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Best Served Cold: Restaurant Receipts as Revenge Lit

Dinner Receipt Lit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where does your orange juice come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Authentically” Hybrid Homemade Recipes: Acculturation in Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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Rewards of Gastronomic Magical Realism

Like water for Chocolate Film Poster

The 1993 release of Alfonso Arau’s film adaptation of his wife’s novel, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) took place amidst an interesting set of circumstances: on the literary front, the early 1990s marked the rise of the female versions of magical realism, the type of narrative style popularized by male writers like Gabriel García Márquez, and which rendered depictions of everyday life suddenly uncanny and fantastical through the intervention of supernatural elements that did not faze the inhabitants of such fictional small towns. Women novelists like Chile’s Isabel Allende finally captured the global limelight, putting their own feminine and feminist spin on these tales of enhanced reality by suggesting that those tasks we traditionally read as part of “women’s work” may not be quite as banal as they may appear at first glance. Among this group of writers, Laura Esquivel, author of Like Water for Chocolate, achieved cross-over success by emphasizing the inherent magic in vernacular knowledge—such as kitchen lore—which had been disdained by women of means as well as the rising number of women now employed outside the home who were turning to prepared or fast food to feed their families rather than spend hours in the kitchen after a busy day at work. By using her fiction to conjure visions of an earlier time—the Mexican Revolution (1910-20)—when the modern nation was taking shape and women still possessed the traditional culinary secrets passed down the generations, Esquivel suggests that even those subject to unfair and sexist rules can exercise some measure of power by wielding the tools available to them, in this case, the kitchen, to achieve their own ends.

Arau’s film is a love story, set against the background of political unrest and unresolved family hostility. That is standard fare. Where it distinguishes itself from the countless other “costume dramas” that grace the screens of many a multiplex is in its unabashedly luscious depiction of cooking as a sensual, transformative process through which a set of humble ingredients become an appetizing meal. The film portrays home cooking as a culturally sanctioned activity that productively channels women’s creativity, comforts the sad and weary, and seduces by fully conveying the depths of one’s love and desire for a beloved in a delicious bite.

The genius of this particular film lies in its ability to celebrate both parts of the culinary equation: not just the cooking, but the consumption of the finished dishes as well. For, the eaters on the screen serve as stand-ins for the audience, and what better way to demonstrate the extent of the protagonist, Tita’s, remarkable culinary talent than by showing how much eating her food affects those who partake of it. Tita’s supernatural skill impacts not just her family, but members of her community as well, especially on those occasions where she prepares the food that accompanies large, public celebrations. Araujo’s film and Esquivel’s novel before it highlight the intimacy inherent in cooking and eating, a lot of which is lost when we consume mass-produced goods made by unseen hands (or machines). Both film and novel suggest that food—its preparation and its consumption—constitutes an embodied language of its own, whose codes can be deciphered in person (by smelling, hearing, tasting) or virtually, through the visual spectacle of the well composed dish and the manifest body language that conveys the eaters’ pleasure. The language of cooking and eating needs no subtitles; it can be read cross-culturally.

The film’s critical and commercial success still inspires other food-novel adaptations, following the formula of portraying women as having an innately mystical relationship to food and/or cooking. Among such works are Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat, released in 2000 and starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche; and Paul Berges’ 2005 adaptation of the novel The Mistress of Spices, written by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, and starring Aishwarya Ray Bachchan and Dylan McDermott, fresh off his stint playing the lead in the TV series The Practice. As of September 2014, a film adaptation of Aimee Bender’s novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, is in production.

I would argue, that regardless of any other flaws they may have, where these films fall short of the original Like Water for Chocolate’s spell-binding effect, is in their effort to translate another country’s foodways for American audiences, all the while trying to dramatize the trials and tribulations of cross-cultural attraction and romance. By drawing global audiences into the world of a very specific and turbulent period in Mexico’s history—its Revolution—and making us work hard to follow the story along by reading the subtitles, Like Water for Chocolate reminds its viewers that they are but guests at this gathering. None of the featured dishes match our expectation for what Mexican cuisine should be, based on our limited exposure to that country’s regional specialties. The promised reward of commensality, though virtual, makes the effort well worth it.

