In Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava?
In researching this paper I remembered vaguely an article in the PMLA about The Joy of Cooking cookbook. I remembered less about the article's content and more that PMLA had published the article, Susan J. Leonard!'s "Recipes for Reading: Summer Pasta, Lobster a la Riseholme and Key Lime Pie ' (340). If the PMLA deems an analysis of a cookbook and the inclusion of three recipes in an article as worthy of its pages, maybe we should look more closely at cookbooks, what Leonard! calls the "Ur-book perhaps of embedded narrative" (344). Cookbooks as the "Ur-book" of embedded narratives provides an interesting point of departure for reading cookery books, and we can play a bit by asking "Which part of the narrative is embedded, the recipes or the surrounding text?" Leonardos article, as she explains, "is an attempt to explore the nature of ... the giving of a recipe," reminding ns that "the root of recipe--the Latin recipere--implies an exchange, a giver and a receiver" (340). For her a recipe is "[l]ike a story, [it] needs a recommendation, a context, a point, a reason to be" (340). Given that perspective, Leonardi laments the changes and deletions enacted onto The Joy of Cooking by Marion Rombauer Becker, daughter to the original author, Irma S. Rombauer, and who, by the fourth edition in 1951, is listed as coauthor. In the earlier editions, Rombauer serves in the text as "an identifiable authorial persona" and thanks to. her commentary "establishes] the criteria for the reader's decision about which recipe is ... most appropriate," and by means of such commentary "each recipe thus ... comments on every other recipe in the section" (342). Leonardi, therefore, reads cookbooks and views a recipe as "an embedded discourse, and like other embedded discourses, it can have a variety of relationships with its fame or its bed" (340). Given this perspective, she then analyzes two works with recipes: E.F. Benson's frame and Lucia where a recipe for Lobster a la Riseholme is finally exchanged, although not with the leader, and Nora Ephron's Heartburn, where, according to Leonard!, "the text itself refused to decide not only whether it is a cookbook or narrative, cookbook or autobiography, autobiography or novel but also whether it is journalism or autobiography or novel--or mudslinging" (345). It is this question of genre and of the relationship between recipes and their "bed" that serves as the focus of my study of Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava,
But food is such a rich area of study. Indeed, my colleague in French at my college, Dr. Dominique Poncelet, recently taught a popular upper-division course on the literary depiction of food in French and Francophone literature. The insights food offers us into individuals, communities, regions and nations cannot be overstated. Consider, for example, one's expectations in researching a country's website--here one finds, beyond links for tourism, "what the ruling elites consider to be the important facets of national culture" (Cusack 208) so that sites that include references to cuisine form part of that nation's culture and define aspects of its consumerism and, dare I say, values.
In his book entitled Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig explains that '"nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations [and in recently established nations] is an endemic condition'" that reminds us in a variety of ways of our "national place in the world of ,nations" (Cusack 209). By extension, national cuisines "involve the summoning of a variety of dishes into the ambit of the discourse of the nation" (209) so that naming a dish evokes the nation: pasta and Italy, tortillas and Mexico, couscous and North Africa, rice and Asia, borscht and Russia, the hamburger and the United States. The ingredients and their preparation can cut across and/or reinforce divisions in gender, class, ethnicity, and regions: is the hamburger, for example 100% beef or have additives stretched the meat in order to make more hamburger patties, or is it a hamburger in name only, a healthier substitute replacing the beef? What sort of mustard? Just iceberg lettuce? Red or yellow or white onions? Or relish, homemade or store-bought? Is the hamburger served at home, in a fast-food restaurant or in a restaurant with such a fancy price that the Miller truck guy removes the beer? And what about the bun--white, whole-grain, sourdough, toasted? One's gender, socio-economic group, ethnicity and region determine the answers--"attributes of bread, as well as other foodstuffs, have signaled rank since ancient times" (Meyers 120). Consider Wendy Griswold's analysis of bread in her book Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. The baby-boom generation grew up on "soft, spongy white bread like Wonder Bread" (14) that helped build strong bodies twelve different ways. Think of the cultural resonance of Wonder Bread then and now. After her discussion of bread in different eras and cultures, Griswold concludes:
So, bread is basic, fundamental, and boring--but it is also biblically sanctioned, expressive, symbolic of European heritage or the good life, and even sexy. It is as much a part of a cultural system [whether local or global]--as the more obviously "cultural" artifacts, such as television or ballet, (15)
As we wilt see, the recipe, a cultural artifact included as part of banal nationalism, in a novel can be so interlaced with the narrative that naming the recipe brings to mind the chapter in which it features and, by extension, its nationality in the same way that, for example, fish and chips evoke myriad aspects of England, Proust's metaphoric madeleine for the literary critics.
