Watching the dame blanche melt


Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, ably translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is set primarily in a fine dining establishment where two brothers and their wives discuss the aftermath of their respective sons’ complicity in a reckless act of violence. Much has been made of how the different courses of the evening’s meal frame the action in the present and serve to contain the increasingly frequent and more in-depth flashbacks that fill in the context for the frequent silences during the meal.  However I would like to suggest here that it is the dessert ordered by Serge Lohman, one of the four central candidates, the dame blanche, that most clearly encapsulates the action that drives the plot during the course of the evening.  

The much maligned dame blanche makes its appearance late in the novel, in the dessert course.  However, it serves as an evocative symbol for much that occurs. The readers’ first exposure to it comes courtesy of the obsequious manager’s description:

‘The blackberries are from our own garden,’ said the manager. ‘The parfait is made from homemade chocolate, and these are shaved almonds, mixed with grated walnuts.’ (217)

This detailed narrative deconstruction of the dessert into its constituent parts is simultaneously an accurate representations of how restaurants try to increase the overall value of their meal offerings, but it also  a perverse commentary on nativism.  Neither the fruit nor the chocolate are imported, and their local origins rein scribe the importance of the domicile even though the dessert itself is being consumed at a commercial establishment away from home. This speaks to the not-so latent xenophobia that runs through the plot as a recurring motif, describing not just the Dutch, but extended to the French as well in our narrator’s estimation.

Whereas his affluent and influential brother, Serge, a successful politician with national ambitions considers dessert just the natural end of a meal, Paul distances himself from such rigid and conventional notions, not only claiming to disdain sweets in general but, then, going so far as to take the dessert’s plainness as a personal affront: 

My brother always chose the mos ordinary desserts on the menu. Vanilla ice cream, crepes with syrup, an that was about it. I sometimes thought it had to do with his blood sugar level, the same blood sugar level that left him high and dry in the middle of nowhere at the most in opportune moments. But it also had to do with his lack of imagination (218)

For his part, Paul claims no special culinary sophistication himself; his air of superiority regarding his brother has to do with the fact that Serge eats very fast, barely tasting it, whereas he himself consumes his food at a more moderate pace. Throughout the dinner, Paul keeps eyeing the uneaten dessert ass it melts and becomes less appetizing; he equates its gradual loss of integrity with his brother’s moral failure as a husband, since Serge’s wife, Babette, defiantly refuses to eat what her husband ordered for her.  Paul reads the ice cream for signs of the deterioration of their marriage, being utterly convinced that he is the only Lohman destined to know and enjoy “happiness.”

Therein lies the final aspect of the dame blanche‘s symbolic role within the narrative.  Dessert by its very luxurious and indulgent nature is itself the promise of happiness and delight at the end of a grown-up meal. In fact, the blandness that so offends Paul is absolutely the common denominator of all childlike treats: vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings. What could be more simple than that? However, the name of the treat suggests an association with the women at the table, not with the men. It’s intended recipient, Babbette, rejects it.  However its appellation describes her aptly, at least in her role as mother. Babbette and Serge have two biological children, a boy and a girl, and an adopted son from Burkina Faso. Paul constantly makes snide remarks about their transracial adoption, calling the family’s motives into question by suggesting it was all politically motivated. To Beau, her son, then Babbette is indeed a “dame blanche” or a white lady.  

Paul’s wife, Claire, can also be encompassed within the meaning of the confection since clarity is often associated with whiteness. For Paul, and for their son, Claire is a sweet but commanding presence within the household. Unlike Babbette, however, who cries all the way through dinner in the same way that the uneaten ice cream slowly weeps as the evening wears on, Claire is so cold she will not melt.  When faced with adversity, she remains clear-headed and calm and thus emerges as the novel’s most surprising monster.

The Dinner is a delicious read, though it will definitely not suit all tastes. One must have a strong stomach to get through to the end, and the conclusion is satisfying, though bracing.

Herman Koch.  The Dinner. Trans. Sam Garrett.  Hogarth: New York, 2013.

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Graphic Art and the Slaughterhouse

Even before the wide-spread adoption of “ag-gag” laws banning the filming of animal cruelty in farms without the owner’s consent, British-born artist Sue Coe has used her considerable drawing and illustrating skills to capture deeply moving scenes of the indignities to which many an animal is subjected to on its journey to our collective dinner plates. By sharing her scathing criticism of factory farming and inhumane slaughterhouse practices through the medium of illustrated books and graphic (non-fiction novels), Coe and her narrative collaborators succeed in evoking childhood as a time of innocence where cuddly, anthropomorphic animals loomed large in our collective imagination.

The contrast she elicits between our adult experience which is jaded to the pain of our non-human companions and the innocence of childhood as a time of deeply engrained empathy with our animal spirit guides is not new. William Blake himself enshrined this tension in his brilliant illuminated collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. And, it is directly with Blake that Coe’s images demand comparison, though I fear the text that accompanies them pales in comparison with the Romantic bard’s verse.

Whereas Blake’s visual imagery complements and magnifies the achievements of his texts, Coe achieves a coherent visual narrative that almost dispenses with the need for annotation or explanation in its ability to convey a swift and visceral condemnation of the wanton cruelty and disregard built into an industry increasingly mechanized and unfeeling: the modern food system, with its factory farming and assembly line slaughter.

