What if we got our messages about food, race, and ethnicity from fiction rather than from commercials? (Consuming Whiteness part 4)

 As a professor of both Women’s Studies and Literature, I find myself more drawn to the politicized analysis of contemporary culture and global issues right now than to the analysis of literature. However, as literary critique is still a major love of mine, I want to consider how the notion of “consuming whiteness” is critiqued in contemporary fiction in the following post.

 In contrast to the homogenizing images of a milk drinking, white America, many contemporary authors use food imagery in order to examine individual and group identity as profoundly diverse. For example, Bharati Mukherjee, Fannie Flagg, and Marlene Nourbese Philip variously employ images of food, eating, and cooking to examine cultural, racial, and gendered identities in the modern US. As their work indicates, the consumption of certain foods can be simultaneously enabling and delimiting. Like language, food both allows for the expression of identity and puts limitations on the types of identities that are possible, and, more crucially, that are valued in contemporary culture.

In literature, food and issues relating to consumption often allows characters to metaphorically ‘consume’ or integrate their cultural heritage into hybrid identities. For example, in the works of Bharati Mukherjee, characters’ struggles to integrate themselves into the cultural landscape are accompanied by changing eating practices. While some critics suggest Mukherjee is overtly celebratory in relation to issues of assimilation, I would counter that her fiction presents the way in which dominant (white) American culture figuratively consumes ‘exotic’ cultural foods (and cultural Others) in order to destroy and/or “Americanize” them.[i] In Jasmine, for example, the main character notes that her dinner guests “get disappointed if there’s not something Indian on the table”.[ii]This fascination with Jasmine’s ‘exotic’ cuisine seems to constitute what critic Lisa Heldke terms “cultural food colonialism”.[iii]Examining her own tendency to go “culture hopping in the kitchen,” Heldke finds that:

the attitude with which I approached such activities bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the attitude of various nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, anthropologists, and explorers who set out in search of ever ‘newer,’ ever more ‘remote’ cultures they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery.[iv]

In Mukherjee’s text, Jasmine’s neighbours in Iowa seem guilty of just such a practice. Jasmine is treated as an intriguing oddity and mined for her culinary exoticism. However, she proudly notes, “I am subverting the taste buds of Elsa County”.[v] In a more positive take on the local passion for her Indian cooking, Jasmine reveals”multi-cultural consumption” to be a double edged practice. On one side, characters such as Jasmine consume, create, and resubstantiate devalued cultural heritages through the communal creation and ingestion of diverse food. On the other, such characters are also shown as vulnerable to being consumed by the machinations of the homogenizing, capitalist world – or, in other words, to being blandly Americanized.

Marlene Nourbese Philip, like Mukherjee, uses food to explore cultural identity in her short story “Burnt Sugar”. In the story, a daughter laments that her mother’s yearly Christmas gift of a home-made Burnt Sugar cake has failed to arrive from the Caribbean. Reminiscing about baking this cake as a child with her mother, the daughter ponders over the “ritual of transformation and metamorphosis” the cake represents.[vi]Detailing how the white sugar transforms into the black “magic liquid” that gives the cake its signature taste, the narrator muses that “the burn sugar is something like we past, we history”.[vii] The black liquid is characterized as strong and unique and the narrator wonders if this liquid is able to “change back, right back to cane juice, runny and white”.[viii]In a reversal of the white/black dichotomy, the story celebrates blackness as delicious and unsurpassed, and whiteness as bland and weak. Using food to negotiate the history of colonialism, the narrative reveals the symbolic role food plays in upholding (and negotiating) one’s cultural heritage in relation to the legacy of white imperialism. As the story implies, consumption can thus both enable one to uphold cultural traditions as well as reveal the ways in which certain dominant groups figuratively consume other cultures. Through the symbolic use of her wonderfully black cake, Philip’s story leaves a burnt taste in the reader’s mouth – by reading the story, we are forced to taste the bitter remnants of colonialism.

Fannie Flagg, in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, also uses food to explore racial divides but with a change in focus to civil rights in America. Set in Alabama, the narrative spans the years 1929 through 1988. In the late 1980’s, Evelyn Couch befriends an elderly lady, Mrs. Threadgoode, while visiting her mother-in-law at a nursing home. Mrs. Threadgoode enchants Evelyn with her stories concerning Ruth and Idgie, two social rebels who opened the Whistle Stop Café in Whistle Stop, Alabama at the dawn of the Depression. Through Mrs. Threadgoode’s stories, we learn that Ruth and Idgie, despite warnings from the local sheriff and the Klu Klux Klan, served black patrons and also supplied travelling hobos down on their luck with hearty meals. Using food as a form of political activism, Ruth and Idgie refused to conform to the dictates of their white supremacist surroundings. Idgie even donned a secret identity – that of “Railroad Bill” – in order to raid government supply trains and furnish the black community with much needed food reserves.

Significantly, Idgie does not like milk and refuses to drink it, preferring strawberry soda or whiskey. Her dislike of milk – a ‘normal,’ mainstream food staple – subtly emphasizes her status as a cultural outsider, a staunch anti-racist and civil rights activist who, through her daily actions, resisted and subverted ‘white’ culture and its racist, sexist, and classist norms. Evelyn, inspired by Idgie’s bravery, also transforms from a kowtowing housewife into an activist in her own right. At the end of the novel, she visits Whistle Stop and buys a strawberry soda from the local store -symbolizing she, like Idgie, refuses to drink down the dominant (and exclusionary) white ideology of American society. As this book reminds us, how and what we eat (and who we eat with) is a political act that can either enforce or resist inequalities. As sociologist Melanie Dupuis reveals and this novel so brilliantly intimates, “Every meal is a political act.”[ix]

 


[i]See for example Gurleen Grewal, “Born Again American: The Immigrant Consciousness in Jasmine,”in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993) 181-196.

[ii]Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine(New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989), 7.

[iii]Lisa Heldke, “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism,” in Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, ed. Sherrie A. Innes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 176-7.

[iv]Heldke 177.

[v]Mukherjee, Jasmine, 16.

[vi]Marlene Nourbese Philip, “Burn Sugar,” in International Feminist Fiction, ed. Julia Penelope and Sarah Valentine (Freedom, California: Crossing Press, 1992), 160.

[vii] Philip 157, 160.

[viii] Philip 157.

[ix]Dupuis, Nature’s Perfect Food, 243.

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