“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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Intimate Strangers

Since the biblical serpent enticed Eve to take a bite out of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, eating has been regarded as a potentially sinful activity. By performing a close reading of the visual rhetoric in a series of “sponsored” ads that have shown up in my Facebook news feed lately I may be stretching the meaning of “literary food writing;” however I could not let this opportunity pass since the images featured literally inscribe the message onto the food items depicted via a name tag bearing the words: “HELLO. My name is Meningitis.” Written text conveying information about meningitis frames the photographs in the style of a status update, yet the eye is inevitably drawn to the image of unknown young people having fun together. The photos portray the common junk food we all occasionally indulge in as a sinister carrier of disease via the name tag, so my immediate reaction the multi-modal message—image and text working together as one—was revulsion. The second level at which the ad works is to promote a sense of paranoia, since it’s the very closeness to one’s peers, the social intimacy of the situations depicted in the images including going to the movies, drinking at a party, or sharing an ice cream cone with a special someone on a hot day, as uncannily fraught intimate encounters with someone else’s germs. If our friends, lovers, and acquaintances can transmit such a powerful pathogen to us unawares, what hope is there of meaningful social interaction? No wonder these ads are produced for the simulated environment of social media.

Meningitis Frat party

 

On the face of it, the campaign’s goals appear to be noble enough: raising awareness about this serious illness by highlighting the risky “typical adolescent and young adult behaviors” which can promote the spread of meningococcal disease. Chief among these risky behaviors, the photo campaign which peppers my Facebook newsfeed suggests, is communal eating or, more specifically, the sharing of specific food items like beverages and snack foods, which can entail the transmission of saliva from one person to another. The campaign’s official website, MeetMeningitis.com, provides a broader context through which to understand the images by mentioning the other two types of activities which can lead to the unwitting transmission of this disease: “closed-quartered living and group hangouts” and “kissing.” Despite being relatively easy to depict visually, kissing is not an activity depicted in my newsfeed, perhaps to avoid entering into hot-button issues about how to properly depict sexual attraction. Any conceivable configurations of kissing couples could be open to charges of either heteronormativity or homophobia.Meningitis ice cream

The ice cream image is the only one featuring a mixed gender couple, thereby rendering the co-eating involved in consuming this frozen confection into a visual metaphor for other intimate contact, such as “kissing” or sexual activity. So, the logic of these ads is to posit what I am calling the “public intimacy” of young people eating informally together as dangerous precisely because these behaviors rely on the assumption that the parties involved know enough about one another to be close. The name tag suggests that this type of intimacy belies a darker truth, one in which some parties involved are silent carriers of the bacteria that carries meningitis. Transmission takes place through the ingestion of the contaminated substance—licking the ice cream, drinking soda through an infected straw or sharing a plastic cup of beer at a frat party—and thus it’s very hard to trace. Usually, one of the benefits of sharing a meal with others is to establish and affirm close social bonds. However, this website would have us (and by us I think they mean parents of teenagers and young adults) discourage such behavior in our offspring.

So, any social media user repeatedly subjected to this type of “sponsored content” might pause to wonder, who is raising this alarm? Is it the medical community? The CDC? Is the goal to promote the vaccination of people in this age group against meningitis in the wake of the recent measles outbreak? Well the answer to the last two questions is a resounding no, despite the fact that there is both a vaccine available and the CDC does make information on it accessible via its own website. Advertising on Facebook costs a pretty penny, so the motives behind this campaign have to be more than altruistic. Only by scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the MeetMeningitis.com site does the corporate sponsorship of this entire consciousness-raising campaign become clear—Pfizer Inc. is peddling a “prescription product option” for those interested in receiving more information about the disease. Rather than lambast this pharmaceutical company for their reprehensible scare tactics, which enact the bait and switch logic of making viewers paranoid about contracting a terrible illness only to peddle their own medication for it, what I’d like to focus on is a different question: Why is food imagery considered to be the most effective way of communicating the message of disease awareness and prevention?