As an introduction to those unfamiliar with Coe’s work, I would like to suggest the following pairing. The magic of the images is such that its composition fascinates even as its content repels. It appeals to both adults and children, a fact I discovered when my 9 year old son sat mesmerized trying to make sense of the spectacle before him rather than fleeing in terror.

Dead Meat Sue Coe

 

The first of these is, Dead Meat (1996), which I would describe as a graphic (non-fiction) novel. The reason I assign this genre to it because it chronicles the sights she saw when she toured slaughterhouses and witnessed various species as they waited to be dispatched to the hereafter. Because she had with her only a sketchbook, rather than a camera, her presence was not deemed as dangerous or damaging to the company’s reputation. Thus, we the readers benefit from seeing the results of what factory owners, through their lack of art or visual cultural capital, dismissed as childish or insubstantial.

The framing essay by Alexander Cockburn provides some helpful context to readers unfamiliar with Coe’s biography or her previous work. But it is through the artist’s powerful images, and the direct and unaffected prose through which she chronicles her interviews with workers on the killing floor, owners, and farmers that readers realize the mounting drama of a deeply dysfunctional food system that continues to supply our protein staples without much intervention to correct the wrongs upon which this work sheds light.

The second volume I would like to recommend, Sheep of Fools, moves outside of the American context of her earlier work and instead showcases how the global food system facilitates an even greater, because lesser known, universe of pain and suffering by introducing the concept of oceanic travel as an intermediate step between the farm, the feeding lot, and the slaughterhouse.

Sheep of Fools

This time, the volume is much slimmer, but its visual impact remains undiluted. The book addresses the traffic in live sheep from Australia to the Middle East for slaughter according to the principles of halal butchering. What’s most impressive in this volume is how little shame it actually casts upon the religious principles which brought about this inhumane industry. Coe is at pains to contextualize this objectionable butchering practices among others that characterized the England of old as well as certain elements of the industrialized food system. Yet the title of the volume, with its obvious pun, draws attention to this uniquely cruel form of gaining access to fresh meat.

The least successful aspect of this volume is its slavish dedication to verse as its chosen medium of textual communication. Song cycles don’t usually take place on the page and for good reason. The musical accompaniment can elevate merely mundane observations to the reign of the sublime. That kind of lifting is missing here and sorely needed.

While the fiery red palette and the somewhat childish faces of the humans who are depicted in this picture book fiercely convey Coe’s condemnation of these practices, the various songs and poems that accompany them hit a false note. They fall flat and alienate the viewer from the visual drama on the page. But, this is indeed a volume worth checking out for the pictures. After all, not everything that can be said on this topic needs to be limited to mere words.

Works Cited

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence and of Experience. in Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Coe, Sue. Dead Meat New York: Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1996.

Coe, Sue and Judith Brody. Sheep of Fools: A Song Cycle for Five Voices. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics, 2005.

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Best Served Cold: Restaurant Receipts as Revenge Lit

Dinner Receipt Lit

There is a disturbing new trend in food writing, one which subverts the prevailing logic of the hospitality industry by embedding deeply personal insults within a highly public medium of transmission: the restaurant receipt. The offending textual inscriptions, whether penned by hand or typed in to blend in with the rest of the computer generated corporate template, the check has now become a potentially sinister vehicle for somewhat anonymous venom directed at the specific server or diner involved within the financial transaction that culminates a purchased meal.

The invective’s relationship to the act of eating is at most circumstantial, in that it is typically composed within the confines of an eating establishment or aimed directly at the purveyor of one’s repast. However, the content of the insult itself goes beyond food and attacks the appearance, behavior, identity (racial, ethnicity, gender), national origin, or marital status of the victim. However, as befits the times, the revenge wreaked upon the offender exposes the scribbler’s ignorance and prejudices for all the world to see and, presumably, to condemn by “publishing” such vitriol via social media. The end result, unsurprisingly, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

A few recent cases in point illustrate the nadir of this trend, which l contend constitutes its own kind of food poisoning. Take the anti-Mexican comment typed within the body of a customer’s order at a Mexican restaurant in Denver. The receipt itself was written in Spanglish, and both the customers at whom this was aimed and the restaurant owner are Mexican American.  Or, the apparent hoax at a Red Lobster restaurant in Tennessee, in which the waitress claimed a customer wrote the n-word in a receipt, and the non-tipping patron in question sued her in court for slander. A waitress who wrote a homophobic slur on a bar tab brushed it off by saying it was meant in jest, without apologizing. These disputes simultaneously serve as testaments to the age–in which protests against institutionalized racism and the urgent need for immigration reform have prompted the activism of Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, and those working towards Marriage Equality, but also sparked reactionary xenophobia and homophobia among petty vandals who think nothing of defacing a public document as a means of venting their ignorant views.

Sadly, the real debate a lot of these receipts should give rise to is whether the practice of tipping within the U. S. restaurant industry should continue, a topic newly relevant given the prominence of the Fight for Fifteen movement nationally, which calls for paying restaurant employees of all stripes a living wage.

