The months between the cherries and the peaches

Are brimming cornucopias which spill

Fruits red and purple, somber-bloomed and black;

Then, down rich fields and frosty river beaches

We’ll trample bright persimmons, while you kill

Bronze partridge, speckled quail, and canvasback.

—Elinor Wylie1

I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course.

—Jack Kerouac2

  In October of 1998, Jiao-Tong, the literary editor of the China Times in Taipei, Taiwan, invited me to write an essay on American food in American literature for presentation at the first International Conference on Food and Literature that was held in Taipei in May of 1999.  I thought that I would find many secondary source books on this topic.  After extensive searches of the net and communications with several professors of American literature at universities in the United States and Canada, I was quite surprised to find no book in print on the topic.  Not only was there no book about it there was also no single article that directly addressed my topic.  The absence of secondary sources explains why most of the references in this essay are to primary sources.  The limitations on time and space for this writing further explain why I have limited my survey of American literature to novels, short stories and poetry.  I have tried to make a representative selection among novelists, short story writers and poets including writers from almost two hundred years of American literature, both genders and a variety of ethnic groups.  Because there are so many versions of primary works that I cite, I have limited those citations to author’s name, title of work and internal part such as verse, chapter, or section and omitted page numbers of the particular versions that I used.  Less well-known works, collections and anthologies receive standard citation format.

To bring some order to this vast quantity of material, I have created three themes around which I can weave what I have found about American food in American literature: continuity and discontinuity; purity and impurity; and, abundance and scarcity.  These three themes allow several important truths about the American experience through time to appear as preoccupations of its writers as well.  For example, the great changes wrought on the land and the indigenous peoples were accompanied by profound and lasting attachments to European food habits.  Also, the tremendous abundance of natural resources and artificial wealth in America has long coexisted with devastated land and utter poverty.  The greatest American writers, such as Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck, have repeatedly recognized and embodied these extremes in their plots and in their characters, much as they are embodied in the every day lives and personalities of Americans.

As an introductory frame for my presentation, I would like to offer some possible explanations for the lack of secondary sources.  First, I think that most of the famous and popular American foods, such as pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream are derivative from European foods.  The pizza came from Italy.  The hot dog is a version of the German sausage.  Hamburgers are reformed meatballs joined with bread that is as old as agricultural civilization itself.  And ice cream also has its counterparts in the cuisine of European nations.  So the first reason for the lack of secondary sources is that most American foods are derivative and not original to America.

An ironic counterexample in this context is the Chinese fortune cookie.  As a food item, it has very little nutrition, but as a part of the American idea of Chinese food it has become a necessity at American Chinese restaurants.  However, I have asked several owners, waiters and waitresses in American Chinese restaurants whether Chinese fortune cookies came from China.  All of them have told me that they did not.  They were invented in America and most likely, according to this oral history, in San Francisco.  This seems to me to be a credible history.  San Francisco grew as a city on the money generated by high-risk professions such as whaling, shipping, gold mining and offshore ocean fishing.  We can easily imagine an enterprising Chinese person noting how concerned the Americans in these professions were with their future good luck or bad luck, putting this understanding together with a well-established American liking for sweet desserts, and creating a sweet dessert that looked different and contained words of wisdom about the consumer’s fate.

 Second, until the last few decades, American literature and literary criticism were dominated by males whose worldview connected food with women and put them both in the kitchen and out of sight.  Most of the male writers whom I read for this essay used food and activities around food to highlight aspects of character or plot.  They did not present food gathering and preparation, cooking, serving, eating, drinking and cleaning up as activities that substantially reinforced aspects of their main characters, most of whom are men, or as events that substantially advanced the plot, story-line or themes of their writing. 

Indeed, a related topic could be included in this kind of study that has to do with care of the body generally.  For example, it is extremely rare for any American writer to mention such bodily functions as excretion or urination.  Different kinds of breathing are certainly associated with different kinds of emotional and physical conditions, such as fear, sorrow, fatigue, exertion or contemplation.  But like food, other bodily processes are usually ignored, taken for granted or glossed.  I mention this topic only in passing, and do not have the time or space here to dwell on it, but simply to point out that focusing on food as a topic in relation to literature is an important innovation that signifies a range of human activities whose presence or silence in literature would be an interesting expansion of this focus.     