Meningitis Movies

One possible answer is that the visual rhetoric of these ads, when the images are taken into consideration together, is a critique of young people’s consumption of “junk” food. After all, the items bearing the meningitis name tag are soft-drink cups and an ice cream cone. Teens and young adults are prone to sharing these types of items both out of friendliness and also out of economic considerations: it’s cheaper to buy one drink and share it at the movies, than to spend a small fortune buying one for each person. Public health announcements regarding the unhealthful nature of processed foods such as cola and sugary snacks have already set the stage for a negative association between consumption of these items and the risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. So, Pfizer does not have far to go to prompt nervous parents to police their children’s eating behavior more actively. However, controlling food consumption is one of the more difficult things to do personally, as well as for one’s children. As Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, et. al, have determined through research conducted via focus-groups with adolescents:

Despite the importance of healthful eating patterns in adolescence, adolescent lifestyles, influenced by the desire to fit social norms, may not be conducive to encourage teens to eat in a manner that meets the increased and changing nutrition needs during this period. Furthermore, a lack of a sense of urgency regarding future health may make nutrition a low concern among adolescent.

Thus, parents’ interdictions in this regard are likely to be ineffectual at best. Pfizer’s meningitis awareness campaign deploys the same logic of contagion and transmission between strangers as the disease reputedly does, but in order to promote awareness of its anti-meningitis product line. The unfortunate side effect of such a strategy is to perpetuate a negative view of food as inherently dangerous and the idea that eating together is a “risky behavior.” By visually pathologizing eating, rather than the more problematic process of “sharing drinks and utensils” the website warns against, this type of anti-food visual rhetoric dissociates eating from pleasure and nutrition and instead frames it through abjection. A more impactful intervention might be to recast the message through the lens of health campaigns that have proven effective, such as the concept of using prophylactics for “safe sex.”

“Safe fraternizing,” though not a catchy phrase, would better convey that the danger lies in the transmission of bodily fluids—saliva—during a whole host of behaviors rather than being inherent in food itself. Thus, a whole host of communal activities such as sharing straws, cups, or make up, would come under scrutiny, rather than literally labeling food as unsafe. As a professor, I have met many students who have suffered from meningitis and emerged from the experience with lasting health problems. I support any effort to raise awareness about this potentially life-threatening disease. However, as a food studies scholar, I think it unwise to visually demonize food because doing so contributes to the public discourse which dissociates ingestion from appetite, thereby leading to more disordered eating and its many co-morbidities.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “meningococcal Vaccination.” http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/mening/default.htm  Accessed 2/18/2015.

Pfizer. “Could your behavior promote the transmission of the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease?” http://www.meetmeningitis.com/about  Accessed 2/18/2015

Neumark-Sztainer, Dianne, Mary Story, Cheryl Perry and Mary Anne Casey. “Factors Influencing Food Choices of Adolescents: Findings from Focus-Group Discussions with Adolescents.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.8(1999): 929-937.

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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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When the Piggie Becomes the Big Bad Wolf

Pop-the-Pig-Game--pTRU1-6124568dt“Pop the Pig Game,” illustration from Toys-R-Us website

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, is a moving chronicle detailing how fatherhood inspired him to investigate the American food system first-hand before deciding what nutritional choices to embrace for his firstborn. Rather than being a pro-vegetarian polemic, Foer’s book celebrates the power of storytelling to make sense of the choices we make, the traditions we continue to honor or reinvent to suit the needs of a new day, and the information we choose to forget in order to get on with our lives. His overarching thesis is that cruelty is woven into the very fabric of the global meat industry, from the mistreatment and crowded conditions cattle, pigs, chickens and other farmed animals endure in the massive compounds where they are born and raised, to the unspeakable discomforts of being shipped across country, fattened up for the kill, and then slaughtered by the thousands every day. The novelist advocates a vegetarian eating lifestyle as the only way to opt out of a cycle of pain, cruelty and death that otherwise fuels our own daily toil.

