Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Flavor of Global Blackness

Yes, Chef: a memoir By Marcus Sameulsson 27book

Marcus Samuelsson’s recent chefography, Yes, Chef, does more than serve up the usual coming of age story arch that characterizes the genre: child helps grandma cook and falls in love with food, goes to culinary school, slaves away at a series of windowless professional kitchens through the expected hang overs, until he catches a break and makes a name for himself. The book also chronicles Samuelsson’s gradual awakening into race consciousness writ large, a process set against a truly global landscape including stops in Scandinavia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the United States.

The literary merits of this autobiography lie in its thoughtful meditation upon the complex ways race develops as a social construct whose valences differ depending on geography and history. He discusses the effects of the linguistic terms people use to convey derogatory implications about “blackness” as an identity category, scrutinizes his own life when his actions appear to uphold stereotypes about black men, and examines how the attitudes of other kitchen professionals towards him as a person of color convey either institutional racism, active prejudice or some combination of both. As a transnational adoptee (born in Ethiopia and adopted by Swedish parents), and naturalized citizen of the United States, Samuelsson enjoys a degree of objectivity that makes him uniquely qualified to speak about the constructed nature of identity formation in general. This sense of belonging both everywhere and nowhere at once allows Samuelsson the narrator to portray the events in his life as a series of choices or decisions, though not all of these were of his own design, rather than interpreting the same as the inevitable result of either fate or history. This freedom to choose both who to become, and where to live, is made possible through the culinary skills he cultivates and develops over time. In what follows, then, I will pause to consider how Yes, Chef uses examples from the world of food or the kitchen to tackle stereotypes, handle racial slurs, and witness first-hand how people negotiate the experience membership in overlapping communities: diasporic (Habesha, African) and ethnic (African American).

“I have no big race wounds.” (36)

With this statement, Samuelsson warns his American reading audience not to impose their own sense of race relations in their national framework upon his very personal experience of growing up in Sweden as part of a mixed race family. In these early pages, Marcus describes his mother as someone attuned to regional and historical particularities, a caring person who wanted each of her three adopted children to grow up knowing something about the heritage they inherited from their birthparents. She used music to connect the kids to these larger communities—Jamaican reggae from Bob Marley for the oldest sister, Anna, and African artists as a nod to Marcus and his sister Linda’s, ties to the continent. For Marcus, his mother’s loving attention to detail affirmed his individuality and his membership in the Samuelsson family unit.

Years later, when he confronts the fact that he has fathered a child out of wedlock and chosen not to be an active part of her life, it is his mother’s unwavering commitment to make her granddaughter grow up knowing her family and, thus, her place in the world, that makes Samuelsson believe he can overcome his past neglect and forge a budding relationship with his daughter one day. Samuelsson eventually brings his mother along when he finally travels to meet his daughter in Austria. While there, he cooks for her every day of his stay, drawing upon a combination of the dishes from his own childhood, and the ones which helped him make his name as the chef of Aquavit, the Swedish restaurant in New York. However, this gastronomic display of riches comes at a cost; although he uses his skills as a head chef to impress his daughter, Samuelsson acknowledges that while he was paying his dues in the kitchen he hid all information about her from his employers and acquaintances for fear of the negative impact such information might have had on his career.

No one at work had any idea about my daughter Zoe. On one level, I didn’t want people to think I was nothing more than a cliché—the absentee black father. On another, I was afraid the information could somehow hold me back or limit my opportunities in a way that would, in the end, not only harm me but make it harder to meet the slim responsibility of financial support my mother had assigned me. (192)

Samuelsson’s willingness to bare so much of his private life before reading audiences, and to explicitly invoke the experience of double consciousness—his combined fear and awareness of the potential for others to dismiss him as a racial stereotype—in the larger context of his immaturity as a father and his professional ambitions, open up a textual space for rational conversations about race and its implications for interpersonal relationships. By admitting that the stereotype of the absentee black father resonates even with someone who did not grow up in the United States, Samuelsson’s autobiography attests to the global circulation of such rhetorical constructs about race, how they transcend regional boundaries and come to signify in other contexts.

