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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?

the process of identity formation.2 As Susan Kalcik explains, “Foodways provide a whole area of performance in which statements of identity can be made—in preparing, eating, serving, forbidding, and talking about food” (54). Thus, Balakian recognizes what food historians, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists understand: “The consumption of food has always been culturally constructed” (Diner 3),3 and because of this, “[w]hat we eat and don’t eat is largely a result of what group we belong to” (Leonard and Saliba 172).4

For this analysis of food preparation, food consumption, and the process of identity formation in late twentieth-century ethnic American literature, I rely heavily on the findings Roland Barthes, who in his essay “Towards a Psychosociology of Food Consumption” offers his theory of “communication by way of food” (21). Although Barthes’ French culture is ethnically more homogeneous than American culture, his theory of gastronomic signification provides an important foundation for my analysis of cooking and eating in recent works of ethnic American literature. Like symbolic anthropologists5 who, according to Linder Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, use “structuralist insights to model eating as a cultural system” (12), Barthes shows readers how “to make explicit the covert meanings of [this] cultural system” by “treat[ing] these systems as languages” in order to “discover the deep structure of meanings beneath the surface of communication” (Brown and Mussell 12).6 Furthermore, symbolic anthropologists suggest that “[w]hile an aspect of culture (for example, a food pattern) has a functional role, it also has a sign value which is juxtaposed to other signs to construct complex communication systems” (Brown and Mussel 12). In his essay, Barthes uncovers some of these signs and calls for the “widening of the very notion of food” from “a collection of products that can be used for statistical and nutritional studies” to “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situation, and behavior” (Barthes 21). According to Barthes, in this system, each “item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies” and thus becomes a “real sign” or “a metaphor” in “a veritable grammar of foods” (21–22).