Even when the comments written on receipts are positive, such as when an anonymous Olive Garden diner paid for a Muslim family’s meal on Christmas and expressed his/her admiration for the “beautiful family,” or a restaurant owner who gave a 15% discount to a family for praying before eating their meal and then was pressured into stopping such a “discriminatory” practice, the use of a receipt to convey such sentiments seems to violate our long-held gastronomic social contract of avoiding certain topics, such as politics or  religion, during meals to ensure a peaceful and pleasant experience at the table.  Other recent examples of receipt writing that have gone viral include efforts to reward breastfeeding in public, fat shame a female customer, and protest the hiring of foreign nationals or just mere humans.

In closing, this post is a call for diners and wait-staff to refrain from treating receipts like the comments section on an online publication. Let’s all strive to enjoy our meals and leave one another to digest in peace. And, let the food writing to those Yelpers or Urban Spooners who actually have something to say about the attributes of the food on order, rather than those who eat it or bring it to them.

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Where does your orange juice come from?

As we groggily sit down to breakfast while reading or watching the day’s news, few of us stop to consider where the oranges in the juice we drink each morning came from. However, Florida’s Naturals Growers juice co-op would like to change all that. The company first came to prominence with a series of folksy ads featuring a helpful farmer in a sunny grove placing a carton of orange juice into the eagerly outstretched hand of a mother reaching out through her grocery store’s refrigerator section. Early in 2012, the juice co-op debuted an aggressive new ad campaign to replace the neighborly image they had previously cultivated pitching their product as being “As close to the grove as you can get,” with a somewhat paranoid question addressed to the public at large: “Where does your juice come from?”[1] This new tone dispenses with the friendly emphasis on the direct connection between growers and consumers in its previous ad campaign, and replaces it with a challenge that puts the juice drinker on the defensive, wondering: do I know where my juice comes from? Should I care?[2] This marketing strategy casts aspersions on the ingredient sourcing practices used by the company’s direct competitors by implying that the use of juice from oranges grown outside of the United States is un-patriotic, imperils national food security, or takes jobs away from American orange growers.

The Florida’s Naturals co-op website features a “Where does your juice come from?” quiz which allows visitors to the site to guess which of three brands of orange juice does not use imported orange juice. The correct answer is, obviously, their own. However, when onhttp://www.floridasnatural.com/our-juices/know-your-juicese clicks on the pictures of the competitors’ juice bottles, the images flip over to show the back view and zoom in on the items’ country of origin label (COOL), a requirement that dates back to the Tariff Act of 1930 and, in a rather interesting turn of affairs, is overseen not by the Food and Drug Administration, but by U.S. Customs. The “Where does your juice come from?” ad campaign appeals to the latent xenophobia or isolationist tendencies of Florida’s Naturals’ consumers by manipulating the visual proof of their competitors’ compliance with U.S. law, the country of origin label, against them. The zoomed-in pictures of bottles of Simply Orange and Minute Maid Orange juice feature a red circle drawn around the words “US/Brazil,” whereas the image of the carton of Florida’s Naturals Premium Orange juice depicts the tagline “Product of USA” framed by a miniature American flag. The flag conveys patriotism, a sentiment denied to the other two companies even though they combine the juice from U. S. grown, as well as Brazilian, oranges in their bottles.[3]

This implication is made manifest even more explicitly once a visitor clicks on the “correct” choice of Florida’s Natural Premium Orange juice. Not only does the question repeated at the top of the page, with the words, “GROWN ONLY IN THE U.S.” visually depicted in bold orange all caps, but the textual “answer” that follows this question, which is already framed on the left side of the screen by an image of the orange juice carton, proudly declares: “Florida’s Natural premium orange juice uses only oranges grown right here in the U.S. / All of our oranges are grown by U. S. Farmers in Florida. And only Florida.” This emphasis on the orange’s “native” grown status casts aspersions on the “foreign” grown oranges blended into the brand’s competitors’ orange juice, thereby implying that this alimentary intermixing of orange juices of different national origins is, at worst, unpatriotic, and at best, a “diluted” inter-Americanism resulting from trade policies like those codified by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tellingly, the ad campaign says nothing about the nationality of the workers who harvest the orange crops in Florida. While the orange juice inside the package may have all been grown in the United States, the likelihood is that foreign nationals harvested it, whether they are in the country as part of the guest worker program, or they work without documents.

One more echo between the anti-importation rhetoric of the orange juice ad campaign and contemporary political discourses surrounding immigration as a dire problem in need of reform is the website’s emphasis on the company’s primary affiliation as that it maintains with the state of Florida, rather than with the entire United States.[4] While the company’s brand has always touted its connection to the Florida orange industry, which is overwhelmingly dedicated to juice production rather than whole fruit consumption as is California’s, the conflation of “U. S. Farmers” with those producing juice fruits “in Florida. And only Florida” comes at a time when individual states have taken steps to try to mitigate what they perceived was the negative economic impact of undocumented immigration through local legislative measures like Arizona (SB 1070), Alabama (HB 56), and Indiana (SEA 590).[5] The New York Times reported that in 2009, 48 states had passed either legislation or resolutions opposing illegal immigration in some measure. While the state law passed by Arizona and signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer (SB1070) was by far the strictest at the time, Alabama soon passed legislation that surpassed it and provided the template for similar immigration measures in other states including Mississippi and Missouri, according to National Public Radio, who has called described the trend as part of a Southern political strategy meant to make life so uncomfortable and difficult for undocumented people that they would leave the states that had enacted such laws, either to return “back home” wherever that might be or move to states with less restrictive policies. That logic at first appeared to have worked in Alabama, where thousands of undocumented laborers as well as legal immigrants who feared the local climate was becoming too intolerant of their presence left the state. The news media broadcast powerful images of crops rotting in the fields and on the trees because there were no workers to pick them during the spring and summer harvests immediately after strict laws were passed in Alabama and Georgia, among others. Lax enforcement of the laws, as well as court-blocked elements meant that laborers returned for the fall harvest, according to Associated Press reporter Kate Brumback.