Third, as an American, I feel that most Americans take food for granted.  We tend to view it as an unavoidable burden placed on our freedom of activity by the condition of having a physical body.  We tend, especially in the last decade of the 20th century, to try to minimize as much as possible the time and energy required for all phases of life connected with physical nourishment of our bodies.    The growth, popularity and power of the fast food industry in America reflect this disdain for the necessities of physical nourishment.

After the Allied victory in World War II, the US experienced unprecedented prosperity while applications of new technology allowed older tasks to be done with increasing speed.  The complete acceptance of free market competition, in an ideological, political and economic opposition to centralized, planned economies and societies, the tremendous success of rapid, large-scale mass production in support of military forces during the war, and the increasingly tense and complicated struggle between capitalism and communism began to change the values of American society from the slower, simpler values of agricultural life and rural living to the faster, more complicated values of industrial production and urban living.  Speed began its emergence as a paramount American value.  For example, in 1955, shortly before the experiences recorded in Kerouac’s On the Road, the two fast food companies that are now the largest in America—McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken—were founded.  “By the early 1980s there were about 440 food franchising companies with a combined total of more than 70,000 retail outlets in the United States.”3  Americans from smaller, more congested living situations in Europe slowly adjusted to the scope of the American land and its resources.  Size, especially bigness, became a common value in all areas of American life.  With the advent of speed as a value, the American ideology for the remainder of the 20th century gained its primary outlines—the bigger the better, the faster the better.  From automobiles to hamburgers, this ideology began increasingly to govern how Americans thought about everything they did.  Both values play significant and signifying roles in the relationship between American food and American literature.   

Close up of unrecognizable carpenter making measurements and drawing on a plank.

Besides the social environment of European derivation, male dominance and indifference toward food, there is the traditional character of the successful American writer.  Most of America’s most famous writers were and continue to be male.  Most of these male writers, such as Hawthorne, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Poe, and Miller, continually placed their leading characters, most of whom were males, in positions that required the creation of a stable and meaningful life.  Like the first colonists, like the pioneers, like the immigrants, their characters are continually faced with challenges to their survival, their ability and their manhood where the latter is defined in terms of overt verbal and physical superiority rather than mutual, cooperative care or nurturing.  An ironic counter-example is Ayn Rand, a female writer who totally accepted the values of competition, personal power and rugged individualism. Her powerful male characters, such as the nearly godlike architect in Atlas Shrugged, are faced with problems and situations that demand forceful, individual creation and production on large scales. 

The fact that creation and production also consumed energy, resources, time and money was not a central concern until the beginnings of the environmental movement in the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The fact that creation and production often resulted in the emotional and physical deprivation of less independent beings, such as children, animals, women, the poor, and members of minority ethnic groups was also not a central concern of American writers or critics until the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The earlier writers felt driven to produce and reproduce the feelings, drives, imagery and characters of male-oriented, individualistic creation and production in their writings.  As a consequence, many of the facts of life, such as eating, drinking, digesting, excreting and nurturing were consistently absent, implied, glossed or ignored.

These are at least four reasons why there is such a scarcity of secondary sources on the topic of American food in American literature.  It is, in effect, a book waiting to be written.

Fortunately, however, there are many instances of food in American literature and they do show some interesting patterns and features.  I have created three themes to focus these patterns and features: continuity and discontinuity; purity and impurity; and, abundance and scarcity.  First I am going to briefly described the substance and justification of each theme and then proceed with the literary material that especially illustrates and is illuminated by each theme.

A. Continuity and Discontinuity.  The first European colonists on the East Coast of America experienced several discontinuities and began creating others.  From crowded European cities and farmlands they came to vast, sparsely inhabited forests, mountains and valleys.  From the rigidly intolerant societies of many 16th and 17th century European countries they came to a land whose societies, those of the indigenous peoples, were completely strange and closed to them.  From lives of poverty and scarcity they came to a land that gradually disclosed resources and riches beyond their wildest dreams.  From old, settled areas in Europe that had long ago been tamed by the sword, the plow, the cross and the crown they came to wilderness that seemed indifferent to the grandeur and traditions of European civilization.

