Academic journal article MELUS

"Apple Pie with Oreo Crust": Fran Ross's Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel

Academic journal article MELUS

"Apple Pie with Oreo Crust": Fran Ross's Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel

Article excerpt

An elderly Jew, riding in the subway, saw a Negro reading the Jewish Daily Forward.

The Jew watched, spellbound, as the Negro read sedately on. Finally, unable to contain himself, the old man asked, "Excuse me, mister. I don't want to be rode--but I have to ask it: Are you Jewish?"

The Negro lowered the paper in disgust: "That's all I need noch!"

A Jewish matron dialed a number and asked, "Hello, Mrs. Weiss?"

No, ma'am," came a melodious voice. "This is the shvartzeh." (1)

Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish (265, 377)

In Fran Ross's 1974 novel Oreo, the Greek legend of Theseus' journey into the Labyrinth becomes a feminist tall tale of a young black woman's passage from Philadelphia to New York in search of her white Jewish father. (2) This satirical novel explores the heterogeneity rather than the homogeneity of African Americans. As slang for a black American who is perceived to be culturally inauthentic, "oreo" and similar terms like "cookie," "Afro-Saxon," and the more recent "wannabe" and "incog-Negro" belong to a popular discourse regarding the divergence of racial identity and genetic heritage from cultural behavior, class identification, and political attitudes, a divergence that results from the genetic and cultural hybridity, class mobility, and political diversity of African Americans. "If a black person says, `John is very black,' he is referring to John's politics, not his skin color" (Ross, Oreo 5). Ross's Oreo is not a culturally whitewashed, deracinated, or "wannabe white" character who has assimilated European American cultural styles in order to escape the supposed inferiority of African American culture or to be more acceptable to the mainstream. Rather, she offers an intimate view of two of the diverse minorities that create American culture. With Oreo's adventures, Ross depicts a complex negotiation of identity within a racial, ethnic, sociocultural, and linguistic heterogeneity that extends beyond the black and white of "America's favorite cookie."

A satire on relations between African Americans and Jews, as well as a topsy-turvy treatment of racial and ethnic shibboleths and stereotypes in American popular culture, Oreo is a formally inventive picaresque novel written as a series of language games, quips, quizzes, comic translations, and bilingual wisecracks. Initially published in an edition of five thousand, Oreo was a rare find for collectors and scholars rummaging in used bookstores before its recent reprinting by Northeastern University Press. Although remarkable for its satirical response to the racial and sexual politics of the 1970s, it failed to find a larger audience, possibly because, in the process of commingling two ghettoized vernaculars, African American and Yiddish, the novel also draws on material that both black and Jewish readers might find offensive or perplexing. Ross's double-edged satire includes: a Jewish immigrant who retains a voodoo consultant named Dr. Macumba; a reverse-discrimination tale of an all-black suburb where a local ordinance is selectively enforced to keep white people from moving into the neighborhood; a black radio producer's script of an advertisement for Passover TV dinners; a joke about the heroine's odds of inheriting sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease; and a fight in which Oreo beats a predatory pimp to a pulp while wearing only a pair of sandals, a brassiere, and a mezuzah. (3)

What makes this quirky novel accessible is its appropriation of popular culture genres, including jokes, riddles, cartoons, graffiti, advertising, palmistry, cookbooks, and dream books. Ross borrows as freely from such popular sources as she does from the culture of high literacy represented by classical literature and "great books." Just as Oreo's journey alludes to the Theseus legend, her catalogue of popular culture, especially her inventory of jokes, alludes to conventional codes of cliches and stereotypes. …

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