The Way of No Flesh

the vegetarian

The copyright page of Kan Hang’s stunning Man Booker International prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, is about the only thing within the covers that reads like a recipe. The book’s genealogy lists its constituent parts like ingredients:

The coherent and, presumably, stable novel text, Ch’aesikjuuia, published in 2007 grew out of “three separate novelettes” published earlier. The English translation, in turn, appeared in two separate versions—the original, published “in Great Britain, by Portobello Books”, and the “somewhat different” version published in the American paperback edition, to which I will refer throughout the rest of this post.

I pause on such arcana to highlight the degree to which the novel does not address either conventional foodways or alternative dietary choices as the organizing principle in its narrative arc. Instead, this novel provides a multi-perspective depiction of the physical toll of mental illness on its sufferers and those closest to them.

Because cooking and eating are the most mundane of tasks shared by people who cohabit and share a space, a sudden alteration in a person’s habits or preferences in either or both areas, such as the choice to become vegetarian, interrupts the rhythms that govern intimate life. The husband, brother-in-law, and sister of our titular character, Yeong-hye, all question their own assumptions about what constitutes normal consumption and how we use food to gauge our health upon being told of her refusal to eat meat. Mr. Cheong, the unsympathetic husband, observes:

As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. (22)

Though others are more concerned with Yeong-hye’s well-being, nobody questions this assumption that variations from a meat-centric diet are only acceptable as medicinal adjustments to one’s everyday routines.

Rice is by far the most discussed food item within the novel; it is mentioned ten different times across the three sections. Beef and fruit come a close second, each with nine references. The third most-mentioned food item is also a tie between pork and soup, each of which appears eight different times. All told, 48 different food items are mentioned throughout the text. What is the proper reaction to reading about delectable dishes when the eponymous character finds the same disgusting?

The references to food items throughout the novel become problematic especially as Yeong-hye’s crisis worsens. Since food items mentioned span across all alimentary preferences, appealing to vegans and meat-eaters alike, the role of food as sustenance in this novel is to highlight what separates the reader and Yeong-hye’s nightmarish delusions. The reader’s appetite can be aroused, which according to the logic of the narrative means the reader has a healthy hold on everyday life. Yeong-hye’s abstinence separates her reality from ours, and though we have access to the images that haunt her, that situational irony only renders the reader more powerless to stop her inevitable decline.

The significance of the title, then, is that Yeong-hye’s abstinence from consuming animal flesh is the primary way through which others detect there is something wrong. . Several scenes could trigger readers who have struggled with eating disorders and/or suicidal tendencies, so this novel is not for everyone. However, despite its disturbing narrative arc, The Vegetarian’s superb achievement is Kang’s deeply humane portrayal of Yeong-hye’s efforts to heal herself, even if her attempt to find salvation through behavior modification is ultimately misguided. This novel stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Works cited:

Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. Trans. Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015.


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Godly Gastronomy: Religious Eating Traditions and Ecumenical Secularism in Public Life Writing

Any analysis of the political work that first person life narratives about food perform in the context of American national belonging should begin with an admission of personal agendas and biases, so here are mine: I speak from the perspective of a literary food studies scholar, Latina, practicing Catholic who enjoys eating paczki on Fat Tuesdays, who’s published on the subject of Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah, and who regularly teaches all three of the essays I’ll discuss today to students at a Midwestern university. I also subscribe to the New York Times. These self-disclosures follow the genre of persona building at work in most food-writing aimed at general audiences and, as Emily Lind Johnston observes in “Agrarian Dreams,”

All life writing has the potential to serve as a model for audiences: As long as an audience has faith in the authenticity of the autobiographical performance, the protagonist’s journey is represented as achievable and often as desirable. In the United States, autobiographical narratives are understood as models for acting out individuals’ relationships to American ideals as performances of citizenship and politics. (19)

