Are we what we eat? Food preparation, food consumption, and the process of identity formation in contemporary ethnic American literatures

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, American|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




This project addresses the important role that food preparation and food consumption play in the process of identity formation in eight pieces of contemporary ethnic American literature. Building on the theories of Werner Sollors, Roland Barthes, and Judith Butler, among others, it analyzes how, in the literature, many individuals attempt to re/define themselves through acts of cooking and eating. While some, such as Ralph from Gish Jen's novel Typical American and the narrator of Peter Balakian's memoir Black Dog of Fate, attempt to assimilate into the dominant American culture by trading an ethnic diet for an American one, others, such as Yolanda from Julia Alvarez's novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and the narrator of Andrew X. Pham's memoir Catfish and Mandala, try to assume ethnic identities by preparing and consuming the appropriate foods. In either case, as these individuals try to dichotomize the "ethnic" and "American" components of their cultural identities, they suffer from emotional and psychological hungers that they may only placate after they merge the seemingly contradictory components into a unified whole. Similarly, the literature suggests that in order to satisfy their physical and emotional hungers, males and females, alike, should construct gender identities that, like their cultural identities, function as open coalitions and thus work to destabilize essentialist and biologically-based theories of race, ethnicity, and gender. ^