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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The Picaresque in the Kitchen

Blood, Bones & Butter

In the subtitle to the refreshingly unvarnished memoir, Blood, Bones, & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton describes herself as “a reluctant chef.” This descriptive phrase refers only to her membership in the profession that has spawned a niche market in the publishing world that shows no sign of letting up: ‘celebritiy’ chef-writer. The details of Hamilton’s life story would make good copy in a number of other milieus, among them, as an insightful chronicle of alt-ac (alternative academic) career options for creative writing MFAs (she went to the University of Michigan), or as a behind-the-scenes exposé of the mind-numbing conditions endured by catering service temporary workers.

 

In this blog post, however, I would like to discuss the specific ways in which the memoir as it is structured parallels and corresponds with a cheeky literary genre from another date and time: the picaresque novel that emerged in Spain during the sixteenth century. By advocating a reading of Blood, Bones, & Butter as a twenty-first century female picaresque narrative, I acknowledge the sophistication of Hamilton’s writing style evident in the framing of this tale in three distinct and emblematic sections, which attests to her literary training in college and graduate school. Whereas in my post on Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat I advocated a male genealogy of bad-boy writing chefs and traced its origins to the Anthony Bourdain as the intellectual patriarch of this group and the runaway success of his ground-breaking Kitchen Confidential, here I suggest that Hamilton’s equally gritty urban chronicle grows out of a different literary lineage, one that begins with the Lazarillo de Tormes and which details the somewhat comic adventures of an abandoned street urchin (pícaro) as he makes his way through all levels of society, while in the employ of various cruel, corrupt, or abusive masters in an effort to survive his poverty.

 

In Blood, Bones, & Butter, two dissolved marriages, first her parents’ and later her own, book-end the events of Gabrielle Hamilton’s life, thus setting in motion a journey that is at times humorous, at other times troubling, and always a struggle for direction, guidance, and a steady source of income. She first occupies the urchin subject position the summer after her parents’ traumatic divorce, when all the members of her large family headed in different directions to nurse their wounds and no one paid any mind to the two youngest children:

 

that first summer after their divorce, my seventeen-year-old brother Simon and I were left alone—and this I remember acutely—for weeks.  This may have been an oversight, like leaving your cup of coffee on the roof of the car while you dig out your keys and then drive off. Or wishful thinking on my parents’ part that their two youngest children were old enough to fend for themselves. Either way, Simon and I were on our own. And we were better off, we seemed to agree without discussing it, each to fend for himself. (28-9)

 

Even before discussing the series of kitchen jobs the twelve-year-old talks her way into getting that summer in order to earn enough money to eat, Hamilton here resorts to food imagery to convey the isolation of her situation.  Comparing herself and her brother to a cup of morning joe, so strongly ingrained in one’s morning routine that it is brought out to the car but then forgotten on the roof when the keys prove difficult to find, Hamilton acknowledges the fact that she was not willfully abandoned by her family members but rather that the shocking realization of loss—not of keys but of the family’s way of life—disrupted the normal routines of filial duty. Although her father was somewhere in the periphery of her life during that summer, considering she and Simon had returned to the family’s home after a brief involuntary exile in the Vermont cabin to which their mother had retreated, so it is the abandonment of the mother that haunts the young urchin up until she finds a stable and reassuring emotional replacement in her Italian mother-in-law, Alda, decades later.

 

In her article analyzing the gender dynamics of the picaresque novel genre, Anne J. Cruz argues that maternal abandonment is at the root of this male arc of adventure and self-discovery:

 

The picaresque genre’s narrations of the misadventures of rogues have tended to privilege the masculine gender of its protagonists, and the male-centered plot of these canonical novels is further evinced not only in the maternal abandonment suffered by the young boy and his contact with a series of amoral father figures, but through the mature pícaro’s failed amorous relations with women.

 

Hamilton never recovers from her family’s disintegration, and angrily refuses to forgive her mother for bringing it about. The descriptions of her hungry, scheming and cavalier younger self call to mind the picaresque “rogue” protagonist, an “innocent” introduced to petty crime by a series of self-serving masters.  As she gains experience working on both sides of the professional kitchen —the back as a dishwasher or short order cook and the front as wait-staff—  she becomes more adept at performing the menial tasks expected of her by employers. Her fellow employees, however, teach Hamilton how to exploit the system to her advantage. By the time Hamilton had graduated early from high school and moved to New York city to attend NYU, she learned first-hand about the excesses of the 1980s by working as a waitress:

 

Obviously, I had learned to work my fucking tables. Everybody was working their fucking tables, I soon learned. The girl at the door was selling tickets for the show while keeping half the ‘sales’ for herself. The waitresses were not getting lost in the mayhem and accidentally not writing down drinks on their dupes and the bartenders were not supplying those unrecorded drinks unwittingly. They were in business together.  I too, learned to sell them at the table, to keep the cash from the sale of a drink that didn’t, on paper, exist, and to share that profit with the bartender, trough tipping.  (48)

 

Bartenders, fellow waitresses, and other employees introduced her to the various tricks of the trade. Hamilton was working as an underage waitress, a ruse she had first resorted to during the summer following her parents’ divorce.  This circumstance was the one of the key reasons she was able to avoid prosecution when she was caught stealing from the restaurant by working “her fucking tables.” The solution was for her to leave the state, and give college another try.

 

By this time, Hamilton had also followed in another of the pícaro’s characteristic traits, engaging in a series of “failed amorous relations with women” (Cruz).  Gabrielle mentions first “my gorgeous androgynous girlfriend” (67) with whom she lived in New York, and then the “big butch Michigander” with whom she moved back to the city after graduate school. Both of these relationships end, the last one disastrously, but thanks to the heterosexual affair that ended things with the Michigander, Gabrielle meets Alda, the woman who would become her mother-in-law and model the relationship Hamilton wanted to have with both food and children.

Blood, Bones & Butter’s narrative finally deviates from the arch of the picaresque novel when Gabrielle Hamilton decides to take a chance and see whether her mentor is willing to continue their relationship despite the fact of her divorce from Alda’s son.  The answer, luckily for both Hamilton and us readers, is a definitive yes. And, in bringing together her personal and professional lives, Hamilton finally has both the material and the emotional distance and wisdom to write down her life story and share it with the world.   

 

 

 

Gabrielle Hamilton. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. 2011. New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2012.

 

Cruz, Anne J. “Figuring gender in the picaresque novel: from Lazarillo to Zayas.” The Free Library 22 September 2010. 23 July 2013 http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Figuring gender in the picaresque novel: from Lazarillo to Zayas.-a0279462529

 

 

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