Food for us was a complex cultural emblem, an encoded script that embodied the long history and collective memory of our Near Eastern culture. (47)
This passage from Peter Balakian's 1997 memoir Black Dog of Fate suggests the important role that food preparation and food consumption play in the process of identity formation. While Balakian, a third-generation Armenian American, consumes Armenian food prepared by his mother and grandmother, he gains a visceral connection to his ethnic culture, which, at other times, he tries to sever; when, as a child, he visits the homes of his suburban playmates, he eats "American" food in an attempt to abandon or at least conceal his identity as an ethnic Other in mainstream America. (1) Throughout his memoir, Balakian includes many scenes centered around the preparation and consumption of both ethnic and "American" foods, demonstrating how, as a child living in post-war America, he attempts to negotiate the ethnic and "American" elements of his cultural identity. Although, as a child, Balakian unsuccessfully tries to dichotomize these seemingly contradictory elements, as an adult, he works to construct a holistic cultural identity that merges the ethnic and American components into a unified whole and thus works to satisfy his physical and emotional hungers.
Balakian's depiction of food preparation and food consumption suggests that he recognizes what food historians and cultural anthropologists understand: Because the "consumption of food has always been culturally constructed" (Diner 3), "[f]oodways provide a whole area of performance in which statements of identity can be made--in preparing, eating, serving, forbidding, and talking about food" (Kalcik 54). Most notably, Balakian recalls the findings of Roland Barthes who, in his essay "Towards a Psychosociology of Food Consumption" (1961), offers his theory of "communication by way of food" (21). (2) Barthes comes from a long line of "symbolic anthropologists" who, according to Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, believe 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" (12). Thus, in his essay, Barthes 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" (21); 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).
In his memoir, Balakian certainly demonstrates how items of food act as "real signs" that signify the preparer and/or consumer's identity as a member of an ethnic group or the dominant American culture; furthermore, Balakian suggests how many Americans are fully aware of the important role that these edible units play in the process of signification. For example, although Balakian, his siblings, and his parents, Gerard and Arax, successfully maneuver through "the labyrinth of upper-middle-white-class suburbia" (285) and thus publicly assimilate into the dominant American culture, (3) within their home, they assume an identity, in part through their consumption of Armenian food, that the dominant culture would define as ethnic, Other, and thus un-American. Although the family's kitchen, with its malt-shop counter (47), houses the latest post-war American appliances, it becomes "the inviolable sanctuary of a culture [i.e. the Armenian culture] that barely escaped extinction" (51): (4) "In the midst of a neighborhood cuisine of minute steaks, hot dogs, Swanson TV dinners, or tuna whipped up in a blender" (47), (5) the family stays true to its Armenian roots by consuming the meals prepared by Balakian's mother. Unlike her neighbors' quick meals of prepackaged frozen food, indicative of suburbia's relatively short existence, Arax's time-consuming and complex recipes, symbolic of Armenian culture's relatively long and complicated history, take hours to prepare: "What minute steaks were to the Walls [another suburban family], lamb was to us. Leg of lamb tied up and stuffed with garlic and herbs; shoulders of lamb cooked slowly in the oven so they were falling apart and could be cut with a fork" (48).
Throughout the memoir, Balakian demonstrates how Arax's acts of food preparation are most crucial in allowing the family to preserve its cultural heritage and thus assume an ethnic identity within their suburban home. (6) Although Arax, "a collision of cultures" (85), publicly praises mainstream America (84), her culinary acts speak louder than her words, becoming "part of the way she define[s] herself in the wake of the Armenian past and the suburban present" (49). Thus, Arax's acts of food preparation allow her and her family to reclaim the Armenian culture that the Turks tried to obliterate and that the dominant American culture continues to marginalize. Balakian explains how this history of murder, starvation, and cultural marginalization leads to the "morality play of the dinner table":
I didn't know that eating also was a drama whose meaning was entwined in Armenia's bitter history. In 1960 I hadn't even heard the phrase "starving Armenians," nor did I know that my ancestors were among the more than two million Armenians who, if they weren't killed outright, were marched into deserts of Turkey in 1915 and left to starve as they picked seeds out of feces or sucked the blood on their own clothes. (48)
With her leading role in this dinner table "play," Arax works to undermine the label "starving Armenians" as her abundant meals demonstrate that she and her family are anything but "starving": "In the kitchen, [Arax] was really saying[,] We are alive and well, things have order, the world has grace and style" (51). Just as importantly, Arax's preparation of ethnic food in her suburban kitchen functions as a subversive act as it allows her and her family to preserve their cultural heritage in the mainstream American, an environment that is often hostile to ethnic Otherness.
