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10 Dec

Food as a Mnemonic Discourse: A Culinary Analysis- Krishna Sukumaran K.

Food as a Mnemonic Discourse: A Culinary Analysis of Nikki Giovanni’s Symphony of the Sphinx and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Arabic Coffee

Krishna Sukumaran K., Guest Faculty, Dept. of English, Christ College, Irinjalakuda


            Food is a complex phenomenon with numerous levels of semantic implications. Apart from its normal status as a source of physiological energy, it is often conceived of as having a ritualistic significance. The ordinary acts of cooking and eating turn into rituals which connect the isolated individuals to their parent cultures. Nikki Giovanni and Naomi Shihab Nye, through their poems focus on this transcendental aspect of ‘heritage food’ which acts as mnemonic tools that remind them of their native cultures.

Keywords: Food, heritage, ritual, culture, cooking, kitchen, identity, mnemonic etc.

Food is a complex term with multiple layers of connotations which spread their tentacles to the diverse arenas of culture, religion, politics etc. In the simplest of terms, it is supposed to be anything which can be consumed by an organism to ensure availability of metabolic energy. It is undoubtedly the source of life as prolonged starvation would snatch the gift of life from any living organism unless some mantra or charm is effected as one sees in ancient mythologies and folklores. However, when it comes to treat food as a living discourse in which humans play their socio- cultural roles, the term acquires great significance and symbolic value. The acts of cooking, serving and eating attain numerous semantic dimensions and it is true that these common domestic tasks are often incorporated in the  to -do lists of the fairer sex.

The tendency to evaluate gastronomic literature with feminist connotations is not a novel one and the apotheosis of a cooking mother into an empowered being who exercises her authority, by determining the methodology of cuisine, has rewritten the spatial implications of kitchen. In her Introduction to Through the Kitchen Window, Arlene Voski Avakian says that cooking can be “a vehicle for artistic expression, a source of sensual pleasure, an opportunity for resistance and even power” (Avakian 6). The kitchen with its myriad colours and odours seems to invite the woman to experiment with her creative abilities. The empowered woman thus finds herself able to transfer her sorrows and joys to the dishes she prepares as one finds in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. The docile, kitchen- centric, static woman exerts her influence on all those who consume her magical food. Although such readings often make the readers suspicious of a patriarchal underpinning which reinforces the traditional role of woman as a cooking mother, the emphasis on the creative faculties of the suppressed domestic female provides one with a sigh of relief.

Apart from acting as an outlet for the oppressed female to eject her psychic fears and frustrations, the ‘food’ can be said to have another function which is that of a mnemonic tool. It is an active physical entity which connects the cook as well as the consumer with a higher realm of cultural significance. The intimate bond between food and culture is beyond the scope of this paper, still an attempt is made to view food as a pointer to heritage through two poems written by two different writers who belong to two distinct ethnic- cultural backgrounds. Nikki Giovanni’s Symphony of the Sphinx  and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Arabic Coffee are being placed under the lens of gastronomic heritage in order to unearth the artefacts of black and Arabian culture respectively.

Nikki Giovanni, the legendary black American writer who shouted the nuances of her black identity to the dominant white patriarchs through her fiery verse makes extensive use of food metaphors and images in her works. Like Esquivel, Giovanni too reconstructed her black kitchen into a platform of endless possibilities. In her collections like Blue for All the Changes (1999), Quilting the Black- Eyed Pea (2000), Acolytes (2007) and Bicycles (2009), she utilized the image of the black cuisine to denote black culture itself. Being a strong proponent of the Black Arts Movement, Giovanni’s verse celebrated the flavours of the blacks by linking it to black music.

Giovanni’s poems, in general, try to reinvent the original black out of a heterogeneous blackness conditioned by the white American upbringing. She herself tells of a twilight zone where the black Americans are destined to thrive, which is situated in between the mysterious night dark African culture which is essentially their exotic past and the day bright American life which constitutes their reality. It is this dimness of a black American’s life that Giovanni attempts to portray through her poems. The redeeming feature of her verse is that in these dim pictures, Giovanni is able to see bright spots of life and freedom. Giovanni dissects her culture’s past and takes out vivid images for describing the present. Like Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes, she found the black heritage as the limitless reservoir of solutions to the problems faced by the African Americans. Out of the countless symbols which she used to resolve the current black crisis, ‘food’ has a special place in her poetry.