Second, in addition to recipes' roles as a mnemonic device and cultural narrative, their inclusion in a novel encircles what Joanna Russ calls an "unspoken, invisible center" (13), what the novel or poem is really about. Whether in an undergraduate course on literary theory or in an upper-division French class, when I teach Feminism I invariably ask students to read Russ' article, "What Can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write." Aside from Russ' energetic definition of the classic female role of love object and/or bitch, her insights into the literary depiction of women remain germane; She argues that Aristotle's well-made plot, with its emphasis on chronology and a well-structured beginning-middle-end narrative, ill suits the female-author who prefers the associative as a principle of connection, thus imbuing her plot with a density that leads, often indirectly, to moments of epiphany. Russ labels such a style "lyric" and defines it as "the organization of discrete elements (images, events, scenes, passages, words, what-have-you) around an unspoken thematic or emotional center" (12). Given that the whole, in this context the dish, is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, its ingredients, narratives that organize recipes, the "discrete elements" defined by Russ as part of a lyric style, subvert the linear plot and lead the female author to write about the kinds of experiences women actually have instead of "the literary myths we have inherited [sex-linked plots], which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we might to be having" (19). In this way, the drama of the soul replaces the love story or, in the case of a Love Story, its delineation is secondary.
Thanks to the inclusion of recipes, the characters who cook in The Language of Baklava make sense of their current selves through references to the past and to food. Our memories form a critical substrate to who we are, and evoking or invoking events and sensibilities from the past helps us and literary characters to assume a certain heritage. That heritage includes food, and what we ate and how we ate have, obviously, physical and emotional consequences later in our lives. From this perspective, recipes can provide history, they create and created ties that bind and give meaning to our past and present, defeating "[p]ost-modern culture [that] embraces the fragmentary, the ephemeral, the discontinuous" (Griswold 142). Recipes oppose such a cultural stance and add depth and a wonderful stickiness to literary personnages who juggle their own heritage, family traditions and identities.
I want to suggest, too, that recipes offer their own "ideoculture or self-culture," defined by Griswold as "the culture of a subgroup rich with implications, alive with symbols and expressions known only to insiders, and used to separate insiders from outsiders" (67). Ideocultures persist everywhere including in one of society's basic units, the nuclear family. Think of your own family in-jokes and how incomprehensible they are to outsiders. Griswold explains that for "a symbol or expression to enter the ideoculture, it must draw on known information" and be "functional, usable, appropriate," and "it must be triggered repeatedly" (67). Cooking provides its own subculture, and earlier cookbooks even more so since they could assume cooking and baking skills that more recent cookbooks have to make explicit --how to measure dry goods accurately, the difference between blanching and parboiling or between the soft-thread stage or soft-ball stage when making candy syrup, or why one should not whip egg whites in a plastic bowl--such information may account, in part, for the popularity of the Food Network and cooking programs on television. In her book, A Bite off Mama's Plate, an exploration of the connections between mothers and daughters through food, Miriam Meyers discusses current cooking illiteracy and how cookbooks respond to this lack of kitchen know-how with "low context communication" (62) or the spelling out of everything, a phenomenon to which The Joy of Cooking has responded since 1931.
If a recipe seems problematic, if a narrative structure that gives the recipes seems an anomaly, then we enter the realm of writing discussed earlier that Joanna Russ styles as messy and lyric, to which I add heterogeneous and heteroglossic. Heteroglossia allows for the multiplicity of tongues through which subjectivity is enunciated, a multiplicity that, feminists agree, provides the means of capturing in part the shifting positionality of women. Hence, the recipes serve as yet another means to capture the mercurial third-person "she" or first-person "I," Furthermore, given how food represents a "primary way of maintaining relationships in all societies--eating together" (Meyers 47), the meals recipes produce thus create fora for significant means of communication, and it is not much of a stretch to affirm that "feeling goes into food" (100). Certainly eating can make us feel better, and there is a reason for the station called "Comfort Food" at university cafeterias. Food nourishes, but that is not all: food heals, comforts welcomes, and celebrates, too.
