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Gastro-graphy: food as metaphor in Fred Wah's Diamond Grill and Austin Clarke's Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit.


This paper discusses the cultural significance of food as a multilayered trope and strategy in postcolonial life writing. Specifically, I read the use of food as a metaphor in culinary memoirs by ethnic Canadian authors Fred Wah (Diamond Grill) and Austin Clarke (Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit). As it mediates memory, this metaphor provides an axis for understanding the authors' explorations of their cultural backgrounds and inscription of subjectivity. The culinary language employed in the innovative discourse of these texts makes the notion of food a metonym of the elaboration of culture and identity. The manner in which these writers negotiate food imagery and the process of preparing (and consuming) food as part of their autobiographical exercises invites the reader to read beyond the possibly "exotic" representation of food to more complex versions of positionality, affiliation, and selfhood.

Cette communication traitera de la signification culturelle de la nourriture en tant que metaphore et strategie de l'ecriture autobiographique postcoloniale. J'analyserai l'utilisation de la nourriture en tant que metaphore dans les memoires culinaires des auteurs ethniques canadiens Fred Wah (Diamond Grill) et Austin Clarke (Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit). La metaphore, en relation avec la memoire, permet de comprendre le travail d'exploration des auteurs sur leur heritage culturel et leur inscription de la subjectivite Le langage culinaire utilise dans le discours novateur de ces textes, transforme la notion de nourriture en metonymie de 'elaboration de la culture et de l'identitd. La fagon dont ces auteurs negocient l'imagerie de la nourriture et son processus de preparation (et consommation) est une partie de leurs exercices autobiographiques et invite le lecteur a lire au dela de la representation "exotique" possible de la nourriture, vers des versions plus complexes de position, appartenance et de soi.


Contemporary autobiographical representations of the processes of selfhood deploy increasingly complex discursive forms. Significantly, as James Olney argues, autobiography presents itineraries of subjectivity through an engagement with metaphor, and the self deploys figurative constructs that transform its given past or historic "bios" into "bios" processed by the imagination. Events of the past are reinterpreted in light of the autobiographer's "present" consciousness, and these reciprocally influence each other's inscription and reading in a relationship of significance, rather than of chronology. Therefore, for Olney, the dominant trope of autobiography is metaphor, a term which in his extended usage includes all the "order-produced and order--producing, emotion-satisfying theories and equations--all the world views and world pictures, models and hypotheses, myths and cosmologies ... by which the lonely subjective consciousness gives order, not only to itself but to as much of objective reality as it is capable of formalizing and of controlling" (Olney 1972, 30). This approach heightens epistemological perspectives on the processes of selfhood as they are articulated in life writing narratives, as the autobiographer is seen to marshal metaphors that simultaneously illustrate processes of self-knowledge and the act of self-representation.

When subjectivity implies a negotiation with transcultural influences, the metaphors acquire heightened significance, since they often expand or contest traditional meanings, and the writers appropriate their renewed possibilities to further their performance of self. Through different metaphors of self--which include the culinary, musical, or linguistic--transcultural writers have actively revised traditional autobiographical forms. In Canada, this is evident in personal narratives by authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Eva Hoffman, Wayson Choy, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, or Austin Clarke. (1) The poetics of the prolific production in autobiographical genres in Canada limns the revisionary strategies with which these authors appropriate and subvert the conventions of narrative self-expression to depict emerging transcultural identities in this postcolonial space. Their engagement with language and structure allows them to negotiate increasingly significant ways of writing themselves by re-writing uncritical notions of the nature of life writing and the transcultural character. Moreover, having chosen auto/biographical rather than fictional discourse, the authors make referentiality central, thus stressing, among other things, the notion of daily experiences: eating or talking become emblematic experiences as they are inserted in the context of the transcultural condition of the authors. As William Boelhower explains, ethnic discourse is ethnic not semantically primarily, but because pragmatic realization by the subject creates a "spatio-temporal moment of ethnic semiosis" (1987, 90).