For Giovanni, cooking was never a solitary process. It was a collective exercise through which the black women forged their sense of racial oneness. Cooking often attained the status of a ritual and the food being prepared was not a mere thing to be swallowed. It contained racial memories. Moreover, cooking ceremonies of blacks used to be platforms for sharing the ancient culinary wisdom of their grandmothers. Young girls were initiated into the cooking ritual for preparing them for the role of future homemakers. Giovanni thus refers to the food in her poems as ‘heritage food’ for it stores the heritage of their black race.

Giovanni considers heritage food as carrying the soul of her race. It is supposed to open the only way through which the African Americans can re-establish their lost links with their ancient culture. Lauren Swann’s concept of ‘soul food’ which conceives food as carrying a soul of its own is worthy to be noted here. “The quintessence of ‘heritage food’ is ‘soul food’, defined by Lauren Swann as food made with feeling and care, which means that it is as much ‘food with soul’ as ‘food for the soul’”( Kamionowski 76).  Swann’s ‘soul food’ also nourishes the souls of its consumers by transferring the food’s soul to the consumer as for the blacks, who led miserable lives as slaves, “food was comfort while in bondage, and because they could control cooking, it was one of their few real pleasures, a way to feel free”(Swann 200). It is about this transfer of souls that Giovanni talks about in her poem Symphony of the Sphinx.

In Giovanni’s Symphony of the Sphinx, which was published in her collection, Quilting the Black- Eyed Pea (2000), the speaker invents a parallel world powered by the native African cuisine which dissolves the existential agonies of the black Americans. Just like the women who draw strength from the kitchen space, the alienated, the estranged black Americans find cooking as an empowering experience as the preparation of their native dish reminds them of their long lost past. In Symphony of the Sphinx, one finds the speaker, who is an insignificant ‘I’, constantly searching her inner as well as outer environments to build a bond with Africa. After the initial quest for establishing her identity through her mother and grandmother, the speaker turns to the soup on the stove. The speaker, seemingly a young girl, in her attempts to join the wash day duties of her household, is keen at noticing the odours of spices emanating from the kitchen.

The semantics of Africa is being inherited by the speaker through various native food items. “Those bits of ham or roast beef or the skin of baked chicken and onions and carrots and cabbage and cloves of garlic and church and club and cabaret and salt and okra to bind the stew” (Giovanni 19). She then says “If it wouldn’t be for okra may be Africa wouldn’t mean the same thing” (Giovanni 20). The reference to okra elevates the atmosphere of the poem by contributing to the semantic potential of Giovanni’s verse. Okra is a native African vegetable, belonging to the family of ladies finger. It makes the dish slimy and acts as a binding force which glues the different ingredients together thereby making digestion easier. Okra symbolically performs the duty of a priest who unites the African Americans on the basis of their unique culture. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker invokes blackberries, blueberries, kola nuts and yam to reiterate the communion with her native culture.

The black counter culinary culture emerges as a source of emancipation for the black American speaker in Giovanni’s poem. The four native African fruits mentioned in the last part of the poem are of high symbolic value in the African mainland. The blackberries with their purple red coloured juice is related to women’s fertility while the blueberries are said to cause confusion and strife on consumption. Kola nuts symbolize the warmth of hospitality while an evaluation of the ritualistic significance of yams is beyond the scope of this paper. Chinua Achebe, through his novels has portrayed the rituals associated with the New Yam Festival, thereby lending numerous meanings to this tuber fruit which is often considered as synonymous to African culture.

The references to church, club and cabaret along with the ingredients of the soup show the inseparable intermingling of food and culture in the black American lives. “Their inclusion in the list of ingredients for stew made from various bits and leftovers reveals Giovanni’s attempt to treat food as an element that binds her community on the spiritual and symbolic level”( Kamionowski 80). If one conceives the soup being made in Giovanni’s poem as the African American society itself, then the various ingredients like bits of ham, roast beef, onions, carrots, cabbage and cloves of garlic represent the African American individuals who are placed on diverse levels of the white society. The ritualistic heritage soup is thus concocted by adding okra, the native African fruit that binds the different ingredients together. Thus, Giovanni’s poem assumes the form of a ritualistic kitchen where the sacred soup of black American identity is being prepared.           