For example, in the well-known novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, the narrator associates the main dish featured at the beginning of each chapter with an event. To cite just a few:
January Christmas Rolls Tita's birthday February Chabela Wedding Cake Rosaura's wedding July Ox-Tail Soup Cure for both mental/physical illness August Champandongo John asks Tita's hand in marriage December Chiles in Walnut Sauce For Alex and Esperanza's wedding
Unlike the recipes in Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava, the ingredients and preparation instructions in Like Water for Chocolate is often interrupted by or separated from other incidents is a chapter, thoroughly embedding the recipe in the story; crisis resolved or meal completed, the chapter concludes and a separate page follows naming the recipe for the next chapter. Often the recipe precipitates the action. To highlight just a few: Tita's innate sensitivity to chopping onions makes her, in the womb, sob so loudly that "her wailing ... brought on an early labor" (3-4) and she enters the world on the kitchen table; Tita's tears in the cake batter for Rosaura's wedding causes such "wailing over lost love" (37) in the guests that they vomit up "a raging river" (38) that sweeps away the bride; or a main dish tinged with Tita's blood deflowers her metaphorically when is catalyzes an alchemical process [that dissolves Tita's] entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quail, in the wine, in every one of the meal's aromas. That was the way she entered Pedro's body, hot, voluptuous, perfumed, totally sensuous" (48).
The meals thus delineate Tita's '"inscape"' (Mari 52) which divests the object, in this case a meal, of its subservience to scientific law and imbues it with its own fife, Tita's life. Tita's meals then mark not the monthly or yearly calendar but the emotional apogees and perigees of her love story across 22 years. And, given that the storyline exceeds the calendar's boundaries of time--the structure of the monthly installments only exacerbates this conflict--"calls our attention to the fictionality of the narrative itself and establishes thereby uncrossable boundaries between [Tita's kitchen] mid real life" (Leonard! 345). The separate pagination for the recipes at the beginning of each installment realistically says, "Tear me out and add me to your recipe file"; on the other hand, the narrative interrupts the instructions for preparation, and vice-versa, emphasizing the overrlapping symbiotic relationship between Tita's story and her dishes. One might reproduce with some accuracy a certain dish according to Like Water for Chocolate's recipes but not their story of a "love interred" (241).
Given how Like Water for Chocolate problematizes the relationship between the cook and her food, it dispels any sense of the transmission of recipes as not fraught with complications and human turmoil. In Tita's case, the cookbook that survives the fire at the end of the novel tells her individual story; Diana Abu-Jabei's memoir, The Language of Baklava, extends the radius of a recipe from a character's individual story to that of collective memory, Arab recipes prepared in the United States. While the American girls in high school are on diets, Diana and her friends with "euphonious, polysyllabic names" pull from their lunch boxes "pierogi, doro wat, teriyaki, kielbasas, stir-fries, borscht,... garlic-roasted lamb and stuffed grape leaves" (160). Tita's recipes convey her moods, passions and sense of injustice; the meals Diana s father prepares convey a country, a culture, a heritage, enriching and at the same time constraining the life of his three American-born, daughters.
The Language of Baklava does not announce itself as a novel with recipes but as a memoir. While Esquivel broke new ground with her Novel ... with recipes, Abu-Jaber's memoir makes no mention of the inclusion of recipes on the title page. In her Foreword she explains that stories from her childhood "were often in some way about food, and the food always turned out to about something much larger: grace, difference, faith, love." On page ten Abu-Jaber gives the recipe for "'Eat it Now' Shish Kabob": the first chapter ends with the recipe for "Peaceful Vegetarian Lentil Soup" (19). By this point, the reader can feel fairly sure that Baklava belongs to the genre that Carol Bardenstein calls the "cookbook-memoir" (357) and that Diana Abu-Jaber labels "a food book ... a food memoir" (n.p.).