Not surprisingly then, as Arax cooks and serves Armenian dishes, she becomes suspicious of her neighbors' food that, according to her, suggests the "excessive permissiveness" and "laissez-faire morality" (54) of suburban culture. As the authors of The Split Level Trap explain, many suburban "parents have a notion that it may harm children's personalities in some way to say no to them, to frustrate them, repress their urges or spank them" (141). Similarly, M. P. Baumgartner argues that the "moral minimalism" of suburban parents, or "what is not done when tensions arise" (10), leads to the delinquent behavior of many suburban children. For Arax, her neighbors' food, especially their casseroles, (7) parallel their lackadaisical and permissive approach to parenting; like these one-pot meals that require little care once they are placed in hot ovens. Suburban children, Arax believes, are given little parental supervision and guidance. Consequently, after young Balakian is assaulted by a group of neighborhood boys, Arax laments, "What do you expect if they eat casseroles and minute steaks? What kind of people are these" (54).
It must be noted, however, that Arax does make some culinary concessions in her kitchen, which suit her suburban family's changing tastes, creating and preparing recipes that are "hybrids of southeastern Armenia and North America" (48): "Hamburgers with fresh mint and scallions, eggplants stuffed with collard green and black-eyed peas, red lentils cooked into baked macaroni and cheese, homemade pizza topped with sauteed okra and eggplant, steaks grilled with fresh artichokes, turkey stuffed with spinach, pine nuts currents and hunks of French bread soaked in wine and ground sumac (dried barberry)" (49). In addition, Arax is "American enough" to begin her meals "with salad" (48); of course, she adds Armenian touches to this first course, such as "diced celery marinated in tomato and lemon juice, or grated cucumbers in yogurt with mint leaves" (48), which suit her family's hybrid taste. Similarly, besides serving her family water and milk, typical "American" drinks, Arax fills their glasses with tahn, a yogurt-based beverage (48), which, like her salad, signifies her and her family's emerging bicultural identity.
In addition, the suburban family assumes an ethnic identity during their Sunday dinners when their extended family visits their home. Unlike other suburbanites who "leav[e] their relatives behind" (Gordon, et al 57), the Balakians see theirs on a regular basis, during these weekly gatherings: "Every Sunday it's the same. [The] extended family sitting around the dining room table in winter or out on the patio in summer for a full afternoon and more" (Black Dog 6). As Amy Bakalian notes, the extended family is "the repository of Armenian culture and the web of social relations. As an agent of socialization, the role of the family in passing Armenian identity and pride to the next generation is undeniable" (369). Certainly, during their weekly dinners, Balakian's extended family functions as a cultural "repository," passing on Armenian culinary traditions from one generation to the next; as young Balakian watches his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, eating course after course of Armenian food, he thinks how he and his immediate family, tucked away in their dining room or back patio, "seemed more Armenian" than American (35). Thus, although Balakian and his immediate family members publicly pass as typical American suburbanites, privately, within their home, they maintain a connection to their ethnic culture, which, of course, is made possible by their consumption of Armenian food.
To young Balakian, however, his parents send mixed signals regarding his cultural identity; "their second-generation silence" (287) (8) does not answer his questions regarding his ethnic culture, yet his mother's preparation of Armenian food suggests that his parents want him to value and privately uphold the traditions of that culture. Consequently, as a child, Balakian becomes confused by his parents' effort to dichotomize their private Armenian and public "American" identities. Because he finds it too difficult to balance on the tightrope of cultural identity, he attempts to assume an exclusively "American" one, in part, by rejecting his family's food and the culture it signifies. Although the child enjoys his mother's Armenian dishes, he thinks, "Good as this was, it wasn't frozen pizza or Mrs. Paul's fish sticks" (49). Additionally, during Sunday dinners, Balakian feels as if he is "watching a play" (35) in which he wants to play no part; as the family eats course after course of Armenian food, he sits "scowling and hungry" (36), and as he hears his neighborhood "friends playing ball and tag" (36), he wishes he could "eat in a simple five minutes" (36) and thus enjoy "[t]he kind of autonomy and freedom that existed" for his friends (56). Because of this, young Balakian dreams of a mother who would say, "I'm meeting your father at the club for dinner. There are some Swansons in the freezer, just pop one in the oven. They take twenty minutes" (56). However, in Balakian's Armenian family, "the lines of authority between parents and children are clear and rituals of dining [are] primary expressions of cultural continuity" (56).
As a child, Balakian gains a sense of freedom and, consequently, a disconnection from his ethnic culture when he visits his suburban friends who are not bound by the formality and ritual that exist at his family's dining room table:
It was exhilarating to sit at Bobby Dillstein's kitchen table eating Mallowmars and drinking Coke while watching Godzilla on Million Dollar Movie on a portable color TV perched on the kitchen counter. Or to be at the Walls' with my feet on a hassock on Saturday night, watching the whole of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing or Town Without Pity, a box of Oreos and a six pack of Mountain Dew at hand and not a parent in earshot. (56)
Likewise, in seventh grade, Balakian continues to "blur the lines of authority" when he befriends Frank Haskell, a wealthy "American" classmate, who, on a regular basis, invites him to his home for dinner, usually "jumbo shrimp in garlic sauce, some vegetable and rice and glasses of milk, and a chocolate cake waiting on the buffet" (91); without any parental supervision, the boys eat these meals, prepared by Frank's personal chef and served by his maid. During high school, Balakian continues to visit Frank, now acting as a consumer of alcohol and sex, as well as food: In addition to "pouring sevens and sevens, whisky sours, and screwdrivers in the walk-in bar" (92), Balakian brings his girlfriends into Frank's "leopard-skin bedroom and its adjacent rooms [...] as if [he] were checking into a hotel" (92). Thus, by leaving his mother's kitchen, Balakian works to undermine his Armenian identity that is predicated not only on the consumption of Armenian food, but also on parental supervision.
As a young adult, however, Balakian's Armenian consciousness begins to infiltrate his psyche, most notably when he remembers his maternal grandmother Nafina and her acts of food preparation. (9) Balakian explains that after his grandmother's death in 1964, he comes "to discover there were two kinds of memory: the personal web of sensations" (26) and a "kind of memory that was connected to something larger than [one's] life" (27). Unlike the first type of memory that is unique to each individual, the second type, a common cultural memory, is shared by members of an ethnic group. Individuals discover this second type of memory through their interactions with others, most often older family members who, through their words and actions, pass on this collective memory to members of the younger generations. As an adult, Balakian will uncover this cultural memory when he recalls his childhood visits to his grandmother's kitchen where he not only listened to her stories, but also learned how to prepare Armenian food.
Throughout his memoir, Balakian suggests the similarities between the creative acts of food preparation and storytelling, demonstrating how both acts allow the participants to take visceral and imaginative journeys to their ancestral homelands and thus nurture their cultural memory: (10) "Now I realize that my grandmother's stories hibernated in me until I was ready to understand them fully. Or maybe marinated is a better word, since we are a people so steeped in food; yes, marinated. Or is it cured? Like grape leaves in brine" (17). More specifically, Balakian understands how Nafina's stories, not "like the ones [his] friends heard from their grandparents" (8), connect him "to some other world, some evocative place of dark and light" (17). Unlike his suburban playmates who hear light-hearted tales about family vacations, professional athletes, and American history (8), Peter listens to stories of starvation and death, set in the Armenian countryside, stories with "some kind of energy that ran like an invisible force from this old country called Armenia to [his] world in New Jersey. It was something ancient, something connected to the earth and words and blood and sky" (17). Like the Armenian food they prepare together, Nafina's stories provide her grandson with a connection to a world beyond suburbia, an ancient world that cannot be found in post-war America.
During his cooking lessons, Balakian not only begins to form a holistic cultural identity, but also begins to construct a coalitional gender identity (11) as he abandons the masculine role of food consumer, a role that he assumed in his suburban friends' homes and at his parents' dining room table. Although Balakian consumes Armenian food on a daily basis, he does not gain a satisfying emotional connection to his ethnic heritage as his parents refuse to answer any questions regarding this heritage. In Nafina's kitchen, however, as the child acts as a food preparer, he listens to his grandmother's stories and gets answers to his questions regarding his ancestral homeland, history, and culture. Although Balakian fears that his baseball teammates will ridicule him if they learn that he performs this "feminine" (6) task of cooking, he looks forward to his weekly visits to his grandmother's kitchen where he learns of a world that cannot be found in suburbia.
With her stories of female strength and courage, Nafina undermines her grandson's misconceptions of submissive, weak, and thus undesirable femininity. For example, on one occasion, when she teaches him how to make choereg, an Armenian sweetbread, she retells the Armenian folktale for which the memoir is named. According to Nafina, two women, one rich and one poor, separately visit the goddess Fate who requires an offering of food from each of her visitors. Fate turns away her first visitor, a rich woman who brings "the best spring lamb, stuffed with almonds and pilaf, apricots and pomegranates, quinces and walnuts, and to top it off, two fine rubies in the eye sockets of the head" (9). However, Fate welcomes her second guest, the poor woman who, "without a dime to her name" (9), brings Fate "a black dog that she had found dead in a field"; "[e]ven the apple she placed in its mouth was wormy" (9). Despite this unappetizing dish, Fate "opened her arms and said in a voice as sweet as honey, 'Come in, I've been waiting for you for a long time'" (9). In this way, Nafina's story suggests the importance of a food item's context in determining its significance: Fate accepts her visitor's rotten food because it suggests the poor woman's strength and generosity; although the woman is starving, she sacrifices her only food, the dead dog, for Fate.
As Nafina removes the choeregs from the oven, she answers her grandson's questions regarding fate: "'Pakht. You know, luck, fate.' [...] She paused again, taking a spatula and slipping it under a couple of choeregs to make sure they weren't sticking to the rack. 'Fate, it's your destiny, it's what's in store for you [...] The dog, the dog is fate's answer to us--the human world. [...] The dog tells us to have hope'" (10). Nafina's definition of fate or destiny recalls Balakian's assertion that "we [are] born into things" and we have "backgrounds" (43) that inform and, to some extent, determine our present and future; thus, according to Nafina, no matter how adamantly her grandson attempts to distance himself from Armenian culture, he is fated to honor or at least remember the "thing" into which he was born. Furthermore, with her story, Nafina suggests that her culture was not fated to disappear into oblivion at the hands of the Turks; instead, like the poor woman, the Armenian people are fated to endure and even prosper in the face of adversity. The poor woman offers hope to the "starving Armenians" as she perseveres, despite her hunger, and gets rewarded because of her fortitude. More specifically, like the goddess Fate who feeds the starving woman, Nafina, through her stories, nurtures her grandson who hungers for a meaningful emotional connection to his ethnic culture.
On another occasion, Nafina also suggests the importance of women in the process of cultural preservation. Although, on this occasion, she and her grandson do not prepare Armenian food as she tells him her story, they share food, a Creamsicle, as they wait for a bus to take them home after a day of clothes shopping in Manhattan. Nafina begins this story, "The Woman in Blue," (12) by explaining that according to Armenian legend, "the elk was Adam's first partner in the Garden of Eden[,]" but because it "wasn't compatible with Adam," God "banished it in favor of Eve" (19). As a result of its expulsion from the Garden, "the elk grew to hate women. Especially pregnant women, who had to go to bed at night with knives under their pillows in case the elk came to pull out their livers" with its teeth (19). After retelling this traditional Armenian folktale, Nafina continues her story about the Woman who warns a new mother that the elk, with its "copper claws and iron teeth" (21), waits to eat her liver. The Woman explains that in order to prevent this, the mother, her husband, and their new-born son must go to Her church, "Mairig Asdvadzadzeen[,] Notre Dame, Our Lady" (21), and pray to Her. After spending the winter in this church, the new mother awakens one spring morning to see a "light flooding the great window behind the altar, and there, on a cross that seems to float in the air, was the woman in blue" (22). Thus, with her story, Nafina challenges the traditions of her patriarchal religion and, more specifically, her grandson's belief that that cross is "a place for Jesus only" (23).
After Nafina's death in 1964, Balakian begins to realize that the Woman in Blue, a model of female strength and fortitude, is "part of [his] grandmother's story" (24). Like Christ's mother Mary, who according to Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz, "offers maternal concern for her children, warning them of coming trials [...] and offering hope from spiritual and physical suffering (72), Armenian grandmothers, such as Nafina, may save their American-born grandchildren from lives of spiritual suffering. Through their acts of food preparation, these women, harbingers of Armenian culture, feed and nurture their grandchildren physically and emotionally, allowing them to gain meaningful and visceral connections to their ancestral pasts.
For example, on one occasion as Nafina serves her sick and bedridden grandson "Arkayutiun soup (soup of heaven) [...] on a mother-of-pearl tray" (32), she reveals the hell that she suffered during the Genocide and thus provides him with a glimpse into his cultural past that, up until this point, he knew very little about. Before immigrating to America and marrying Balakian's maternal grandfather, Nafina was married to Hagop, the father of her first- and second-born daughters, Alice and Gladys, Arax's two half sisters. In a dream-like state, Nafina tells her grandson that after a Turkish soldier stabbed Hagop to death, a group of soldiers whipped her until "blood and milk oozed" from her breast (31). Like the elk who attempted to eat the new mother's liver, the Turkish soldiers try to destroy Nafina's identity as a mother and nurturer, preventing her from breastfeeding her infant daughters. As Nafina is whipped, she prays to the Woman in Blue for the physical strength and mental stamina to survive: "I saw the woman in blue. Beloved mother of God. I saw the woman in blue" (32). Significantly, the soldier's knife handle is made from mother-of-pearl (31), the same material as the tray on which Nafina serves her grandson the "heavenly" soup. By using this tray to serve the food, Nafina symbolically defeats the Turkish solder who, with his knife, tried to kill Nafina, a harbinger of Armenian culture. Nafina's weapon of choice, the mother-of-pearl tray, like the Woman's pearl necklace, symbolizes female strength and fortitude; the food served on the tray proves that Armenian culture has persevered and will continue to do so, in part, through acts of food preparation.
After his grandmother's death, Balakian begins to write poetry and continues the tradition of cultural preservation, a tradition that he began in his grandmother's kitchen. While at Bucknell University, he quits his fraternity (119) and, in so doing, abstains from the excessive consumption of alcohol and sex, a practice that began in "Haskell's Haven" (119) during his adolescence in suburbia; instead, through the non-gendered role of a poet, Balakian works to articulate the horrors of the Armenian genocide to the American public, most of whom are ignorant of these atrocities. In his writing process, Balakian resembles other Armenian American poets who, according to Margaret Bedrosian, inhabit a world that is "neither Armenian or American, somewhere between actuality and illusion, a landscape alive with half-seen mythic figures and ghosts rising from the Armenian psyche" (64). In his poems, Balakian interweaves the "actuality" of his American present with his "illusions" of the Armenian past, "illusions" formed by his grandmother's stories as well as his own research. (13)
For example, in "The History of Armenia," which is included in the memoir (184-197), Balakian intertwines his grandmother's life in Armenia with its aftermath in America. By interviewing his aunts Alice and Gladys, Balakian learns that Nafina suffered a nervous breakdown after she fled to the United States: "The news of Pearl Harbor, the news of the war, set her off. She thought it was happening again. Her house burned down; her family killed; death marches into the desert. She thought the zaptieth, the Turkish military police were coming" (178). Consequently, during her breakdown, Nafina "practically stopped eating. She cooked beautiful dinners, served them, and sat in a chair, repeating lines and praying" (178). In her illness, Nafina relives the 1915 Genocide almost thirty years later: As she starved in the Armenian desert where she prayed to the Woman in Blue, she remains hungry in her kitchen, chanting her prayers. In a 2001 interview, Balakian explains that Nafina's "post-traumatic stress syndrome" (Mosby 52) is the inspiration for many of his poems, including the one transcribed in his memoir: "I wanted some way to get hold of my grandmother's genocide-survivor experience and the trauma she carried with her for her entire life" (Mosby 52).
The poem included in the memoir depicts the destruction of ethnic neighborhoods in post-war America "when the Eisenhower superhighways were going up" (Mosby 53). In the poem, Balakian likens this American wasteland to the Armenian desert, a place of murder and starvation, as he depicts the "steam hammers / and bulldozers" (lines 9-10) that destroy the neighborhood, killing anyone who gets in their path: "[T]he babies in East Orange / have disappeared / maybe eaten by / the machinery / on this long road" (25-29). More specifically, Balakian depicts Nafina who is unable to feed her "hungry" children (20) because there is no food left "in the grocery store" (22) where "a man is standing / to his ankles in blood" (23-24); consequently, Nafina waits in vain for "the angel / with news that the river / is coming back, / the angel with the word / that the water will be clear / and have fish" (80-85). Similarly, when the poem's narrator, presumably Balakian, searches "the garden / for squash" (39-40), he sees that "only a stump was there" (41), and when he tries "to clip / parsley" (42-43), he finds "only a hole" (44). In this way, Balakian likens the physical starvation and trauma of the Genocide survivors to his emotional and spiritual hungers in contemporary America; throughout the memoir, Balakian suggests that he may satisfy these hungers only by constructing an identity that recognizes and embraces his ethnic heritage in mainstream America.
For Balakian, his poems not only allow him to understand and validate his Armenian heritage while living as a member of the dominant American culture, but also provide him vicarious action and excitement that his relatively comfortable suburban life cannot offer. In his interview, Balakian explains that because he "couldn't return in any concrete sense to Anatolia, to the Armenian provinces of Turkey in 1915[,]" he "imagine[s] the trauma of the genocide recreated in the new world, with [him] in the picture trying to touch some of that experience through the poem" (Mobsy 53). Through his memories and imagination, Balakian enters the "traumatic space" (Mosby 53) of starvation, rape, and murder of 1915 Anatolia; by repositioning that cultural and historical space in post-war America, he suggests that he will "carry it on psychologically, symbolically, with language, with consciousness, with scholarship, with art" (Mosby 53-54). However, unlike Nafina, a Genocide survivor who, in her stories, confronts the horrific memories that infiltrate her dreams, Balakian, a writer, can only imagine the tragedy of his grandmother's past, and, because of this, his poetry has "a surrealistic kind of displacement to it" (Mosby 53).
In addition, by becoming a writer, Balakian follows the example set by his paternal aunt Anna, a professional writer, who, like Nafina, uses storytelling and cooking to preserve her cultural past. As a child, Balakian and his immediate family leave suburbia and visit his aunt, uncle, and cousins in their Manhattan apartment where Anna prepares traditional Armenian foods: "A long buffet table was set with [...] silver trays of berek, yalanchis, midya, and pasterma (thin slices of cumin and garlic-cured beef), plaki and pilaf, glass plates of paklava, shekarjee (almond-stuffed sugar cookies) and kadayif" (81). Significantly, Balakian describes his aunt as living on "the other side of the bridge" (73), a literal bridge that connects New Jersey to Manhattan, and a symbolic bridge that connects the suburban child to his ethnic culture. In her essay, Boudakian explains that most Armenians refer to the motherland as "the other side":
This reference is particularly apropos in the case of Western Armenia, a life and place destroyed during the Genocide. [...] [F]or those who came here [the United States] crossing over to the other side was like leaving one life behind for the next--a spiritual passage. The other side then became a homeland of the mind and soul that Armenians in diaspora have strived to preserve. (34).
That Balakian refers to his aunt's apartment as "the other side" suggests that he views her home as a haven for Armenian culture, for unlike his suburban parents who sometimes appear ambivalent about their cultural heritage, aunt Anna, through her acts of food preparation within the home and her self-identification as an Armenian American outside of the home, openly "bridges" both sides of her cultural identity.
Thus, by becoming a writer and political activist who constructs a holistic cultural identity, Balakian resumes his family's journey of cultural preservation in contemporary America. Ultimately, Balakian's memories of acts of food preparation, performed by his mother, grandmother, aunt, and even himself, provide him with the inspiration for his writings, his works of cultural preservation. Like his female family members whose culinary creations not only signify their ethnic identity, but also suggest their pride in that identity, Balakian's written creations demonstrate that, as an adult, he no longer attempts to conceal his Armenian cultural identity in mainstream America. As Balakian depicts acts of cooking and eating throughout his memoir, he suggests the possibility and, in fact, the necessity of creating such a holistic cultural identity that nourishes and nurtures his physical and emotional hungers.
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Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. Encountering Mary. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
(1) Sollors notes that although the dominant American (i.e. WASP) culture has evolved to become more inclusive, it continues to define "ethnic as other, as nonstandard, or, in America, as not fully American" (25). Similarly, TuSmith explains that "[w]hen scholars use terms such as host society, core culture, mainstream, or dominant culture in contrast to ethnic culture, the unstated assumption is that the only nonethnic culture is that of WASPS. It is important not to confuse WASP culture with the broader culture, which includes the contributions of all Americans" (2). In this analysis, I use the term "American" in a similar way: When I write "the dominant American culture" and "the mainstream American culture," or when I place the term "American" in quotes, I am referring to the group of Americans, historically WASP Americans, who have controlled the nation's political, economic, and cultural systems. When I use the term "American" without quotes, I am referring to all inhabitants of the United States, including those groups that racist and bigoted members of the dominant culture have defined as "ethnic," "Other," and "un-American."
(2) While Balakian demonstrates how in the multicultural United States an edible signifying unit most often works to signify one's ethnic or "American" status, Barthes establishes how in French culture an item of food most generally works to signify one's socio-economic status. For example, Barthes describes the "changeover from white to brown bread" (22) that occurred in the dining rooms of affluent French citizens, thereby causing brown bread, once a signifier of poverty and incivility, to "become a sign of refinement" (22); the significance of the bread changes when it is no longer baked and eaten exclusively by peasant farmers and poor workers but, instead, is consumed by members of the upper class in fancy restaurants or private homes. Similarly, Barthes explains how coffee, "a stimulant to the nervous system" that once signified work and activity, has evolved to signify "breaks [from] work, rest, and even relaxation" (26); the significance of coffee, like that of brown bread, changes after it becomes a dietary staple of members of France's upper-class, who leisurely consume this beverage in upscale cafes and restaurants. Thus, coffee, like brown bread, "is felt to be not so much a substance as a circumstance" (26); though the units' "substances" have remained virtually the same, the "circumstances" under which they are consumed have changed, and because of this, their cultural significance has also changed.
(3) For a discussion of the suburban migration that occurred after the Second World War, when many white ethnics began to assimilate into the dominant American culture, see Gordon, Gordon, and Gunther who explain how suburbanites "have deliberately broken from old family ties, old neighborhoods and old cultural groups" (59). Also, see Gatlin who explains that the post-war suburban migration led to a "diluted ethnic identity" in most suburbanites, "young, second or third generation descendants of European immigrants[,]" whose move to the suburbs was, in part, "a rebellion against the older generation" (53). And see Baumgartner who explains how the "suburbanite is more likely to be a highly placed member of the American mainstream, part of the dominant group at the heart of American society" (8).
(4) For a historical discussion of the Armenian Genocide, see Balakian (Burning Tigris), Dadrian, and Walker.
(5) See Smith for a discussion of the frozen food industry in the United States, specifically Swanson's TV Dinners that gave women "a level of domestic efficiency and freedom that previously they could only imagine" (175-6). Also, see Endrijonas who discusses "[c]onvenience or processed foods, which promised to save women tremendous amounts of time in the kitchen" and "were a growing phenomenon" in post-war America (157).
(6) See Heller and Moran who explain how food preparation allows for "the preservation of ethnic and religious identities" (3) and thus becomes a subversive act of resistance that allows for the preservation of ethnicity in mainstream American culture, often hostile to ethnic Otherness.
(7) See Inness for a discussion of "the widely popular casserole" (150) that "symbolized how cooking in the 1950s had become streamlined and efficient: the modern housewife had nothing to fret about, because she could concoct a one-dish meal for her family in a jiffy" (151).
(8) See Hansen for a discussion of the second generation, whose members "wanted to forget everything: the foreign language that left an unmistakable trace in [their] English speech, the religion that continually recalled childhood struggles, the family customs that should have been the happiest of all memories" (494). Of course, while Balakian's parents want to "forget everything" in public, within their home, they want to remember their culture, its food, and ways of eating.
(9) For a discussion of the importance of grandmothers and, more specifically, their acts of food preparation in the process of cultural preservation, see Kadi who likens her Lebanese grandmother to a map that is "alive, many-layered, multi-dimensional, open-ended, and braided" (xiv).
(10) See Avakian for a discussion of the similarities between storytelling and cooking, "a vehicle for artistic expression, a source for sensual pleasure, an opportunity for resistance and even power" (6).
(11) See Butler who argues that gender is "a shifting and contextual phenomenon" that "does not denote a substantive being, but a relative point of convergence among culturally and historically specific relations" (10). Because gender is "radically independent of sex[,]" it functions as "a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one" (Butler 7). To find contentment, Butler argues that the individual should work to construct a gender identity that functions as an "open coalition, [...] an open assemblage that permits of multiple convergences and divergences without obedience to a normative telos of definitional closure" (16).
(12) The story's title refers to Christ's mother Mary who, in Mediterranean cultural iconography, "wears the blue robe and pearl necklace" (Graves 394).
(13) See Burning Tigris, Balakian's history of the Genocide, for additional evidence of his research.
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