The elevation of a kitchen into a ritualistic space is also traceable in the poems of the famous Arab American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye who was born to a Palestinian father and American mother, just like Giovanni, explores the semantic possibilities of food to re-establish her bonds with the Arabian culture. For her, food acts as an indicator which points towards her Palestinian roots and it enables her to solve her identity crisis as an immigrant in America. Food metaphors abound in her poems in which she draws sensuous pictures of figs, eggplant, bread, olives, cheese, coffee and mint. She collects the various ingredients from her immediate American environment and cooks them in her mental kitchen which is essentially Palestinian in ethos. In her poems like My Father and the Fig Tree, A Single Slice Reveals Them, The Tray, Arabic Coffee, My Uncle’s Favourite Coffee Shop etc, she presents various food items as functioning as bridges which carry her to the Arabian culture.

Of these poems, Arabic Coffee deserves special mention as it focusses on the transcendental powers of coffee, a traditional Arabic beverage. In the poem, one finds a child as the speaker, probably Nye herself, observing her father preparing tea. The Arab father prepares tea as a ritual and serves ceremoniously. “The ritual of drinking the coffee Nye’s father serves is an opportunity to savour conversation and is thus a ‘motion of faith’, that life can proceed civilly and sanely, despite war and violence”( Layton 62). The Palestinian father obviously shares his identity with the Arabian guests who also know what it is to be like an Arab in the U. S.. The acts of preparing, serving and drinking tea attain a sort of ritualistic significance where the immigrant Arabs are reminded of their rich Palestinian heritage. Like Giovanni’s soup, Nye’s tea is transformed into a heritage food that connects the consumers to their ancient culture. The memory of their parent culture empowers them and the heritage food helps them to gather the spiritual energy which is demanded of them to survive in a hostile environment.

The black rich Arabic coffee symbolizes the great culture which the Arab immigrants try to fill in ‘small white cups’. The vastness of their heritage, which is inherent in the soul is being compressed into the small white cups of American culture, which are shallow and incapable of carrying the fluid. Nye, then imbues the coffee with a transcendental power which breaks the barriers of time and space and enables the consumers to accommodate their fluid selves within the heritage flavours of Palestine. “Nye’s focus on food and its link to the histories of marginalized often forgotten people underscores the notion that our connections to each other must extend beyond the boundaries of self and of geographical space” (Layton 63). The simple ordinary act of tea- making is thus converted into a liberating experience for the immigrant community.

Food is a paradoxical entity that implies both material as well as spiritual levels of signification. In Giovanni and Nye’s poems, cooking and consuming food are conceived of as having ritualistic implications and ‘heritage food’ acts as an umbilical cord that connects the lost lives to their homelands and parent cultures. Food is thus a mnemonic tool for those affected with cultural amnesia and its transcendental power helps them to recollect their long forgotten cultural memories, by way of which they can ossify their fluid identities.

Works Cited

Avakian, Arlene Voski. Introduction. Through the Kitchen Window: Women Writers Explore the Intimate Meanings of Food and Cooking. Ed. Arlene Voski Avakian. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Pp. 1- 10. Print.

Giovanni, Nikki. “Symphony of the Sphinx”. Quilting the Black- Eyed Pea. New York: William Morrow, 2002.pp. 19- 20. Print.

Kamionowski, Jerzy. “Poetry from a Shoebox: Cooking, Food and Black American Experience in Nikki Giovanni’s Poetry”. Polish Journal for American Studies. Vol. 6, 2012, pp. 73- 82. 25 Nov 2016. Web.

Layton, Rebecca. Arab American and Muslim Writers. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Pp. 60- 64. Print.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Arabic Coffee”. Appetite: Food as Metaphor: An Anthology of Women Poets. Ed. Phyllis Stowell. New York: BOA Edition Ltd, 2002. P. 19. Print.

Swann, Lauren. “History of Soul Food”. The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook: Health Conscious Recipes & Food Memories. Ed. Dorothy I. Height. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. pp. 199- 204. Print.

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