 

New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman, is another strong voice decrying the evils of the Standard American Diet or what he calls “SAD,” which promotes the consumption of processed food at every turn. Like Foer, Bittman states in his popular TED talk, “What’s Wrong with What We Eat,” that the industrial, factory farm system that provides the nation’s animal protein supply is so corrosive to the environment, that anyone who is concerned and trying to do something to reverse the ecological damage mankind has already wrought (he uses Prius drivers as their emblematic representative) should do his or her part by eating mostly plants, without having to give up meat altogether. Mr. Bittman advises those same consumers to purchase only organically raised, grass-fed beef, though he does acknowledge that the label “organic” loses all its meaning when applied to the kind of feed given to creatures not meant to consume it in the first-place, like farmed salmon who grow up on organic soy meal, for example. Though his TED talk does not mention his daughters, Bittman recently posted an article in which he explained his approach to feeding his children when they were young and lived at home: by exposing them to a wide variety of home-cooked meals featuring fresh ingredients. As adults, they are adventurous eaters and capable home cooks in their own right.

As a mother myself, I wonder what Mr. Foer’s and Mr. Bittman’s reaction would be to the obscene toy I saw advertised on cable TV this afternoon, as I checked in on my 8 year old son’s TV watching. Thankfully, it did not catch his interest, but it certainly got my attention.

The offensive plaything is called a “Pop the Pig” and the product description explains the twisted rules of the so-called “game”:

 

Everyone takes turns to roll the die to see how many chomps the pig will take. Push down the pig’s head to chomp the burger. With every pump, the pig’s stomach will get bigger, bigger, and bigger. But don’t feed him too much because if he pops, you lose!

I object to this monstrosity on two fronts:

  1.  First, it celebrates mindless gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. Granted, this alone is not new. I received a “Hungry, Hungry Hippo” game in the early 1980s, and it was a lot of fun to play. However, the idea behind the “Hungry, Hungry Hippo” was to beat your opponents at the abstract task of amassing the largest possible number of white marbles which the hippos gathered by “eating them” by opening their large mouths assisted by a lever one frantically hit. Competitive greed was at the heart of this exercise, but the marbles themselves were largely symbolic—they did not resemble any recognizable food source in the least.

In contrast, “Pop the Pig” makes children complicit in feeding the porcine figure an increasing volume of toy hamburgers, thereby implying that the over consumption of junk or fast food is itself a competitive undertaking. Its central conceit is one that simultaneously promotes a negative view of pigs by portraying them as mindless eating machines, even as it celebrates disordered eating by coaching children into supporting this unhealthy behavior that disassociates the act of eating from the feelings of hunger or satiety. The game also serves as an advertisement for the worst elements of the S.A.D.: junk food. The game enacts the perverse logic of the CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operations) which aim to fatten the animals it houses as much as possible in the minimum amount of time without incurring a loss.

  1. The second objection I have to this game is that it promotes fat shaming by the very conceit of having the pig explode due to the constantly expanding size of its belly. This is where the game really becomes obscene: its indulgence in self-hatred. The game associates excessive girth with a gruesome, yet risible death, and thus conditions children to regard obesity and those who suffer from it as a laughingstocks. In a nation suffering the economic, medical, and emotional toll of an obesity epidemic, a game that suggests that the way “we” Americans eat will not only kill us, but render our appetite “animalistic” is both morally repugnant and contemptible.

Because the children are the very cause of the pig’s overfeeding, they are also to blame for the harm that befalls it; in short, kids are desensitized to the animal’s suffering, since they are the agents who bring it about. This attitude further dissociates the notion that our food not only comes from, but also is animals, fellow living creatures who feel pain, hunger, and fear and whose environment we have “managed” with increasing callousness as businesses, slaughter houses, and fast food outlets, and supermarket chains all clamor for more and more meat to feed the American appetite for protein.

In short, this toy markets self-loathing and fat-shaming to children as a form of entertainment. Its marketers ask parents and children to disown their own hunger and appetites as something shameful (or pig-like), which must be beaten out of us, lest it engulf us in its ceaseless demands and humiliate us with our weakness when we binge.

“Pop the Pig” makes me yearn for the toy kitchens and plastic edibles (fruits, vegetables, cartons of milk) which accompanied them not too long ago. It even makes the Easy Oven, with its own reliance on sugar-laden, processed cake mixes, seem downright healthy by comparison, because it at least promoted the healthful habit of home cooking.

I have half-a mind to give it a negative review on Yelp, but that site itself has been discredited due to greedy users trying to leverage the power of the digital word for freebies from restaurants trying to maintain their reputations. Oh, well, I guess this blog post alone will have to do.

