Category Archives: African diaspora

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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Southern Testimonio: Remembering a Sharecropping Childhood

 

The Pecan OrchardDespite its title, Peggy Vonsherie Allen’s memoir, The Pecan Orchard: Journey of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, only gets around to narrating her own Southern success story of overcoming a crippling illness (rickets) and becoming a well-established civil engineer in the closing pages of this affecting memoir. The bulk of the book is a paean to her parents’ hard work and dedication to provide enough for their large, 13 children family on a sharecropper’s lot, and still save enough to eventually purchase their own land. This memoir would be a good counterpoint to reading about another, more famous family of farmers who become sharecroppers, the Joad family, immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Whereas the Joads had to leave their ancestral land behind and journey to faraway California during the Dust Bowl for a chance to make a living using their inherited farming skills, the Allens stayed put and worked their way out of poverty and tenant-farming through unrelenting effort, luck, and sheer numbers. Allen’s clear-eyed account of witnessing both the sacrifices and ingenuity her parents and siblings demonstrated as independent agricultural contractors as well as enterprising business people with lucrative, and sometimes dangerous, sidelines in moonshine (father and grandmother) and strawberries and strawberry wine (mother), is both compelling and instructive. Not only does she shed light on how sharecropping families who made it succeeded in supplementing their meager earnings by catering to the demand for luxury items like seasonal fruit and alcohol of all kinds, but it also dramatizes the risk and personal cost of such undertakings, such as the year and a day her father had to spend behind bars for being caught in possession of a gun, something he presumably used to keep him safe in his delivery rounds. Though Allen does not grow up to farm or garden herself as an adult, she spent all of her childhood out in the fields helping her family harvest and care for crops that belonged to other people. As a first-person account of those labors, this text contributes to our general understanding of how racism affected the workings of the food system in the South during the decades of Jim Crow, and the risks small sharecroppers and their families took to work on behalf of Civil Rights and equal access to voting booths in their local communities.

Because it tells the stories of so many different people at once—her family, other sharecroppers in the neighborhood, blacks living in the Jim Crow South, and sick and disabled children in rural areas, just to name a few—this memoir really carries out the functions of a testimonio, a work of collective storytelling acting as a supplement to the official histories of oppression during this time, and reflecting a deep and communal political engagement to combat the status quo. Though this book is written directly by Ms. Allen, her narrative style bears distinctive traces of her oral approach to storytelling: there is a lot of repetition spread out throughout the various chapters; they do not necessarily adhere to a strict chronological or thematic order, and lots of dialogue or recalled conversations are central to how events are described and/or remembered. The Pecan Orchard meets most of the criteria Doris Sommer spells out for what makes a text a testimonio (or a “testimonial” in her terms) in her analysis of the differences between that genre and women’s autobiographies:

(1)Testimonials are related to a general text of struggle. They are written from interpersonal class and ethnic positions. (2) But the narrator’s relationship to her social group(s) is as a particular individual. Therefore, she represents her group as a participant, rather than as an ideal and repeatable type. . . . (3) To make the reader’s interpellation possible, the narrator and her public must assume that language always relates to the world, even when it does so imperfectly. (4) One symptom of language’s imperfection is the limit or boundary of any one code. . . . (5) Finally, male models are adapted to a different but related female experience. (129-130)

The Pecan Orchard chronicles the exploitation of sharecroppers in general, regardless of race, at the hands of their landlords—their meager pay is exploitative and out of keeping with the profits the landowners reap from the crops the sharecroppers tend and harvest for them. Allen also speaks as an African American girl living in the South during Jim Crow, and recalls from her now-adult perspective how assiduously her mother worked to shield her children from the institutional prejudice that surrounded them. One such example is when Allen explains her inability to understand why her mother would not take the kids to town to buy shoes but would take a paper cutout of their foot shape instead. It turns out salespeople would not let black people try shoes on so that white customers would not have to put their feet where Negroes’ feet had temporarily been. Allen also recalls her sisters’ political activism and work for Civil Rights. The memoir uses language primarily as a tool to get meaning across; rarely are there any personal or stylistic flares. And, Ms. Allen’s father plays an outsized role for as little as he was personally engaged with his children, especially little sickly Peggy.