In this chronotopic frame, the metaphor of food that I engage provides significant ethnic signs that symbolize the processes of transition that characterize transcultural selves. Quite logically, in autobiographical writing, food limns the issue of identity significantly--as in "we are what we eat." As Margaret Atwood points out, "Eating is our earliest metaphor: preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk" (1987, 2). Furthermore, we can argue that "to exist is an activity of daily transformation; one continually forms and transforms oneself, and the material means by which one performs this act of self-creation is food" (Nicholson 1987, 37). Food is life itself, as it implies the physical process of being and becoming (Nicholson 1991, 193). Moreover, if we consider the identity of the self as primarily relational, as Paul John Eakin argues, and not autonomous, food becomes a proof of that assertion. "[O]ther senses may be enjoyed in all their beauty when one is alone, but taste is largely social. Humans rarely choose to dine in solitude, and food has a powerful social component" (Akerman 1990, 127). Consuming food takes place primarily in a family context, and it is historically linked to the ethnic and national origins of the writer. Gastronomy is thus a strong identity marker for postcolonial and diasporic subjects. This paper discusses the cultural significance of food as a multilayered trope and strategy in transcultural life writing, specifically the use of food as a structuring metaphor in culinary memoirs by ethnic Canadian authors Fred Wah and Austin Clarke. As it mediates memory, this metaphor provides an axis for understanding the authors' exploration of their cultural backgrounds and inscription of subjectivity. The culinary language employed in the innovative discourse of these texts makes the notion of food metonymic of the elaboration of culture and identity. The manner in which these writers negotiate food imagery and the process of preparing (and consuming) food as part of their autobiographical exercises invites the reader to read beyond the possibly "exotic" representation of food to more complex intineraries of positionality, affiliation, and selfhood.

In Austin Clarke's Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit (1999) and Fred Wah's Diamond Grill (1996), culinary memoirs materialize their cultural concerns. In these narratives, specific types of food work as structuring metaphors allowing the authors to engage complex questions of cultural identity and analyze their phenomenological relationship to the contested terrain that is the Canadian social space. These texts share quite a number of cultural interests as well as narrative strategies: in both, place is privileged over time, and formal fragmentation and multiplicity of discourses are deployed to express their culinary concerns. Moreover, both manipulate the food metaphor as an axis of personal, familial, and historical memory, and they transform recipes into a highly significant narrative strategy. In Pigtails and Diamond Grill, reproducing a recipe, like retelling a story, is at once cultural practice and autobiographical assertion (Goldman 1992, 172). Moreover, in a metaliterary gesture, the authors acknowledge and/or mock current cultural criticism in order to challenge stereotypes and further issues of authenticity. In turn, anticipating the critical reception of their texts, the writers enact conscious performances of identity in these highly creative culinary narratives. Importantly, these food memoirs by male writers also problematize the notion of the culinary metaphor as a distinctly feminine strategy, as some critics like Anne Goldman posit (1992, 190).

Fred Wah's Diamond Grill is a postmodern, autobiographical text consisting of 132 non-chronological vignettes that provide the author with a flexible form with which to explore and articulate issues of identity, race, and culture. Defined by Wah himself as "an innately cumulative performance" (ix), his "biotext" becomes a literary strategy of self-expression rather than a generic category. (2) It belongs to the "new wave" of generic terms such as "crypto-frictions," "fictionalysis," or "theatrical transformations" that often focus explicitly on the curious relationship between living a life and telling or writing one (Egan and Helms 2002, 14-15). This type of "creative meta-criticism" produces an evolving performance of the self as it focuses the reader's attention on the construction of the author's identity precisely as the author dialogues with existing cultural criticism that seeks to establish paradigms for ethnic identity. As Marlene Kadar argues, new genres of life writing encourage the consideration of autobiographical texts as a critical practice, encouraging the reader to pay attention to the "self-in-the-writing" (1992, 12). With this specific focus, the author builds his family story on highly complex and self-reflexive narratological strategies. Wah walks us through the convoluted construction of his familial mixed grill--his father is a Canadian-born Chinese/ Scots/Irishman and his mother a Swedish-born Canadian; the fragmentary narrative also builds the story of how his father was shipped off to China as a four-year-old boy, arriving back in Canada as a foreigner many years later.