“Negerboll” (38)

However, Marcus confronts the limits of such essentialism earlier in the narrative, when he recalls a painful childhood interaction in which a playmate used a racial slur against him. Samuelsson explains both the culinary pun—since the invective is also the name of a beloved Swedish pastry—and also the perils inherent in trying to understand the situation from strictly from an American set of assumptions about hate speech:

Although it sounded like nigger and Boje spewed it with that level of venom, neger was the Swedish word for Negro. There was even a Swedish cookie called negerboll, or in English, Negro ball: It was made from cocoa powder, sugar and oats. But Boje was not calling me a cookie. And he had thrown a basketball at me, which I took as its own kind of loaded symbol. It was the early 1980s, the dawn of the Michael Jordan era, and most Swedes associated that orange ball with dark-skinned men. (38, italics in original)

When narrating, Samuelsson is at his best as a cultural translator, mediating between his American readers and the Scandinavian, European, and African cast of characters that share his life story. His comments demonstrate the kind of sensitivity and nuance which has surely made him a success in the hospitality business. Unlike Eddie Huang, another chef/owner of a New York restaurant which I discussed in a previous blog, Marcus Samuelsson avoids the easy assumption that the audience shares the prejudice and racism he encountered along the way. His didactic comments are inclusive, rather than antagonistic.

Samuelsson’s behind the scenes reminiscences of working inside professional kitchens shed yet more light on the entrenched racism that pervades the world of gastronomy. As the newly promoted chef de partie (senior chef who manages a particular station) of a hotel restaurant in Switzerland, Marcus is thrown back when he hears the head chef use pepper his normal German with the colloquial French term for blacks when discussing how many runners they’ll need to staff a particular banquet.

“Twenty-one,” Stocker calculated. “We’ll need twenty-one nègres for this.” He used the French kitchen slang for underlings, which literally translated to “blacks,” and which also meant “negroes.”
I froze in my spot. I was the only nègre in the room. Not even the darker-skinned Tamils were represented in Stocker’s small office, not even an Italian. No one looked over at me. Was it good or bad that I was so invisible? Was it actually a compliment that no one made the connection between the term for a near-worthless employee and this newly promoted chef de partie who stood among the ranks? (129-130)

In the basketball/cookie incident of his youth, Marcus had felt hyper-visible since the down side of the popularity of African American sports icons was to reinforce the notion that all men of color should be able to demonstrate their athletic prowess. Here, the situation was the exact opposite. The language the chef used conjured up the idea of blackness but emptied it of all humanity; in this context nègres conveys a person’s lowly rank in the hierarchy of the kitchen staff rather than any particular skill s/he might possess. If the double consciousness Samuelsson experiences as a young chef trying to make it is a nod to W.E. B. DuBois, then this meditation upon the invisibility of black men calls to mind Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel. Because Samuelsson does not merely stop there, but pauses to consider whether the kitchen staff’s indifference to the chef’s reference to nègres might be the first signs of a post-racial future, the memoir foreshadows the key role that President Barack Obama would play later in Samuelsson’s professional development, when the White House chose him to prepare the first state dinner for the Prime Minister of India.

“I came to see my race as an opportunity rather than a burden” (215)

Samuelsson is careful not to anoint himself an expert on American race relations. Availing himself of the privilege of that most American of subject positions, that of the immigrant, he proclaims the limits of his own ability to weigh in in any meaningful way on the long history of oppression which preceded his own arrival in New York:

I’m very much an immigrant when it comes to American racial history: I come here from a European place, and don’t have the sophistication about race and identity that my American-born friends have; you can only learn so much from MTV. (213)

I contend that these allusions to literature, politics, and popular culture are not accidental, but the result of careful considerations on Samuelsson’s part. After all, the chef/owner of the Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem has revived a beloved institution, and remade it in his own inclusive image, as a place where he could “guard the history of black cooks in America while starting new conversations in food” (283). This memoir does more than that; it expands the framework for substantive and necessary discussions of how blackness is performed and constructed around the world, and how those configurations enrich our understanding of the limits of race as an isolated framework through which to understand identity. Within its pages Yes, Chef gives us a glossary of terms through which to understand race and difference, racism and inclusivity, diaspora and nativism. The inclusivity of Samuelsson’s vision of the world as a kitchen—where men and women, straight and gay, culinary school graduates and those who have risen through the ranks due to their hard work and dedication, can cook and eat together as one—is worth sharing.

