Eating Identities

Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature

Wenying Xu
Copyright Date: 2008
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  • Book Info
    Eating Identities
    Book Description:

    The French epicure and gastronome Brillat-Savarin declared, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are." Wenying Xu infuses this notion with cultural-political energy by extending it to an ethnic group known for its cuisines: Asian Americans. She begins with the general argument that eating is a means of becoming—not simply in the sense of nourishment but more importantly of what we choose to eat, what we can afford to eat, what we secretly crave but are ashamed to eat in front of others, and how we eat. Food, as the most significant medium of traffic between the inside and outside of our bodies, organizes, signifies, and legitimates our sense of self and distinguishes us from others, who practice different foodways. Narrowing her scope, Xu reveals how cooking, eating, and food fashion Asian American identities in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, class, diaspora, and sexuality. She provides lucid and informed interpretations of seven Asian American writers (John Okada, Joy Kogawa, Frank Chin, Li-Young Lee, David Wong Louie, Mei Ng, and Monique Truong) and places these identity issues in the fascinating spaces of food, hunger, consumption, appetite, desire, and orality. Asian American literature abounds in culinary metaphors and references, but few scholars have made sense of them in a meaningful way. Most literary critics perceive alimentary references as narrative strategies or part of the background; Xu takes food as the central site of cultural and political struggles waged in the seemingly private domain of desire in the lives of Asian Americans. Eating Identities is the first book to link food to a wide range of Asian American concerns such as race and sexuality. Unlike most sociological studies, which center on empirical analyses of the relationship between food and society, it focuses on how food practices influence psychological and ontological formations and thus contributes significantly to the growing field of food studies. For students of literature, this tantalizing work offers an illuminating lesson on how to read the multivalent meanings of food and eating in literary texts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6228-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    Allow me to begin with two stories.

    During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), hunger dominated my life in Baoding, Hebei Province, China, as it did millions of others. Only a small elite had access to protein, and their currency was power. Unlike abject starvation, the hunger I experienced permitted fantasies, such as meats, sweets, and fancy pastries. My family often sat at the dinner table after a meal of corn bread and boiled cabbage to continue eating imaginary delicacies. We would share in great detail the most delicious dishes we had ever eaten—their rare ingredients, their elaborate cooking,...

  5. 1 Enjoyment and Ethnic Identity in No-No Boy and Obasan
    (pp. 18-36)

    Most ethnic minorities in the United States desire to assert the constitutional “we,” a political identity that entitles them to rights and privileges granted to all American citizens. This constitutional “we” has often competed with the ethnic “we” in American history, with the former always wielding greater political and cultural power than the latter. The devastation to individuals caused by such competition often finds expression in rudimentary matters like one’s preference for or loathing of the foods, rituals, and family relationships specific to one’s ethnic community. A healthy and secure community does not agonize over its cuisine and rituals. On...

  6. 2 Masculinity, Food, and Appetite in Frank Chin’s Donald Duk and “The Eat and Run Midnight People”
    (pp. 37-61)

    The name Frank Chin provokes controversy among Asian American readers and scholars, but almost all agree that masculinity has preoccupied his entire literary and critical career. Almost all his writings aim at dismantling the U.S. hegemonic, emasculating representations of Asian American males, even when this agenda must sometimes be carried out at the expense of Asian American women and gay men. Recognizing his homophobic and macho tendencies, I nevertheless value Chin’s literary attempts to assail the prevailing stereotype of Asian American male sexuality. His is not only an important but also a necessary project in the evolution of Asian American...

  7. 3 Class and Cuisine in David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming
    (pp. 62-93)

    David Wong Louie’s novelThe Barbarians Are Coming(2000) is a culinary event, but one that totters agonizingly between hunger and feast. It is a hunger that no feast can satisfy, and a feast that only accentuates the pangs of hunger. This novel is remarkable in troping food to dramatize the interlocking tensions among race, gender, and class in the psychic development of its protagonist, Sterling Lung. By centering on Sterling’s relationship with food in the harrowing formation of his subjectivity, Louie argues that food practices organize individuals’ identities and that one’s discomfort with home cooking is engendered by ideological...

  8. 4 Diaspora, Transcendentalism, and Ethnic Gastronomy in the Works of Li-Young Lee
    (pp. 94-126)

    Li-Young Lee is an ethnic Chinese without an upbringing in an ancestral culture, without a grounding knowledge of the Chinese language, and without the community of a Chinatown or a suburban Chinese American community. His condition of exile, however, has proved to be immensely productive of emotional intensity and imagination, and his poetics derives largely from his ontological condition as an exile, driven by the desire to transcend time and space by appealing to the metaphysical at the exclusion of the cultural and material. As if no material or cultural location were sufficient for his poetics and identity, he formulates...

  9. 5 Sexuality, Colonialism, and Ethnicity in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked
    (pp. 127-161)

    The common thesis in these novels by Monique Truong and Mei Ng reiterates the inextricable involvement of food and sexuality. Both novels delineate via food and sex a desiring subjectivity that is deeply immersed in ethnicity, coloniality, diaspora, class, gender, and space. InThe Book of Salt(2003), Truong juxtaposes two cases of diasporic gay existence in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, one of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the other of Bình, their Vietnamese cook, both of which unfold chiefly via culinary tropes to reveal the truth that the ability to practice sexual transgression heavily depends...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 162-170)

    Can you think of any novel or drama that does not mention food, drinks, and eating? Probably very few of you can at all. Admitted that poetry may be less alimentary than fiction and drama, it invests much significance in food, drinks, and eating when it does employ these imageries. Then why do food studies in literature have a reputation of being “scholarship lite” (Ruark A17)? The first reason probably lies in the conventional notion of intellectual rigor—a rather masculinist concept. While abstract ideas such as race, class, gender, and sexuality have become axiomatic in reading literature, food, in...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 171-180)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 181-190)
  13. Index
    (pp. 191-196)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-198)