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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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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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The Picaresque in the Restaurant

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Immigrant Experience on the Half Shelf

picklehead
Rohan Candappa’s entertaining food memoir with recipes, Picklehead: From Ceylon to Suburbia; a Memoir of Food, Family and Finding Yourself, is an engaging way to learn about the experience of growing up as the child of immigrants in 1960s and 70s London. My oldest daughter, in her wisdom, has coined a term to express her own similar experience: “half-immigrant,” and it is that concept that gives the title to today’s blog post.

The memoir is split into two distinct narrative modes: the primary one is a retrospective look at how Candappa finds himself buying a can of korma sauce at the supermarket so he can feed his hungry children quickly when he grew up eating delicious homemade Indian food at home. The second part, which I find to be the most fun to teach, is made up of a series of half-chapters chronicling “A Brief History of Curry in England.” This section is divided into five distinct parts, interspersed throughout the autobiographical narrative. When I assign this book in class, I tend to assign those chapters to be read together as a unit first, because I have found that otherwise undergraduates really feel thrown off by the sudden intrusion of a different discourse in a book they thought they’d figured out already.

Although this structure might seem direct enough, if a bit quirky, the tale that unfolds from between the book’s covers is layered very thickly: readers get three life stories–Candappa’s own, his mother’s and his late father’s–all rolled into one account of a middle aged man coming to terms with his ethnic/racial heritage and the culinary choices he faces as he decides how best to convey this patrimony to his own offspring. The introduction sets up the themes that organize the rest of the text that follows:

If you’re the child of immigrant parents, the food you eat at home is more than just the food you eat at home. It is a link to the world your parents came from. It has echoes of past places, past peoples, and past events. It is a conduit of both family history and history in a far wider sense. (10)

So part of Candappa’s purpose in writing is to bear witness to this condition of what Marianne Hirsch calls, “post-memory,” or the memory that people at a remove from trauma, in this case the child of immigrant parents, have of the original traumatic event as it has been conveyed to them by the generation that experienced it. In Candappa’s text, that full-blown experience of the trauma of his parents’ individual stories of displacement and the violence they witnessed as young people growing up in the waning days of the British Empire, still unsettles the British-born writer. The cycle stops with his children, however, much in the same way that the culinary tradition stopped with Candappa himself. As he confesses, in choosing the time savings and convenience of canned korma sauce over the more labor intensive home-made curry in the style that his own parents prepared, Candappa knows he’s foregoing an opportunity to communicate a sense of his own culinary patrimony to his own children, who are no longer defined by the grandparents’ experience of immigration in the same way Candappa and his brother were by their parents’:

Twenty-four minutes versus two hours when you live in a cash-rich but time-poor world really is a bit of a no-brainer. But as I chopped the chicken breast fillets into pieces, fried them in a pan and poured the sauce over them, I knew that, on some intangibly unsettling level, it was a no-culturer too. (10)

Picklehead is a unique meditation on a particular aspect of the life experience of what’s come to be known as the “sandwich generation,” those adults who care for their aging parents as the same time as they are still raising their dependent children. While Candappa’s mother appears to be very independent and carrying out an active and enriching life filled with meaningful work at the time when Candappa published his account, his father had already died. By calling attention to his circumstance of being the adult “child of immigrant parents” and also the parent of thoroughly British children, Candappa suggests that he is caught in the middle as the caretaker of one type of memory–the collective family memory of a colonial life that preceeded their arrival on British shores, and the main architect of his children’s absolutely modern life, unmarked in many ways by outward expressions of racial or ethnic consciousness or prejudice thanks to his own success as a provider, and to the flattening effect of the hectic pace of contemporary life, which demands quick and easy access to uniformly processed food, whatever its origins. After all, as Candappa took stock of how estranged he had become from his heritage, he realizes that his country has become enthralled by the very food that once marked him as a racial outcast in the school cafeteria of his youth: curry. The rich and rewarding (and side-splittingly funny) memoir he produces, then, is a successful attempt to come to terms with the fundamental question: “what, if any, was the link between what I had lost and what the country had gained?” (11).

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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

Cooking off the first

Describing Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat (2013), with the adjectives “culinary” or “foodie” would be to needlessly limit the scope of a text that seeks to speak for a generation of young adults of color who grew up listening to gangsta rap, and for whom pumped up kicks and street wear represent the height of fashion. Placing too much importance on the fact that this book grew out of Mr. Huang’s eponymous blog would likewise be ill advised, especially since such a comparison would have the unfortunate, but inevitable, result of implying that this raw, and urgent memoir has anything in common with Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes,1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen (2005), the formulaic blog-to-book product that inspired the charming movie adaptation, Julie & Julia (2009), penned by Nora Ephron. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Huang is a proud heir of Anthony Bourdain’s brand of bad-boy-chef school of writing (which also includes the testosterone-fueled tone of most contributions to the food magazine Lucky Peach, published by David Chang, the Korean American chef and leader of the Momofuku restaurant empire, whom Huang sees as something of a nemesis). Whereas Chang and his literary ilk devote the majority of their waking hours to thoughts of food—how best to cook, eat, butcher, forage, prepare, and experiment with it–Eddie Huang is at pains to explain that his restaurant, Baohaus, is not the defining achievement of his life but, rather, represents one of his many driving passions. This becomes most obvious when, towards the end of the book, he declares in no uncertain terms that the topic that impels him to write is not his love of good food but, rather, something closer to home: race.