Within these discontinuities they also created discontinuities in the lives of the indigenous peoples, by war, trade and intermarriage.  In the natural life cycles of the new land, they also began creating discontinuities by the invasive activities of logging, farming, mining, urbanization, hunting and fishing.  The cultivation of extremes that have

become fixtures of American life began at this time.  There were Americans who loved the wilderness and the indigenous ways and shed as many of their European ways as possible.  There were Americans who loathed the wilderness and the native ways and strove either to change them or destroy them.  These latter among the early colonists insisted on the continuation of European religions and languages, official protocols, social forms and manners and whatever foods they could make in the new world, such as bread, or have shipped from Europe without spoilage, such as tea.

The indigenous people fell before the larger and larger waves of Europeans most of whom firmly believed that the best Indian was a dead Indian.  For example, it is estimated that in 1600 there were approximately 10,000,000 indigenous people living in many different groups, or tribes, across the American continent.  By 1900, under an official US government policy of extermination, that total had fallen to approximately 500,000.  The impact of the new inhabitants on the land has been no less powerful.  In 1600, most of the land east of the Mississippi River and west of the Rocky Mountains was covered with mixed hardwood and deciduous forests.  By 1990, less than 3% of the original trees remained standing.

Besides the clash of Europeans and indigenous peoples, the growing population of Americans cultivating land for crops, especially cotton and tobacco, sold to a growing population of consumers in Europe provided a market for human labor—slaves.  The slave trade, initiated by the Dutch and pursued by almost every Western European country with seafaring expertise, created extreme discontinuities in many aspects of African life that are beyond the scope of this essay.  But the importation of Africans as slaves created an entirely new stream of Americans, subjected for two hundred years to plantation conditions of near starvation, who invented and innovated with the meager edible material accessible to them.  Their creativity has contributed many different kinds of distinctively American foods, such as chitlins, greens, and an entire range of foods centered in the bayou area of Louisiana known as Cajun food.  Along with original contributions made by the indigenous peoples to the first colonists’ and pioneers’ diets such as corn, some of these food items that have lasted longer than the institution of slavery itself have also found places in American literature.

B. Purity and Impurity.  The early colonists on the American East Coast brought with them a deep fear of hell and a deep desire to purify their lives of any elements that prevented the practice of true Christianity.  True Christianity meant for them a literal reading of the bible and a literal construction of human social life around the teachings and tenets of the bible.  Red, for them, was the color of the devil, the color of evil and the color of the indigenous people.  Pure black and pure white were their colors of choice.

Those Americans who loved the wilderness, however, quickly adopted the use of multi-colored animal skins for clothing and natural dyes for coloring cloth or their skin.  It was therefore no mere historical accident that the American cultural revolution of the 60’s adopted wildly colored clothing, vehicles, hair and language as an obvious and dramatic signifier against the dark suits, white shirts, dark ties and dark shoes of establishment figures.  It was no historical accident that the beatniks and hippies both reached out for foods that differed greatly in flavor, color, smell, taste and texture from white bread, roast beef, boiled potatoes, oatmeal, milk and tea.  It was also no historical accident that some of the most influential writers of this era, such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, found deep and lasting inspiration from the literature and the food of lands and peoples far beyond the American shores.

C. Abundance and Scarcity.  From 1895 to 1915, approximately 23,000,000 immigrants moved from Europe to the United States.  These people came from all parts of Europe.  They left living conditions characterized by poverty, political turmoil and oppression and lack of any kind of opportunity for improvement.  America was a land that promised to make their dreams of prosperity, wealth, abundance and freedom come true.  Many of those immigrants made their fortunes in America then returned with them to their families in Europe.  But many others stayed in America, had their families there and began contributing tastes, colors and flavors to an increasingly heterogeneous American scene.  This period of intense migration saw the beginnings of neighborhoods in major cities, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. These were ethnic enclaves for Italians, Poles, Germans, Jews, as well as Blacks trying to find an alternative to the militarily defeated but still powerful racism of their former southern masters, or others whose strong sense of group identity always brought with it special foods that were amplified by the increasingly large scales of American life.

