Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Food

Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Vivian Halloran with son William
Vivian Halloran and William Halloran, age 16 months
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Grandfather and granddaughter
Yigdi’s Potato Salad
1/4 cup olive oil
juice of 3 lemons
4 ripe tomatoes
cilantro
green onion
white vinegar
rosemary
thyme
garlic, 3 to 6 cloves
Adobo Goya (all-purpose Puerto Rican seasoning; can be found at specialty markets or in the Latino products aisle at major supermarkets)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash the red potatoes and cut into quarters. Place in a bowl with the olive oil, juice of two lemons, a splash of vinegar, three cloves of garlic, Adobo Goya, one tsp. of dried rosemary, and one tsp. of dried thyme. Stir to coat. Place on a cookie sheet, skin side down, and roast for about 45 minutes to one hour, until the cut side starts turning golden brown.
While the potatoes are roasting, core and cut the tomatoes into wedges. Chop two to three sprigs of green onion and 3/4 cup of cilantro, and combine them in a bowl with the tomatoes. Add the juice of the last lemon and more Adobo to taste. When the potatoes are done, take them out of the oven, and add them to the bowl with the tomatoes, onions, and cilantro mixture. Add the rest of the garlic to taste and adjust the level of Adobo and acidity to suit your palate.
The salad may be eaten warm or cold. It goes well with meat or fish. Enjoy!

Reading Eating

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

Food has become a key ingredient in American popular culture. As just one indicator, consider two of summer 2007's popular films: Ratatouille, about a rat who loves to cook, and No Reservations, about a workaholic chef who suddenly must balance her professional life with childrearing responsibilities.

America's fascination with food is everywhere: in the popularity of cable television's Food Network; in the plethora of Web sites, blogs, and magazines devoted to food; in documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me or Eric Schlosser's exposé, Fast Food Nation.

As a scholar of popular culture, Vivian Nun Halloran, a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University Bloomington, has made our public preoccupation with food a focal point in her research and in her teaching. She is a faculty member in comparative literature as well as in IU Bloomington's new Human Biology program and the anthropology department's upcoming PhD track in food studies.

Halloran's food interests range widely. She studies representations of fast food in American life and the phenomenon of "extreme eating" spectacles that occur on reality TV shows like Fear Factor and at competitions throughout the nation. She's also engaged in the emerging field of fat studies, which Halloran describes as "theorizing what it means to be fat. People assume that fat is a constant--but you are one number one day, another number another day. On what does your self-image depend? Is it a number? Is it a perception?"

What most consumes Halloran at present, however, is her book-in-progress focused on the genre of food memoirs and our insatiable public appetite for them. In particular, she is interested in books that double as memoirs and cookbooks, written by both novelists and cookbook writers of varied ethnic and regional identities who live in the United States.

"Novels are on the decline right now in terms of popularity, but these books are on the rise," observes Halloran. "Why do people read these books? Why are these books bestsellers? Why do people want to look at the way other people eat?"

At Halloran's inviting Bloomington home, food memoirs spill across her coffee table abundantly. She picks up one of the books, and launches into a vivid description. You can almost see her hosting her own Food Network show--an idea she mentions with great enthusiasm.

"In this one, Shoba Naroyan's Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes," she says, "the author comes to the United States from India, loses her scholarship, and wants to study art, but her parents won't pay for it. So she decides to cook to raise money. After she cooks Italian and Mexican food unsuccessfully, she decides to cook an Indian dish out of desperation. And people say, ‘Why didn't you make it all like this?' Though her goal is to assimilate to America, through food she finds her ‘Indianness' by necessity."

Halloran introduces another memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, in which "the author is growing up in Michigan with a Latina stepmother and trying not to be too Vietnamese." In this book, she says, "there is a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland, magical thinking about food--that if you eat enough French fries, for example, you could become blonde."

Halloran arranges and rearranges the books on the table. Together, she suggests, they form a picture of "the eating subject," the way Americans negotiate identity and a sense of belonging through food. In these memoirs, "food becomes a framework to define and describe the process of becoming American," Halloran says. "Each act of eating is a performance of a particular claim about identity."

Taste as a gateway to recollection is a convenient and well-used autobiographical tool. In one of the most celebrated scenes in one of the most illustrious autobiographical novels ever written, a sip of tea accompanied by a small cake unleashes the uncanny power of taste to call up otherwise forgotten moments of one's past.

