This past October, our 英米言語文化コース teachers offered a series of lectures――英語圏を味わう:「食」を通して触れる文化と文学――at B-nest in downtown Shizuoka City. I was one of the participants and spoke about the food culture of the American South and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
It may sound strange, but although I was born and raised in the American South and lived there for the first thirty years of my life, I did not feel confident that the food culture I remembered was representative of some real “southern food culture.” Thus, as preparation for my lecture, I refreshed my memory with an online search and came across a page entitled “Ben’s Top Ten Southern Comfort Foods.” I don’t know who Ben is, but as I read his list a wave of familiarity rolled over me. The foods he listed were not necessarily foods that “comforted” me when I was growing up, but they were foods I remembered as being popular in and around Georgia, where I grew up. For what it’s worth, here is Ben’s list. It’s a top ten list but goes to eleven! 1. Grits (a porridge-like dish made from roughly ground corn). 2. Cornbread. 3. Butter beans. 4. Okra. 5. Greens (green leafy vegetables, like turnip and collard greens). 6. Iced Tea (it gets hot in the South). 7. Coca-cola (very hot!). 8. Chess pie (look it up!). 9. Melons. 10. Goo goo clusters (an enormously high-calorie delight with chocolate, caramel, marshmallow, and nuts. I used to see them at truck stops when I was a kid, but I don’t remember eating them very often). 11. Salt (I mean it is really really hot in the South, and traditionally it was an agricultural region in which a great many people worked outside in the sun all day—they needed a high salt intake. Now, however, a love of salt is the cause of a lot of high blood pressure).
Two interesting points about this list. One, after I read through it, I called my mother and stepfather—longtime southerners—to see what they thought about it. My stepfather approved of grits being number two. My mother didn’t. My mother was terribly upset that blackberry pie wasn’t on the list at all. That was an injustice, she said. All to say that individual tastes are as important as cultural tendencies when it comes to matters like these.
And two. Many of the items are not only associated with “southern foods” in general, but with “black southern foods”—and many of the items sometimes considered a part of black food culture (again, lots of variation, so let’s not over-generalize) are related to the history of American slavery. Melons and okra are thought to have been brought to America from Africa. During the days of slavery, blacks often had to make do with what their white owners threw away. Thus they might get the leftover greens from turnips, or after the whites took all the prime cuts of meat from a pig, the blacks might get the internal organs and extremities: intestines, ears, and feet. Turnip greens and chitterlings (pig intestines) became well-known items in black cuisine—in what later became known as “soul food.”
The events of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man take place in the period between the two world wars. The setting for the novel is, first, the American South, and then, New York City. The novel’s nameless hero is a black man desperately trying to discover his own identity in an American society full of racial hatred and stereotyping. He is desperate to define himself in a way that others cannot by merely looking at the color of his skin.
But of course he is black, and his cultural upbringing, including his food culture, is “black,” and while he needs to feel he has a “cultural” home—as we all do—he feels shamed by the fact that his “cultural” home is, to some degree, a culture derived from slavery—and looked down upon by American society as a whole.
To me, one of the most moving passages of the novel is the one in which he is walking along the streets of New York City on a blistery winter day, lost and cold, wondering who he is, wondering who he will become—when suddenly, from a street vendor’s wagon, the aroma of a baking yam wafts through the frigid air, enticing him. Yams, too, were a major item in black food culture, and this aroma of baking yams overwhelms the emotions of the nameless hero. He can imagine nothing more delightful than biting into the sweet, juicy, steamy pulp of a yam—he grew up eating them—but at the same time, he cannot help but feel that his desire for a yam identifies him with both a historical tradition and a social class that he would like to forget. What should he do? Imagine that there was a stigma attached to your food culture. Imagine you would be pigeonholed, in a negative way, were you to delight in your family’s all-time favorite dish. What would you do?
In the end, the hero eats his yam and finds it “exhilarating.” At the same time, he worries, “What a group of people we were. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked.” At the end of this scene, however, he seems to realize that you have to be whoever you think you are, no matter how other people’s negative ideas may tempt you toward guilt and low self-esteem—and he finally declares, “[T]o hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am!”
There is little doubt that the foods we grew up eating are a part of who we are. Maybe they’re chitterlings and greens and yams, maybe they’re something else. But no matter what they are, let’s enjoy them. Let’s let everyone enjoy them.