How Iconic Cookbooks Reflect the Politics of the World Around Them
They Can Even Play a Role in Shaping Them
Nitza Villapol, Cuba’s first celebrity chef and bestselling cookbook author, is best remembered for teaching a starving nation how to cook. In one of the last editions of her iconic cookbook, Cocina al Minuto, she adapted popular recipes to be made with no cooking fat, and suggested substitutions for other, once considered necessary, ingredients. Apocryphally, an accompanying TV episode showed viewers how to make ropa vieja with plantain peels instead of beef, sparking a debate about the definition of iconic Cuban foods. It was two years into the desperate period following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 known, ironically, as “The Special Period in Time of Peace,” during which Cubans lost an average of 20 pounds because of malnutrition.
During this time—and the vast insecurity of the decades prior—food, or the lack thereof, married the political and the personal in Villapol’s cookbooks and beyond. Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, trade agreements allowed mostly American imports to populate Cuban shelves in exchange for inexpensive sugar, creating a native cuisine rife with non-native ingredients. The initial 1949 edition of Cocina al Minuto was filled with American and Cuban brand names, and among the Cuban dishes were American-inspired foods including spaghetti, American fried chicken, and pie (pronounced pai, Villapol instructed). A third of the recipes were for desserts, almost always made with imported wheat flour.
Then, as Castro lobbied for support among the Cuban people in the late 1950s, the literal and metaphorical uses of food became revolutionary rallying cries. He was fighting against the inequality that allowed the rich to eat lobster while the poor sifted through the trash, and his supporters sang of eating malanga—a root vegetable that was considered peasant food—and eschewed American bubble gum to support the new government. Little did they imagine how prophetic these slogans would become.
Immediately after Castro took power, the cookbook changed. Dishes made from still-available native ingredients, like malanga and black beans, were elevated, while references to English words and many of the wheat-based desserts disappeared. Later editions used malanga as a sweetener for flourless sweets and offered various ways to prepare dishes without fat or meat, presenting flexible approaches to cooking. This new political reality required Cubans to be creative and innovative in the kitchen—a different approach to cooking, and living, than Villapol’s early editions touted.
I came across the story behind these different editions quite by accident. After I returned to the US from my first visit to Havana, where I had first heard of Nitza Villapol as “Cuba’s Julia Child,” I set out to track down a copy of her seminal cookbook on the internet. But there were so many editions. A copy published in 2004 had reviews that warned consumers against it. One stated: “Beware! This isn’t the cookbook my grandmother had!” Another said the recipes were flavorless and lacked ingredients from the version they remembered. So I dug deeper until I found a listing from a used bookstore that reviewers confirmed was a reprint of the original. An early Cuba-printed edition cost hundreds of dollars, so I settled for one printed in the United States that featured no mention of Nitza on its otherwise identical blue cover. Comments confirmed it was the same as the tattered version on their mother’s shelf. In numerous reviews, buyers expressed thanks that they could replace their mother’s copy, described more than once as being held together with rubber bands.“The new political reality required Cubans to be creative and innovative in the kitchen—a different approach to cooking, and living, than Villapol’s early editions touted.”
But then I began to think about the newer edition and the changes Nitza made. I went back and ordered that one too. As I researched these different versions of the cookbook and the story of the author who wrote them, Nitza’s life and enduring imprint on Cuban food culture began to take shape. What I found as I read through and translated various versions of Nitza’s cookbooks—from before Fidel Castro took over the country and nationalized almost every industry to afterward—was more than a few ingredient changes. Its commentary, which is often overlooked in cookbooks, reflected a changing worldview. Gone were the product brand name mentions, from appliances to cooking oil, and in their place were ruminations on the diverse influences upon Cuban identity. She offered a very pro-Cuban perspective—in retrospect, a reflection on Castro’s strong-armed national identity—alongside revised cooking instructions for how to cook eggs with water should you not have any oil. Unlike most cookbooks on my overflowing shelf, there was ample encouragement to make do, to experiment, to adjust according to what you had in your (at this time, all too often bare) cupboard. The food might not be as nuanced, especially for those who remembered abuela’s chicken mojo, but these revised recipes helped provide hope and encouragement for keeping culinary traditions alive while staying within bounds of Castro’s vigilant eye.
I thought often about this finding over the next year or so, as I learned more about Cuban food culture and history and parsed Julia Child cookbooks looking for the comparison often given between her and Nitza. Yes, they both inspired decades of cooks, and had bestselling cookbooks and popular, long-running television shows. But I came to understand that Cocina al Minuto was more akin, if we had to make a comparison for American audiences, to the Joy of Cooking. This tome was written by Irma Rombauer in 1931, early in the Great Depression, and also went through various editions that reflected broader cultural and political shifts. While the United States’ political winds did not change course quite as drastically as Cuba’s, its rhetoric and the ingredients available to many Americas did evolve.
These changes began less than a decade after Joy of Cooking’s first publication, including the addition of recipes for dishes like guacamole and stroganoff that represented a diversifying culture and signaled the movement of certain ethnicities once considered “exotic” toward acceptance as “American.” A chapter on wartime rationing, including politically tinged nationalistic commentary, was adding during World War II and then deleted a few decades later. Portion sizes grew in accordance with American preferences, and more international foods and ingredients, from Chow Mein to kiwis, are now fully integrated into the book that many consider defines American cuisine.