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Boxing Up Food Allergies

IMDB image for The Boxtrolls film

The recently released animated children’s film, The Boxtrolls (2014), is an unlikely meditation upon the real obstacles that living with a food allergy present to those afflicted. The film makes the villain’s dairy allergy a central plot point, demonstrating the depths of his moral corruption by illustrating to what degree he is willing to sacrifice his physical well being (ignoring the painful and grotesque effects of his allergy) in order to fulfill his ambition: earning the right to wear one of the coveted White Hats.

In an effort to practice “fitting in” with the White Hat elites of Cheesebridge, whose ranks he hopes to one day join by exterminating all the Boxtrolls as if they were vermin, Archibald Snatcher, the erstwhile exterminator, forces himself to taste cheese. The allergic reaction is immediate and undeniable–making his skin break out, and his facial features swell up beyond recognition. Mr. Snatcher downplays the severity of his symptoms when confronted by his worried henchmen, insisting that not only was he fine, but he was enjoying the experience. This is the scene which most humanizes this villain–for how often, in truth, have those of us whose bodies betray us in reaction to the slightest ingestion of an allergenic substance tried to downplay the situation when the physical manifestation of our bodies’ reactions become the focus of public gaze, no matter how sympathetic?

By continuing to partake of the cheese platter with reckless abandon, Snatcher forces his henchmen to intervene–in this case, by applying the leeches they always keep nearby for such occasions. This precaution dramatizes the central dilemma associated with severe food allergies: they profoundly interfere with interpersonal interactions, imposing the moral duty and real obligation to intervene on our behalf on complete strangers, mere acquaintances, or loved ones if we become severely incapacitated through unexpected contact with a hidden irritant. Acknowledging the extent to which people with food allergies depend on the common weal for their basic well being is humbling, but also potentially enriching. For, if people who know they may be at risk for illness or injury remember to regard others as potential saviors during times of crisis, then these pesky conditions can indeed be the basic for more humane, and considerate, interpersonal relations. This can, in turn, affirm our trust in each other, and in humanity.

Snatcher was not such a broadminded character; the scope of his ambition blinded him to his own weakness and reliance on others. This arrogance led him to act with no regard for his own limitations, which led to his eventual downfall. (no plot spoilers here). The point, though, is that the villain’s food allergies made clear for the film’s target audience that no one, not even a bad guy, can act independently of others if s/he is ever to succeed. And, by demonstrating their concern for their inconsiderate boss, the henchmen began to redeem themselves and find better outlets for their empathy.

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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

Granny’s Goodies: Neo-Epistolary Novel Makes Great Summer Read

That Part Was True

Deborah McKinlay’s That Part Was True is a meta-fictive meditation upon the particularities of gendered genre fiction: this is, after all, a chick lit novel about a male protagonist who specializes in writing what characters repeatedly characterize as masculine fiction or “guy lit” in my terms. The American protagonist, Jackson Cooper, carries on an increasingly intimate correspondence with Eve Petworth, a wealthy British single mother in her forties.  Though this epistolary exchange begins with Eve’s fan letter to Jack, what she praises about Jack’s fiction is his attention to verisimilitude, as demonstrated in a particularly evocative passage about a ripe, juicy peach. Gradually, Jack and Eve discover they share a love of cooking, and an appetite for refined comfort food, such as lavender scones and home-made marmalade. The evenness of their culinary skill makes it difficult to determine which of these characters is the object of desire, and which is the admirer—these subject positions vary and change throughout the length of the short novel. McKinlay succeeds in walking the line between chick and guy lit by virtue of presenting two evenly-matched protagonists whose friendship develops slowly and through a medium that is consciously antiquated, letter writing, which does not ignore more immediate communications, such as the telephone and e-mail, but persists in spite of them. The anticipation associated with awaiting the next letter, and its acknowledgement of what was said before gives each character something to look forward to in this increasingly chaotic world of instant communication.

