"Vomit Your Poison": Violence, Hunger, and Symbolism in Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete

By Fazio, Michele | MELUS, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"Vomit Your Poison": Violence, Hunger, and Symbolism in Pietro Di Donato's Christ in Concrete


Fazio, Michele, MELUS


The study of food practices and patterns as well as the exploration of the regional and generational differences of preparation and consumption in Italian American culture has been a source of much discussion among scholars in the fields of history, sociology, literature, and psychology. (1) Indeed, Italian Americans are known for and deeply proud of their connection to food, and this identification remains one of the most prominent aspects associated with their culture. Food, in its capacity to nourish and to appease physical and spiritual hunger, sustains life and faith, and becomes a compelling topic for Italian American artists to explore. In literature, as Gian-Paolo Biasin points out in The Flavors of Modernity: Food and the Novel, "culinary signs in gastronomy ... constitute an integral part of the technique used for representation, narration, and characterization" (11). Food becomes an essential part of understanding narratives as it helps to identify how authors use various elements of fiction such as tone, setting, and conflict to create the world of the novel. For instance, traditional Italian dishes such as spaghetti covered in a thick, red sauce, dandelion salad, homemade wine, barley soup, and fried zucchini can be found in John Fante's Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), Mari Tomasi's Like Lesser Gods (1949), Don DeLillo's "Take the 'A' Train" (1962), Tina DeRosa's Paper Fish (1980), and Carole Maso's Ghost Dance (1986). These few examples show Italian American writers using food to illustrate socio-economic ties, cultural identity, group affiliation, and emotional expressions such as nostalgia, grief, and desire; eating these ethnic specific foods helps the characters diminish the geographical and temporal distance caused by immigration and assimilation.

In his autobiographical novel Christ in Concrete (1939), proletarian writer Pietro di Donato uses food to depict the ethnic and class identity of his characters, but he also underscores the conflicted and conflicting effects cooking and consumption have on the life of Italian immigrants in 1920s America. (2) By employing the image of food as a metaphor for self-expression, di Donato creates a discourse of food that links the physical to the spiritual and critiques social forces that simultaneously deprive and poison the working poor. America denies the Immigrant a nourishing environment in which to grow, so they must learn to struggle against oppression or suffer through it. Di Donato explores this absence of nourishment by inventing a working-class aesthetic out of the vile, vulgar image of vomit. As Pierre Bourdieu explains in Distinction, "Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes" (56). Di Donato, in writing about class structure, questions the legitimacy of tastes by challenging bourgeois culture through his use of distaste, or what Bourdieu might classify as a "disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance ('sick-making') of the tastes of others" (56). (3) Vomiting is itself a violent act--the body rejects what it has eaten; furthermore it can be either self-induced or provoked by harmful factors, which prevents the absorption of nutrients vital for the body's survival. Vomiting stops the necessary process of ingestion and stimulates purging, the body ridding itself of what it refuses to consume. This "dysfunctional consumption" works against the more traditional, middle class aesthetic of beauty and taste by focusing instead on the ghastly (Gigante 36). In Christ in Concrete when the word vomit or actual vomiting appears, di Donato purposively shocks the reader and associates this distasteful image with the survival of the Italian immigrant.

Vomit as a culinary sign also moves the discussion of food from simply celebrating cultural identity to showing the volatility of the immigrants' working and living conditions. …

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