Key provisions of the Arizona legislation were struck down by the Supreme Court in June, 2012, with Chief Justice, John Roberts, siding with the majority decision in affirming that the power to enforce the nation’s immigration laws rests with the federal government, and not with individual states. The Supreme Court struck down the most stringent portions of the laws passed by Arizona and other states with similar provisions in their immigration legislation, those which would lead to profiling of anyone who looks “un-American,” even as it authorized local law enforcement to check on the immigration status of persons detained on suspicion of having committed a crime.[7] That decision caused a ripple effect across the nation, but especially in other Southern and Southwestern states, who either amended their own similar legislation or else decided not to bring similar bills to the floor. In light of such legal reversals, enforcement of such restrictive anti-immigration laws has been lax, and laborers have returned to the fields thereby facilitating the uninterrupted flow of the American food system.

In the aftermath of such efforts, a larger menace has arisen that threatens the orange harvest more than the possibility that all undocumented workers would leave the state: citrus greening disease caused by bacteria spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. The United States Department of Agriculture has dedicated a whole page on its official website to update the public on what the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is doing to combat this threat. The first part of its efforts is to educate the public about what citrus greening is, but the rhetoric it uses to convey the extent of the peril facing the domestic citrus industry plays into what I am arguing is the larger xenophobia that pervades the American citrus industry:

The bacteria that cause HLB[Huanglongbing]—three species of Liberibacter—probably originated in China in the early 1900s. In countries where the disease is endemic, citrus trees begin to decline within 5 to 8 years after planting and rarely bear usable fruit.

First detected in Florida in 2005; by 2008, it had been identified in most of the citrus growing counties in the state. Despite everyone’s best efforts, HLB now literally threatens the survival of Florida citrus and is a potential threat to the entire U.S. citrus industry. (www.ars.usda.gov)

The federal government has responded swiftly, funding both research and containment efforts. The Associated Press reports that the citrus greening has been spotted in California as well, though in a very small scale, thus truly underscoring the potential impact of this infestation on the citrus industry. The team of scientists working to find a solution for dealing with HLB is made up of experts from all over the world; according to the USDA website, one particular collaboration between ARS scientists in Ft. Pierce, Florida and colleagues from Japan and Viet Nam focuses on trying to understand how interplanting guava with citrus may prevent the spread of HLB. Globalization has now become synonymous with environmental degradation, and the free movement of capital, products, and foodstuffs around the world negates one of the chief engines of biodiversity and ecological health, which is isolation. This logic shows how an element of isolationism and paranoia can slip into the rhetoric of locavorism and health food movements. Ideas of ecological health and hygiene can take on the forms of eugenics, which drove the immigration debates up to and beyond the Second World War.

My concern, however, is with the reference to the disease’s origins in China at the dawn of the twentieth century. The timing of the disease’s origins calls to mind the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which spearheaded a wave of increasingly restrictive immigration legislation in the United States that culminated with the passage of the 1929 National Origins Act, which eliminated all immigration from Asia.[9] Scientists have not paused on this historical connection or its possible implications in today’s China-phobic political discourse.[10] However, the citrus industry faced a huge setback once before, during what literary journalist John McPhee has called “the great freeze of 1962” when “the leaves all turned manila and fell to the ground. Much of the fruit fell to the ground, too, but a lot of it still hung eerily, and with a macabre beauty, in the trees. They looked like odd Christmas trees covered with bright orange balls” (Oranges 32). McPhee’s evocative description of the disaster sets the stage for a paradigm shift that still affects the citrus industry today. The 1962 freeze was followed by more in the late 70s and 80s, which had the combined effect of opening the floodgates to the influx of Brazilian frozen concentrate orange juice (FCOJ) imports which led to the xenophobic Florida Naturals campaign discussed earlier. As climate scientists Kathleen A. Miller recounts:

Before 1962, Florida had been the world’s primary source of FCOJ. Since that year, Florida’s output has been supplemented steadily by a steadily increasing Brazilian FCOJ production. From the start, Brazilian orange juice processors have focused their energies on producing for the FCOJ export market. (“Climate” 140)

This state of affairs explains why orange juice cartons feature blends of American and Brazilian juices, rather than merely those sourced from Florida. This is not only legal; it has become the norm, with the notable exception of Florida’s Naturals. California’s oranges produce less juice per fruit and, thus, they cater to the whole fruit market rather than the juice industry. The new threat posed by HLB stands to shift the balance of power even further in the international citrus industry, which will likely give rise to more nativist rhetoric.

Notes

[1] My comments refer specifically to the ad campaign found at the company’s main website: http://www.floridasnatural.com/ Web. January 29, 2013.

[2] This line of reasoning feeds into contemporary discussions about food’s carbon footprints and the preference for eating locally raised foods. It also deflects attention away from the hit that orange juice’s reputation as a health food has taken in recent years. Not only have the net carb-phobes disparaged it, but so have the enemies of sugary drinks. Commercial orange juice is a highly processed food trying to cling to their “natural” aura in the context of a market that is quickly shutting out liquid calories in favor of bottled water. Orange juice can never be local in 90% of the country.