Prior to this memoir, Abu-Jaber published two novels, Arabian Jazz (1993) and Crescent (2003). In Arabian Jazz, Abu-Jaber treats the fives of a Jordanian family, Matussem Remoud and Ms two daughters, living in upstate New York, an area Abu-Jaber knows well from her own childhood, herself the daughter of a Jordanian immigrant father and American mother. Arabian Jazz deals with stereotypical subjects including patriarchal structures and arranged marriages and "with other topics considered taboo in both American and Arab society such as racism, abject poverty, female infanticide and incest The characters seek refuge in a past that offers none, but that journey undertaken, they find refuge in a carefully negotiated present defined nevertheless by memory since who we were accounts, in part, for who we are. Part of the present lies in the relatively unstable designation as Arab-American, a state of in-betweenness that is not-Black but not-White either as Abu-Jaber realizes in The Language of Baklava when, at eight years of age, she compares her skin color with the "gleaming, nearly bone white" (50) arm of a young British twit whose father inculcates in him the world view that there are no "in-betweens, it isn't done" (49). But her own skin "grimy and golden with a telltale greenish cast" (50) is also unlike the darker skin of Hisham, her favorite Jordanian playmate, indeed, the novel's title, Arabian Jazz, aligns it more with communities of color thanks to the role of music at the end that unites a diverse group into lovers of jazz who enjoy an angel food cake with "seven different kinds of marmalade fillings," the "King Creole Fuzzy Wah-Wah Cake" (368).
In his article on cultural negotiation in Diana Abu-Jaber, Steven Salaita hailed Arabian Jazz as "a landmark work" that was "at the time the most sophisticated aesthetic offering by an Arab-American author of fiction" (423-424). Abu-Jaber herself details other responses to Arabian Jazz in one of the closing chapters of The Language of Baklava. She returns to Oregon, after a year in Jordan, to a flood of mail and student papers where "people from many different cultural backgrounds--Italian, Russian, Chinese, African--tell me that they come from a family just like the one in the book" (318). Then, of course, others take exception, those that Abu-Jaber thinks of as "'the Betrayed' " (318):
It seems that a great lament rises up from the Arab-American world and rings in the living room: the sense of being unfairly cast, unrepresented, their unique stories and voices (aside from only the most extreme, violent, and sensational) unheard and ignored. In retrospect, I think that this lament was already in the air, but by publishing a novel, I just happened to provide a name and an address to mail it to. I am their disappointing American child--the one who didn't speak Arabic, who didn't sound or dress or behave in any way as an Arab is supposed to. (319)
Given the post 9/11 world, touchiness about their representation by Arabs is layered, obviously, in the abundant negative portrayals by the media in the United States. Prior to 9/11, characterization of the Arab or of Arab communities in the United States lay more in that area of the borderland or in-betweenness mentioned above, and Abu-Jaber's portrayal of her characters' recollections and mental journeys into the past helps them better define themselves in the present. Abu-Jaber ultimately explores the "transformative power of narration" (Cherif 209), an exploration that will subsequently center itself in food.
Nadia's cafe, the Lebanese cafe in Teherangeles (the Iranian area of Los Angeles) where the Iraqi-American Sirine works in Crescent serves '"Real True Arab Food'" (21). To characterize the restaurant as Lebanese, however, does it a disservice; while Sirine definitely prepares Middle Eastern cuisine, her customers cross ethnic borderlines: Egyptians, Kuwaitis, American and Middle Eastern professors and students from different academic departments and fraternities, Turks, Iraqis and Iranians, even two American police officers who eat and watch Bedouin soap operas on the television. Sirine, the product of an Iraqi father and American mother, with her white-blond, unmanageable hair that "hangs in damp tendrils all over," causes nearby Persian market owner, Khoorosh, to exclaim, '"Well, look at what Iraq has managed to produce!'" (23). When Sirine learns to make the Persian specialty Khoresht fessenjan, Khoorosh readily forgives "the Iraqis on behalf of the Iranians" (25). While food and music in literature can "become the sort of signifiers or nexus points that then flag the internal struggles," in Arabian Jazz and Crescent food production and consumption conversely bring people together. Sirine's Thanksgiving guests represent a true smorgasbord of nationalities and her table a true smorgasbord of different national cuisines. Sirine serves turkey and sweet potatoes but also stuffed squashes and grape leaves, baba ghannuj, knaffea and smoked frekeh. Such a meal thus offers an "integral connecting link, joining together different communities and individuals" (Fadda-Conrey 194) from Nadia's cafe, both Sirine's dining room Mid the cafe "serving as the central locus of interethnic and intercultural interactions between Arabs, Arab Americans, Latinos, and white Americans, among others" (194).