In fact, the memoir closes with her describing the most significant keepsake she still has of her childhood: the “little hoe” that her father fashioned for her so she, too, could contribute to her family’s quest to earn their livelihood despite how rickets had disfigured her legs. In this description, the plural nature of this collective identity is in evidence through Allen’s appeal to her heritage and her community’s experience of slavery as well as sharecropping:

I still have part of the little custom-made hoe that Daddy fashioned for me so many years ago. The wooden handle has long since rotted away but a portion of the metal blade has survived. I will cherish it always. It reminds me of my childhood and the people who were such an important part of my growing up. It reminds me of where I’ve been, and of my history and my heritage. I am only three generations removed from slavery and my little hoe helps me remember that. (255)

The reference to slavery here echoes with her earlier descriptions of older members of her family and community and their own experience of having lived in bondage. It is precisely this aspect of Allen’s narrative that lends itself most closely to the Latin American tradition of the testimonio, because so many of the female narrators in the genre told the tale of their communities’ struggles against the legacy of colonial oppression, slavery, and exploitation.

What strikes me as the memoir’s most all-American aspects of its narrative, however, is Peggy’s descriptions of her mother’s ingenuity, demonstrated both in times of hardship—when she managed to feed 13 mouths on very little food—and in times of opportunity, such as when she saw the chance to nurse some discarded strawberry plants back to health and therefore started her own strawberry business—selling the fruit and the wine made from them, and turning the “damaged” berries into pies and preserves. Though Peggy cherishes the hoe her father made for her, she feared him as a child for his emotional reserve and demanding work ethic towards his children, she clearly loved and admired her mother for the way she made her children feel loved and appreciated. This becomes most evident in Peggy’s description of her mother’s approach to tending her strawberry patch; it is not hard to see how the assiduous and tender attention she pays to the plants is a metaphor for how lovingly she related to her offspring:

One of the many things that Mama did to try and earn money for the family was growing strawberries. She always had a strawberry patch, and from as far back as I could remember strawberries were growing somewhere around the house. Strawberries were her pride and joy, and rightfully so. Of the many fruits and vegetables we grew, Mama took the greatest pride in her strawberries. She loved them and she put her heart and soul into every plant. Strawberries can produce a bountiful harvest if they are tended just right, and they were a really consistent income-producing crop for years. (88)

Like the strawberries, the children received loving care and attention, though neither kids nor berries were spared the hardships of the weather. Both produced income for the family. And, according to Allen’s description, her siblings turned out to be just as sweet as they always suspected the mother’s ripe berries would taste. It was her mother’s ingenuity under dire circumstances, her desire to improve her lot and that of her family through dedicated labor and taking chances that endeared her mother to Peggy and, through her, to us readers. I end on this note not to suggest that sharecropping was not a tough life, but to affirm that people found ways to add a little flair to meet the difficulties they faced every day.

The two recipes the memoir contains are both for alcoholic beverages: Mama’s strawberry wine, and Peggy’s Dad’s/Grandma’s recipe for moonshine. More than how-to guides for the amateur mixologist, these recipes serve the same purpose that the little hoe does—to attest to how people found ways to make the work they had to do somewhat easier. These three things, the recipes, and the hoe, are Peggy’s legacy, and her memoir is an attempt to share that with a broader public.

 

Works Cited

Allen, Peggy Vonsherie. The Pecan Orchard: Journey of a Sharecropper’s Daughter. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Penguin, 1976.

Summer, Doris. “Not Just a Personal Story”: Women’s Testimonios and the Plural Self.” Life/Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodkzki and Celeste Schenchk. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.107-130.

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Filed under African diaspora, Memoir, Memoirs with Recipes, Southern Food, Uncategorized

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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