[3] 10 ISC 1304(a) and 19 CFR part 134. My info comes from http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/CompliancePolicyGuidanceManual/ucm074567.htm Web. January 29, 2013.

[4] Ironically, the California navel orange agricultural industry has its origins in Brazil, as John McPhee recounts in his jaunty cultural history, Oranges. He notes that in 1870, an American Presbyterian missionary sent some navel orange trees to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which then distributed the trees for free. An enterprising California housewife took advantage of this opportunity to experiment with a new cultivar. As McPhee tells it, “In 1873, Mrs. Luther C. Tibbets, of Riverside, California, wrote for a pair of trees, got them, and planted them in her yard. Mrs. Tibbets’ trees caught the attention of her neighbors and, eventually, of the world. From them have descended virtually every navel orange grown anywhere on earth today”(11). This brief citrus genealogy demonstrates the dynamic movement of foodstuffs from the Global South (Brazil) up to the North (California) and across the globe. However, American cultural colonialism is still at work linguistically, in ways that downplay or obscure the Brazilian origins of this quintessentially West Coast citrus.

[5] Arizona’s State Bill 1070 is known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” Alabama’s immigration law (House Bill 56) is stricter than Arizona’s. It’s called “Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.” Indiana’s immigration law, “Senate Enrolled Act 590,” was modeled after Arizona’s, and I mention it here since it is what is in effect in the state where I have composed this book.

[6] http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigration-and-emigration/arizona-immigration-law-sb-1070/index.html Web. February 19, 2013.

[7] For more on the motivations for, and impact of, the Chinese Exclusion Act, see Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program’s webpage “Chinese Exclusion Act.”

[8] China-phobia entered the 2012 presidential campaign with Republican candidate Mitt Romney calling for more retributive economic policies. The Atlantic ran a story analyzing the perceived “dangers” of Mitt Romney’s anti-China campaign rhetoric in February of 2012.

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An Ode to Food Poems

The Hungry EarSummer seems like the perfect time to enjoy a collection of poetry that engages not just the senses, but the appetite as well. And, lucky for me, Kevin Young’s The Hungry Ear is just that balanced combination of mouthwatering, and thought-provoking verse that is as easy to dip into while sitting poolside as it is to peruse in the cool, comfortable shade of an air-conditioned home.

This is world literature at its best—a gathering of excellent poetic achievement addressing different aspects of the same universal experience: eating and drinking. The anthology itself gathers examples of food-themed poetry from around the world and through the ages, though its thematic organization makes it read more like a carefully crafted menu than a dense encyclopedia. Its emphasis on seasonality for each section (I. Harvest Moon, II. Wintering, III. Spring Rain, and IV. Sweet Summer) recalls Edna Lewis’ evocations of the cycles that mark agricultural temporality in her food memoir with recipes, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). Thus, this text looks both inwardly and outwardly at once, emphasizing the communal aspects of preparing and consuming food and drink, while also reminding us that such acts can also become political challenges to protest unfair treatment and unjust segregation.

Mixing old and new offerings, alongside his own poems about food, Young offers up a delightful assemblage of evocative verse that piques our curiosity, evokes our own taste memories, comforts us in our sadness, and opens our minds (and stomachs) to unexpected delights.

I will pause to discuss Young’s own contributions to this volume because, taken together, the introduction and four poems constitute their own mini-volume within the larger anthology. Deeply personal and unsparing in its discussion of how food has been the instrument to both injure his family’s pride and engineer its redemption from shame and despair, these four texts stand apart from the isolated contributions of other poets and the myriad epitaphs which populate the volume. Taken together, “Ode to Chicken,” “The Preserving,” “Ode to Gumbo,” and “Ode to Pork” attest to Young’s love and appreciation of soul food. However, the individual poems stand on their own and express very different relationships between eater and foodstuff.

The first poem to appear in the collection, “Ode to Chicken,” celebrates the unapologetic nature of this fowl who stands unchanged through the many transformations of its cooking—unlike bread and beef which, the poet points out not only change their names once cooked, but also “was once just bull/before it got them degrees” (44). The speaker declares his love of chicken—“you are everything/to me” (44) and admits that this protein source has such transcendent power that everything else the speaker eats can only be described in terms of how much it resembles chicken. Despite this sense of wonder and servitude at the central role of chicken in his eating life, the poem ends with the animal brought down to the domestic sphere as a caretaker of the speaker, the entity that wakes him and graces both his breakfast and dinner table. Thus, he asks the bird leave to gratefully sing its praises in verse: therefore the bird “leave me/to fly for you” (45).

“The Preserving,” constitutes a change in tone. It is a work of memory, recalling the embodied labor of transforming the produce from the summer garden into the sustenance to carry a family through the fallow period of winter. The speaker is no longer an adult, but a child, performing the tasks assigned to him by his mother, as she tries to provide a small measure of comfort—wrapping his hair with string which, though tight, made it “far/ easier to take care of, lasted all/ summer like ashy knees” (67). Peaches, not chicken, are at the heart of this poem. And, their power transcends their mere ability to nourish eaters or sweeten the end of a meal. The suggestion of violence is introduced during a Thanksgiving meal, when a jar of preserved peaches blows up in the back porch: “One Thanksgiving, while saying grace / we heard what sounded like a gunshot” (67). Yet, indeed, it is a measure of human error, “someone didn’t give the jar enough / room to breathe” (67-68), which is to blame for the mishap and not malice. Inattention, thus, is the thing to fear during “the preserving.” The poem culminates in winter, where a communal ritual of tasting the neighbor’s peach brandy, serves to steady all against the cold not only of winter, but also presumably of the cold conditions “cold as war” (68) of living among people who are not part of the tight-knit community of fellow eaters/drinkers.