I argue that the three personal essays published in the New York Times opinion pages and Sunday Magazine between 2009 and 2012—Paul Clemens’ “Lean Tuesday,” Hesham Hassaballa’s “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan,” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Why a Haggadah?”—constitute a new type of public writing about both food and religion whose aim is not conversion to the faith but, rather a defense of the proposition that increased public awareness of the history and context of religious cultural traditions enriches the larger fabric of national polity. Speaking as insiders, though not all identify as believers, Clemens, Hassaballa, and Foer give witness to the sociopolitical benefits of observing religiously inspired culinary traditions, whether in public (standing in line at the bakery to purchase paczki the Tuesday before the start of Lent or refraining from daytime meals during Ramadan) or within the intimate realm of the home (where the ritual observance of the Passover meal is mediated through a performative reading of the family’s haggadah). By publishing their first person writing in the de-facto national newspaper of record, The New York Times, these three men address themselves to an audience of their fellow Americans, both insiders and outsiders to Judaism, Islam, or just unfamiliar with paczki, a sweet Polish filled pastry that marks the regional and ethnic observance of a day of excess in anticipation of the religious observance of Lent. These personal narratives suggest that secularism is not a freedom from religious ideas but a space that allows for, and prospers from, a difference through practice.

All of these writers use the secular public platform of the opinion pages to advocate for a more robust operational definition of diversity within a multiethnic American society. The appeal to spiritual foodways contextualizes religious traditions as predominantly nutritive expressions of national citizenship, and in calling for meaningful diversity, I note the emergence of what amounts to a secular ecumenism, or call for unity across difference. Clemens’ celebration of the communal consumption of paczki in Detroit is a simulacrum that inverts the logic of the sacramental meal at the heart of Catholic liturgy. Hassaballa’s and Foer’s accounts inform readers about, and invite them inside, the private observances of the Ramadan fast and the Passover meal in order to combat perceptions that these celebrations constitute a stubborn oppositional otherness that challenges the norm.

In an article analyzing the free-speech controversy surrounding the docmentary HalalTV on Swedish public television, Mia Lovheim and Marta Axler observe: “Media has become an increasingly important arena for public engagement with religion in modern society, which has been demonstrated in studies within international research on media, religion and culture.” In an American context, such debates often take place in the comments section of online news articles and then spill over onto Twitter. By discussing food in their life narratives, Clemens, Foer, and Hassaballa pique their readers’ interests and whet their appetites more effectively than mere political diatribes might have. Any response is delayed, published in the letters to the editor. The newspaper opinion pages constitute a monologue wherein writers may share elements of their life stories as context for, or illustrations of, their political agendas. Isabel Alonso Belmonte argues that readers “are situated at the core of the communicative situation created by the newspaper opinion page and learn from both editorials and op-eds to form their own opinion about the issue being discussed.” The loop is not closed—it’s hard to tell what effect, if any, these narratives have.

Foer and Hassaballa diagnose the general ignorance surrounding Judaism and Islam as the root of problems such as apathy and racism, but aim their critique at different segments of the American population. Foer directs his remarks inward, towards other contemporary Jews:

Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent. (“Why a Haggadah?”)

As in his earlier vegetarian manifesto, Eating Animals, Foer here triangulates his personal choices through a thoughtful engagement with the legacy of his grandparents’ generation and draws wisdom for his own. The impulse he both diagnoses and challenges among his peers is that of unquestioning or automatic assimilation to flavorless American secularism. His essay argues that a well-informed Jewish cultural identity is both a complement and an antidote to religious chauvinism.