Samuelsson, Marcus. Yes, Chef: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2012.

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Filed under African diaspora, Culinary Kunstlerroman, Memoir, no recipes

Planting Roots: Farming memoir combines heritage, study abroad

The hauntingly beautiful memoir, Harvest Son (1998), is one of David Mas Masumoto’s many critically acclaimed meditations on contemporary farming life. The memoir opens with Masumoto admitting his own sense of in-betweenness, feeling torn between the present and the past. As he prunes the peach trees and grapevines which are his livelihood, Masumoto describes the sense of being haunted by the ghosts of his two grandfathers who died during the forced internment, as well as by the shadowy memory of the Japanese family who owned his land before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and who had to sell it in order to prove their fealty to the United States country by complying with Executive Order 9066.

Through a particularly effective use of flashback in the memoir, Masumoto pauses to recall his study abroad experience in Japan during college as a sociology major at UC Berkeley.  David’s decision was prompted by the love and admiration he felt for his aged grandmother, who farms alongside her son and grandchildren in California. Masumoto travels to the ancestral homeland to connect personally with his heritage and to try to reclaim the language skills he had used to communicate with his grandmother as a young child.  Masumoto readily admits that he had trouble learning the Japanese language and mastering kanji characters, partly because he is left handed and thus has trouble producing neat handwriting, but also because he had not received formal language instruction as a kid. After his Tokyo sensei tells David he “was failing kanji miserably” (61), Masumoto lowers his expectations and decides to have fun practicing the language outside of a classroom setting: “instead of daylong classes, we met for half-days, then explored the massive city and complex culture around us. Daily we made fools of ourselves out in the streets with our pathetic conversational Japanese” (61-62). This low-key confession of his lackluster linguistic performance while abroad is one of the ways in which David Mas Masumoto’s memoir challenges the model minority myth.

Masumoto’s linguistic woes are confounded when he finds out that his extended family speaks a dialect with which he is not familiar, Kumamoto-ben. Masumoto connects with his relatives by exchanging the fruits of his own agricultural labor with them: a pack of raisins grown, harvested, and dried in his parents’ farm. After sharing his bounty, David was permitted to help the family patriarch in the fields. Yet again, Masumoto confesses to naïve shortcomings as an American youth who harbored stereotypical assumptions of his
ancestral homeland when he recalls that during the journey towards his family’s region, he had expected to see the landscape dotted with rice paddies. Much to his surprise, het discovered he was in buckwheat country. As he watched his grand-uncle use farming techniques unfamiliar to him despite having grown up in a vineyard framed by peach orchards, David felt a sense of shock which marked the third of his uncanny experiences visiting family in Japan:

I had never sown seeds before.  . . . I copied Jichan Tanaka as we walked side by side, our arms swinging back and forth. The buckwheat looked like waves suspended in a comma shape before they hit the earth. As we trudged back and forth, the seeds arched into the air and plummeted downward, nestling in the soft dirt where next we’d rake and stir them in. (104)

The time he spends with his grand-uncle’s family in their farm in Kumamoto, Kyushu, an island in the south of Japan, is what makes him experience an epiphany or awakening: for the first time, he seriously contemplates making a living as a farmer upon graduation and one day buying his parents’ land. The recognition of a fundamental difference in the way each man, family, and country approaches agricultural labor does not make Masumoto feel insecure about the relative degree of authenticity of one or the other. Instead, his book celebrates the continuity across the diaspora of a family tradition of having a close relationship to and appreciation of the land, and valuing manual labor and hard work. This sense of sameness within difference, entirely brought about through the chosen displacement of studying abroad, fills David with peace as he later recounts his choice to make a living by working the land.