Marcel Proust's recognition of the power of taste in In Search of Lost Time (the most recent translation of A la recherche du temps perdu) is a key facet of "the eating subject," that notion of identity at the heart of food memoirs. Halloran is even considering calling her book Madeleine Moments in homage to Proust's scene, but she points out that in contemporary memoirs she is studying, Proust's insight takes a particularly American turn.

"I think the whole notion that you cannot see yourself independent from race and nationality and belonging to a larger group is American," she says.

In Pigtails 'n Breadfruit: A Barbadian Memoir by Austin Clarke (a Barbadian novelist who lives and teaches in Canada and the United States), "the food that slaves ate," Halloran suggests, "is overlaid with so much significance. Eating certain food makes you authentic. It reflects an effort to claim an Afrocentric heritage, to celebrate identity as slave identity." And yet, at the same time that Clarke glorifies slave life, Halloran says, the implication of his memoir is also that "you, too, can be an emancipated postcolonial person if you eat this food."

In memoirs such as Clarke's, says Halloran, food is "ideologically fraught--it is always about something other than its basic function of nourishing and sustaining the body."

Take, for example, Isabel Allende's Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. Like other food-related memoirs, it is part cookbook and part narrative, but it is also a meditation on aphrodisiacs, including poems, paintings, and lists of erotically suggestive food.

"Allende talks about being at a certain age, post-menopausal, and trying to connect with her sensual way of being in the world," Halloran explains. "The book, written in the aftermath of her daughter's death, represents a waking back into life after mourning. It's fascinating--Allende says, ‘All my life up to this point food has been for nourishment and taking care of children, to stay alive. Now I need food to feed my soul, and so having lost a child I can nonetheless stay in this body and engage with life.'"

And then there is Candyfreak by Steve Almond, a journey through the world of American candy that Halloran sees as "the most American text of all." Candyfreak, she says, shows how food creates intimacy. "If I trace the candy he talks about, his experience of eating a Milky Way and mine are somehow in dialogue. You can compare experiences. You have a kind of immediacy when you describe food."

What all the food memoirs on her table have in common, Halloran suggests, is the assumption that we are defined by our individual acts of eating. "The self is like an onion," she says, using an appropriately edible metaphor. "It has layers and layers and layers, but there's no core you can point to and say, ‘This is the way I am.'

"You begin as pablum," she continues, keeping up the digestible imagery. "You drink milk, and from there, you just add on. No one meal can take away from previous meals you've had."

In her most Proustian reflection yet, she concludes, "It's kind of like achieving eternity, or undoing the temporary nature of being. The memory of food lasts beyond anything. These memoirs talk about grandparents, about generations, the way food brings generations together. It's hard to be passé when it comes to food."

How exactly do you "achieve eternity" by drinking tea and eating madeleines? Halloran's own food history provides an example.

Halloran came to the United States from Puerto Rico with her family about 20 years ago. Her grandfather, Rafael Nun Gaige, was born in Lebanon. (Halloran called him ‘Yigdi,' the Arabic name for grandfather.) As an infant, he emigrated with his family, first to Cuba, and then to Puerto Rico, where they settled. The family went into the restaurant business and ran several luxury establishments for most of the mid- to late 20th century. As the youngest of 11 siblings, however, Halloran's grandfather was encouraged to become an accountant, and he went to work for the U.S. Army instead of joining the family business.

"He did this until his death in 1987, but cooking was in his blood," Halloran recalls. "His signature dish was a potato salad made not with mayonnaise, but with olive oil and lemon juice. He brought it to many family gatherings where it was always one of the first dishes to be finished. I'm uncertain which elements of it come from his Lebanese heritage and which are part of the Puerto Rican palate."

Since her move to the United States, Halloran makes this dish whenever she attends a summertime potluck dinner. Yigdi's potato salad is evidence of a particular sense of identity for Halloran; the dish links her to the past and her family's generations. But making the salad also makes her feel more American.

"Americans always seem to welcome a potato salad," she says. "But since I cannot eat mayonnaise, I never felt fully a part of festive occasions in the United States until I started bringing my own. Now, thanks to my grandfather's recipe, I can enjoy summer cookouts and picnics as much as my American friends and acquaintances do."

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.