Hassaballa’s self-appointed task is quite the opposite; his goal is to use the language of food to de-exoticize two aspects of the Islamic faith which most Americans regard with a mixture of fear and dread: jihad and sharia law. Thus, he distinguishes the devout observance of Ramadan from the distortion of zealot extremists by emphasizing how the conflict inherent in the concept of holy war is an internal struggle to achieve personal discipline and overcome base physical impulses such as hunger: “Struggling a little to fast for the sake of God is the essence of jihad, not violence and murder, as some radical Muslims believe” (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”).  Though this passage centered on the spiritual value of fasting as a demonstration of religious piety, he concludes with a more civic minded appeal:

Throughout this month, Americans will see Shariah law, which some want to ban, being practiced by the throngs of Muslims in the United States who are waiting until after sunset to eat, drink and be (very) merry. There is no threat at all in this. By making American Muslims better neighbors, better friends, better coworkers, and better people, the fast of Ramadan is only a good thing, for both the United States and the world.  (“Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan”)

Thus, Hassaballa’s and Foer’s political goal is the same: to empower American Muslims and American Jews to more fully claim and understand the distinctive’ culinary traditions associated with their religions so that they can contribute more robustly to the American project. By being more knowledgeable about their specific heritage and histories, the fellow insiders among their readers strengthen the cultural fabric that holds the nation rather than simply deriving their identity from generic markers of patriotism. I read these as anti-conversion narratives because their focus is internally driven and the goal is sociopolitical rather than spiritual. In practicing religious and cultural practices without impediment or bias, or learning about how others observe their own traditions, we can all realize the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Clemens’ essay, in contrast, is an unapologetic defense of culinary appropriation on a regional scale. What distinguishes “Lean Tuesday” from other paeans to secular culinary catholicism like green beer at St. Patrick’s Day and the king cake at Mardi Gras, is Clemens’ insistence that the communal partaking of the celebratory treat in anticipation of Lent constitutes an act of faith in Detroit’s ability to survive the dispiriting deprivations of the economic downturn of 2008.  Within the narrative, this takes place by a shifting of perspective from one narrow in-group to a broader overlapping community:

The austerity of Lent would begin the next day, Ash Wednesday, and continue for 40 days until Easter, during which span we Catholics would be required to give something up.

This Fat Tuesday was a reprieve from all that. The church calendar and our checkbooks agreed that it was time, starting tomorrow, to give something up, to get by on less. For today, though, we would pretend that we were flush, that the lean times hadn’t started yet and that they would last just 40 days. (“Lean Tuesday”)

Whereas Clemens signals his belonging to the faith community through the use of first-person plural, he performs his citizenship as a fellow Detroitian through an act of cultural translation. Clemens recalls explaining to a concerned Asian American motorist wondering about the commotion.

I thought to explain some of this but opted to keep it simple, by employing a word no one can pronounce: “There’s no problem,” I said. “It’s paczki day!” Just another day of religious significance that has been secularized beyond recognition, thank heaven. (“Lean Tuesday”)

By renaming the day after the delectable confection, rather than noting its religious significance, Clemens highlights the restorative aspects of comensality even if distributed across multiple tables across the city.

I regard the persuasive rhetorical communicative acts taking place in these opinion pages and featured personal narratives as the most basic form of grassroots political action. By appealing to their fellow Americans’ minds through their stomachs, Clemens, Hassaballah, and Foer suggest that a willingness to eat together may be the strongest basis upon which to build a dynamic citizenry.

Works cited:

Belmonte, Isabel Alonso. “Toward a genre-based characterization of the problem–solution textual pattern in English newspaper editorials and op-eds.” Text & Talk-An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse & Communication Studies 29.4 (2009): 393-414.

Clemens, Paul. “Lean Tuesday.” New York Times Sunday Magazine 25 March 2009.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. “Why a Haggadah?” New York Times 31 March 2012.

Hassaballa, Hesham A. “The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan.” New York Times 1 August 2011.

Johnston, Emily Lind. “Agrarian dreams and neoliberal futures in life writing of the alternative food movement.” Food and Foodways 24.1-2 (2016): 9-29.

Lövheim, Mia, and Marta Axner. “Halal-TV: Negotiating the place of religion in Swedish public discourse.” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 24.1 (2011): 57-74.