Let me suggest also that novels with recipes or novels that detail cuisine add a compelling angle to intertextuality. Every time Sirine cuts an onion, minces garlic, or adds chopped tomatoes, for our purposes here, she recalls other literary kitchens. For example, for Thanksgiving, Cristobal from El Salvador brings Chiles in Walnut Sauce (217), a dish that echoes the Chiles in Walnut Sauce Tita so lovingly and painstakingly prepares for her niece's wedding. Early in Like Water for Chocolate Tita compares her sense of loss and loneliness to the last chile on fixe platter that no one finishes out of politeness, but within which "lies the secret of love [that] will never be penetrated, and all because it wouldn't be proper" (54). How gratifying, then, to read in the closing pages of Crescent that, as a bridesmaid's gift, Mireille gives Sirine "a book about a woman who cried into her cooking and infected her guests with her emotions" (385)--Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. Sirine wonders if her own mourning over the death of her Iraqi sweetheart infects her cuisine; she finds that the "flavors [had] gotten somehow stronger, darker and larger," and her customers--young Arab students, professors, and the families--"seem[ed] more serious than before, mid more given to brooding, hugging, and thinking" (385). Even more gratifying Diana Abu-Jaber includes six recipes in the pages following the end of Crescent along with a brief biography and an interview conducted by Andrea Shalal-Esa. In that interview, Abu-Jabet describes her next book, The Language of Baklava, as "a memoir told through food" (n.p.). She describes her family as "food-obsessed" and that the dishes for which she includes recipes symbolize a different stage in our evolution as a family, as immigrants" (n.p.).
Esquivel isolates her recipe ingredients on separate pages at the beginning of each monthly installment but interweaves the directions for the dishes' preparation with the storyline. The Language of Baklava divides into 24 tided chapters, and one can find as many as five recipes. within a chapter. Just as Esquivel links her recipes so closely to each chapter's episodes, naming the recipe in Baklava similarly tags the actions of their particular chapter thanks to adjectives Abu-Jaber attaches to recipe tides; for example, "Peaceful Vegetarian Lentil Soup" (19) recalls how all the hide cousins fell in love with Lambie, never dreaming that it was the sacrificial lamb for that day's stuffed squash, or, in another stuffed-squash story at the home of one of Abu-Jaber's numerous uncles in Amman, the recipe for "Innuendo Squash" (249) plays on her visiting friend's blunder in praising the stuffed squash while Uncle Nazeem and his brothers bait her, playing on squash's other meaning in Arabic, "slang for certain female anatomy" (248, my emphases). Occasionally Abu-Jaber adds her own commentary: "Distract the Neighbors' Grilled chicken--raw is a delightful, simple dish that will fill the neighborhood with a gorgeous scenC (79); "Poetic Baklava For when you need to serenade someone" (192-193); or "Fattoush: Bread Salad--Which everyone loves and everyone can pronounce" (269).
Whereas the grandniece, Esperanza, related Tita's story thanks to her cookbook-diary, Diana Abu-Jaber subtitles The Language of Baklava "a memoir," where her "I" constantly interpolates that most mercurial of identities in this postmodern literary era, the "I." It is clear that the subject "I" who narrates the self "I" of the text is also the author Diana Abu-Jaber listed on the book's title page and cover. But, as so many critical works on Autobiography, especially on Women's Autobiography, point out, "Autobiography" is no longer a transparent term--in fact, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson's work, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narrative, lists 52 "Genres of Life Narrative" in an appendix, one of which is "Memoir" (183-207). There Smith and Watson point out that "in contemporary parlance autobiography and memoir are used interchangeably," but clarify that while the former assumes "interiority and an ethical mandate to examine that interiority, memoirs promote an "I" that is explicitly constituted in the reports of the utterances and proceedings of others" (198). And they reference Nancy K. Miller's Bequest and Betrayal, to substantiate this difference; that, in a memoir, what "resides in the province of the heart is also what is exhibited in the public space of the world" (198). It is the contention of this study that The Language of Baklava uses recipes to claim the public space while, at the same time, investigating the interior.