The next two poems return to the celebratory tone, though the first, “Ode to Gumbo,” is elegiac and melancholy, whereas the second, “Ode to Pork,” is suggestive and almost erotic. Despite the clear mournful tone of the speaker’s confession of pain at the loss of his father, “Ode to Gumbo” celebrates that soup’s healing power if not to break a broken heart, then to fully affirm one’s place within a living family history. Making gumbo connects him to both sides of his lineage: “It was / my father’s mother/ who taught mine how/ to stir its dark mirror” (128). Tasting other people’s gumbo, and their failure to achieve the perfection of his family’s recipes, reminds the speaker of where he belongs and with whom. Finally, unlike the other poems discussed here, this one has a recipe embedded within it: You need/ okra, sausage, bones/ of a bird, an entire / onion cut open” and “cayenne in till the end” (129) and yet, the magic is not in the ingredients themselves, but rather on the way they are put together, how their interaction is orchestrated by a knowledgeable hand. Eating the burning hot soup makes the speaker become re-incorporated, feel the physical pain in the throat that mirrors the emotional scarring that this primal loss has had on his soul.

“Ode to Pork,” then, introduces a different meditation upon mortality. It ends on the uplifting note of the writer owning his desire for that which he delights in even at the cost of his own health: “loving you/ may kill me—but still you/ rock me down slow/ as hammocks on the stove” (148). Even when eating pork causes the speaker some discomfort, he nonetheless proclaims his undying devotion to it, comparing his desire to that of the biblical Adam who, in this allusion, gave up his rib not for Eve but for pork. The poem indeed celebrates pork as a worthy object of desire, pledging that “Your heaven is the only one/ worth wanting” (149).

As I hope to have illustrated, this anthology serves up all manner of intimate, and unmediated, discussions of the appetites—of the body, of the mind, and of the soul—and suggests at ways in which we might begin to sate some of our hungers by remembering the pleasures of the table. This is truly a delicious work to read.

Works Cited:

Young, Kevin, Ed. The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

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“Authentically” Hybrid Homemade Recipes: Acculturation in Action

Lost Ravioli RecipesCulinary historian Laura Schenone recounts how traveling to Italy to research “authentic” recipe versions of her father’s favorite dish—ravioli—in The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (2008) helped her forge a stronger personal connection to her mixed Italian-Croatian heritage. Although she has publicly discussed her youthful disavowal of her Italian heritage—in an interview with Publishers Weekly, she said “I never considered myself Italian because of the Italian patriarchy. I had a hard time with Italian machismo growing up,”—Schenone nonetheless pursues her curiosity about two connections to her father’s Italian heritage, a pasta-making tool kept as decoration in her family’s home, and the taste memory of a lost family recipe for ravioli. Through the act of looking for her Italian great-grandmother’s ravioli recipe, Schenone ends up with a new, hybrid ravioli recipe she can incorporate into her future Christmas celebrations. This newly reclaimed food tradition is her connection to an Italian diasporic community.

After the publication of her first book, the James Beard award-winning, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances (2004), Schenone realizes that she wants the food she prepares for her family to have a deeper connection with her own heritage and upbringing:

[O]ver the years, I had come to see the importance in food, its brightness in human history. Now I was a mother and home all the time. Children had to eat, and I was constantly in the kitchen. Suddenly I wanted to be able to make something wonderful—wonderful not just because it tasted good but because it could span generations and tell a story—a story I was part of, somehow, a story to which I would add. I decided to find an old recipe, a recipe that preceded the big machine of technological food, before test-tube flavors and before megaindustrial products. A recipe I could trace from my family, back into history, further and further back into an ancient past. (Lost Ravioli 13)

This sudden need to establish meaningful connections to the past through culinary traditions the children could one day claim as their own turns out to have been more fraught for Schenone than she thought at the outset, because her emphasis on some pre-industrial “authenticity” blinded her to the way people approach cooking in their domestic setting: through convenient and delicious short-cuts. So, even when she does find the family recipe for the ravioli her father so cherished, Schenone refuses to accept it as “real” enough for her purposes.

Schenone commandeers “an old ravioli press—a handmade grid of small squares—[which] had hung on the kitchen wall above us for decades” (16), from her parent’s house and quizzes aged family members about her great-grandmother’s ravioli recipe, a piece of intellectual property she naively imagines will provide an “authentic” connection to an ethnic past she feels is missing from her life. Unsatisfied when she unearths a version of the recipe which calls for “cream cheese” (20) instead of some more exotic cheese, Schenone decides to travel to Genoa and interview old ravioli makers. Schenone’s stubborn refusal to accept the recipe that emerges from her relentless questioning constitutes her first instance of flawed culinary revisionism within the memoir—what she ends up revising by the memoir’s end is not an old tradition after all, but rather her own misconceptions about the past.

