’s company, caused Abu-Jaber’s mother to put an end to the invitations. As Abu-Jaber recounts seeing the nun staring at her from across the cafeteria, “her tray of food untouched, her eyes burning as if with some sweet but dimly recalled memory,” Abu-Jaber shares the recipe for the rice the father made for the nun (29). This recipe includes long grain rice simply boiled with salt and then served with sautéed pine nuts on top. This recipe was meant to be shared. The added accents of freshly ground pepper and cinnamon sprinkled on top of the nuts says more about the invitation to warm, hearty meal than about the specific ingredients themselves—although, even the imagined aroma is intoxicating.

Another aspect of sharing recipes is the collecting of them together. Texts like community cookbooks, collected binders of recipes, food blogs, and published cookbooks are the greatest indication that we like to gather recipes together. That the only thing better than having one recipe is having many. Eves says, “as a stand-alone list of ingredients, recipes do not usually suggest much. But collected and arranged within a particular context, they begin to signify a great deal” (288). The collection of recipes, like those collected in a food memoir, begin to present a unified image. A sense of community, culture, and history is collected in the gathering of recipes, in which they seem to share and imbue meaning with one another.

In one of the last chapters of the memoir, “Once Upon A Time,” Abu-Jaber includes a recipe called “The Uncles’ Favorite Mezza Platter.” This recipe is shared after a description of a party that Abu-Jaber describes when she was living in Jordan and her father came to visit. There are friends, uncles, and aunts at this party, and Abu-Jaber describes how her uncles start the party “with the usual bad-tempered political debates about Israel and Palestine, nuclear weapons, Israel and Lebanon, Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia, too much oil, not enough oil” (274). But then she includes a recipe that is “reminiscent of Spanish tapas” (277) and includes a variety of “classics” to lay out on a singular platter as a course “designed to stimulate hunger, not satisfy it” (277). The suggestions include olives, braided string cheese, roasted chickpeas, tabbouleh salad, and pita bread (277). The whole idea behind this platter is to share. Within that sharing, though, there are ideas, opinions, and lots of different tastes. As representative of this shared collection of recipes and narratives, there seems to be something for everyone on one platter that has meaning because it is all gathered together.

In addition to meaning being understood through sharing, it must also be usable (Royster and Kirsch 102). If language, or recipes, are not usable, then what good are they? In that case, they do nothing to move understanding of value from public spheres to private ones or nothing to better help women communicate private domains in public ones. What recipes do is help us create something, whether within ourselves or simply on our plates, as “culinary traditions and food memories define us, offering solidarity with and a sense of distance from our familial, social and ethnic groups. But, in keeping and adapting familiar recipes, we are able to create practices that, even as they recall the past, initiate new traditions, new identities, new selves” (Heck). Recipes are usable in that they create something new from something traditional or historical.

Abu-Jaber describes her first semester at college; it was one of change, angst, and uncertainty. It was her first time away, her parents were moving from her childhood home, and she wanted to break up with Timmy, her current boyfriend, although, she hadn’t done so yet because she got “preoccupied with packing” (224). After eating almost nothing but candy, and then subsequently getting very ill when she ate real food, Abu-Jaber’s first night home for Christmas break, her parents made “Homecoming Fatteh.” She describes it as “a layered dish of toasted bread, chicken, onion, spices, and pine nuts covered with a velvety yogurt sauce” (225). Abu-Jaber eats this dish “recklessly, like an amnesiac with no awareness of anything but the table, the sweet sadness of return, and the moon hanging like a sigh just beyond the long dark fields” (225). This dish doesn’t cure all of Abu-Jaber’s woes. She fights with her father over her major, and she continues to get sick throughout her month home on break, but it does start to shift something. It is a dish that is usable. It is usable to cure hunger, to prompt discussion, and to start to bring her back home. These recipes do what they do—they provide instructions on how to get something done. But, like memoirist Jessica Fetchor says, “a good recipe makes you brave” (200). It brings something new together, piece by piece, and invites the eater in.