At the same time, the rapid growth of large-scale manufacturing, in factories employing tens of thousands of immigrants who were poorly paid and allowed only a minimal education beyond the background of their European origins, turned some of these neighborhoods into the first American slums and ghettos.  Extremely low wages, non-existent social services, waves of unemployment and the increasing pressure of large families and new arrivals frequently put many of these new Americans on the edges of malnutrition, hunger and even starvation. Abundance and scarcity began to appear as poles of a socioeconomic oscillation driven not by such obvious institutions as slavery but by beliefs, prejudices and attitudes about the superiority and inferiority of different kinds of peoples coupled with firmly established patterns of access and lack of access to resources.  The negative shock of World War I was followed by the positive euphoria of the roaring 20’s.  That decade of unprecedented prosperity and national expansion was followed by the great depression of the 30’s.  America was clearly moving into the vanguard of a world order whose extremes ranged from genocide to population explosion, from starvation to rotting surpluses and from worn feet in foul mud to toenail polish in satin slippers on polished marble. 

A first glimpse of the theme of continuity and discontinuity can be seen by comparing the two citations at the beginning of this essay. Elinor Wylie lived from 1885 to 1928.  Jack Kerouac lived from 1922 to 1969.  Ripe fruit appears as an edible food from the tree in Wylie’s poem and as an ingredient of pie in Kerouac’s novel.  Wylie’s cherries and peaches are closer to unprocessed nature than Kerouac’s baked apple pie.  Wylie’s poem signifies the rootedness of the early European colonists in a land that provided ample foodstuffs.  Kerouac’s novel signifies the restlessness of urban Americans for whom food had become an uninteresting necessity. 

Wylie’s poem signifies abundance and therefore the value of bigness without the addition of speed that played such an important role in the life of Kerouac’s main character, Dean Moriarty.

In fact, Dean Moriarty was based on the real man, Neal Cassady.  In 1964, I was living in Palo Alto, California, having dropped out of Stanford University to try my hand at writing fiction and poetry.     I met a lovely young woman who was a first year student at Stanford and invited her to a party.  The party was in a house in the east side of Palo Alto that was increasingly known as a suitable place for non-conformists and beatniks.  The party featured many people whom neither my friend nor I knew along with much wine.  It also featured some very unusual people.  At one point during the party we were drinking wine in the small, brightly-lit kitchen.  In a commotion of laughing, talking people, a young man with a brilliant smile and ringing laughter, whose feet seemed barely able to stay on the floor, floated and flew through the room while the man who had invited me to the party introduced him to me as Neal Cassady.  He acknowledged me and disappeared out another door.  I never saw him again but retain to this day the vivid impression of light and speed that he also seems to have given to Kerouac.

The continuity between Wylie’s poem and Kerouac’s novel is indicated by the American saying, “It’s as American as apple pie!”  Another kind of continuity appears, moreover, when the verse after the one quoted above from Wylie’s poem is considered:

Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones

There’s something in this richness that I hate.

I love the look, austere, immaculate,

Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.

There’s something in my very blood that owns

Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,

A thread of water, churned to milky spate

Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.4

Taken together, this verse and the one quoted at the beginning of this essay dramatically display all three themes.  There is continuity and discontinuity between the doctrines of a European religious heritage, Puritanism, that emphasized great worldly achievements but as little worldly display as possible.  One of Max Weber’s most important contributions to our understanding of the modern Protestant viewpoint is his clear delineation of the conflict in early Protestantism between acquiring great wealth to signify being in god’s favor and displaying only humility to the rest of the world without the material ostentation that the Pietists, the Puritans, the Luddites and many other Protestant groups found so distasteful in Catholicism.

Weber argues, convincingly, I think, that the “Puritan, like every rational type of asceticism, tried to enable a man [sic] to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught himself itself, against the emotions.”5   The goal of this action was to lead a certain kind of life “freed from all the temptations of the world and in all its details dictated by God’s will, and thus to be made certain of their own rebirth [in heaven after the last judgment] by external signs manifested in their daily conduct.”6 From the Bible as well as from all other religious literature, success in difficult tasks is a clear sign of God’s favor.  For Protestants, such signs do not guarantee salvation but they are the closest to a guarantee that a Protestant can get.  Indeed, that “God Himself blessed his chosen ones through the success of their labours was…undeniable…to the Puritans.”7  This doctrine that combined asceticism with success in worldly endeavors positioned Protestantism to be the driving religious force behind capitalism and the great creations and accumulations of material wealth that have occurred in modernity.  But it is no less true that this combination can be a rhythm, an oscillation, a confusion or conflict.  This combination clearly provides much of the historical substance for our themes of abundance and scarcity and purity and impurity.