However, after learning the ‘proper’ procedures involved in preparing this beloved dish, Schenone remains self-conscious about her quest and how it might be seen by her extended family members. When she shares the finished product with her sisters and father, she prefaces her ravioli with a narrative that highlights their authenticity as both “Genoese” and simultaneously recognizable as her great-grandmother’s “lost” recipe:

‘Genoese ravioli,’ I say casually and with little to-do. ‘One bag for each family. Like our great-grandmother Adalgiza’s. At least I think they’re like hers.’

I hesitate to add that these are the ravioli I learned to make when I was in Italy the previous summer. I don’t want to draw more attention to the lengths I go through—to that part of me that thinks our Christmas isn’t good enough and has to go and get pretentious authentic recipes directly from Italy, from the real Italians, rather than our inferior and diluted Italian-Americanized stuff. (10-11)

The irony here is that what initially prompts Schenone to travel to Italy is her own internalized sense of inferiority; she disdains the traces of America she sees in the recipe she finally receives from her great-grandmother’s daughter, because it calls for cream cheese. This obsession with getting to the root of the recipe makes Schenone confront her own ambivalence about her mixed ethnic heritage:

Despite the assumptions, I always knew the truth—I was not Italian. My father was Italian, but not me. There was simply not enough left by the time my generation came around. Because of intermarriage and the passing of time, I was born at the twilight of ethnicity, the barely tail end of it. (33)

Finding the ravioli recipe does not resolve this dilemma for Schenone, but it does make her more aware of the specific ways through which her whiteness is coded within mainstream American culture. Based purely on her name and her curly hair, other people automatically treat Schenone as an Italian American woman from New Jersey, with the attendant stereotyping that label involves.

Schenone’s gastronomic quest led her to reconceive her assumptions about her great-grandmother’s experience as a Genoese immigrant. Although she uncovers a type of Genoese cheese that resembles cream cheese, Schenone cannot find any precedent for the use of raw meat in the ravioli recipe. As she mentions in an interview, she now chooses to believe (or imagine) that Adalgiza must have embraced assimilation into mainstream American society as a liberating process, one which freed her from the constraints of observing strict culinary traditions passed down from generations, and made her eager to incorporate what she had learned from other new immigrants:

So perhaps my great-grandmother, who lived above a Chinese delivery place in Hoboken, saw this was how they cooked their dumplings. Maybe she could, too? After all, it saves a step. Again, I think she felt that she lived here and that she could be like an American. (Rotella 46)

By imagining her great-grandmother as a pioneering multiculturalist, Schenone once again projects her own current values backwards to the past, but this time in a self-aware way that validates the spirit of her ancestor’s ingenuity rather than disdaining it.  In reclaiming her own ethnic heritage to pass down to her children, Schenone herself performs her own twenty-first century American identity, one which deconstructs the privilege of whiteness in order to establish affective ties with earlier diasporas.

Whereas this fantasy scenario casts the deterritorialization of immigration in a cheerful light, the trauma of being uprooted can be passed down through the generations. Schenone sees her own impulse to find a nutritional identity within a diasporic tradition as resulting in a gift she can bestow upon her own children and their descendants. Her eleven year old son confirms that her sacrifice is worth it when he declares: “‘We need to have tradition. We need to have history. I’ll make the ravioli some day and pass them on to my kids too!’” (257). Lucky for him, his mother has left him more than a hand-written recipe with which to reclaim his heritage. He has a 300 page memoir with recipes and photo illustrations to guide him and his future spouse in their culinary endeavors, yet another nod at how artificially constructed this family tradition has become.

Works Cited:

Rotella, Mark. “Ravioli Lost, Adventure Found.” Publishers Weekly 254.39 (2007): 46.

Schenone, Laura. A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

——. The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2008.

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Intimate Strangers

Since the biblical serpent enticed Eve to take a bite out of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, eating has been regarded as a potentially sinful activity. By performing a close reading of the visual rhetoric in a series of “sponsored” ads that have shown up in my Facebook news feed lately I may be stretching the meaning of “literary food writing;” however I could not let this opportunity pass since the images featured literally inscribe the message onto the food items depicted via a name tag bearing the words: “HELLO. My name is Meningitis.” Written text conveying information about meningitis frames the photographs in the style of a status update, yet the eye is inevitably drawn to the image of unknown young people having fun together. The photos portray the common junk food we all occasionally indulge in as a sinister carrier of disease via the name tag, so my immediate reaction the multi-modal message—image and text working together as one—was revulsion. The second level at which the ad works is to promote a sense of paranoia, since it’s the very closeness to one’s peers, the social intimacy of the situations depicted in the images including going to the movies, drinking at a party, or sharing an ice cream cone with a special someone on a hot day, as uncannily fraught intimate encounters with someone else’s germs. If our friends, lovers, and acquaintances can transmit such a powerful pathogen to us unawares, what hope is there of meaningful social interaction? No wonder these ads are produced for the simulated environment of social media.

