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Considering how much of our lives is taken up by eating, it’s odd how infrequently art focuses on food. Cooking movies are sufficiently rare that they’re novelties (Babette’s Feast, Chocolat), you can count pop music’s gastro-anthems on one hand (More Songs About Buildings and Food doesn’t count, since it doesn’t actually have any of the latter), and contemporary painters generally shun the subject. As for fiction, it’s an anorexic’s wonderland, give or take a few anomalies (The Debt to Pleasure, Tanizaki’s Gourmet Club).
What’s remarkable about Ruth Ozeki’s novels is that she makes a real fictional meal out of meat-and-potatoes subject matter. Literally. Her first novel, My Year of Meats (1999), was a madcap tale of a young Japanese American documentary filmmaker who learns some harrowing truths about the beef industry while working on an Asian television series that glorifies the U.S.A.’s carnivorous lifestyle. Ozeki’s latest, All Over Creation, takes on the politics of food with even more ferocity and panache. It’s a hyperactive farce but also a serious meditation on crossbreeding (people and plants).
Once again, Ozeki’s narrator is a Japanese American woman: Yumi Fuller, the daughter of an Idaho potato farmer and his Japanese wife. Yumi has always felt like an oddball, “a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes.” She ran away at 14, after an affair with her bohemian history teacher led to an abortion. Twenty-five years later, she’s returned to town with her three hippyish kids, summoned to look after her sickly parents, Lloyd and Momoko. She finds that Lloyd, once the dictatorial owner of 3,000 acres of Russett Burbank potatoes, has gone soft. He’s taken up a new cause in his old age: seed biodiversity. While the powerful agriculture industry promotes genetically engineered crops to their fellow farmers, her parents now collect and sell heirloom seeds for plants on the verge of extinction. Lloyd’s seed newsletters vibrate with religious references: “We are not gods. Scientists do not understand Life, Itself, and when they meddle in its Creation, they trespass on God’s domain.” Yumi resents her father’s moral certainty, which reminds her of his unwavering anti-abortion stance all those years ago.
A band of activists called the Seeds of Resistance believe Lloyd is a visionary, though, and they descend on the Fuller farm to meet him. The Seeds wear dreadlocks, but they feel more like sweet, mischievous sitcom characters than troublemakers—the Little Rascals all grown up and fighting for eco-justice. A French girl, Charmey, looks feral but cleans up real nice, and Y turns out to be a male nurse who cares for Lloyd’s surgical wounds. Then there’s Frank Perdue, who despite his name is not heir to a poultry fortune—he’s a skateboarding foster kid who gets sucked into the Seeds’ three-ring circus. He admits that he’s in it for the thrills, not the ideology. “It’s the protesting that really turns me on. . . . If you say something’s worth fighting, I’ll go along with it. But for me, I don’t really care what I eat, you know? Like, these fries taste great.”
All Over Creation resembles a Robert Altman film, all the characters bustling in their own orbits until they gracefully veer into each other. This controlled lunacy mostly works, although Ozeki creates an artificially rollicking conclusion to set up the big bang. The book raises questions about genetic engineering and the destruction of the natural order, but its joviality—the very thing that makes it such a fun read—leaves one feeling like nothing real’s at stake, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
In her debut novel, The Book of Salt, Monique Truong imbues food with all the danger and darkness that All Over Creation lacks. Truong weaves a sumptuous tale of gastronomy, language, cravings, and cruelty around a pseudo-historical figure: the mysterious Vietnamese cook who worked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. His name is Binh (or ThinBin, as Stein calls him), and he recounts his life story in deliciously acid tones.
All the important events of Binh’s life involve cooking: his childhood working with his mother in the kitchen; the apprenticeship to a chef at the governor-general’s mansion in Saigon that leads to the seduction of his French boss; his expulsion from the mansion and journey to France as a ship’s cook; and finally his dissolute Paris years, wandering from job to job. Binh’s disorienting experience of exile seeps into the structure of the book, which drifts between past and present as if following the buzzing contours of his thoughts. He refuses to become fluent in French, because “the vocabulary of servitude is not built on my knowledge of foreign words but rather my ability to swallow them”—i.e., his ability to absorb his master’s commands and insults. In the end, he confesses, “I have amassed just enough cheap, serviceable words to fuel my desires and never, never enough lavish, imprudent ones to feed them.” This tortured relationship with language fascinates his employer, Gertrude Stein, who sees her native English with a foreigner’s cracked perspective: “She is inspired by witnessing such an elemental, bare-knuckled breakdown of a language.”
Truong insinuates Stein and Toklas into Binh’s story with telling glimpses of the women’s relationship to each other and their treatment of their cook. For over three years, Binh lives with the Mesdames, viewing them with a queasy mix of awe and resentment. Stein comes off like a swaggering lifeforce; he is “enthralled by her upper lip with its black hairs twitching gently as she speaks.” He doesn’t realize that she’s a notorious writer, only that she’s something of a vampire, feeding on everyone around her, including himself. Toklas, on the other hand, is a sublimated character, foraging for rapture among the radishes in her garden: “I have heard her weep with the juices of the first strawberry full in her mouth.”
The Book of Salt doesn’t lay its secrets bare but coils itself around them. Truong leaps between scenes of Binh’s pleasure and humiliation, using the language of gastronomy to communicate the daily indignities of servitude and colonialism. Binh is fiercely proud of his intimacy with his Mesdames, bragging, “I know the postcards that they collect and the women who recline naked on them. I know the old-women gasses that escape from them, and the foods that aggravate them.” Yet all it takes is a moment of overfamiliarity and he’s excommunicated from their good graces. “The sight of warmth fading from Miss Toklas’s eyes is a glimpse of my own death. Suddenly, I am no longer there.” His mistresses are allowed to be eccentric, but Binh must forever remain invisible, the ghost in the kitchen.