David had first recognized the presence of the local within the global when dining in Japan. He initially feels that dining abroad is a more “authentic” version of the Japanese food he grew up eating, although his comparison is inherently asymmetrical in nature, since the dishes he experienced abroad were prepared in restaurants rather than family homes. Nonetheless, Masumoto recalls how eating in Japan made the foreign country seem more familiar to him: “From the time I arrived in Japan, I felt the most comfortable during meals. I grew up with Japanese food—we had rice at every lunch and dinner, sometimes even for breakfast, and holidays were filled with sushi, teriyaki, sashimi, and manju” (66). At home, eating was one way through which Masumoto and his family performed their cultural identity as people of Japanese ancestry either privately as a family, or publicly at the gatherings of the Del Rey Japanese community in the local gathering hall. Abroad, eating Japanese food is a means through which Masumoto can honor his heritage and fit in with the locals more readily than when he tries to speak. However, though his physical appearance might fool the locals, including his sensei, the taste of food itself stands out as somewhat uncanny to Masumoto’s own palate:

in Japan, the flavors were different, familiar but not what I had anticipated. Most of the sushi had a tarter flavor, the yakitori and other noodle dishes seemed to use stronger seasoning, a bit more karai/salty, and the teriyaki sauce on chicken did not taste as sweet. When I first noticed the difference, I thought each restaurant had a regional flavor; perhaps I could not read the door sign or menu promoting a “southern-style” or “east coast” cuisine. Maybe Tokyo had its own style of stir-frying vegetables or making dashi/soup stock. Japanese food had subtle tastes and flavors that did not match my childhood memories. (66)

This first-hand experience of culinary and regional variation makes Masumoto develop an embodied recognition of “the local” that supports his intellectual understanding that cultural norms vary between the country of origin and the diaspora. Likewise, by spending time with his relatives away from Tokyo, the official location of his studies, Masumoto knowingly gives up his sense of U.S. privilege and avoids the perils of “academic
tourism” Marcus Breen warns so much about. As Breen defines it, “[a]cademic tourism is travel that occasions connections with academic programmes whose intended outcomes are the reproduction of existing perspectives on the state of things, against claims for the creation of critical thinking” (84). Because he stays with his family members, helps out with the farming and lives as they do without receiving college credit for it, Masumoto derives the intellectual and cultural benefits of an immersive experience.

Throughout the rest of his memoir, Masumoto often stresses the point that traditions must change in order to stay relevant; such a philosophy seems to have been rooted during the time he spent studying abroad in Japan in both urban (Tokyo) and rural (Kumamoto) settings. When he returns to Berkeley, he does so with an open mind that allows him to embrace first organic ingredients and, eventually, organic farming methods. He shares these new insights with his family by altering the character of the Japanese food they enjoy in a substantial way; he switches from white to brown rice and prepares sushi with his new favorite grain, much to the older generation’s chagrin. While he did not learn to eat this healthy way in Japan proper, his experience of culinary dislocalism abroad made Masumoto more eager to embrace change as a means of updating ethnic traditions for his own generation and for passing down to his own children.

Although David Mas Masumoto has made his literary reputation by singing the praises of the land he so lovingly cultivates, his experience of travel as an undergraduate student has deepened his appreciation of the sacrifices his immigrant grandparents made in order for him to enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities he has now as a fully enfranchised Japanese American farmer. Although local in emphasis, his vision of agriculture and locavorism is global in scope. Masusmoto’s personal account of successful and productive international education experiences should motivate others to consider such opportunities for personal, intellectual, and gastronomic fulfillment, to say nothing of the benefits this global outlook has had in furthering his career, as a high profile advocate of organic farming and mindful stewardship of the land in the global food system.

Works cited:
Breen, Marcus. “Privileged Migration: American Undergraduates, Study Abroad, Academic Tourism.” Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 26.1 (2012):.
Masumoto, David Mas. Harvest Son: Planting Roots in American Soil. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

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June 13, 2013 · 3:26 pm