- Edible Discourse: Thinking Through Food and Its Archives
We need to be attuned to the historical/cultural contexts and individual idiosyncrasies, which render a standard materialist framework insufficient for thinking about the experiential dimensions of food, cooking and eating.Doris Witt, Black Hunger
People like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries. I was coming home. I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself. Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity—I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?
Where does it come from? Ceylon—Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history. The notion that identity has to do with people that look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same, is nonsense. As a process, as a narrative, as a discourse, it is always told from the position of the Other.Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities” [End Page 392]
What does it mean to state “you are what you eat”?—A variant of nineteenth-century gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin’s aphorism “tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are” has produced an almost zero-sum logic of eating and ontology in contemporary alignments of food and cultural identity. One can understand others by knowing their culinary preferences, but as Doris Witt argues in Black Hunger (2004), this spurious logic is precisely what made Fuzzy Zoeller mock the idea that a multiracial person, Tiger Woods (who appears black) could find a place at the table of white America upon winning the US Masters tournament in 1997. A more deliberately thoughtful example of food aligning with nation is a restaurant like the Pittsburgh based Conflict Kitchen that serves the cuisine of nations with which the US is engaged in diplomatic or physical conflict (Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela), implicitly suggesting that ingesting the food of one’s enemy will enable greater access to one’s humanity and the humanity of others.
Witt’s Black Hunger, the first full-length study of African-American literary and cultural works engaging the culinary dimensions of gender, body, and eating, is also one of the first critical works in US literary studies to draw connections among feminist literary criticism, ethnic studies, and food studies. While scenes of food preparation and eating abound in African-American literature, the looming figures within African-American literary and cultural critique had precious little to say about the politics of eating or the body and consumption.1 Although the decade since the publication of her work has spurred a virtual cottage industry in scholarship lamenting the “serious” attention paid to food, literary and cultural critique of food, the charges against food studies as “scholarship lite,” and their continued resurrection in food studies, perhaps reveal more about the anxieties about the field than it does its epistemological work. Literary and cultural food studies—an agglomeration of approaches that center the study of food consumption and preparation within literary and cultural texts—is at an important critical moment and stands poised to reframe the nature and tenor of interdisciplinary work about food within literary studies. At the forefront of this scholarly trend are the three books discussed here: Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion (2012), Allison Carruth’s Global Appetites (2013), and William...