- Foodways in Contemporary African American Poetry:Harryette Mullen and Evie Shockley
African American cookbooks, poetry, and fiction use culinary language and the recipe form to theorize, describe, and demand specific practices of identity. Foodways—ways of doing culinary work and routes that foodstuffs travel—are a tool for formal innovation and thematic exploration of identity in African American literature from its beginnings to the present. In their poetry of the past few decades, Harryette Mullen and Evie Shockley use the recipe form and culinary discourse to write vernacular poetry without relying on the formal innovations of their predecessors.
The insistent presence of culinary discourse and the recipe form in African American literature demands that scholars apply the same rigor to studying food that we have applied to studying music. Like jazz studies, food studies is beginning to serve as a lens that allows scholars to examine formal innovations in African American writing and expand our definition of what constitutes that tradition. Just as we have learned to identify Sterling Brown’s use of work songs and Langston Hughes’s use of the twelve-bar blues, we must learn to spot the recipe in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Possum,” make a diasporic journey through produce with Claude McKay’s “The Tropics in New York,” and identify the black aesthetic of the domestic [End Page 184] in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “In the Mecca” (403–33).1 Foodways erupt again and again in contemporary African American poetry. Brooks uses wafting food smells as a metaphor for the limits and possibilities of black life in working-class Chicago in “kitchenette building” (20). Lucille Clifton gives racially loaded caricatures the chance to speak for themselves in the trilogy “aunt jemima,” “uncle ben,” and “cream of wheat” (640–42). One speaker in Mullen’s poetry eats “stones,” “salt,” and “blues” to narrate the end of a relationship in “Omnivore” (Blues Baby 108), while another uses culinary metaphors about “fruitful” women to critique Black Power gender politics in “For the Bearers” (116). Shockley uses Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook, James Hemings, to consider the relationship between African American and American identities in “dependencies” (New Black 23–26).
Twenty-first-century African American writers, argues Erica R. Edwards, “have articulated black writing as both a suturing to black cultural specificity and a splitting from it” (194). The recipe form is suited to simultaneous “suturing” and “splitting.” Recipes are didactic (they tell us how to prepare a dish), depend on linear time (we must follow the instructions in the right order to get edible results), and are printed explicitly for repeated reproduction beyond the page. The formal conventions of the recipe invite the reader to perform the text. The recipe was textual instruction for action long before Black Arts Movement authors claimed this as an explicit goal. Foodways poems suture contemporary poetry to its BAM predecessors and invite the splitting inherent in the repetition with difference that is necessary to follow any recipe.2
In Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011), Shockley lays claim to a plural, lowercase “black aesthetics” that “need not be inevitably linked to static [End Page 185] understandings of how blackness is inscribed in literary texts” but rather serves as a “descriptive, rather than prescriptive” approach (7). Culinary language and the recipe form are part of the black aesthetics of African American poetry. Shockley considers works in which “race-related wrangling has led the poet beyond what experience has shown will do the job and into a space of formal risk-taking and experimentation” (9). Mullen and Shockley use food-ways as a formal and thematic tool for “risk-taking and experimentation” to move “beyond what experience has shown will do the job” of creating vernacular verse.
Mullen and Shockley write poetry that engages in “formal risk-taking and experimentation” in the context of the African American literary tradition. For both poets, the stakes of this endeavor include expanding the canon of African American literature, marking formal experimentation as black, and moving away from reading African American writing in terms of an oral/print binary. In her essay “African Signs and Spirit Writing,” Mullen argues, “any...