Food Is Its Own Kind
Charmaine Wilkerson on the Unbreakable Connection Between Our Stories and the Things We Eat
Food has always been at the heart of people’s stories.
In the magical realist novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, the experience of food is colored by the struggle to reconcile family traditions with individual yearnings. In Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, food plays a more practical role. The growing boys are always hungry and constantly thinking of ways to get their hands on everything: peanut butter sandwiches, dill pickles, Grandma Thunder’s frybread and meat, and those little, dried apples she dresses in sugar. Here, food is a source of comfort and community and amusement. And in Wahala by Nikki May, jollof rice and pounded yams represent pleasure, culture and, for the mixed-race friends in the story, a fragrant, textured means of code-switching.
In each of these stories, the culinary details add sensory delight and meaning to the tale. Ultimately, these stories are not so much about any one ingredient or dish as the experiences of food preparation and consumption and the stories which those processes help to generate.
Food has always been its own kind of language.
In The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, dumplings, long rice noodles and boiled peanuts are among the foods that help to connect the Chinese past of the mothers in the story to the contemporary lives of their American daughters. The language of food in the novel conveys stories in ways that other words do not.
The idea of food as its own kind of language is one of the concepts underlying my own debut novel Black Cake. The title comes from a name which many Caribbeans use for a delightful, rum-soaked dessert most closely associated with Christmas time and family weddings. Early in the book, this hallowed culinary tradition speaks of family togetherness and joy. It also comes to refer to the fruitcake’s culturally complex evolution. Black cake is a descendant of the classic British plum pudding. It might never have become a Caribbean icon without colonialism and the sugar and rum economies which took root under the region’s dependence on forced labour.
By the time black cake recipes were handed down by people like my Jamaican-born mother to her American children, the mythic dessert had come to represent only an exquisite blending of flavors, the months of soaking the fruit in liquors, and the care taken to choose the best ingredients. But when a younger family member asked me for my mother’s recipe, it started me thinking about the diaspora of food, and what the migration, transformation, and dissemination of culinary traditions say about our lives. It had me thinking about the ways in which the inheritance of food plays out in multicultural families like mine.
Food has always been about culture and history.
Rum, sugar, rice. Curry, pepper, thyme. Each ingredient carries a story. Of people working the land, for better or worse. Of people, gathered together at a table. Of people forging new connections. Of labour, of prosperity, of persevering through famine, drought and war.Rum, sugar, rice. Curry, pepper, thyme. Each ingredient carries a story. Of people working the land, for better or worse. Of people, gathered together at a table. Of people forging new connections.
As early as 500 to 400 BCE, the Greeks and Romans grew a kind of legume which I know as the pea. And yet, when I used dried, split peas to make one of the most common soups from my own kitchen culture in the United States, I found that my friends in Italy, where I now live, were not accustomed to it. Despite the availability of dried peas at the market, they had not been in the habit of making what I began to call pappa verde or “green mush” for their benefit. (The more precise zuppa di piselli decorticati remains a bit of a tongue-twister for me.)
Not everyone likes split pea soup but I adore it. And I wonder, am I one of those who find great comfort in the recipe because I grew up having a choice of foods and always having enough food to eat? Was it a luxury because I was not a nineteenth-century millworker from Canada or New England, for example, made to live off a thinned version of the stuff?
Some of our favorite foods, what we often call comfort foods, were born of necessity and limited choices. The kinds of soups and stews and breads and sweets that were cobbled together by previous generations from whatever could be found in lean times. One Sunday, I made a delicious vegetable soup and served it proudly to our guests for lunch. One of our older, Roman friends was surprised. Minestrone, for him, was not a dish to be served at special meals. The soup was an everyday dish, a staple he might have eaten at the orphanage where he’d spent part of his childhood. Our friend ate the soup. Had seconds. Said it was good. But the next time, I was sure to make him pasta al forno.
Food has always been its own kind of memory.
Ultimately, the Caribbean cake in the novel Black Cake is destined to work on the characters at the heart of the narrative in much the way that leavening agents and heat can contribute to the transformation of ingredients. The untold stories connected to the cake alter the characters’ understanding of themselves so that, by the end of the book, their lives will always be different from before.
In 1990, my mother took a pencil and wrote down a recipe she’d learned from her aunt on lined pieces of notebook paper. She added comments and quips and folded the sheets into an envelope. She mailed the envelope from New York to Los Angeles, where I received it. Years later, a younger family member texted me on my smartphone to ask if I had my mother’s rum cake recipe. Despite the notorious state of my personal files, I knew exactly where to find that envelope.
My mother called it plum pudding. I tend to call it rum cake. But many Caribbeans call it black cake. That recipe eventually inspired the title of my novel. The stories in the novel are fictional. But many of the human experiences evoked in those invented narratives are true to so many of our lives. Love, friendship, loss and longing. Loyalty and betrayal. Life and death.
Food is sustenance, culture, environment, economics and politics. Food will always be at the heart of people’s stories.
Charmaine Wilkerson’s novel Black Cake is available now via Ballantine.