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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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Furnishing “The funeral bak’d-meats”: Southern Food Memoirs and Funeral Fare

Consuming Passions           Being-Dead-Is-No-Excuse-9781401359348

As a group, Southern culinary memoirs have a distinct charm and appeal to readers not only because they include recipes for tasty regional specialties sandwiched between chatty anecdotes about Southern life but also, and I would argue, primarily, because they promulgate the rules and etiquette for the hospitality that has made the region so famous. A case in point are discussions of funeral fare, which show up more often in food memoirs written by self-declared Southerners than by any other regional group of food writers in the United States.  Novelists like Michael Lee West, author of Consuming Passions, and the duo behind Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, social commentators Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, share their insights into the specific role homemade cuisine plays in both comforting the bereaved and affirming a sense of community and solidarity among the living. Aware of the fact that with the passage of time, “[w]e’re burying our best recipes,” as West’s Aunt Tempe observes (CP 7), the memoirs and guide books seek to both chronicle and preserve a way of life and a set of customs that is under threat of disappearing due to family members living far apart, the ease and temptation posed by catering services, and the failure of the older generation to transmit their culinary knowledge to their children and grandchildren. With heavy doses of humor and a dollop of nostalgia, these writers are self-appointed ambassadors of the South and share with their non-Southern readers a sense of the importance of food to rites of passage in a context unmediated by commercial interests.

As the allusion to Hamlet in my title attests, funeral fare makes an impression on the grieving, rather than conveying anything specific about the dearly departed. Hamlet’s bitter charge that his mother, Gertrude, remarried with such haste that “the funeral-bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (I.ii.65) is not too far off the mark, since some Southern ladies use the opportunity to cook for the funeral reception as a chance to show off their culinary skills in the hopes of snatching a husband, maybe even the widower. Metcalfe and Hays contrast the customs surrounding those two key social events that mark people’s transitions publicly—weddings and funerals—by highlighting the role of the community in determining the etiquette for the latter: “Some people may hire wedding consultants, but for the funeral we rely on tradition—and input from veterans of Delta funerals past. What makes the Delta funeral different from others is the large number of friends who get into the act” (BDINE 209). Indeed, funerals are organized by others for the person whose life is being commemorated, whereas the couple entering into wedlock feed and entertain those of their friends and acquaintances they invite to witness the ceremony and celebrate their love.

The Church takes center stage at both funerals and weddings, with West reminding us that: “Southern churches have traditionally provided the meal after the funeral; it can be grand or pathetic. And you can’t go by a church’s size, either . . . When it comes to good funeral food, it all depends on how many good cooks are in the congregation” (CP 132). Both Being Dead is No Excuse and Consuming Passions attest to the importance of the canonical desserts that make a funeral Southern. West explains that, “In the South, chess pie is also known as funeral pie” (CP 135), before sharing her recipe for “Lemon Chess Pie.” For dwellers of the Mississippi Delta, coconut cake fills this same comforting role, with Metcalfe and Hays admitting “We’re already thinking about this coconut cake before the last ‘amen’” (BDINE 12).

The South—both Old and New—lives on in the national imagination thanks to its writers’ penchant for penning how-to lifestyle guides like the Southern Ladies’ guide to  parenting, gardening, entertaining, courtship, weddings and funerals. This region affirms its rich heritage by marketing its cultural traditions to curious onlookers, eager to learn more about the mystique of Southern comfort, the last remaining bastion of gentilesse.  Though I am reassured by the thought that wakes and funerals are still being portrayed as community-building events, I do wonder how much this idea persists in literature more than in real life. It would be interesting to know what sub-section of the catering industry specializes in funeral fare. The one bad thing about losing such a homey tradition, in my view, has less to do with the dishes being brought to comfort the bereaved, and more with the therapeutic aspects of having to return the dishes to the families that brought the meals.  As West’s mother points out, this obligation forces the widow or widower to go out and face the world one more time, thereby putting one’s grief in context with the ongoing rhythms of life. Perhaps that in itself is enough to make us preserve, or reclaim, such culinary traditions.

Metcalfe, Gayden and Charlotte Hays. Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

West, Michael Lee.  Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life.  New York: Perennial, 1999.

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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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