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

by William R. Dalessio


Over the last forty years, scenes that prominently feature acts of preparing and eating food have filled the pages of novels and memoirs written by American immigrants and their descendants because these writers understand that eating is more than a purely biological function but, instead, works to define who we are in the United States and abroad. Are We What We Eat? critically analyzes eight of these pieces of ethnic American literature, which demonstrate the important role that cooking and eating play in the process of identity formation.

In each of its chapters, Are We What We Eat? studies two texts that treat food preparation and food consumption in a thematically similar way. Oscar Hijuelos’ novel Our House in the Last World (1983) and Gish Jen’s novel Typical American (1991)—the subjects of the first chapter—explore what happens when immigrants engage in excessive acts of overeating either to assimilate into the dominant American culture or to reconnect to their native cultures. Tina DeRosa’s novel Paper Fish (1980) and Peter Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate (1996)—the focus of the second chapter—depict third third-generation Americans who reconnect to their ethnic cultures as they learn to prepare ethnic foods with their immigrant grandmothers. In Julia Alvarez’s novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) and Andrew X. Pham’s memoir Catfish and Mandala (1999)—the third pair of texts—the respective protagonists return to their birth nations, where they consume indigenous foods as a way of placating their physical and psychological hungers. Oreo (1974), a novel by Fran Ross, and Mona in the Promised Land (1996), a second novel by Gish Jen—the subjects of the last chapter—highlight the important roles that cooking and eating play in the process of forming a multicultural identity of racial and ethnic hybridity.

With the growing scholarly and popular interests in food and ethnicity in the United States, Are We What We Eat? is a timely analysis of food in literature and culture. To date, much of the scholarship on cooking and eating in ethnic American literature has focused on a specific ethnic group, but has not examined, in any in depth way, the similarities among the different ethnic and racial groups that comprise American culture. Are We What We Eat? presents a cross-cultural analysis that considers the common experiences among several ethnic cultures and, at the same time, recognizes the different ways that each culture was (and in some cases, still is) marginalized by the dominant American one. For those interested in reading, teaching, and writing about food in literature and culture, Are We What We Eat? should be an important reference book.

In the conclusion of Are We What We Eat? William Dalessio explains how he has offered one specific way of interpreting cooking and eating in the literature and recognizes that there are other valid ways of reading the texts. Dalessio correctly suggests that his book may act as an example of how scholars and critics can discuss food in literature by any author, regardless of her or his ethnicity. Throughout Are We What We Eat?, Dalessio implements theories of food, ethnicity, and gender, not only to provide his close textual readings, but also to develop his own theory of how cooking and eating may be studied in literature and in culture. With analysis that is articulate and accessible to most, Are We What We Eat? will be an illuminating study for all who are interested in food, ethnicity, or gender in American culture.


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