Food Preparation, Food Consumption, and the Process of Identity Formation in Peter Balakian's Memoir Black Dog of Fate
Delassio, William, Studies in the Humanities
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. …