[an analysis by Brian Childers]
In E. J. Levy’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, the narrator begins the piece by talking about her mother’s passion for cooking and how she uses it to assert her domain in a loveless marriage. Food is a common element in the text, as it connects with the narrator’s own desires for finding love, even though her mother failed. It was the narrator’s inclination that love was the end all-be all, and relationships could not work without it, which is why Levi had trouble settling down, and immersed herself in cooking as her mother did. It is to her chagrin, that her parents remained together their whole lives, despite that fact that they only “like” each other. As the narrator states, there are “other painful, difficult things that bind people more surely than love ever will” (296).
An element of craft that helps this story reach its full potential is the tone of the voice. The tone is analytical and distant, even when Levi talks about subjects close to her, such as her parents’ marriage, or her own realization of lesbianism. This corresponds to the subject matter, as the story reads almost like a cookbook. A lack of passion and just the facts, presented by a person whose passion should be paramount.
“I like your father,” she said. “That is more important.” I do not disremember this. It remains with me like a recipe I follow scrupulously, an old family recipe. And when in my first year of graduate school my lover asks me if I love her, I try to form an answer as precise as my mother’s before me; I say, “I am very fond of you, I like and respect you,” and watch as pain rises in her face like a leavening loaf (296)
Within this passage, the tone of the voice demonstrates Levi’s desperate attachment to cookbook regulations and following in the footsteps of her mother. She remembers her mother’s comments on her marriage “like a recipe [she] follows scrupulously, an old family recipe” (296). This example, a microcosm of the story’s tone of voice, shows the coldness and distance that the speaker maintains, even while on the subject of her own family. Even when talking to her lover, Levi uses precise answers. She calculates and chooses her words carefully, keeping herself detached from what could possibly be a loving relationship.
The speaker’s isolation from emotion and feelings conveys the tone of the piece. She views her life as a recipe card, a series of instructions and a mix of ingredients. This is shown when Levi bought a used copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and she “scanned the book as if it could provide an explanation, as if it were a secret record of my mother’s thwarted passion” (298).
Thus, by trying to connect with her mother, the author voided herself of emotion, just as her mother did. She has become nothing more than a “secret record” within the confines of a cook book. Levi’s mother used cooking in place of love, and as the speaker attempted the same feat, she sacrificed her emotion in the process.