I was delighted to see Paula’s post with Woolf sightings in cookbooks. Many people would think it unlikely to find Woolf associated with cooking and the enjoyment of food, recalling her as an anorexic who took little pleasure from eating.
But in fact, just as she was lively and outgoing when she was well compared to the depression and anxiety that accompanied her sporadic mental illness, so too, she had a vivid appreciation for food, in both her personal enjoyment and appreciation of it and her use of it in her novels and essays, letters and diaries.
This was the premise of my paper at the 2010 International Conference on Virginia Woolf , “’A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage’: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.” In my research, I waded through several volumes on the psychological analyses that attributed her eating disorders to mental illness and/or childhood trauma and found them narrowly focused on her dysfunction at the expense of her artistry.
I chose to focus on Woolf’s own words instead, and there are so many to choose from. In 1907, she wrote to her friend Nelly Cecil, “Why is there nothing written about food—only so much thought? I think a new school might arise, with new adjectives and new epithets, and a strange beautiful sensation, all new to print.” She proceeded to do that throughout her life.
The reason bouef en daube has been immortalized in literary cookbooks is because it is one of the most sumptuous and sensuous dishes described in literature, and the meal at which it was served is the pivotal point in the connections among the Ramsey family and their circle of guests. E. M. Forster said of this scene that, “Such a dinner cannot be built on a statement beneath a dish-cover which the novelist is too indifferent or incompetent to remove. Real food is necessary, and this, in fiction as in her home, she knew how to provide. She put it in because she tasted it.…”
Food descriptions in The Waves are mouth-watering. Consider Neville’s “delicious mouthfuls of roast duck, fitley piled with vegetables…,” the butter oozing through Bernard’s crumpet, and Susan plunging her hands into the bread dough. And in Orlando, the phrase “good to eat” is used because there isn’t a word for “beautiful.”
Someone commented that if only there had been an Alice B. Toklas to chronicle Woolf’s feasts and private pleasures; well, Woolf was the consummate artist, and she brilliantly recorded them herself. I haven’t even touched on her own cooking and eating, which I believe to be the “proof of the pudding” about Virginia Woolf ‘s love of food, but I’ll cook something up for next time.