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Kennan Ferguson, "Cookbook Politics" (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2020), 184 pp.:

Kennan Ferguson, Cookbook Politics (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2020), 184 pp.

The self-published cookbook Trump: A Cookbook for the Political Appetite, written by “An Average American,” includes recipes and musings inspired by the infamous words and insults of Donald Trump. Sporting a cover with a caricature of Hillary Clinton behind bars, it is a book that takes Trump-era political rhetoric and attempts to integrate this into everyday life through the medium of food. Despite the author’s claim that this is “the first political cookbook” (5), there is in fact a long tradition of political cookbooks in America, from the Democrat-made How to Cook Reagan’s Goose to Grand Old Party Recipes compiled by the Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club, not to mention more recent cookbooks like American Grown by former First Lady Michelle Obama. In fact, it was a cookbook, American Cookery, published in 1786 and authored by Amelia Simmons (an “American Orphan”), that gave us many of the quintessentially “American” dishes we now know and love, such as pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. The book’s recipes made use of local ingredients and, as a printed object disseminated to a wide audience, served to help create a national cuisine, and thereby a national identity. In doing so, it provided one important way for the young nation, itself a kind of metaphorical orphan, to set itself apart from the British Empire.

All cookbooks, even those not published by political parties, are political. This is the major claim of Kennan Ferguson’s Cookbook Politics: that “cookbooks operate in political ways […] along lines of power, distinction, and community” (2-3). A professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ferguson is interested not only in the ways in which cookbooks formalize, organize, and codify the political, but also in how cookbooks are “archives of taste” (115). To explore this connection, he uses exemplary cases—either single books or book types—to think about the political nature and effects of taste, not merely in a Bourdieusian sense but also literal taste: the embodied experience of eating. To do so, Ferguson turns to the concept of the sensorium, drawing on and expanding upon French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s concept of “the distribution of the sensible” (11).

Cookbooks, which may at first seem to be an unlikely object of study, serve as an inroad to these ephemeral and affective experiences. Throughout the book, Ferguson thoughtfully details the means by which cookbooks, as material records of taste, “enact and reflect affiliations” (4), be they regional, national, or international. In doing so, Ferguson addresses what he sees as a deficiency within political science, which tends to prioritize the conceptual over the sensible, to value the mind over the body, and which understands “the cultural imaginary […] as less real” (74). “Cookbooks,” Ferguson writes, “politicize those aspects of our lives that we usually neglect to notice as political: taste, production, family, collectivity, and imagination” (18-19). In this way, he echoes feminist scholars who have called for more attention to experience, the amateur, and the quotidian, and joins a thankfully growing number of scholars from a diversity of academic disciplines writing about this often overlooked genre.

As with a cookbook itself, Cookbook Politics is not meant to be read consecutively from cover to cover; rather, readers can “dip into” (1) the book’s five chapters as needed. After an introduction, chapter one breaks down the elements of cookbooks (book, genre, and recipe) and their political implications. It is refreshing that Ferguson pays such close attention to the material qualities of cookbooks, their objectness and tangibility, as well as the politics of their format. This chapter lays the theoretical groundwork for the following chapters but also makes one of the book’s most compelling claims: cookbooks are one of the most democratic of genres, as the books ask for participation, to be made and remade, according to the desires and needs of their readers. It is also the only chapter in which Ferguson, former director of the Center for 21st Century Studies, addresses the contemporary moment and shifting conceptualization of cookbooks as more and more content—including recipes—goes online.

In chapter two, Ferguson argues that the nature of cookbooks as collections of recipes makes them ideal for the project of nation-building in their ability to “emphasiz[e] regionalism while coordinating them into a collectivized identity” (44). As an example of this and how nations and national cuisines develop in tandem, Ferguson cites the increased inclusion of foreign dishes in American cookbooks just as the nation began to reconceptualize itself as a melting pot of diverse peoples. Looking beyond the single nation, chapter three considers how international relations have played out through cookbooks and food, focusing in on the case study of Julia Child’s bestselling cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. “[F]ood,” he writes, “proves an important way in which nations themselves differentiate their own culture from others” (60). But not only did Child’s book (written with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck) domesticate French food for an American audience, he argues, it created an image of France in the minds of middle-class Americans, one that softened attitudes towards the country. At a time when Francophobia gripped American politicians, Julia Child changed citizens’ attitudes with her cookbook.

Chapter four moves from the world stage to the regional. Originally published in 2012 in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, this chapter looks at collectivity expressed in community cookbooks, a type of book first published and sold by Northern women’s groups during the Civil War. It is difficult to encapsulate the astounding number, variety, and sheer quirkiness of these self-published and communally-authored books. To do so, Ferguson describes not only one book, but rather numerous examples from the entire genre, paying particular attention to the books’ production, which, he notes, resembled the publishing practices of second-wave feminists. Yet rather than seeing these books as fundamentally oppressive or liberating for their women creators, either upholding a domestic ideal or subverting it, Ferguson suggests that the books are significant for their ability to “intensify community” by reinforcing religious, racial and/or ethnic, and class boundaries (76).

The final chapter is undoubtedly the most enjoyable and surprising as it explores the unlikely relationship between Italian nationalism, fascism, and the avant-garde embedded in The Futurist Cookbook. Although its connection to the current slow food movement is somewhat hastily made by Ferguson, the chapter prevails in demonstrating the differing ways cookbooks and food go beyond “naturalizing a sense of state that one can taste” to attempting to reshape the future of a nation through its food customs (48).

Ferguson locates his book in the field of philosophy, but this should not discourage those with other research interests from picking it up. Readers unfamiliar with political theory will find Ferguson’s writing engaging, accessible, and inviting. The book’s themes speak to a broad range of fields, including gender studies, book studies, and, not least of all, American studies. Despite ventures to several nations, this is a work centered around the United States and its political history: Ferguson even threads in American nation-building while detailing the nationalist implications of an Italian cookbook in chapter five.

The book ends with a return to the concept of taste in the conclusion, presenting one final tantalizing idea: the cookbook as archive. Although just a few pages long, this section weaves into current conversations about decolonizing the archive and the role such institutions play in consecrating some while dismissing others. In attending to the food practices and experiences recorded and shared in cookbooks, Ferguson works to bring forward those missing elements, both the significant but understudied influence of embodied experiences and the very real “bodies involved” (118), those of the people who participate in kinds of everyday politics.

For all its diminutive size, Cookbook Politics offers a unique perspective and makes an important contribution as an invitation to rethink the location of politics: on the political stage, in our kitchens, in our imaginations, or through our mouths and into our stomachs.

Ellen Barth (Universität Münster)

Works Cited


Child, Julia, et al. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1961. Print.


Hamilton County Republican Women’s Club. Grand Old Party Recipes. Overland Park, KS: Cookbook, 1986. Print.


Obama, Michelle. American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens across America. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.


Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery. Albany, NY: Charles R. & George Webster, 1796. Print.


The Women’s National Democratic Club. How to Cook Reagan’s Goose: Winning Food Guide from Our Nation’s Chef Democrats. New York: Karz-Cohl, 1984. Print.

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