The more sustained pleasure of reading this novel, thus, comes from reading the interspersed letters themselves as examples of what I am calling “narrative food porn”. Like erotic pornography, food pornography is meant to excite the senses, and ignite the passions of its intended audience. Both types of porn thrive in visual and narrative realms of expression, since each medium gives fodder to fantasy, a necessary element of the true pleasure of the porn consumer. Whereas the visual element of food porn has proliferated—what with the rise of professional food stylists and the viral nature of Instagram, Yelp, and Urban Spoon, all of which facilitate the easy uploading and distribution of digital photographs of incredibly appetizing food offerings—real gastronomes have long known the joy of curling up in bed with a good book, and calling upon James Beard’s “taste memory” (Delights and Prejudices 1) to make vivid descriptions of featured dishes come alive to one’s senses.

Eve and Jack’s first missive begins, rather biblically, with the woman offering up an especially juicy morsel: her explanation of why the peach-eating passage in his novel was so enticing to her as an embodied reader.

 The scene where Harry Gordon eats the peach (‘leaning over and holding back his green silk tie with one arm while the juice christened the shirt cuff of the other’) introduced a moment of summer into a watery English day. And it reminded me, as well, of the almost decadent pleasure that comes with eating fully matured fruit—sadly, a rarity. (That Part Was True 1)

This marks a moment of intimate self-disclosure for Eve: not only is she revealing to a successful author what it is about his testosterone-fueled action adventure tales that caught her attention—the seemingly unguarded moment when the rugged protagonist gives himself over to the temptation of gustatory pleasure—but she is also revealing something about her own desire for raw, unmediated flavors. By noting how hard these moments of unadulterated sensual pleasure are to come by nowadays, Eve also sets the stage for a consciously retro epistolary exchange.

Jack responds in kind. Not only does he answer this piece of fan mail, but he finds himself shifting the focus of the conversation away from his fiction—the popularity of which gave rise to this particular interaction—and more towards finding out about Eve’s life, especially once he finds out they both enjoy spending time in the kitchen. Seeking to dispel Eve’s preconceptions of him as indistinguishable from his public persona, Jack presents himself to his correspondent as a better cook than he is a writer:

I am better at cooking than I am at most anything else. At writing I can cross the finish line well enough, but not in any particular style. And with people, I have a tendency to trip at the first hurdle. (That Part Was True 56)

Thus framed, their correspondence begins in earnest.  For, as talented as Jack and Eve appear to be in the kitchen, none of their close friends or relatives fully shares their enthusiasm for good food. In fact, their interlocutors often misinterpret the significance of their culinary endeavors, assuming they merely substitute for real engagement with others, or serve as a convenient way to pass the time while others engage in “real” work.

The novel adds an extra layer of faux-reality when it includes actual recipes at the end of the book for two of the dishes the protagonists recall most fondly, and which they share with one another during their correspondence: from Jack, “Granny Cooper’s Peanut Cookies” (That Part Was True 226) and “Grandmother’s Christmas Cake” (That Part Was True 227) from Eve. As in most fiction, grandmothers in this novel are almost magically imbued with culinary wisdom and lore. Ironically, by the novel’s ending, it is clear that Eve’s on her way to becoming a grandmother herself, thereby prompting the reader to go back through the correspondence and attempt to reconstruct the recipes she only half-hints at throughout.

There’s an implied double entendre embedded within Jack’s recipe—his movie star best friend wants to learn how to do to women what Jack does to get the roasted peanuts to taste so good.  American readers who want to follow Eve’s recipe, however, will come face to face with a dilemma that she spares Jack from suffering, as she sends him not only the recipe but also a bottle of one of the key ingredients, golden syrup or light treacle, that gives the dish its signature flavor.  She warns,

I have just noticed that the recipe calls for Golden Syrup. I may have to send you some, substitutes are either messy (combine caramelized sugar, vinegar, corn syrup) or inadequate (honey).  (That Part Was True 139)

However, since this recipe is basically for fruit cake—one of the confections Americans find most puzzling—chances are no one will try their hand at making this particular cake. Good thing, too, since this book is probably best enjoyed beach- or pool-side, while food cooks out on the grill.  It is sure to make readers hungry.

Works Cited:

McKinlay, Deborah. That Part Was True. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014.

Beard, James.  Delights and Prejudices. 1964. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Running Press, 2001.

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