By Eun-hae Kim
“Food is about being human”
“Sadness and food are incompatible,” says the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.1 There is an undeniable link between food and mood, but isn’t it odd for a literary critic to take an interest in culinary matters? We take pleasure in eating and cooking food—but why do we like to read about it? “Food can be fun,” Chang-rae Lee remarks in the season premiere of Novel Dialogue. Smiling in agreement when Anne Cheng confessed her love of Boba, I wondered about the rich literary history of the culinary imagination: the holiday feast in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843); the dinner party in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). What use does representing food have for a novelist?
For Lee, food is an avenue into character and culture alike. What we eat and how we eat chart identity along multiple axes, such as ethnicity, race, gender, and class. Yet it is also the source of our most intimate conceptions of the self. In Lee’s My Year Abroad (2021), the character Pong Lou narrates a memory about his family’s imprisonment which culminates in a story about eating a watermelon. “The watermelon was our drink, and our fruit and our sweet, plus our salt and sour too…” he says. “At least for me there was a quantum of sweetness, which I wish never to forget.”2 Food practices envelop individual identities within the larger social structures that regulate consumption.
Last fall, I taught Lee’s debut novel, Native Speaker (1995), in my undergraduate seminar. The class reflected on the potent symbolism of food as a literary device, noting how characters use food to affirm or deny their interpersonal bonds. The Korean American narrator of the novel, Henry Park, reminisces about his teenage years of living alone with his father after the passing of his mother. Henry’s father seems cold and unsympathetic on the surface; he “instantly recovered” after his wife’s death.3 But to Henry’s surprise, his father started to return home from work “much earlier than usual” because “he didn’t want [Henry] coming home from school to an empty house, though he didn’t actually spend more time with [him].”4
The father-son dynamic was a point of contention with the class. Some students commented on the cold, even heartless, stoicism of Henry’s father and his inability to attend to his young son’s grief. Many Asian American students, though, noted the opposite—they saw a still-grieving father trying to comfort his son and fill the void left by his mother over a table of warm food. These students seemed to identify traces of their own parents in Henry’s father. To paraphrase a Chinese American student, the moment of silently sharing a meal represented a poignant gesture of paternal love.
Teaching Native Speaker provided an occasion for my students to reflect on how eating practices code differently across cultures. As the scholar Wenying Xu puts it, rituals around food “organize, signify, and legitimate our sense of self in distinction from others.”5 Even universal emotions like love and mourning have particular manifestations, and Lee’s novel showed my class how food practices provide a vehicle for individual and cross-cultural bonds.
Lee’s novel, and his conversation with Anne Cheng, remind us that the yearning for human connection is given form through the simple act of sharing a meal. So Lee is right when he observes that, when writers write about eating, “it’s not so much about the food.” Food materializes unspoken emotions and cultural customs that constitute belonging; it nourishes in ways beyond biological need. Of all the daily practices that define what we call “our way of life,” perhaps none exceeds the pure pleasure of eating with loved ones.
1 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 283
2 Chang-rae Lee, My Year Abroad (New York, Riverhead Books, 2021), p. 160
3 Lee, Native Speaker (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 59.
5 Wenying Xu, Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2008, p. 2.
Eun-hae Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at Duke University. Her major research interests are contemporary Anglophone novels, postcolonial and world literature studies, and continental philosophies of community.