Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cover story: "Word of Mouth"

Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. After publishing on French literary identity in Literary France: The Making of a Culture, she studied the urban culture of Paris in Paris as Revolution: Reading the Nineteenth-Century City. Her work on cuisine and food started with Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine and has moved into an ever more comparative perspective.

Ferguson's latest book is Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food.

Here the author explains the connection of the book's cover, which features Edward Hopper's Tables for Ladies (1930) Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the pages within:
An ordinary moment in an ordinary restaurant. A waitress setting out a basket of fruit, a cashier at her post, absorbed in her duties, and finally two customers, a middle-aged, middle class couple engaged in conversation. What are the connections? A restaurant is so often the site of drama and glamor that the banality of this scene is arresting. Why, then, did I work overtime to get Edward Hopper’s Tables for Ladies for the cover image of Word of Mouth?

Good covers, effective covers, open a window onto the world of the book.The cover that every author hopes for translates into visual terms something of what the book is all about. Edward Hopper’s understated, wonderfully evocative Tables for Ladies (1930) does just that for Word of Mouth. Hopper’s restaurant shows one version of what the book as a whole explores— the many and varied culinary worlds that shape our relations with food, with eating and with cooking. Like every culinary world, this one is defined, first by sensuality and, second, by the sense of a social world sufficient unto itself.

As Word of Mouth makes clear, sensuality is key to understanding how we think about and “do” food. Tables for Ladies renders this sensuality through a mix of colors, subdued but within the same soft palette. The carefully arranged yellow grapefruit marching at an angle up the side of the window separate the observer looking in that window from the outside. The array of pineapple, lemons, and apples, the heads of lettuce and the chops display the foods. The color scheme sets the whites mixed with grey (the tablecloths, the waitress’s dress and apron, the man’s shirt, the floor tiles) against the yellows (from the bright grapefruit and blond hair of the waitress to the ochre of the ceiling and the door), the browns (the wall, the cashier’s hair, the clock), the blacks (the cashier’s dress, the man’s suit and tie and the woman’s hat and dress, the blackboard menus in the window, the outside wall), and greens (the lettuces and the soda bottles and especially the plants that frame the display of foods). The colors invite the reader into this world.

This world is modern, marked by social distance and physical proximity. The two customers, the cashier, and the waitress do not seem to be aware of each other, yet each is a necessary player in this world. This anonymity, and the ambiguity of the relationships of the participants, is a defining feature of the modern restaurant. Will we on the outside looking through the window yield to the foods on display? Or be tempted to enter this world? We read the menu and we read the restaurant. Will Tables for Ladies entice the browser to read Word of Mouth? Does the book live up to its cover?
Learn more about Word of Mouth at the University of California Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Word of Mouth.

--Marshal Zeringue