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Food Writing for Betty Fussell

On Wednesday, June 14th I participated in the Writing Workshop “Migrating Media: Byting Words” led by Betty Fussell. This was part of the annual food studies conference of ASFS andAFHVS. This year’s meeting is taking place at Occidental College in Pasadena. The conference hashtag is #oxyfood17

I thought I’d post my work for the workshop on the blog as yet another example of literary food studies. My goal is to document what I did in the 3 hour class. Prompts are highlighted in bold and my writing is featured below each. I’ve decided not to edit further, in order to preserve the spontaneity of the in-class writing that resulted from such wonderful engagement with a scholar whose work I admire.

Prompt 1: How do you know the Rocher is real? Write 5 sentences, one per sense, describing the experience.

The first indication I have that the candy is chocolate is its brown color. Then, I bring it up to my nose where I detect sweet, chocolatey aroma combined with hazelnuts. As I hold the candy, the warmth of my fingers makes it begin to melt. I bring it to my mouth and as I bite the candy, the warmth of my fingers makes it begin to melt. I bring it to my mouth and as I bite the candy my teeth crunch down to the smooth and creamy center, which my tongue holds on to until it dissolves into the memory of chocolate. I hear the different crunching noises produced as my teeth cut through the hazelnut bits and notice the silence as my tongue takes over and flutters across the creamy center.

Prompt 2: Turn the description into a blog post

How better to indulge a midsummer nostalgia for Christmas than to bite into a crunchy, nutty Ferrero Rocher candy? When others are licking their fingers sticky with fried chicken grease or melted ice cream, it’s easy to invoke chillier days just by crunching on something most of us only eat in December. Peppermint has become much too commonplace; and no one will ever admit to chowing on fruit cake. But, just one bite of this upgraded Nutella is sure to make us dream of White Christmases to come. Better get started on my list!

Prompt 3: Turn the blog post into a tweet

ASFS Tweet

Prompt 4 Email your mother and tell her not to eat chocolate:

Hola, Mami  (in real life, mom, don’t read this!)

I know you are trying to eat more carefully now that you’ve been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. I worry, too, not just because I know how big a sweet tooth you have, but also because your dad’s hypoglycemia and our Latino heritage puts our family at a higher risk of developing the disease and its many complications.

So, what if you just eliminate chocolate? The kind made in the US is mostly sugar, anyway. There’s no real reason to have this one indulgence.

Save up the calories and have Swiss chocolate just once a year. Make up our own special holiday, and eat good chocolate then. Afterwards, abstain the rest of the year. I promise you won’t even miss the Hershey’s.



Prompt 5: Magazine essay piece: California’s migrating cultures / food

California Eatin’ on the Run

Though the traffic routinely alternates between a crawl and a mad dash til the next stop light, food in California is always on the go. You can find drive-throughs everywhere, but how nice is it to sit at a park watching your kids play and have the ice cream hand-truck walk by and sell you a paleta or a shaved ice to slake your thirst? On every corner, you’ll see Los Angelenos carrying their smoothies, or green juices, or lattes as they text and talk to their peers. Food moves in California–both around you and across the globe.

Just like celebrities, respected cuisines with staid reputations get facelifts and seem imbued with new youthfulness and relevance. Just see what Alice Waters did for Provencal cuisine, or how Wolfgang Puck made a new name for his accented takes on regional cuisines by boxing them up and installing vending machine type outlets at the airports–talk about food that goes places!

California’s the home of the Korean taco truck, something which could only have come about after the riots, once Korean Americans felt themselves at home enough again to put their stamp on local delicacies. And, what about the new prominence that kimchi’s gained in breakfast food plates alongside omelettes, where once such pairings would have been verboten?

The donut shop is yet another seemingly stationary business model that’s been up-ended by Angeleno ingenuity. Lucky Peach did a feature on the Lucha-Donut Man of East Los Angeles. And, while we’re speaking of pastries, did you know that Japanese American bakers made the confections we’ve come to call “Chinese fortune cookies” in their bakeries in California until Executive Order 9066 forced them to sell their business in a hurry to their Chinese neighbors when the United States let fear rule its policy making and rounded up those newly minted “foreign agents” or “enemy combatants” to an internal exile.  Yes, Jennifer 8. Lee’s compelling genealogy of this kitschy take-out dessert unearths its forced transmission across cultures. Fortune cookies are their own kind of culinary refugees.

