Session 3D: Nouvelle Cuisine

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3D. Nouvelle Cuisine

Timothy Fulford (Nottingham on Trent): "Romanticism, Breadfruit & Slavery"
Timothy Morton (Colorado): "Antiquing"
Pamela Perkins (Manitoba): "A Taste for Scottish Fiction: Christian Johnstone's Cook and Housewife's Manual"

"Romanticism, Breadfruit & Slavery"
Timothy Fulford
Nottingham on Trent

It is the contention of my paper that Romanticism, and British imperialism in the Romantic era, can be illuminated by an examination of the phenomenon of the breadfruit.

In the late-eighteenth century science and technology combined to make the exploration of previously unknown (unknown to Europeans) regions of the world desirable and possible for the first time. Captain Wallis discovered Tahiti in 1767, to be followed by major expeditions under Captain Cook. These expeditions had a sensational impact back in Europe. They stimulated further desire to explore, and, soon, to exploit and colonise the Pacific. They provoked the imagination of imperialists - who were duly opposed by anti-imperialists, who used the data Cook had collected about South Sea cultures to support their arguments.

Crucial to these arguments - and to the Romantic imagination - were a series of symbols in which South Sea liberty were thought to be embodied. One of these was the breadfruit, the naturally abundant plant of Tahiti, which Captain Bligh had been sent to transport to the West Indies on the Bounty. One of the first acts of the Bounty mutineers was to throw the breadfruit plants overboard. In 1790 their trial took place. Coleridge and Southey sympathised with them, agreeing that Captain Bligh's ship was the epitome of tyranny. Coleridge, it has been argued, had it in mind when writing 'The Ancient Mariner'. Bligh, however, was not simply an embodiment of tyranny. He was an abettor of Britian's slave colonies. The Bounty was exporting bread-fruit plants from recently-discovered Tahiti to the West Indies, to provide cheap food for slaves and so increase the prosperity of their masters.

What lay behind the Bounty voyage was a desire to make imperial capital out of natural abundance. And what lay behind Coleridge's and Southey's opinions of the voyage was their attitude to that desire. Through accounts of Tahiti, the bread-fruit had become a symbol of what indigenous peoples were like before their contact with the West. The bread-fruit stood for exotic fertility, for unfallen tropical paradises. Coleridge and Southey, as Pantisocrats, themselves wished to live in natural abundance, beyond the reach of imperialism and capitalism. The bread-fruit was thought to have made such wishes come true in Tahiti because it was so naturally prolific that it did not need cultivation. It exempted the islanders from the biblical injunction that man should earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.

For abolitionists such as Coleridge and Southey, sugar was the symbol of West Indian, and British, exploitation of nature and people. It was the commodity of slavery. Breadfruit, on the other hand, was a symbol of noble savagery, of primitive peace and liberty. In sending Bligh to transport breadfruit to the sugar plantations to feed Britain's slaves, the government was making the tree of liberty into the sustainer of imperial tyranny. It was changing an Edenic fruit into a staple of hell.

By 1803, views of South Sea cultures had altered. Discovery of promiscuity, homosexuality and infanticide in Tahitian culture changed opinions about the fruit. Because it exempted Tahitians from the need to labour for their bread, it was thought to give them time for sensual self-indulgence. Southey and Coleridge came to share this view. They saw it as a fruit of sensuality, and proposed a scheme to uproot it. That scheme was impracticable, but sending Christian missionaries was not. Southey and Coleridge became supporters of the Christianisation of Tahiti, and other indigenous peoples, to save them from their sensuality.

It was, in other words, through changing perceptions about Polynesia, perceptions centred in the symbolic bread-fruit, that these Bristol radicals came to move away from their anti-colonialist position towards the promotion of a British colonialism taking the form of Christian missions. Later Byron opposed that colonialism, and the puritanism on which it depended, in The Island, a poem which, like the young Bristol radicals, vindicated the Bounty mutineers. It also portrayed the bread-fruit as source and symbol of a sensual paradise. The bread-fruit remained food for Romantics' imagination, remained on the menu of arguments about colonialism, even as the slaves in the West Indies refused to eat it. I shall consider the breadfruit as a way of examining how Romantic attitudes to South Seas, and to native peoples, were influenced by the voyages of Cook. I shall argue that the breadfruit became, through the narratives of those voyages, a symbol of the exotic, of unfallen paradises - an object of Romantic desire. But I shall also show that breadfruit was an object of commercial and imperial competition, a foodstuff on which Britain's colonial propsperity would depend. Romanticism's fascination with the fruit, and the islands it symbolised, needs to be read in relation to Britain's desire to profit from it. Finally, I shall show that it was through the breadfruit that cultural attitudes to the South Sea shifted: its perceived effects on Tahitian culture made the first-generation Romantics increasingly reject it and lend their support to a missionary colonialism designed to Christianise 'savages'

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Timothy Morton
University of Colorado

This paper arises out of my work on The Poetics of Spice and Romantic Consumerism, a study of food and literature recently accepted for publication by Cambridge University press. It is a study of the representation of spice in the Romantic period. The second chapter is about the way in which spice is represented in meals and other scenes of consumption. It is principally a study of Keats, in which I demonstrate that the use of spices in the thirtieth stanza of The Eve of St. Agnes is a sophisticated form of figuration rather than an infantile or regressive one (as Levinson argued in Keats' Life of Allegory).