This argument, based on two of Royster and Kirsch’s feminist rhetorical practices and exemplified through Abu-Jaber’s memoir and recipes, is positioned to argue for the necessity of recognizing the value of both the public and private rhetorical domains that women, specifically, often occupy. As I discussed moving from private to public, that was meant in no way to further marginalize or discount the private domain because the private domain is often where the wealth of these stories, traditions, and texts are birthed. It is within that domain that we feel at home, that we find who we are, and that we push the boundaries of our own communal, societal, and individual intersectional identities. For me, it is within the private domain that I learned how to mix chickpeas with olive oil, garlic, and salt and make a hummus that sings or subtly hints at flavor. It is within the private domain that my aunt shared my grandmother’s lubia recipe with me. It is within this domain that my aunts carefully crafted thin sheets of phyllo into crispy, flaky baklava for a family gathering of 200-plus cousins.

The bridging work, then, that we are called to do as feminists comes through understanding the foundational tenets of critical imagination and social circulation. It comes from recognizing that personal, private food stories and traditions are ones that not only can be shared but should be shared. This is what Royster and Kirsch argue for in the uptake of their feminist rhetorical practices. These are the stories of our grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. These are the stories of our cultures, societies, and families. The sharing of these stories, specifically private food stories, within the public domain do three specific things. The first is the way that writing about food can help the author and the reader process experiences and memories by giving them a tangible object on which to focus thoughts and emotions. The second is that food memoirs legitimize these everyday personal and communal experiences, and reveal that the truths of those situations are worth being communicated to a larger audience. The third is that food memoirs challenge different cultural scripts than other texts such as: pleasurable experiences are not valuable experiences to study, or experiences of food do not significantly impact our constructions of self and the world, or women in the kitchen means that they take a subservient role. The way that food memoirs help readers process, legitimize, and challenge their own experiences, identity pathways, and cultural scripts is significant because few texts allow this kind of exploration in such a seemingly familiar space that readers can relate to. These three tenets ask us, as scholars, to recognize and discuss both the private and public domains in which women operate and discuss both as worthy of academic and personal care, attention, and study.

Works Cited

Abu-Jaber, Diana. The Language of Baklava. Anchor Books, 2005.

—. Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir. Norton, 2016.

Avakian, Arlene. “Cooking Up Lives: Feminist Food Memoirs.” Feminist Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 277-303.

—. “Baklava as Home: Exile and Arab Cooking in Diana Abu-Jaber’s Novel Crescent.” Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite, SIU Press, 2017, pp. 132-141.

Bower, Anne. “Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings.” Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, edited by Anne L. Bower, University of Massachusetts P, 1997, pp. 1-14.

Cognard-Black, Jennifer. “The Embodied Rhetoric of Recipes.” Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite, SIU Press, 2017, pp. 30-47.

Eves, Rosalyn Collings. “A Recipe for Remembrance: Memory and Identity in African-American Women’s Cookbooks.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 24, no. 3, 2005, pp. 280- 297.

Fetchor, Jessica. Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home. New York, Plume, 2015.

Fleitz, Elizabeth. “Cooking Codes: Cookbook Discourse as Women’s Rhetorical Practices.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol.1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-8.

Goldthwaite, Melissa. “Preparation and Ingredients: An Introduction to Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics.” Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite, SIU Press, 2017, pp. 1-11.

Heck, Marina de Camargo. “Adapting and Adopting: The Migrating Recipe.” The Recipe Reader: Narratives-Contexts-Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, Routledge, 2003.

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, 2010, pp. 640-672.

Leonardi, Susan J. “Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster à La Riseholme, and Key Lime Pie.” PMLA, vol. 104, no. 3, 1989, pp. 340–347. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Mastrangelo, Lisa. “Community Cookbooks: Sponsors of Literacy and Community Identity.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 2015, pp. 73-86.

Montanari, Massimo. Food is Culture. New York, Columbia UP, 2004.

Nestle, Marion. “Forward,” Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa Goldthwaite, NYU Press, 2014, pp. xvii-xviii.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale, Southern Illinois UP, 2012.

Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. University of Minnesota, 2000.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. University of Minnesota, 2001.

Theophano, Janet. “Introduction.” Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote. Palgrave, 2002, pp. 1-10.

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