A condensed example of the oscillation between abundance and the austerity of American Puritanism can be seen in a brief passage from the short story, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether, by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49).  This passage also underlines the way in which food and the activities surrounding food have been treated by many of America’s greatest male writers—as unavoidable but uninteresting necessities, even in a fictional setting:  “The table was superbly set out.  It was loaded with plate, and more than loaded with delicacies.  The profusion was absolutely barbaric.  There were enough meats to have feasted the Anakim.  Never, in all my life, had I witnessed so lavish, so wasteful an expenditure of the good things of life.”8

The tension between the narrator and his hosts in Poe’s tale is echoed by the tension between the narrator and the main character in On the Road.  The quote from Jack Kerouac is part of the first-person narration of the novel by Sal Paradise, the supporting, secondary character that is based on Kerouac himself.  For the duration of his cross-country hitchhiking trip, he lives on apple pie and ice cream.  This diet reflects not only Sal’s poverty, but also clearly situates the novel in a continuous American tradition that de-emphasizes the bodily, physical or material world.  A discontinuity, however, occurs between the naturalness of the fruits in Wylie’s poem and the impersonal, processed food that Sal Paradise ate.  A further discontinuity appears in the fact that Sal is taking his food on the road, on the run, at high speed, while Wylie is painting a picture of humans relating to trees that by their nature cannot move from where they are.

Wylie’s poetic picture is drawn from her life in New England.  Many of the first colonists stayed on or close to the coast because it allowed them to continue the seafaring lives and occupations they had practiced in Europe and because it provided an abundance of food.  However, their Puritan ideology often resulted in lives that were lived as far from that abundance as Wylie’s “cold silver on a sky of slate.”  Another American poetess, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), was born in Massachusetts and raised by her grandparents in Nova Scotia, the eastern, seafaring Province of Canada. Her life partly overlapped Wylie’s and she also paints the spirit of that area specifically in terms of food but with an emphasis on the austerity of their diet:

From narrow provinces of fish and bread and tea, home of the long tides where the bay leaves the sea twice a day and takes the herrings long rides,9

Moreover, the abundance that Wylie hates is also rejected by Kerouac in an off-hand, casual way as though the less time a man spent on something as mundane as food the better or higher quality a person he was.  However, the oscillation between abundance and scarcity appears in Kerouac’s novel in the contrast between Sal Paradise and the main character of On the Road, Dean Moriarty.

“…but Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other, ‘so long’s I can get that lil ole gal with that lil sumpin down there tween her legs, boy,’ and ‘so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me?  I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!”—and off we’d rush to eat, whereof, as saith Ecclesiastes, ‘It is your portion in the sun.’” (Ch. 1 (italics in original))

It is also certainly worth noticing in passing that in both writers, differentiated by gender, by background, and by time, there is a strong connection between religion and food.  This commonality and this continuity clearly occur in the traditional American feast days of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  All three feature unusually large and lengthy meals as well as strong connections with the Christian, Protestant backgrounds of the early American colonists, settlers and pioneers.  As with the bodily functions mentioned before, bringing the topic of food and literature into the foreground also illuminates the strong presence of Judeo-Christianity in American life and literature.  Again, this innovative topic proves to be a powerful lens for viewing a wide range of signifiers that occur repeatedly and pervasively in American literature.

Indeed, the theological basis of Wylie’s hatred of “this richness” is the Puritan soul struggling for release from all of its attachments, involvements, entanglements and preoccupations to, with and in the material world.  Metaphysical battles are fought on empirical battlefields.  In this case, the metaphysical battle between the ontological powers of good and evil is fought on the empirical battlefield of the relationship between a poetess and edible, natural fruit.  The apple signifies the fall of man at the hand of woman.  The hatred of  “this richness” is therefore a self-hatred that drives the woman farther from impure nature and closer to the immaterial purity of the austere, unadorned Protestant soul.  The continuity of the human body with nature is displaced by the discontinuity of the immaterial soul with the body.  The abundance of human bodies and souls is displaced by the scarcity of the elect, those in Protestant doctrine chosen by God from the foundations of the world to survive the last judgment and live eternally in heaven.