My entire life, the single most interesting thing to me is race in America. How can something so stupid as skin or eyes or stinky Chinese lunch has such an impact on a person’s identity, their mental state, and the possibility of their happiness.  It was race. It was race. It was race. (249)

This revelation appears in the closing chapter of the memoir, but it should come as no surprise to attentive readers, who will have noticed plenty of foreshadowing scattered throughout the preceding chapters. I read Huang’s choice to maintain the placement of this epiphany at the end of the memoir, where it fits in chronologically, rather than editing the entire manuscript so that it gains more cohesion as a treatise on the lived experiences of racialized subjects in America, as a reflection of his commitment to use a prose style that rings true to his peers. This quest for an authentic voice is yet another constant throughout the memoir. It belies Huang’s self-professed appreciation of canonical literary and philosophical texts such as Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal (1726) which, coincidentally, proposes cannibalism of children as a tongue-in-cheek solution to alleviating poverty in Ireland; his understanding of Hamlet and other Shakespearean drama; and his solidarity with W.E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison as fellow writers of color. Although Eddie Huang’s memoir aspires to an urban, rather than academic readership, he does give props to influential professors who took him to task for getting by on the substance, rather than the style, of his writing.  This book, therefore, reflects a conscious literary aesthetic that effectively conveys his anger, frustration, and, finally, the pride he finally takes on growing up as a Chinese American “rotten banana” in Orlando, and coming of age in New York.

More than anything, though, I contend that the kitchen still provides the most accurate vocabulary through which to understand the project that Mr. Huang is up to with the publication of his memoir. Despite his disclaimer, he often resorts to culinary or food imagery even when discussing race, as is the case when he describes arriving at a new school:

When I walked on to the school bus, I saw a bunch of preppy rich white kids, but there was also a Cuban girl; Neal, the big Jordanian; the Palestinians Maali and Muhrad; the Dominican Easy Eric; and me, “Chino.” From jump, I knew the diversity at Dr. Phillips would be good for me even if it came in the Sizzler Buffet one-of-each format. (92)

Thus, the title of this blog entry, which refers to the process of parboiling a piece of meat in order to remove any trace of what Mr. Huang calls alternatively its “funkiness” or its “stink”.  Huang first mentions this cooking technique when discussing his introduction to cooking at the hands of the Haitian cooks who worked at his father’s steakhouse restaurant in Orlando, Cattleman’s. He first acknowledges that he learned how to cook ribs from the (unnamed) Haitian cooks, then defines the cooking technique for his non-foodie readers in a footnote, citing it as proof of a shared set of assumptions or values across overlapping, but distinct, diasporas (Asian and African), before finally disavowing it altogether as “the wrong way” or “knowing there was something off, and then learning to do it the right way” (142).  Huang cites this particular insight as his first significant culinary epiphany.

He discusses the concept of preparing flesh for long cooking by getting rid of its gaminess again when trying to decide how best to prepare the skirt steak he wanted to braise à la Mao’s red cooked pork, a dish he then submitted for consideration to earn the chance to be featured Food Network’s Ultimate Recipe Showdown. In a paragraph that recalls Huang’s earlier description of the stark differences in his parents’ respective outlooks on life in general, Eddie contrasts each of their traditional approaches to making Mao’s red braise. Huang starts by describing his mother’s version:

My mom and her family were from the north so they’d do a braise that started by throwing out the first. The pork was always flash-boiled until gray, leaving behind bubbles of gray blood in the pot. (237)

Although more than once Huang acknowledges the immense debt he owes his mother for teaching him to cook at home, in this instance he actually chooses his father’s technique for red cooking, adapting it to skirt steak:

My dad’s side did Mao’s style red cooked pork since they were from Hunan. They would cook the first by searing the pork and preferred using pork belly over shank or shoulder. (237)

Long story short, Eddie comes up with his own twist to Mao’s favorite dish and, while not winning the “showdown,” he does find a career path as a restaurant owner that not only aligns him with his heritage—as the son of a restaurateur—but perhaps most importantly, it allows him to hire like-minded people who enjoy Taiwanese street food (baos) but do not necessarily want to work in the restaurant business forever.

The traumatic events preceding this professional epiphany— whether it was fighting over racial slurs, selling drugs, being thrown in jail, or hustling to keep his streetwear company afloat —constitute Eddie Huang’s own version of “cooking off” or “throwing out” his very own “first,” the anger and frustration he grew up with as an Asian American kid in the South.  While the events chronicled in Fresh Off the Boat may best be understood through this culinary metaphor, Eddie’s final realization that his personal calling is to start a national and frank conversation on contemporary race relations in an America that is most definitely not post-racial takes us all beyond the kitchen, and into the public arena of civics. Whether this gamble pays off by sparking a new national dialogue that goes beyond the use of empty slogans like “diversity” and gets to the heart of the matter in figuring out how to foster mutual understanding and appreciation of the cultural richness that people who are still “fresh off the boat” continue to impart upon us all, remains to be seen.

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