The narrative and metaphorical centre of the text is the Chinese restaurant his father opened in the 1950s in Nelson, British Columbia, the eponymous Diamond Grill. From this pivotal point, Wah deploys food as a multi-layered trope that functions to both read and record the world and to situate himself. Food serves not only as a conduit of memory, but also provides a living for Wah's family and a means to participate and prosper in Canadian society. But above all, this metaphor provides a central axis for the understanding of Wah's distressed and anxious exploration of his Eurasian family background. The "pain and anger behind these stories" (ix) is evident in the obsessive references to his mixed racial origins. Aware of the suggestive paradigm offered by Mary Louise Pratt's concept of "contact zones"--the definition of which he cites as a lengthy footnote (69-70)--the author negotiates a variety of discourses to address the issue of his cultural origins using critical quotations, statistics, recipes, poems, jazz rhythm as a prose dynamic, historical intertexts, transcriptions of conversations, and descriptions of photographs, among others. These highly metaphorical paratexts function discursively to simultaneously appropriate and challenge critical authority. An example of this variety is the section entitled "I'm just a baby, maybe six months (.5%)," where he calculates the exact proportion of diverse racial blood in his family origins (83). On the one hand, the irony lies in his attempt to compute the exact percentage of Scot or Chinese blood in their veins, which manifests his desperate search for a strategy of fighting/writing his origins and the corresponding futility of the exercise. On the other hand, the use of the language of financial investment in the poem is a way to parody certain public discourses on nationalism that "sell" multicultural diversity as a wise market strategy, thus destabilizing nationalist discursive interpellations.

As the author has acknowledged, "[m]uch of the impetus of my writing comes from the hyphen in 'half-bred' poetics--Half-bred poetics as a game of reaction from within the egg-yolk of my own cultural ambivalence" (quoted in Kamboureli 1996, 158). The trope of food becomes a highly relevant entry for the exploration of this mixed-race background, and his simultaneous occupation of outsider and insider roles: Wah is called a "chink" at school, yet can easily pass for White. He is both racialized and witness to racism (Deer 2004, 290). Similarly, the type of food cooked and served at the Diamond Grill is highly mixed and thus emblematic of the transcultural situation. We soon learn that the famous "mixed grill" is just "an improvized imitation of Empire cuisine" (2). This cultural merging points to the most recurrent theme in the text: the complexities of the family's multiracial and multi-ethnic affiliations.

In this self-conscious performance of identity, food and recipes allow Wah to recreate his past, as "memories are preserved in our bodily senses long after the intelligence has last sight of them" (Gilroy 1987, 101). Chinese sausages in Chinatown take him back to family gatherings around Granny Wah's table, with uncles, aunts, and cousins; in this scene, his special relationship to his grandmother is conveyed through food. "I'd watched her at the stove when she opened up the rice pot, peek at the glistening steamed sausages so red and juicy on top of the white rice. She cooked one foong cheng for each person ... Granny put an extra one under my rice for me. Special" (9). Foong cheng becomes a distinguishing dish for the family. This peaceful description of a family gathering contrasts harshly with the preceding section where Granny Erikson's monologue articulates her hatred for Chinese and her anger that one of them is going to marry her daughter (8). The absence of food descriptions in the depictions of the non-Chinese side of the family, from the Scottish/Irish/Swedish background, nor other alimentary images of other cuisine, is very telling in this regard. No food traditions or memorable meals suggest that few (and sad) memories are attached to that side of the family. The explanation of food practices characteristic of ethnic autobiographies (Wong 1993, 66) is appropriated here and re-articulated in postmodern terms through the sharing of actual recipes. These recipes are part of Wah's family life, and especially significant as they reference family connections and special moments, such as leaving home: "Rice is white rice, polished, and if cooked properly, should be just slightly sticky but not wet. Here's how my dad taught me when I left home and I discovered that I couldn't live without it. Wash two to three cups..." (75). Moreover, he consistently associates each recipe to a family member:
 My sister says tomato beef is enough to make her go back to eating
 meat. This is a really good gingery winter dish, particularly as a
 leftover when you get home late... (44)

 In our family we call it gim jim, but when you order it in a cafe
 you'll have more success calling it gum jum. My brother Donnie makes
 this dish of lily buds with steamed chicken and its sweet musky
 taste is singular and memorable ... Gim jim, yum yum. (129)

In this memoir, the intense delight at food and the joyful evocation of these memories contrast strikingly with Wah's ambivalence regarding his mixed racial background.

Culinary language enables Wah to explore his personal identity through metaphors of additions, mixing, and cooking of elements. Wah's culinary performance duplicates his literary enactment: his final product (his text) is composed of his own version of a family past. He reworks recipes and appropriates gastronomic wisdom in order to literally perform the process of a multiracial, transcultural identity. Thus, food functions as an empowering trope for Wah, as it enacts the multiplicity of his origins and identifications and their process of amalgamation. As with the common practice of cooking by trial and error, Wah experiments with his own mixed ingredients to construct his national or cultural origins. While he had tried in the above mentioned chapter to pinpoint the exact percentage of blood he had from each race, he eventually rejects any categorization in a specific group: "But stop telling me what I am not, what I can't join, what I can't feel or understand ... Sometimes I'd rather be left alone" (54). He seems to be trying to find a more personal and familial way of identification, like the cooking he describes.