I was reminded anew of how cookbooks reflect political and social realities—and can add an often overlooked perspective to the day to day and behind-closed-door experience of individuals—when reading Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, published in 2013 and detailing, in part, her childhood growing up in Soviet Russia through the lens of food. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, published in 1939, held a similar place in the hearts of Soviet Jews as Nitza Villapol’s tome did for Cubans, despite the fact that, as Bremzen told me, it was written by a “committee of ‘scientists’ and nutritionists and ideologues and it was published by the food commissariat.” Basically it was a tool of Soviet propaganda, whose “color—physical and political—kept changing with each new regime and edition: a dozen editions in all, more than eight million copies in print,” as she writes in her book. In addition to recipes, the original 1939 edition taught “good socialist housekeeping” alongside broad-reaching propaganda about “joyous, abundant, cultured socialist living,” with vast photos spreads of happy Soviets and flowery praise of Soviet agricultural marvels. The collectivist ethnic cuisines from around the USSR’s 15 far-flung republics were praised and added to the culinary lexicon. But in studying how The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food evolved from the 1930s onward, the changing political ideology of the Soviet Union becomes apparent.
Bremzen notes that the 1952 edition that her mother learned to cook from reflected post-war xenophobia; “gone were 1939’s Jewish teiglach recipes. . . . Canapes, croutons, consommes—such ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ froufrou was expunged. Ditto sendvichi, kornfleks, and ketchup. . . ” And she says that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the idea of the domestic housewife teaching future generations to cook was introduced, backing away from “early Bolshevik feminist ideals” right around the time that second wave feminism was taking hold in much of the western world. While Bremzen wrote that a reader could “follow post-war policy shifts by comparing” the two editions, one could also note the inverse—that the cookbooks themselves illustrate the ways that these policy shifts affected everyday life, such as professional opportunities for women in Russian society. Ultimately, even in post-Soviet Russia many were nostalgic for the recipes—and rhetoric—of the past. The 50th anniversary of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was celebrated in the media and is still widely used and considered the iconic Russian cookbook, perhaps indicating that food can even transcend politics.
For the Jewish American community immigrating to the United States in the early 1900s, The Settlement Cookbook not only connected them to their culture but also signaled how to integrate their existing identity into the new land in which they were settling. Originally published in 1901 as a fundraising cookbook for the Settlement House, which supported immigrant and impoverished women with health care, child care, and education, by the Milwaukee-based social service worker Lizzie Black Kander, it went on to sell more than two million copies of as many as 40 editions over the next century. Its mere existence reflects the history of secular Eastern European Jewish immigrants as “being active feminists and, often, civil rights advocates,” Layla Schlack, food journalist and senior editor at Wine Enthusiast, notes, with a relatively high number of Jewish women choosing to work and volunteer outside of the home even when not financially necessary.
The cookbook was a progressive beacon for Jewish immigrants and other newcomers to America, many of whom arrived with little more than a change of clothes and a few personal affects. Says Schlack, “the fact that poor immigrant families should not only be allowed, but encouraged, to live like landed middle-class Americans” was a key message of these early editions of The Settlement Cookbook and one that still “feels a little subversive in our current climate.” It was meant to transcend class and background and gender: “Settlement kept working to make the home lives of readers (Jewish or not) comfortable and happy, but also achievable to people who worked, and to people on all rungs of the economic ladder.”
Subsequent editions of The Settlement Cookbook reflected changing food and health trends through the inclusion of dishes like Pad Thai and low-fat substitutions, as well as through a change in the kinds of housekeeping advice included, “such as tapering off in tips about how to set a perfect table,” says Schlack. She says this evolution demonstrates not only the changes occurring in Jewish American and mainstream American culture at the time, but also the successes and assimilation of Jewish immigrants and their descendants in society more broadly.
Cookbooks, perhaps more than almost any other genre, truly reflect the culture around them—they are oftentimes bellwethers or even leaders of cultural change. For too long, cookbooks were considered merely utilitarian and deeply gendered, written mostly by women to teach mostly female readers how to keep house, feed their family, and perhaps even nourish their marriage. But as we look back, especially at books that have stood the test of time and continued to evolve alongside whatever culture they sought to represent, we can understand these iconic cookbooks and their often female authors as possessing more power than they were once given credit for. Nitza Villapol’s recipes changed demand for certain ingredients in Cuba as readers and viewers sought to make new dishes; this in turn affected supply, and eventually, an entire industry. Her rhetoric about Cuban pride was internalized, as were her teachings about self-sufficiency. Likewise, Joy of Cooking encouraged readers to expand their own definition of what it means to be American, while the Settlement Cookbook encouraged immigrants to see themselves as worthy of healthy food and a nicely set table.
Cookbooks not only reflect culture, but provide an ongoing discourse between generations of readers, who continue to buy the books they once relied on for their children or replace their well-worn copies with updated versions that nod to the past while looking to the future.