Friday, September 30, 2011

You Are What You Eat

The original book jacket:
not the usual offering of fresh fruit, flowers, and candles
but candy, ice cream, and Pringles Potato Chips instead;
similarly, I admire the cellophane wrapped cupcakes
that I sometimes see on the altar at the Vietnamese
manicure shop where I like to get my nails done!

Alison McGhee's haunting, tender novel, Shadow Baby appeared on my list of Highlights from 2007; but I can't resist mentioning it once again, this time in connection with Bich Minh Nguyen's humorous yet serious memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner, an exuberant ode to all the foods kids love. If I had been organized enough to list "Highlights" in 2008, Nguyen's book would have been a frontrunner. Nguyen, who came to Michigan from Viet Nam in 1975, tells the entertaining story of how, as little children, she and her sister learned about American culture through American food as it appears in TV commercials, school lunches, restaurants, fast food, family gatherings, grocery stores, endless snacks, holidays -- delicious food everywhere you turn, even in literature!

The funny and wonderful thing is that I knew exactly what she was talking about! Even though I'm older than Nguyen by nearly twenty years and was raised from the start on typical midwestern fare, her longing references to the tantalizing foods of childhood spoke straight to my heart. We American kids born in the late 50s and early 60s also craved (at least until we tasted them) the novelty cereals, packaged desserts, and highly processed convenience suppers that appeared so appealing in their boxes and trays. Over the years, a few of these things came our way (Pop Tarts, for instance) but others (like Jiffy Pop) just never did. And never did Mrs. Butterworth or Mr. Kool - Aid, or the Pillsbury Doughboy speak to us in our kitchens as they did on television. When I read Nguyen's description of waiting for these miracles to occur, I felt at one with her disappointment.

What Nguyen's memoir shares with McGhee's novel, in addition to an earnest, adorable, intelligent, girlish narrator, is an extended tribute to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Both real - life Bich (pronounced "Bit") and fictional Clara from Shadow Baby have grown to admire Laura's confidence and determination. In addition, Bich likes the way that "Laura never stints on food. The scraping of butter on a dry slice of toast merits her attention as much as a holiday feast" (154 - 55), and Clara likes Laura's straightforward way of addressing her mother. Emulating Laura, Clara says, "I'm the only girl I know who calls her mother Ma" (8).

Throughout the novel, whenever a crisis arises, Clara asks herself what Laura the Pioneer Girl would do; and in Buddha's Dinner, Nguyen analyzes the entire Little House saga in light of the food eaten by the Ingalls family: "All of my fictional friends liked to eat, but perhaps no one did more than Laura Ingalls Wilder" (153, see Chapter 11, "Salt Pork"). Never a true Little House follower myself, I still relished these allusions and admired the way in which both authors have so skillfully woven the intertextual references into their work.

Sadly, both young narrators also grow to realize the prejudice in the Little House chapter of American history. Clara says, "When I started reading about Indians, I had to revise my initial impression of Laura. It was hard to do that. I loved Laura so much. At first I tried to defend her . . . Then I had to admit it: the pioneers were awful to the Indians" (30). Bich experiences the unkindness at a personal level, feeling certain that Ma "would never have let Laura consort with me. . . . As I grew older, I had an increasingly uneasy time reading the books. . . . Not just Ma Ingall's hatred of Indians . . . I knew that people like me would also have been considered outcasts, heathens, and strangers; we didn't even count" (157, 160).

Why I didn't read more of the Little House series as a child I do not know. Of course, I was aware of them, but they didn't capture my imagination the way they do for some. However, I did read a couple of them with my own children, and once upon a snow day, we looked up the Little House recipe for gingerbread and did some baking.

Another memorable food - related episode in Shadow Baby is Clara's "show of nonreading solidarity" with her elderly friend who cannot read, a gesture which takes the form of removing the labels from all the canned food in the pantry. Her mother, Tamar, who "prefers to eat out of cans and jars" is annoyed and mystified, though not angry, even though Clara refuses to explain the nature of her experiment. Clara concludes that it wasn't a very effective exercise in solidarity after all, but I don't know -- it has stayed with me long after reading the book. I also remain amused by Tamar's pronouncement that "Margarine is science run amok" (160); though she doesn't draw the line at eating processed foods unheated, straight from the can, she does draw the line at margarine!

"Science Run Amok!"

No comments:

Post a Comment