Diamond Grill situates the act of food preparation in a communal, trans-racial Canadian space, a space marked by the rhythms of playful labour and the dance of culinary performances in a small town, British Columbia restaurant setting (Deer 2004, 293). As Wah privileges space over chronological disposition, he appropriates a strategy common to other writers of the diaspora, linking his texts to a larger intertextual community. As Susanna Egan argues, "Moving among the graves and ghosts of ancestors, the lost and incomprehensible stories and the balancing act of cross-cultural marriages and families, autobiographers of diaspora privilege space over time in order to retain all their possibilities. Space, as realized in these narratives, enables plural identities to coexist simultaneously despite their being contradictory" (Egan 1999, 157-58). Moreover, the restaurant functions as a resource, a centre and location for interactive exchange, the contact zone for the book's improvizations, play, lexical and syntactical riffs, and genre crossing encounters (Bromley 2000, 108). The restaurant is the nuclear site of Wah's personal and familial history, and also the place that will inspire his food memoir:
 The journal journey tilts tight-fisted through the gutter of the
 book, avoiding a place to start--or end. Maps don't have beginnings,
 just edges. Some frayed and hazy margin of possibility, absence,
 gap. Shouts in the kitchen. "Fish an!" "Side a fries!" "Over easy!"
 "On brown!" I pick up an order and turn, back through the doors,
 whap! My foot registers more than its own imprint, starts to read
 the stain of memory. (1)

He "picks up an order" and starts writing his biotext (1). The memory of smells and tastes from the Diamond Grill provokes a Proustian impulse to recapture the past. From the chrome and Naugahyde to the pale green Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer and the little ledge under the counter that holds gloves and purses, to the extra-thick chocolate shakes and the unforgettable Christmas atmosphere, the narration aims to re-enact, rather than merely describe, the sensations and world that constitute the Diamond Grill.

Austin Clarke also bases his memoir Pig Tails'n Breadfruit on connections between place and food to represent processes of transculturality. Clarke's negotiation with food highlights a particular aspect of immigrant longing: the memory of this food and its preparation not only remind him of childhood, it returns him to Barbados. This metaphor is thus doubly symbolic because of the layering of meaning that the textual engagement with food provides. Each dish has a place, and the memory of each dish recalls the memory of a certain place: "Whether it is Clarke recalling an evening in South Carolina, his childhood in Clapham, or his bitterness about trying to stay warm on a cold winter's evening in Toronto, the idea of a recipe without a place is unthinkable, and each recipe acts as a sort of culinary signpost on a map of memories" (Abdel-Shehid 2002, 458). Clarke begins his account of food and cooking in Barbados in the 1930s and 1940s by considering his mother as the authority in a redefinition of what good cooking really is: "What do French people know about cooking food?" (1), she scoffs. In contrast with all the sophistication normally attached to good cooking, Clarke explains simply: "Food: that thing that went into my stomach in such delightfully huge quantities and that had such delectable taste and smell when I was a boy" (2). Food for his mother, as well as for him, is something very simple, and at the same time, almost supernatural (2). In a sense, it provided an ordered life and allowed them to know their history, claim their place, and assert their unique transcultural identity. Through a series of recipes, the author draws a picture of his early life at St. Matthias, Deighton Road, and Clapham in Barbados, and later on in Toronto. Clarke pauses significantly to describe how the large community of women who loomed over his childhood made the traditional dishes that still haunt both his palate and his heart, most notably his mother. Her figure opens and closes the book; in fact, the final chapter "Frozen in time..." is another tribute to his mother. Her wisdom, her culinary lifestyle, and her hints on how to cook are the moving force of her son's memoir.