Serious reflection on the relationship between food and literature brings us to a range of signifiers that underpins all literature, namely, religion.  Why?  Because writing originally served the purpose of passing on what is most valuable in the viewpoint and experience of the group.  The most valuable possession of all is that which most certainly promotes the survival of the group. All human groups discovered long ago that humans are dependent on greater powers for survival.  All humans need air, water, food, warmth and sleep.  The fear of, respect for, worship of and sacrifice to the powers that govern life, both visible and invisible, is the ancient substance of all religions.  The ancient truth and pervasive message of all religions is the dependency of humans on those powers, including the power of reproduction that is represented in ancestor worship.  Religion embodies, ritualizes and carries forward that fundamental truth of human dependency.  The denial of that dependency can lead to greatly innovative creativity and profoundly transformative spirituality as well as to self-destruction and madness.  Humans can imagine absolute freedom but to try to live it, as Nietzsche showed, leads only to self-destruction and madness.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) struggled with madness all her life and eventually ended her life by committing suicide.  The following poem opens with the kind of paean to natural abundance that we saw in Wylie’s poem and closes with a similar feeling of empty space and cold silver.  The contrast between the terms “nothing” and “blackberries” in the first line signifies the tension between abundance and emptiness.  This signifier in turn connects with the tension between purity and impurity through the signifier of nothingness as a desirable and advanced spiritual state and as the material condition of spiritual devotees on earth.  In this poem, these themes are again carried by concrete, local wild food and abstract, created imagery that moves the reader away from an abundant present to an absent but implied purity above or beyond the physical earth:


Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries

Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,

A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea

Somewhere at the end of it, heaving.  Blackberries

Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes

Ebon in the hedges, fat

With blue-red juices.  These they squander on my fingers.

I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.

They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—

Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.

Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.

I do not think the sea will appear at all.

The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.

I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,

Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.

One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.

From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,

Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.

These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.

I follow the sheep path between them.  A last hook brings me

To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock

That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space

Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths

Beating and beating at an intractable metal.10

It is no accident, in this perspective, that Neal Cassady, the living person behind Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty, died of a drug overdose on the hot, shining steel rails of a railroad track in central Mexico.  The use of drugs in all groups has traditionally been associated with personal and group alignment to the greater powers for the purpose of amplifying the ability of the group to survive.  Cut from their traditional moorings in religion, drugs have become a way to experiment with the physical, psychic and spiritual dimensions of absolute freedom.  The fact that many drugs, such as LSD, cocaine, methamphetamine and opium, make the user feel that they need no food or other natural supports for their existence, shows precisely how they fit into the attempt to deny dependency and achieve absolute freedom.  The discontinuity of the American experience in relation to older traditions, the abundance of material wealth and the usually unacknowledged background ideal of a pure, immaterial soul have worked together to produce in its literature characters like Dean Moriarty who make a life—and a death—of treading the edge between innovation and self-destruction.

Or, to condense our themes in the pithy and quintessentially American poetic language of William Carlos Williams:  “the pure products of America go mad” (from “On The Road To The Mental Hospital”)  

Apple pie and ice cream, moreover, also provide Kerouac with an opportunity to make a statement of value that clearly displays abundance as bigness:  “I ate apple pie and ice cream—it was getting better as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.” (Ch. 3)  “Better,” “deeper,” “bigger,” and “richer,” work together to define a system of values that was both American—bigger is better—and Romantic—depth and richness.11

The theme of abundance can be found in all periods of American literature.  In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, Scarlet Letter, for example, a character who is the “father of the Custom House—the patriarch, not only of his little squad of officials, but, I am bold to say, of the respectable body of tide-waiters all over the United States—was a certain permanent Inspector.”12  The Custom-House was the official federal government office responsible for inspecting all cargo coming into the country by ship and determining what if any duties had to be paid.  In the novel, this particular Custom-House is located on a wharf in the harbor of Salem, Massachusetts.  In this particular character, Hawthorne signifies one of the most important aspects of the American diet that also repeatedly appears in its literature—the consumption of large quantities of meat.  The Inspector had the unusual ability to remember in great detail


“the good dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat….to hear him talk of roast meat was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster….it always satisfied me to hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher’s meat, and the most eligible methods of preparing them for the table.  His reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the actual banquet, seemed to bring the savor of pig or turkey under one’s very nostrils….A tenderloin of beef, a hindquarter of veal, a sparerib of pork, a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey, which had perhaps adorned his board…would be remembered….”13 