Everything old is new again in the Golden State, even if only because new people are always arriving with stars in their eyes and a rumble in their tummies. Yes, the food moves, and we catch up to it, if only during rush hour.


This was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about how to write spontaneously, while not listening to my internalized critic. I can’t help but edit while I go, but it’s also nice to have clearly defined tasks to perform within a time-limit. The whole thing felt like a very fun game.

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Monstrous Hunger

Angel A Rivera’s La rabia útil de los muertos (una novella de zombis), adds an original dimension to the tried and true formula of the un-dead hungering after human brains. In this slim novel, Rivera proposes the timely notion that our own consumption of fast food is in itself monstrous and thus we should not be surprised why our flesh, chock full of preservatives and chemicals, is so appetizing to these post-apocalyptic fiends.abstract-barbecue-barbeque-bbq-161519

It is hard to innovate within the genre of zombie fiction, but the ways in which Rivera imagines humans stumbling upon mechanisms to both domesticate and co-exist with the mindless un-dead are fundamentally related to his critique of the Standard American Diet. In its embrace of domesticating, or even enslaving, these neutralized but stil supernumerary creatures, La rabia útil de los muertos most closely approximates the symbiosis imagined by Shaun of the Dead.

It’s depiction of the decimation that a virus such as the one unleashed in partner university labs in both Puerto Rico and in Connecticut is remarkably effective.  Rivera provides sufficient details about his secondary characters that their deaths are not only frightening to read about, but also stir the emotions. . Not since the Syfy show Helix has the geographical isolation of the island of Puerto Rico been imagined as both an ideal laboratory space and an inescapable death trap; the same dynamic holds true in this narrative.

To analyze the connection between the novel and the fast food industry in more detail than I have done here would be to engage in major spoilers, and I will not stoop to do that. I will only say that it did make me think twice about how to feed my family when I’m pressed for time.

The novel is only available in its original Spanish. I highly recommend it for zombie-lovers who are either fluent in Spanish or who want to practice their language skills. Be prepared to look up Puerto Rican slang. It’s well plotted, the action is nicely paced, and there are a few surprises I won’t even mention that will make this a rewarding read.


Rivera, Angel A. La rabia útil de los muertos (una novella de zombis). San Juan, Puerto Rico: Disonante, 2016. 152 pp.

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Call for Papers: “Literary Repasts and the Fiction of Migration” ASFS conference, Occidental College June 14-17, 2017

This panel proposes to add literary studies as an active contributor to the exciting and productive interdisciplinary food studies conversations that are the hallmarks of the yearly meetings of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS).

This year’s conference will be held at Occidental College from June 14-17 in Los Angeles, California.

The panel welcomes abstract submissions from scholars, grad students, or undergraduates analyzing any manner of literary representations of repasts and/or foodways, especially those focusing on the conference theme of “Migrating Food Cultures: Engaging Pacific Perspectives on Food and Agriculture.” The goal of this panel is to engage memoir, popular fiction, and literature as legitimate sources of knowledge about foodways, migration, and their interconnection.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Food memoirs by authors from the Pacific Rim countries
  • Novels about food, chefs, cooks, waiters
  • Fiction discussing the overlap between immigration and foodways
  • Restaurant fiction dealing with employment of immigrants
  • Poetry by or about migrants and their foodways
  • Flash fiction or short stories on any of these topics


Abstracts no longer than 250 words should be e-mailed to by January 15, 2017.  Submissions should also include:

  • submitter’s name,
  • organizational affiliation, and
  • status (e.g., undergraduate, graduate student, postdoc, faculty, independent scholar)


The panel will receive notifications of acceptance by AFHVS/ASFS by Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Attendees must be members of AFHVS or ASFS at the time of the conference.

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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 on 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. (

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.


[1] My comments refer specifically to the ad campaign found at the company’s main website: 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 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] 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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