As in Diamond Grill, food and recipes enable Clarke to explore his multiple settings and transitions, mixtures, and cultural improvizations. From the variety of the origins of "ingreasements" to the melange of cultural, social, and historical influences, Barbadian cuisine is essentially hybrid. As a tiny island, Barbados produced a limited variety of ingredients (basically sugar cane, sweet potatoes, yams, and pigeon peas). Even rice, a basic part of their diet, is not grown on Barbados but on other islands like Trinidad. Colonization helped add variety to their menu: "In colonial times, which followed the days of slavery, practically all the food we used to eat had to come from Away" (62)--"rancid butter" from Australia, biscuits and marmalade from England, white flour and fish from Canada, etc. This importation of food gives the author the chance to comment bitterly on the politics of the British Empire: "Since colonized people were considered second class to the people from Away, the food was also second class, or of an inferior quality" (62). Furthermore, his food memoir serves as a cultural identifier that distinguishes him from the culinary culture of other Caribbean islands, thus avoiding the stereotypes of viewing these islands as culturally homogeneous. Though Clarke admits the similarities to recipes from other islands like Guyana and Trinidad, he also insists several times on the distinctive (and superior) quality of Barbadian food. As he explains, there is an "enormous cultural chasm" that separates St. Kitts' and the Bahamas' food barbaric customs from Barbados' cultural elixirs (27).

Significantly, there is a missing recipe in Clarke's text, that of the title, pigtails 'n breadfruit. As Gamel Abdel-Shehid points out, "this omission suggests that his life, and the food within it, is not bound up in Barbados" (2002, 462). The author constantly places himself "here in Canada" as he describes Barbadian food, stressing his transcultural position. Cooking also becomes a way of making oneself at home in the diaspora, as Clarke describes dinners prepared in Toronto, New Jersey, or North Carolina (Moynagh 2001, 193). The Bajan recipes he marshals are often displayed in an attempt to set up a binary between what Clarke imagines as the spiritually bountiful Caribbean and the comparatively barren Canadian north (Abdel-Shehid 2002, 461). He is thus writing from Canada and to a Canadian or American audience. The narratee is clearly someone unfamiliar with Bajan cooking and thus someone who must be led through each recipe. Moreover, the use of Caribbean English Creole (CEC) (3)--already evident in the title-is one more way of stressing the connection between food and culture and between food and place, as it also functions as a constant reminder of Barbados. As Clarke explains, "it has to be narrated in the native language of the people who invented it: the Bajan language" (60).

Clarke deploys a very fragmented and non-chronological narrative, juxtaposing a variety of discourses which range from serious, essay-like passages on history and the sociological significance of food to sections in colloquial discourse, often in a mocking tone. Written as a monologue in CEC, the text reveals the inconsistencies, repetitions, contradictions, and corrections which provide the narrative with a conversational style. "A pork chop? Man, you know what a real pork chop is? ... a pork chop that is worth its salt have to have two essential characteristics ... Christ, man, there is three things, now that I come to think about it, not two!" (126). (4) The informal tone is peppered with frequent exclamations of delight when the author remembers the taste and smell of his favourite dishes. "When you see all that steam rising, and you can smell the perfume of the basmati rice, and you place the first spoonful inside your mouth, Jesus Christ in heaven, you don't need nothing more better nor more healthier than this" (208). Sometimes he is really carried away by his enthusiasm for some foods like Privilege: "Such a powerful smell of Barbadian hot-cuisine is going to greet you that your mouth is bound to spring water and salivate ... 'Why couldn't I have been a slave too?' You are bound to axe yourself this question. 'Why did they have to abolish slavery before I learn how to cook Privilege?'" (65). As Michael Fischer argues, in recent autobiographical writing ironic humour is a "survival skill ... an art for affirming life in the face of objective troubles" (1986, 224). In this manner, Clarke ironically revitalizes the imperative style and the direct indications made to the reader in cookbooks. He does not only tell the reader how to cook the meal, but what to do while cooking, with indications about when to rest, when to have a beer or a glass of wine: "If you reach this stage without getting drunk or burning up the food, yuh doing good-good-good" (88). The reader is also warned about possible sensibilities towards some of the ingredients: "if you have bad nerves, or a weak stomach, forget the blood" (156). He often tells the reader to relax and to listen to Calypso music, or to be prudent and not try a too difficult technique, or even to drop a recipe altogether, as with the black pudding (158), ironically the most emblematic Barbadian dish. The reader is frequently instructed to listen to Calypso music while cooking and eating, and exhorted to "Move, man! Show me your motions, girl!" (91). This narrative strategy illustrates the kind of culinary improvization that he argues is typical of Barbadian food and that he textually enacts. He begins by asserting that there is no need for cookbooks or for recipes at all for Barbadian women, as this knowledge has been transmitted orally and it is also based on the philosophy of cultural improvization: "If you don't have a horse, ride a cow. Or a jackass. Or a mule," his mother would say when she found herself without the necessary ingredients for a recipe (90).