In working towards this demonstration, I discuss the ways in which the category of the antique emerged in the Romantic period. By "antique" is meant the modern notion of a commodity whose function or use value has changed radically or disappeared. Rather than the "antiquity" of ancient Classical culture, the antique was a nationalistic and to some extent domestic concept. Antiques were special kinds of luxury commodity, and luxury was a feature of the development of commercial capitalism through the long eighteenth century. In other words, the antique is "new" in two ways: it is a new kind of commodity, and its special role is to embody and enhance the aura of the commodity fetish.

English literature, another late eighteenth-century invention, fell somewhat into the category of the antique. Phenomena such as literary antiquarianism (Ritson and Percy) show how part of English literature's appeal was its construction of the past, and a sense of pastness. In particular, poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner were produced as "new" antiques: to use the recent neologism, they have been "antiqued."

It is possible to show that a certain new kind of commodity, the domestic antique, was employed in literary texts as well as in areas such as the furniture trade. Indeed, the notion of a national literary tradition was started by entrepreneurial supporters of Whiggish liberty at a time of colonial expansion, in the mid-eighteenth century. John Guillory has observed how Gray's Elegy was ready-made for a nascent liberal Whig entrepreneurial canon. The achieved archaism of commodities, which a late twentieth-century "luxury" goods catalogue might call "antiquing" (as in "antiqued gold"), may be analyzed in terms of Jan Mukarovsky's notions of aesthetic function. The aesthetic has the "ability to supplant some other function which the item (object or act) has lost in the course of its development." The very notion of the aesthetic was also a mid-eighteenth-century ideological response to the encroaching ravages of commerce. The aesthetic, the feminized, the antique and the literary were linked to each other and to the poetics of spice.

Further into the long eighteenth century, we can see the development of the cult of "old spice." The work of the divine and antiquarian Richard Warner (1763-1857) provides further evidence for the distinctive cultural construction of "antiqued," spiced meals in the Romantic period. Warner b ecame the best known literary figure in Bath, familiar with all the writers who frequented it and recording details of his encounters in Literary Recollections. In 1801 the Anti-Jacobin attacked his history of the city, and Warner praised Fox and attacked Pitt in sermons.

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"A Taste for Scottish Fiction: Christian Johnstone's Cook and Housewife's Manual"
Pamela Perkins
University of Manitoba

When the Scottish journalist and novelist Christian Isobel Johnstone published a cookbook in 1826, she chose to do so under a pseudonym. There is nothing remarkable about that, except that the pseudonym she chose -- Meg Dods -- was the name of a minor character in Walter Scott's St. Ronan's Well. Nor was Meg Dods the only fictional character Johnstone appropriated: the cookbook is introduced by a long story in which several other characters from St. Ronan's Well meet an English gourmand from Susan Ferrier's Marriage and then eagerly discuss their cultures, their health, and the theory and practice of cookery. This fictional framework, while not sustained in detail throughout the book, nonetheless reappears in occasional headnotes and footnotes added to the recipes. The book is thus perhaps the first example of cookbook fiction, but Johnstone's innovative play with genre is noteworthy as more than a mere curiosity of literary history. The book can be read as a commentary on the regionalist fiction it parodies, reflecting both the characteristic themes of the genre and its commercial power.

As she combines the newly popular genre of regional fiction with recipes, Johnstone displays her shrewd understanding of the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace. While writers had been using other author's characters at least since the days of Pamela, Johnstone's borrowings from Scott and Ferrier give a new twist to the practice, one which emphasizes the power of fiction as a commodity, as Johnstone in effect uses her contemporaries' fiction as an advertisement for her nonfictional work. This power is reinforced by the later use of Johnstone's borrowed characters, whom she collectively refers to as the "Cleikum Club," as the frame for stories by Catherine Gore, which were published in Tait's Magazine, then under Johnstone's editorship. The stories both attract an audience to themselves by the link with earlier work -- Johnstone's very successful cookbook as well as Scott's and Ferrier's novels -- and are a subtle advertisement for later editions of the cookbook, reminding audiences of it by keeping its characters in their sight over several issues of the magazine.

This paper will consist of two main sections. In the first, I will discuss the ways in which Johnstone uses the characters she appropriates, suggesting that the frame story constitutes a sophisticated literary in-joke, one in which Johnstone writes a story convincing enough for at least one reviewer to wonder if Scott had in fact written the book himself, but at the same time, she inverts the plots of her sources, jettisoning the serious main characters in favour of minor comic figures and exploiting for comic effect the political implications which critics such as Katie Trumpener have pointed out in the early nineteenth-century regionalist novel. As, for example, an Englishman and a Scot debate the political ramifications of various methods of cooking a turkey, Johnstone offers her readers a parodic version not just of her more famous contemporaries' characters, but of some of their dominant themes as well. In the rest of the essay, I will examine the ways in which this play with genre involves a shrewd manipulation of the commerical possibilities of fiction, focusing on the cookbook itself but also looking at Johnstone's later publication of Gore's work. I will place the work in the context of what critics such as Clifford Siskin have argued was a newly professionalized, newly commercialized early nineteenth-century literary marketplace, one which many writers then and since have seen as inimical to imaginative or innovative work. One would not want to make too many claims about a cookbook, however successful, written by a very minor author. Yet in her witty, commercially clever play with genre, Johnstone manages to exploit the commodification of popular fiction while remaining far from entirely conventional in her own writing.

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Last updated May 26, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell