Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Three Meals: Eating Culture in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Three Meals: Eating Culture in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, the combined academic and popular interest in the production, distribution, and preparation of food has significantly impacted the way we as a culture understand it. From a market dominated by recipe collections, Americans have turned to increasingly popular food memoirs such as Julie and Julia by Julia Powell (2005) and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) by Barbara Kingsolver. Indeed, in 2008 food blogger Kim O'Donnel wrote that "even for a junkie like me, it's hard keeping up with the constant flow of new food memoirs that are cropping up on bookstore shelves like weeds. It's a literary all-you-can-eat-buffet, a smorgasbord of titles covering all aspects (and perspectives) of the food world." And, blogging itself has become a new medium for discussing the intersections of personal lives and the foods that play large roles in them. At the same time, writers like Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jamie Oliver have sought to demystify the act of eating both culturally and logistically for the average American in books that trace the origins of typical American meals (The Omnivore's Dilemma, 2006), chart the environmental damage sustained by common agricultural practices (Food Matters, 9008), and emphasize practical and simple methods for getting food on the table (Jamie's Food Revolution, 2009). This movement has been echoed in film with documentaries such as Super Size Me (2004) and Food Inc. (2009), each of which have high-lighted the unsustainability of American food practices. Cumulatively, the work of food memoirists, bloggers, investigative journalists, chefs, and film makers have made it increasingly obvious for the average American that food is a practical means through which we may interpret our world, and that it is loaded with meaning.

Where food memoirs, food blogs, exploratory books and documentaries have sought to make sense of the topic for a popular readership and viewing audience, a corresponding surge in academic interest has developed new models for understanding "foodways," intimately linking two different conceptions of food: food as a group of objects people eat, and food as a cultural construct. One of the first to mine food for its cultural meaning, anthropologist Carole M. Counihan wrote in 1992 that "Rules about food consumption are an important means through which humans construct reality. They are an allegory of social concerns, a way in which people give order to the physical, social, and symbolic world around them" ("Food Rules," 55). In studies as widely ranging as bread making and romance in Sardinia ("Bread as World"), "feeding and influence" in Florence ("Female Identity," 54), and eating and attractiveness in the United States ("Food Rules"), Counihan has established that "reading" people's relationships with food is an immensely profitable means for interpreting social standing, cultural beliefs, and power differences in their relationships with others.

In addition to identifying the cultural meanings imbedded in foodstuffs, scholars have identified problematic political connections between the kitchen table and global capitalism. Sociologist Harriet Freidmann observes that, after World War Two the

    food regime was governed by implicit rules, which nonetheless
regulated
   property and power within and between nations. The food regime,
   therefore, was partly about international relations of food, and
partly
   about the world food economy. Regulations of food both underpinned
and
   reflected changing balances of power among states, organized national
   lobbies, classes--farmers, workers, peasants--and capital. (326) 

Post-World War II economics expanded the already prevalent exportation industry, and food became the stuff of international politics. Like food as a form of local and cultural artifact, food as economic capital emphasizes the connections between individuals and the political bodies that represent them. As Friedmann makes clear, while food maintains its identity as a cultural production, the creation of a "food regime" requires equal consideration of the ways in which food items are exported, transported, and imported at the expense of "farmers, workers, [and] peasants. …

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