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Are We What We Eat? Food and Identity in Late Twentieth-Century American Ethnic Lite ...

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Are We What We Eat?

Introduction

Food for us was a complex cultural emblem, an encoded script that embodied the long history and collective memory of our Near Eastern culture.

— Balakian 47

This passage from Peter Balakian’s memoir, Black Dog of Fate, suggests the important role that acts of cooking and eating play in the lives of American immigrants and their descendants. When the memoir’s narrator, Peter, a third-generation Armenian American, consumes Armenian food prepared by his mother, grandmother, and aunts, he gains a visceral connection to his ethnic culture that at other times he tries to sever. When as a child Peter visits the homes of his suburban playmates, he eats “American” foods in an attempt to abandon or at least conceal his identity as an ethnic Other in mainstream America.1 Throughout his memoir, Balakian describes many scenes centered on the preparation and consumption of both Armenian and “American” foods because he recognizes the important roles that these “cultural emblems” and symbols play in