An Ode to Food Poems

The Hungry EarSummer seems like the perfect time to enjoy a collection of poetry that engages not just the senses, but the appetite as well. And, lucky for me, Kevin Young’s The Hungry Ear is just that balanced combination of mouthwatering, and thought-provoking verse that is as easy to dip into while sitting poolside as it is to peruse in the cool, comfortable shade of an air-conditioned home.

This is world literature at its best—a gathering of excellent poetic achievement addressing different aspects of the same universal experience: eating and drinking. The anthology itself gathers examples of food-themed poetry from around the world and through the ages, though its thematic organization makes it read more like a carefully crafted menu than a dense encyclopedia. Its emphasis on seasonality for each section (I. Harvest Moon, II. Wintering, III. Spring Rain, and IV. Sweet Summer) recalls Edna Lewis’ evocations of the cycles that mark agricultural temporality in her food memoir with recipes, The Taste of Country Cooking (1976). Thus, this text looks both inwardly and outwardly at once, emphasizing the communal aspects of preparing and consuming food and drink, while also reminding us that such acts can also become political challenges to protest unfair treatment and unjust segregation.

Mixing old and new offerings, alongside his own poems about food, Young offers up a delightful assemblage of evocative verse that piques our curiosity, evokes our own taste memories, comforts us in our sadness, and opens our minds (and stomachs) to unexpected delights.

I will pause to discuss Young’s own contributions to this volume because, taken together, the introduction and four poems constitute their own mini-volume within the larger anthology. Deeply personal and unsparing in its discussion of how food has been the instrument to both injure his family’s pride and engineer its redemption from shame and despair, these four texts stand apart from the isolated contributions of other poets and the myriad epitaphs which populate the volume. Taken together, “Ode to Chicken,” “The Preserving,” “Ode to Gumbo,” and “Ode to Pork” attest to Young’s love and appreciation of soul food. However, the individual poems stand on their own and express very different relationships between eater and foodstuff.

The first poem to appear in the collection, “Ode to Chicken,” celebrates the unapologetic nature of this fowl who stands unchanged through the many transformations of its cooking—unlike bread and beef which, the poet points out not only change their names once cooked, but also “was once just bull/before it got them degrees” (44). The speaker declares his love of chicken—“you are everything/to me” (44) and admits that this protein source has such transcendent power that everything else the speaker eats can only be described in terms of how much it resembles chicken. Despite this sense of wonder and servitude at the central role of chicken in his eating life, the poem ends with the animal brought down to the domestic sphere as a caretaker of the speaker, the entity that wakes him and graces both his breakfast and dinner table. Thus, he asks the bird leave to gratefully sing its praises in verse: therefore the bird “leave me/to fly for you” (45).

“The Preserving,” constitutes a change in tone. It is a work of memory, recalling the embodied labor of transforming the produce from the summer garden into the sustenance to carry a family through the fallow period of winter. The speaker is no longer an adult, but a child, performing the tasks assigned to him by his mother, as she tries to provide a small measure of comfort—wrapping his hair with string which, though tight, made it “far/ easier to take care of, lasted all/ summer like ashy knees” (67). Peaches, not chicken, are at the heart of this poem. And, their power transcends their mere ability to nourish eaters or sweeten the end of a meal. The suggestion of violence is introduced during a Thanksgiving meal, when a jar of preserved peaches blows up in the back porch: “One Thanksgiving, while saying grace / we heard what sounded like a gunshot” (67). Yet, indeed, it is a measure of human error, “someone didn’t give the jar enough / room to breathe” (67-68), which is to blame for the mishap and not malice. Inattention, thus, is the thing to fear during “the preserving.” The poem culminates in winter, where a communal ritual of tasting the neighbor’s peach brandy, serves to steady all against the cold not only of winter, but also presumably of the cold conditions “cold as war” (68) of living among people who are not part of the tight-knit community of fellow eaters/drinkers.

The next two poems return to the celebratory tone, though the first, “Ode to Gumbo,” is elegiac and melancholy, whereas the second, “Ode to Pork,” is suggestive and almost erotic. Despite the clear mournful tone of the speaker’s confession of pain at the loss of his father, “Ode to Gumbo” celebrates that soup’s healing power if not to break a broken heart, then to fully affirm one’s place within a living family history. Making gumbo connects him to both sides of his lineage: “It was / my father’s mother/ who taught mine how/ to stir its dark mirror” (128). Tasting other people’s gumbo, and their failure to achieve the perfection of his family’s recipes, reminds the speaker of where he belongs and with whom. Finally, unlike the other poems discussed here, this one has a recipe embedded within it: You need/ okra, sausage, bones/ of a bird, an entire / onion cut open” and “cayenne in till the end” (129) and yet, the magic is not in the ingredients themselves, but rather on the way they are put together, how their interaction is orchestrated by a knowledgeable hand. Eating the burning hot soup makes the speaker become re-incorporated, feel the physical pain in the throat that mirrors the emotional scarring that this primal loss has had on his soul.

“Ode to Pork,” then, introduces a different meditation upon mortality. It ends on the uplifting note of the writer owning his desire for that which he delights in even at the cost of his own health: “loving you/ may kill me—but still you/ rock me down slow/ as hammocks on the stove” (148). Even when eating pork causes the speaker some discomfort, he nonetheless proclaims his undying devotion to it, comparing his desire to that of the biblical Adam who, in this allusion, gave up his rib not for Eve but for pork. The poem indeed celebrates pork as a worthy object of desire, pledging that “Your heaven is the only one/ worth wanting” (149).

As I hope to have illustrated, this anthology serves up all manner of intimate, and unmediated, discussions of the appetites—of the body, of the mind, and of the soul—and suggests at ways in which we might begin to sate some of our hungers by remembering the pleasures of the table. This is truly a delicious work to read.

Works Cited:

Young, Kevin, Ed. The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

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