The dominance of meat in the American diet can be seen in several ways.  One is the following chart of specialty foods in the individual franchises of the top thirty fast-food companies in the US:

Type of Food Number of Franchises

Chicken 8,683


Hamburger/Hot Dog/Roast Beef           29,600


Pizza [usually served with a


meat topping]            11,593


Tacos [usually served with a


meat filler] 3,620


Seafood 2,630


Pancakes/Waffles [usually eaten


        with bacon,


        sausage or ham] 1,63014

Another view of this American food habit comes from considering the quantities of meat consumption and production in the United States.  For example,


“Americans spend about 25 percent of their food budget on red meat.  The per capita consumption of beef in the United States has increased steadily, while that of pork has declined….Only in Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina is per capita consumption higher than in the United States.  The United States normally produces about 27 percent of the world’s meat.” (Ibid., (13) 190)

From the United States Chamber of Commerce, the source of these statistics in Compton’s Encyclopedia and from the 19th century work of Hawthorne, we can move to the late 20th century.  In the late 1980’s, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by a California writer, Fannie Flagg, was published.  In the first section of the novel, a reproduction of an article from the weekly newspaper in her fictional southern US town of Weems, Flagg describes the basic menu of the newly opened Whistle Stop Cafe:


…the breakfast hours are from 5:30 to 7:30, and you can get eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon, sausage, ham and red-eye gravy, and coffee….


For lunch and supper you can have:  fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish, chicken and dumplings; or a barbecue plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert….


…the vegetables are:  creamed corn; fried green tomatoes; fried okra; collard or turnip greens; black-eyed peas; candied yams; butter beans or lima beans.15

Later in the novel, the items in a particular meal served to a customer are described as “fried chicken, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, and iced tea.”16

The fatness, abundance and purity of meat in the American diet have also been used by some writers as a counterfoil to other kinds of scarcity and impurity.  Sylvia Plath uses the tradition of a large meat meal on Sunday, as a once a week special gathering for American families, that often features a large, oven-roasted turkey, to give stark contrast to another kind of oven:


Mary’s Song

The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat.


The fat


Sacrifices its opacity…

A window, holy gold.


The fire makes it precious,


The same fire

Melting the tallow heretics,


Ousting the Jews.


Their thick palls float

Over the cicatrix of Poland, burnt-out




They do not die.

Grey birds obsess my heart,


Mouth ash, ash of eye.


They settle.  On the high



That emptied one man into space


The ovens glowed like heavens, incandescent.

It is a heart,


This holocaust I walk in,


O golden child the world will kill and eat.17

One of America’s most gifted and enigmatic of contemporary poets, the Pulitzer Prize winner John Ashbery (1927-), turns America’s abundance into a counterfoil not of impurity but of scarcity as a lack of certainty:


Hardly anything grows here,


Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,


The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.


The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;


Birds darken the sky.  Is it enough


That the dish of milk is set out at night,


That we think of him sometimes,


Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?18

Besides the prominence and priority of meat, the Plath poem and the lists from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café foreground an important continuity and discontinuity in American food.  The important continuity stems from the fact that the early colonists and pioneers, trying to live in a strange land before it had been developed for agriculture, made their bread primarily from locally available grains, especially corn.  Wheat and other related grains were too hard to grind by hand and required a heavy, complicated mill that the early settlers could not carry with them.  Corn became a staple food as important to the early European colonizers as it already was to the indigenous people:


Young, ripe corn was eaten as roasting ears.  In winter the husks of the kernels were soaked off with lye to make hominy.  For breakfast and supper there was boiled corn-meal mush.  Sometimes the mush was fried and served with butter or pork drippings.  The most common dish, however, was hot corn bread.  Baked on a hoe blade before the fire, this was called hoecake.  Mixed with water into a stiff batter and covered with hot ashes, it was ash cake.  From the Dutch oven it emerged as corn pone or corn loaf.  Small cakes of corn pone were called corn dodgers.19

