When Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite were working on their doctorates at Ohio State University, they realized they shared an affinity for reading and eating. Specifically, both women read and swapped literary works that had recipes in them. Not cookbooks, but novels, such as Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat” and the late Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn.”
At the time, novels featuring recipes were fairly rare, but both women recognized and appreciated that the union of the two formed a metaphoric and literal experience as they consumed both the literature and the food.
“Understanding food is a way of capturing what it means to be human,” said Cognard-Black.
Although not a big fan of lima beans, Cognard-Black was intrigued by the character Rachel Samstat in “Heartburn,” and by Rachel’s mother’s Lima Beans and Pears recipe. Cognard-Black prepared the beans, and together she and Goldthwaite discussed the novel and ate the lima beans and pears.
Take 6 cups defrosted lima beans, 6 pears, peeled and cut into slices, ½ cup molasses, ½ cup chicken stock, ½ onion chopped, put into a heavy casserole, cover and bake 12 hours at 200 degrees. (That's the recipe as it appears in "Heartburn.")
“I vividly remember that book, the food and recipes,” said Cognard-Black, a Lincoln native. “It was the first time I made a recipe from a novel, and even now, I love taking a recipe from a piece of fiction, and eating the food, and seeing how it affects my sense of that character.”
As English professors now, Cognard-Black and Goldthwaite still share a love of good literature and food, and both have developed college courses at their respective institutions about the literature of food. The women use poetry, essays, literature and films that have recipes, and they exchange ideas for readings and assignments.
“One evening, over a meal and a glass of wine, we agreed upon the thing we were both struggling with: There was no anthology to use for our classes. Melissa said that we should do a book together, where every piece of writing has a recipe in it, and that’s what we did,” Cognard-Black said of their recently published book, “Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal” (New York University Press, $30).
We’re obviously dependent on food. “We live to eat,” she said, “but we also eat to live. The prevalence of contemporary novels and films that depict food and recipes shows that this idea has taken hold.”
One of the films Cognard-Black uses in her class is "Big Night," the 1996 comedy drama starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as brothers who run a tiny, and failing, Italian restaurant. Refusing to compromise their culinary principles by preparing mediocre (i.e., Americanized) fare, they gamble on one dinner, during which they prepare timpano, a complicated baked pasta dish, for local dignitaries to save their restaurant.
In the final scene, after confrontations, misunderstandings and betrayal, one brother prepares an omelet for the other. They divide the omelet, commiserating over their meal as the sun comes up.
“Among the many lessons of the film, it was from watching Stanley Tucci prepare that omelet, that I learned how to make an omelet without it sticking to the pan,” said Cognard-Black.
Another pivotal work in Cognard-Black’s life and in her classes is Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.” For her, it perfectly embodies the concept of the novel as a social protest, but even more, the role that food plays in bridging our cultural, racial and religious differences.
“The novel is a condemnation of American oppression, but even more, it shows us how to fight oppression -- cook food for each other. Share a meal together,” said Cognard-Black. “It’s powerful if you can make food together -- actually prepare a regional or familial meal that represents our diverse backgrounds. We have this opportunity to take what we may consider exotic and eat it together. In doing so, we’re making ourselves vulnerable by bringing that into our own bodies. It allows us to understand one another, whether the fears are racial, homophobic or religious.”
Now a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public honors college, Cognard-Black earned her bachelor of arts in English and music from Nebraska Wesleyan University. On Friday, she will return to Wesleyan for the start of the homecoming festivities to host a reading of selections from her book. Amid readings and book signings, students -- and the general public -- may feast on mango cake and Roman Punch, prepared from recipes in the selected readings.
At 3 p.m. in the Prairie Wolf Room of the NWU Student Center, Cognard-Black will be joined by Ted Kooser, whose poem "How to Make Rhubarb Wine" is the final piece in her book. Her father, retired Wesleyan English professor Roger Cognard, will read an original poem by the late William Kloefkorn. The poem, "Porkchop Gravy, An Invocation," opens the book.
“Both poems are special, and I love the fact that the book begins and ends with poems from Nebraska poets. As a Nebraskan and someone who comes back here regularly, I wanted a Ted Kooser poem and Bill Kloefkorn poem,” Cognard-Black said. “Bill was my poetry professor, and when I wrote and asked for a poem of his, he wrote this work for the book. It’s very special, and it will be his last previously unpublished posthumous poem.”
Cognard-Black and Goldthwaite point out in their book that recipes are culture keepers as well as culture makers.
“It’s time for us as readers and Americans to take recipes more seriously,” said Cognard-Black. “Recipes tell a story. The ingredients used are a time capsule, and when we make recipes, we can make different times come alive.”