Diana Abu-Jaber grows up between two food traditions, that of her father, Bud, and that of her maternal grandmother, but "Gram" lives in New Jersey so she figures prominently in just one chapter. The depiction of events in this chapter, however, is telling. "Gram has had it with men" (88), hence her adversarial relationship with Bud, he of the curly black hair who stole her only child and daughter, Pat. That Gram uses only two cookbooks, Betty Crocker, of course, and Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book (90-91), assimilates her within a certain tradition of American cooking while Bud calls Diana "his sack of potatoes" (4) and keeps her "slung over one shoulder when he cooks" (4) thinking to acclimate her to onion fumes but more important to infuse his daughter with his culture. Gram seeks also to acculturate her granddaughter by visits to museums and with lessons from "a little pink book of etiquette" (91). But it is their experience at an "Oriental" restaurant that merits its own chapter.
Gram's conflation, in a conversation with their waiter, of the Japanese story in Madama Butterfly with "Chinese Opera" results both in extra special dishes served them, likely off-menu items given their "complex and capacious flavors" (102) and in an overwhelming sense of mortification in the young Diana at her grandmother's ignorance and insensitivity. Such a scene first launches us into some of the complexities of autobiography, the older narrator narrating the ten-year-old "I" who supposedly has read in her home encyclopedia set about the "protracted trouble" (103) between Japan and China Teplete with invasions and atrocities. Second, concurrently, as an autobiographer, the adult writer recovers her past, interprets that experience and assigns it meaning. The young Diana, still dazed by her family's return to Syracuse after a year in Jordan, has learned the meaning of shame in the preceding chapter--shame because her father barbecues chicken not only in April but also in the front yard instead of, at least, privately in the "fenced off and guarded" (78) backyard created for that exact purpose, shame that extends to not. having "the right lunchbox or the right pants or shoes or socks" (84). In short, Diana toras intoa. hypa-conscious teenager, and her father embarrasses her: they do not fit in. Nevertheless, she finds no consolation in hex American grandmother's "ordered cosmos" (89) that ignores history and culture to conflate the Chinese and the Japanese under the single label of "Orientals" (92).
As Sidonie Smith explains about the autobiographer in shaping her life to create meaning, "Trying to tell the story she wants to tell about herself, she is seduced into a tantalizing and yet elusive adventure that makes her both creator and creation, writer and that which is written about" (Poetics 46). Given such authorial liberty and scope, Abu-Jaber the autobiographer adds another layer of meaning through the recitation of recipes. Today, autobiographical theory accepts/demands a straying from the just-the-facts-please narrative to allow fictions to buffer the story-telling and the story told. Where memories and food often compound one's sense of loss, exile or alienation, in all three works, Arabian Jazz, Crescent, and The Language of Baklava, food grounds the narrative and leads us to greater truths. Diana Abu-Jaber finds magic in daily things, and her extraordinary talent at rendering that magic through metaphor and evocative imagery means that her Memoir embellishes childhood and family "realities." As Smith explains, "In autobiography the reader recognizes the inevitability of unreliability but suppresses the recognition in a tenacious effort to expect 'truth' of some kind" (46). The imbrications of recipes and their adjectival tags play with and capitalize on those truths. Abu-Jaber ends the episode, detailing her mortification at her grandmother's ignorance, with the recipe for "Gram's Easy Roast Beef: When you want something good to eat but don't want to spend very much time preparing if' (109)--a recipe, I imagine, few readers of an author of the caliber of Diana Abu-Jaber need. The empirical, in this case the recipe, thus takes on symbolic form--the grandmother who "loves the optimism, clarity, and directions of recipes" (89), for whom "the drama of spice isn't in hex bones" (90), who struggles with a son-in-law who is neither black nor white, remains peripheral to a granddaughter whose life is grounded by a "dashing, improvisational, wayward, intuitive" (90) father who, even if he did follow a recipe, would knowingly and creatively modify it As Abu-Jaber concludes, "Gram is a baker; Bud's a cook" (90). And, to extend this analogy on a metaphorical level, the writer Abu-Jaber is not a baker; she's a cook.
