The Fat of the (Border)land
Food, Flesh, and Hispanic Masculinity in
Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop
“There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup,” Bishop Latour proclaims as he complements his fellow French missionary Father Vaillant's culinary skills near the beginning of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1990a, p. 299). Toward the end of the narrative, Latour urges his newest priests “to encourage the Mexicans to add fruit to their starchy diet” (p. 438). In the spaces between these two statements, spaces that span time and country and culinary habits, lies an undiscovered portion of the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop. In this text these two Catholic priests often lament the state of indigenous diets in mid-nineteenth century New Mexico. This diet, a mix of European and Mesoamerican influences dating from the sixteenth century, is now one of the more popular modern cuisines in the United States. Although we do not get any lessons on creating the perfect corn tortilla in Death Comes for the Archbishop, we do get a cooking lesson of a different sort: a lesson on how food can serve as a secret language of history and nation forming, of masculinity and desire, and of how Cather's text mediates between larger historical discourses and the everyday lives of a heterogeneous population. Looking specifically at food (and the subsequent conflation of Hispanic men and fat) allows us to explicate some of the troubling characterizations that have adhered to the Hispanic subject since the beginning of American colonization. I use the descriptor “Hispanic,” instead of “Latino” or “Chicano” or “Mexican American,” to discuss Cather's characters because I feel that it most clearly describes the fact that some of the characters included in my analysis perceive themselves as Spanish, a belief that John M. NietoPhillips (2004) describes as “hispanidad”—a rhetorical move to help encourage acceptance of New Mexico into the union by stressing the “European” heritage of New Mexican residents.
One may be tempted to wonder why food in Death Comes for the Archbishop is an area worthy of such specialized attention. As Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik explain in the introduction to their text Food and Culture: A Reader, “Food marks social differences, boundaries, bonds, and contradictions. Eating is an endlessly evolving enactment of gender, family, and community relationships” (1997, p.