The specific discourse of the recipes makes Clarke's text authentic, as it is his lived experience that he offers in his text. As Anne Goldman argues, "By making ethnicity concrete, representing it as it is experienced by the individual rather than invoking culture as an abstraction, such auto-ethnographic texts discourage cultural appropriation" (1992, 189). This cultural appropriation is precisely used as a target of irony in his memoir. Clarke frequently acknowledges the North American fashion of cooking ethnic food, and Westerners' obsession with political correctness and the cult of cultural authenticity (88). He mocks these obsessions even as he provides renewed perspectives to food and culture, so he warns readers not to try to be too culturally pure: "We don't have to retread those paths to the slave days in order to reproduce and enjoy the culinary preciousness of slave food!" (88). He very explicitly offers details of what he calls "the rituals, customs, and myths" (243) that should be respected when cooking Barbadian food. He is very categorical, for example, about not adding salad or dessert (which he considers French and Italian customs) to any Barbadian meal, as it would "digress from cultural origin, destroy authenticity" (88). He warns the Western reader not to try to be too authentic: "since you are no longer a slave, you not eating the cou-cou plain" (109). Another instance of the mocking tone refers to the flying fish. Once emblematic of Barbados, it is now extinct and can only be found in Trinidadian waters. He says the Barbadians "really used to kill the natural taste of the fish by using tummuch seasoning, and frying the fish deep deep in a lot o' lard oil" (93). In retaliation, he explains, the fish decided to emigrate to Trinidad, "as refugees, to save their cultural identity" (93). These discursive interventions into prescriptive modes of ethnic writing give Clarke's text its revisionary characteristic, while providing hilarious observations of dangerous obsessions.

For humorous purposes, Clarke very effectively mocks ethnic food a la mode. He explains that what was once shameful food, the only form of eating available during slavery--left-overs and make-dos--has now become the object of cultural pride: "If you was an artist or an intellectual, you would serve it to impress people that you remember your cultural roots" (66). In a similar way, the bags that contained the flour imported from Canada used to signal poverty, as they were bleached and used as clothes; now they have become a sign of pride in national ethnicity: "Today, in these times of harking back to and clutching at one's cultural roots, you see young people wearing flour-bag shirts or skirts, especially during the carnival season in Barbados, in London, England, in Brooklyn up in Amurca, and in Toronto during Caribana" (48).

Another common target of Clarke's irony is the type of Westerner who is too health conscious and who tries to avoid fat or too many calories at all costs. Interestingly, and along with the conversational style, the narrator advances these possible objections to the kind of food he is describing (127). He advises the reader in this respect in many instances, such as: "Be careful you don't put in so many vegetables and vittamens and iron that you strangle the taste o' the split peas, here!" (169). He also tells the reader to "give in to your Canadian sensibilities or to your reservations as an Amurcan tourist about Indians and cutlasses and donkey carts and eating food and coconuts on the street, and think you're in harm's way" (181). If the reader overcomes his prejudices over the hygienic conditions of street seller's products, the narrator promises "a display of cultural and ethnical sophistication, the clash of black hand and green coconut, the flashing silver of the cutlass, a drama you could never witness in either Toronto or Brooklyn" (181).

Slavery is the period of history that Clarke most reflects upon as he cooks, and that he constantly makes references to, inviting the reader to stop and think (123). (5) Throughout the narrative, food functions as a constant link to Barbadian history. The first part of each chapter is devoted to the account of the cultural and historical origins of the food in essay-like explanations, repeatedly emphasizing the ways in which both slavery and colonization times have been crucial in shaping Barbadian cuisine. Clarke explains sixteen recipes of what he ironically calls Bajan "hot-cuisine," basically recipes made up during slavery. These recipes came down to Clarke's and other Bajan families through oral forms entwined in family memories: "Barbadians have always known that the food we eat is 'slave food' based on leavings of left-overs, the remnants of the better cuts of meat eaten by the plantation owners" (60). Indeed, the narrator insists on calling Barbadian food "slave food" rather than "soul food"; he explains that slave food is an older concept of black aesthetics and black culture than is soul food: "We was eating it before the 1960s, when Amurcans discovered that they was no longer 'coloured' or 'Negro,' but black and beautiful and interested in African culture" (60). In this explanation, the narrator again denounces the cultural criticism that developed around black cultural nationalism. And this mocking tone is stressed in comments such as this: "We didn't consider our food to be cultural or political, nor did we think of it as hot-cuisine. Slave food doesn't have a damn thing to do with the soul or with 'black is beautiful.' It has everything to do with the belly" (60). (6)

