presented at the Vermillion Literary Project’s September LiTrash reading
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today,” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
What do I mean when I say this reading is themed around “Food Writing”? Outside of the description included in our advertisements, when I talk about food writing, I am usually talking about the sensual experience of eating written down. But food writing, like food studies, encompasses much more than just the act of eating. Food unites us. It is no coincidence that in Christian religious movements, to eat the body of Christ (however symbolically or literally your denomination takes that) is called communion. When we gather to share a meal, we are a community at that table. Food also divides us. There are socioeconomic stigmas attached to what one eats, and how often. I look to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Bean Eaters.” The first time I was taught this poem, my professor said that the “old yellow pair” on whom the poem’s speaker focuses “eat beans mostly” because they are poor.
In the summer of 2016, I worked at a military academy in Virginia, and one of my cadets was an international student from China. She came to me after dinner one evening, her right hand closed tight around something very small. She slowly opened her hand to reveal that it was one of her back teeth. She said, “I was eating a Starburst and my tooth just came out.” I asked her if I could look at her mouth, where the tooth had been. It was a clean hole. No blood. No parts of tooth still stuck in the gum. Her tooth had just…rotted out. When I told my father later that night, he nodded slowly and said, “She’s probably malnourished.”
We are what we eat, and we eat what we are. And it is assumed that if one eats poorly, then one is poor. And vice versa.
Women are also stigmatized, even ridiculed, for their relationships to food. In her first Netflix special, War Paint, comedienne Iliza Shlesinger says that women cannot eat the way they want to eat in front of men, and that it is only after a man is deeply in love with a woman that she is free to reveal “the twelve-foot man-eating lizard [she] really [is]” (53:13). All joking aside, every encounter a woman has with food in a public space is performative. Every bite is scrutinized. Every portion size is judged by strangers. If she is perceived to be eating too much, she is shamed for her gluttony. She is called fat, pig-like, and she is set in society’s mind as someone embarrassing or pitiful. However, if she is perceived to have eaten too little, or that she is too skinny, too fit, she is policed just as quickly and ordered to eat a burger, put meat on her bones. Food, in relation to women, is a means of bodily control.
Food nourishes us, of course, but food also complicates us. Lisa Heldke describes her experimentation with multicultural cuisine as “cultural food colonialism,” writing that her enthusiasm for trying ethnic recipes
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. (328)
Upon deeper reflection about what might lie behind a seemingly-innocuous phrase like, “Let’s cook Thai,” Heldke became “seriously uncomfortable about…the tenacity with which [she collects] eating adventures—as one might collect ritual artifacts from another culture without thinking about the appropriateness of removing them from their cultural setting” (328). Think of it this way: how many recipes in the quintessentially American cookbook actually come from America? How much culinary art do we beg, borrow, and steal from other persons?
When creative writers enter the field of food studies, we tend to not only push the field further along, but we tend to problematize it as it develops. By bringing personal writing into the ring, there is a clash between what role those anthropologists, historians, etc. determine that food has in a certain culture, and voices from that culture taking to task their relationships to, encounters with, and memories of food. And that, I hope, is what tonight will do. We are here to read personal narratives, poetic narratives, creative narratives that will enhance our understanding of food’s role in our lives, in our culture…and perhaps even complicate it, too.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Bean Eaters.” The Poetry Foundation, 2017, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/28110/the-bean-eaters
Heldke, Lisa. “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. Routledge, 2008. pp. 327-341.
Shlesinger, Iliza. War Paint. Directed by Jay Chapman. 2013. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/70278877?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C0%2Ca3a00f98bcd4d67c12d52da76e6ae9d93474f9ee%3A296316019eda2afee7c3908aaa56b0dd5d2bae2b