Interesting, then, that the young Diana, whose palate is developed enough to appreciate the "twenty-five shades of flavor secreted in the grilled crust of a shrimp ... [that] touch all the hidden places in [her] mouth" (103) ultimately fumbles with her chopsticks and finds the dishes difficult to swallow. The "Oriental" food acquires a new meaning in Diana's mind, divorced from its American context and steeped in the horrors of subjugation and exploitation of the Chinese by the Japanese. The chef at this Imperial Palace restaurant, who once cooked for the Chinese emperor, now prepares dishes at a different kind of "palace" in New York City "for people who have no tongues and no noses" (102). Gram has no more appreciation for the crispy shrimp with almond substituted by the chef for the egg foo yong than she does for the differences between Japanese and Chinese cultural artifacts. She thinks she and their waiter communicate, that they share the same referents on topics such as male cooks, wartime suffering and famine, and opera; Diana, thanks to her immigrant father, recognizes instead the hardship, alienation and failed hopes of displaced individuals.
The shrimp and shredded beef prepared for Gram and Diana--the chef thinking he serves two customers with discerning tongues and noses--represents a collision of two worlds with the young Diana the only one able to penetrate both. These two dishes, re-placed into their original context as food for the emperor, result in an inversion of their original meaning; instead of pleasure, Diana's "fog of gratification" (103) dissipates, desperate as she is that the waiter and Gram continue to talk at cross-purposes. This encounter, rooted in the qui pro quo between Gram and the waiter holds the potential for comedy, but Diana senses in the waiter "the failure to find the identical charms and graces of his first culture in this new one" (102), reminding her of her own father. The chef, wishing to touch a diner's soul with the tastes of his food, incarnates the alienation, the heartsickness, and the solitude one feels in a new culture, the hopeful looking for intersections in a foreign land. The waiter recognizes such an intersection with Diana: '"So you come from cooking,' he says, 'I thought this when I see you eat"' (103). He thinks to find such an intersection with Gram, hence Diana's anguish lest he discover their "opera treachery" (106) and feel crushed by such betrayal. Ironic, then, Diana's subsequent excuse to Gram never to return to the Imperial Palace, an excuse that Gram accepts without protest or contradiction: '"It's typical fake Chinese,' I say, T only like the real thing'" (109).
At the beginning of the chapter "Madama Butterfly," Abu-Jaber tells her father that Gram and she are going to eat "Oriental food" (91). When Bud remembers a seaweed and jellyfish soup prepared by a man from As-seeni, Arabic for Chinese, Abu-Jaber corrects him, '"Well, that was different. That was As-seeni. This is from ... "Orientals'" (92). Her later recollection of an encyclopedia entry about the conflicts between China and Japan informs her experience at the Imperial Palace, corrects her earlier Chinese-Oriental distinction that her grandmother, on the other hand, conflates, and thus encapsulates a broad swath of human negotiation vis a vis dining in a restaurant: etiquette and ignorance, menu items and authentic (ethnic or national) cuisine, cultural sensitivity and insensitivity, innocence and experience. If Like Water for Chocolate represents metaphorically a dimension of Tita's boiling rage, The Language of Baklava also apparently speaks a language of its own. In the Arabic language, where a short two-volume thesaurus "devotes more than 80 pages to terms for food and drink which are currently in literary use" (Hafez 260) and where "there are more than 20 words for special meals for guests, visitors, travellers, weddings, circumcisions, births, travelling, mourning, funerals, pilgrimages, etc.," (260) surely baklava comes loaded with historical, cultural and socially contextual meanings.
Charles Perry, in his article on the origins of baklava, explains that 'Turks were making layered dough products as early as the eleventh century" :"It is argued that baklava was the first layered pastry baked in an oven, but the practice of making the layers of dough paper-thin was probably an innovation of the royal kitchens at the Topkapi Sarayi in the century or so after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople" (87).