Interestingly, Clarke attributes therapeutic power to food, believing it is capable of bringing out the positive aspects of terrible historical events. Similar to Wah's positive tone of the recipes which counterbalance anger and pain about his mixed racial origins, food proffers a pacifying effect among the Indian and African populations of Guyana, as the narrator explains: "Only a nice plate o' Guyanese pepperpot can bring these two factions, these fractious factions, together" (183). On a more personal level, some of these recipes help immigrants survive the extreme cold and solitude of Canada, such as the one for oxtails with mushrooms and rice (197-98). Ultimately, food "emerges as an attempt to replace what has been lost through exile, dislocation, and displacement" (Abdel-Shehid 2002, 460), as it basically tells the story of home. This is evident in both Wah's and Clarke's texts, as they appropriate the conventions of autobiographical writing to deploy a new sense of transcultural self. Their food memoirs can thus be read as a "testimony to the fact that although we may leave home, get rid of our accents, and change our names and diets, the aroma of certain foods will trigger warm memories and fill us with a longing and taste to return home" (Grosvenor, quoted in Abdel-Shehid 2002, 460). As Canadian writers like Wah and Clarke inscribe their culinary experiences through renewed autobiographical practices, they do effect a transformation of both the culinary and literary paradigms of identity and self-representation. As such, these authors negotiate their sense of transculturality through the metaphor of food, which challenges traditional strategies of the production of meaning. As figurative constructs, they transform past experience into complex texts that permit access to the experience of transculturality and the process of writing itself. (7)


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(1.) The recent and prolific production in Canadian auto/biographical writing genres makes it imperative to examine the paradigms which are being used and subverted, moreover, as "academic attention to Canadian auto/biography does remain limited" (Egan and Helms 2002), 8.

(2.) The term "biotext" was first coined by George Bowering in Errata (1988).

(3. Pidgins are second, marginal languages that grow out of contact situations in which none of the people who need to communicate with each other have an established language in common. Creole is a pidgin that has become the first language of its speakers. This means that it may be a mother tongue or a primary language. A creole is enriched, expanded, and regularized; it has the full complexity characteristic of any natural language (Gramley and Patzold 1996), 458, 460.

(4.) There are many other examples of this informal style. "I feel sure it is the black slaves who are mostly responsible for pelau ... but I might be wrong" (192); on the next page he says: "Pelau is slave food. It's a 'make-do' kind o' food" (193).

(5.) Interestingly, the original subtitle of this text is "Rituals of Slave Food. A Barbadian Memoir" (published thus by Ramdom House in Canada), while the subtitle in the American edition is just "A Culinary Memoir." Though it must have something to do issues of publishing and marketing, it is inevitable to think of the possible differences of the racial and historical connotations of "slavery" in both countries.

(6.) Whether Clarke's text can be called a "soul food memoir" is a case in point. Though he explicitly rejects the term, some critics, such as Abdel-Shehid, find that what he is writing responds to the characteristics of the "soul food memoir." Interestingly, Clarke even compares Bajan food to American "soul food" at some points in the narrative: "Harslick and cou-cou is a cultural dish in Barbados, something like 'soul-food' to African Americans" (27).

(7.) The author would like to acknowledge the University of Navarra for funding this research. This article is part of a research project on contemporary auto/biographical writing directed by Rocio G. Davis.

Rosalia Baena teaches English Language and Literature and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Navarre, Spain. Her main research interests are life writing and postcolonial literatures. She has published a full-length study on Nadine Gordimer and several articles on authors such as Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt, Nino Ricci, Eva Hoffman, Penelope Lively, Anita Desai, Wayson Choy, etc. She has co-edited two books on multicultural literature: Tricks with a Glass: Writing Ethnicity in Canada (2000) and Small Worlds: Transcultural Visions of Childhood (2001), and has recently edited a special issue of Prose Studies entitled Transculturing Auto/ Biography: Forms of Life Writing (2005). She is currently working on a book on colonial autobiographies of childhood.
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Author:Baena, Rosalia
Publication:Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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