Meningitis Frat party

 

On the face of it, the campaign’s goals appear to be noble enough: raising awareness about this serious illness by highlighting the risky “typical adolescent and young adult behaviors” which can promote the spread of meningococcal disease. Chief among these risky behaviors, the photo campaign which peppers my Facebook newsfeed suggests, is communal eating or, more specifically, the sharing of specific food items like beverages and snack foods, which can entail the transmission of saliva from one person to another. The campaign’s official website, MeetMeningitis.com, provides a broader context through which to understand the images by mentioning the other two types of activities which can lead to the unwitting transmission of this disease: “closed-quartered living and group hangouts” and “kissing.” Despite being relatively easy to depict visually, kissing is not an activity depicted in my newsfeed, perhaps to avoid entering into hot-button issues about how to properly depict sexual attraction. Any conceivable configurations of kissing couples could be open to charges of either heteronormativity or homophobia.Meningitis ice cream

The ice cream image is the only one featuring a mixed gender couple, thereby rendering the co-eating involved in consuming this frozen confection into a visual metaphor for other intimate contact, such as “kissing” or sexual activity. So, the logic of these ads is to posit what I am calling the “public intimacy” of young people eating informally together as dangerous precisely because these behaviors rely on the assumption that the parties involved know enough about one another to be close. The name tag suggests that this type of intimacy belies a darker truth, one in which some parties involved are silent carriers of the bacteria that carries meningitis. Transmission takes place through the ingestion of the contaminated substance—licking the ice cream, drinking soda through an infected straw or sharing a plastic cup of beer at a frat party—and thus it’s very hard to trace. Usually, one of the benefits of sharing a meal with others is to establish and affirm close social bonds. However, this website would have us (and by us I think they mean parents of teenagers and young adults) discourage such behavior in our offspring.

So, any social media user repeatedly subjected to this type of “sponsored content” might pause to wonder, who is raising this alarm? Is it the medical community? The CDC? Is the goal to promote the vaccination of people in this age group against meningitis in the wake of the recent measles outbreak? Well the answer to the last two questions is a resounding no, despite the fact that there is both a vaccine available and the CDC does make information on it accessible via its own website. Advertising on Facebook costs a pretty penny, so the motives behind this campaign have to be more than altruistic. Only by scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the MeetMeningitis.com site does the corporate sponsorship of this entire consciousness-raising campaign become clear—Pfizer Inc. is peddling a “prescription product option” for those interested in receiving more information about the disease. Rather than lambast this pharmaceutical company for their reprehensible scare tactics, which enact the bait and switch logic of making viewers paranoid about contracting a terrible illness only to peddle their own medication for it, what I’d like to focus on is a different question: Why is food imagery considered to be the most effective way of communicating the message of disease awareness and prevention?

Meningitis Movies

One possible answer is that the visual rhetoric of these ads, when the images are taken into consideration together, is a critique of young people’s consumption of “junk” food. After all, the items bearing the meningitis name tag are soft-drink cups and an ice cream cone. Teens and young adults are prone to sharing these types of items both out of friendliness and also out of economic considerations: it’s cheaper to buy one drink and share it at the movies, than to spend a small fortune buying one for each person. Public health announcements regarding the unhealthful nature of processed foods such as cola and sugary snacks have already set the stage for a negative association between consumption of these items and the risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. So, Pfizer does not have far to go to prompt nervous parents to police their children’s eating behavior more actively. However, controlling food consumption is one of the more difficult things to do personally, as well as for one’s children. As Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, et. al, have determined through research conducted via focus-groups with adolescents:

Despite the importance of healthful eating patterns in adolescence, adolescent lifestyles, influenced by the desire to fit social norms, may not be conducive to encourage teens to eat in a manner that meets the increased and changing nutrition needs during this period. Furthermore, a lack of a sense of urgency regarding future health may make nutrition a low concern among adolescent.

Thus, parents’ interdictions in this regard are likely to be ineffectual at best. Pfizer’s meningitis awareness campaign deploys the same logic of contagion and transmission between strangers as the disease reputedly does, but in order to promote awareness of its anti-meningitis product line. The unfortunate side effect of such a strategy is to perpetuate a negative view of food as inherently dangerous and the idea that eating together is a “risky behavior.” By visually pathologizing eating, rather than the more problematic process of “sharing drinks and utensils” the website warns against, this type of anti-food visual rhetoric dissociates eating from pleasure and nutrition and instead frames it through abjection. A more impactful intervention might be to recast the message through the lens of health campaigns that have proven effective, such as the concept of using prophylactics for “safe sex.”

“Safe fraternizing,” though not a catchy phrase, would better convey that the danger lies in the transmission of bodily fluids—saliva—during a whole host of behaviors rather than being inherent in food itself. Thus, a whole host of communal activities such as sharing straws, cups, or make up, would come under scrutiny, rather than literally labeling food as unsafe. As a professor, I have met many students who have suffered from meningitis and emerged from the experience with lasting health problems. I support any effort to raise awareness about this potentially life-threatening disease. However, as a food studies scholar, I think it unwise to visually demonize food because doing so contributes to the public discourse which dissociates ingestion from appetite, thereby leading to more disordered eating and its many co-morbidities.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “meningococcal Vaccination.” http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/mening/default.htm  Accessed 2/18/2015.

Pfizer. “Could your behavior promote the transmission of the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease?” http://www.meetmeningitis.com/about  Accessed 2/18/2015

Neumark-Sztainer, Dianne, Mary Story, Cheryl Perry and Mary Anne Casey. “Factors Influencing Food Choices of Adolescents: Findings from Focus-Group Discussions with Adolescents.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.8(1999): 929-937.

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