And, these layers distinguish baklava, 50 to 100 sheets of dough, each one brushed with clarified butter, along with a filling of ground nut meats mixed with sugar and cinnamon, and an orange-blossom flavored syrup. Perry concludes that baklava, as we know it today, represents a mixture of Greek, Turk and Persian influences. In the Abu-Jaber family, '"Dad says that everyone invented baklava'" (189). Auntie Aya goes even further. Her baklava is a springboard to peace in the Middle East (190). For Aya, "eating is a form of listening" (191). In her make-believe summit of non-Arab heads-of-state, she offers them Arabic-Jordanian-Lebanese-Palestinian baklawa. Her conclusion, "T looked, I tasted, 1 spoke kindly and truthfully. 1 invited. You know what else? I keep doing it. I don't stop if it doesn't work on the first or the second or the third try. And like that!' She snaps the apron from the chair into the air, leaving a poof of flour like a wish. 'There is your peace'" (190).
One of the discussion questions listed on the last pages of Crescent offers as a topic the following: "Virginia Woolf once said that literature would change once two women in a novel could actually be together in a room, without any men, talking to each other" (n.p.). Aunt Aya's stay in the G.S. offers exactly such a moment to the young Diana. But something else happens in this chapter. In Arabic literature as in Western literature, the development of a "realistic sensibility" (Hafez 259) engages new forms and subjects for literature. "The advent of realistic representation is widely acknowledged as a moment of catalytic change that marks the transition, from the acceptance of the world as given, to the process of its questioning and rationalization" (259). What Deleuze and Guattari describe as decoding, "the secularization of the older sacred codes" (259), Northrop Frye describes as displacement, "the adjusting of formulaic structures to a roughly credible context" (36). Both formulations, decoding and displacement, account for profound changes in Western and Eastern literary imaginations producing, if you will, literature less imaginary and more closely tied to prosaic realities of daily life. The sacred and the romantic tend toward the anti-representational while decoding and displacement describe the tendency that moves toward the representational. Culinary codes in literature follow similar trajectories:
The secularization of the older outlook is an essential prerequisite for the perception and subsequent presentation of certain aspects of social life as codes capable of illuminating reality and restructuring it, let alone the literary displacement of such codes and the modifications of their role for the benefit of artistic expression. (Hafez 259)
Abu-Jaber's figurative speech and creative syntax are recipes within an artistic form she calls a "food memoir1' (Field 224). Food, in the shape of recipes and in the shape of meals, lies at the center of this work, a metaphor for cultural memory; "memoir" gives us a bildungsroman or novel of maturity and social formation. Furthermore, recipes disrupt the linearity of this memoir, undercutting the more typical trope of the exemplary life. Recipes belong to the domestic sphere; they certainly play no role in the autobiographies of representative great men such as St Augustine and Rousseau or in the portrayal of the enlightened man who exemplifies the best of western rationality, progress and superiority and whose success in a public arena elicits a well-deserved, "Well done!" Food is feminine, but for a woman who is confined to but loves the kitchen-patio-garden such as Tita, that space actually may liberate her and allow her powerful self-expression. Abu-Jaber's recipes go beyond the kitchen and call attention to her "textuality as a metissage or braiding of disparate voices in subjects whose cultural origins and allegiances are multiple and conflicting" (Lionnet 145). Like the multi-layered baklava, Abu-Jaber's recipes and narrative structure comment on the complexities of identities and human interactions both negatively and positively. The result is a complex, multi-layered novel that adds yet another construct to our and of means to capture the infinite variety of human endeavor and social interaction. The immigrant's dream of a better life finds its expression in Bud's ideal restaurant, "a Shangri-La (hat finally heals the old wound between East and West. AH languages will be spoken here, all religions honored. And the food will be pure and true as the first food" (172), for Bud, just like his sister, knows foods' secrete. Late in the novel, when Bud relinquishes his dream, not because the world wasn't what it was supposed to be, but because the world is as it is, Abu-Jaber awakens that night to write down for the first time details for her next novel, The Language of Baklava (306).
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---. Arabian Jazz. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.
--. Crescent: A Novel. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.
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Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Margtnatity and the Fictions of Self Representation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.
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Linda M. Clemente
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|Author:||Clemente, Linda M.|
|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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