In the passage from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter both fish and turkey are mentioned along with pork and chicken.  The fish and turkey were most likely caught and shot in their natural habitats.  The pork and chicken were most likely raised and butchered in a domestic animal keep.  This combination of wild and domestic meat began with the first colonists and continues to the present day.  Indeed, the pioneers who traveled by foot, wagon and horse from the east westward on the American continent found a great abundance of wild game for meat.  Still they tried to carry enough familiar, nutritious foodstuffs to last them for the journey to their new homestead and to carry them through periods when wild game was unavailable.  A typical load for one adult traveling by oxen-drawn wagon westward was:


“…200 pounds of flour, 30 pounds of pilot bread, 75 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of rice, 5 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of tea, 25 pounds of sugar, half bushel of dried beans, one bushel dried fruit, 2 pounds of baking soda, 10 pounds salt, half a bushel of cornmeal.  And it is well to have a half bushel of corn, parched and ground.  A small keg of vinegar should also be taken.”20

In many rural or sparsely inhabited parts of America the mixing of wild and domestic meats continues to this day.  In Alaska, for example, where I have lived for many years and which is one-third the area of the entire contiguous forty-eight states of the US, many people still rely on hunting for a large portion of their meat supply.  John Haines, past Poet Laureate of the State of Alaska and Alaska’s best known poet, began homesteading near Fairbanks, Alaska in the 1950’s.  I have known him personally for many years and read poetry with him on the stage of the Loussac Library in Anchorage in 1986.  His poetry clearly reflects how the dependence on wild meat can crystallize the themes of abundance and purity in an identification with the predator:


If the Owl Calls Again

at dusk


from the island in the river,


and it’s not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon


to rise,


then take wing and glide


to meet him

We will not speak,


but hooded against the frost


soar above


the alder flats, searching.


with tawny eyes

And then we’ll sit


in the shadowy spruce and


pick the bones


of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts


toward Asia


and the river mutters


in its icy bed.

And when morning climbs


the limbs


we’ll part without a sound,

fulfilled, floating


homeward as


the cold world awakens.21

Long before Haines or any other European settled in Alaska, however, the indigenous  people had long lived on whatever meat animals they could kill and prepare.  In fact, when the first French explorers met and spent time with the indigenous people in the north of what is now Canada, they were so impressed by the predominance of uncooked meat in their diets that they called them “Esquimeaux,” which is French for “eaters of raw meat.”  Further down the coasts of Canada and Alaska, however, salmon run by the millions up the great rivers and are caught and used by the local people.  These Americans now eat their salmon after it has been smoked or cooked, as told in the following poem, “Subsistence #2” by Andrew Hope, III (1949-), of Sitka, Alaska:


Dog salmon colors




Evening sun


Incoming tide


Washing the beach


Dog salmon shine


Silver purple flash




Lifting a big one


By the tail


Incoming tide


Washing the beach


Time to eat


Fried dog salmon


For dinner22

There are five kinds of salmon that migrate into Alaskan fresh waters and are used there for food.  Each kind has its own name and some kinds have different names in different areas of Alaska.  Thus, discontinuities through time in preparation—from raw to cooked—have occurred along with discontinuities in time among practices of naming the same foodstuff.  Dog salmon are so-called because they were once used by the thousands to feed the many dogs upon which the indigenous Alaskan people relied for transportation during the long winters.  This kind of salmon, however, is perfectly fit for human consumption and now that many indigenous people in Alaska travel only by motorized vehicles in all seasons, dog salmon have become a staple of human nutrition.  

These discontinuities connect with the discontinuity signified by the meal ingredients in the first and second quotes from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café which is variation in regional foods.  Grits, for example, is a kind of cereal or mush made from corn or wheat that is coarsely ground.  Grits is considered by most Americans to be a food characteristic of the American South.  Its public presence in northern cities is usually the result of southerners moving north and opening restaurants that feature American Southern cuisine.  Other typical regional American foods are codfish associated with the northeastern seafood cuisine, key lime pie associated with the cuisine of the Florida Keys, tortillas and red beans associated with the southwest cuisine derived from America’s Hispanic heritage, and salmon associated with the northwest and Alaskan cuisines.

One of Alaska’s Native American poets, Charlie Blatchford, a Yupik Eskimo whom I knew personally and who is now deceased, stated the case for meat very simply in one of his few published poems:

Forgotten Words

Our language, of what I know,

has been prepared

with wisdom and grace.

The fine skin has been fleshed

and lies to one side.

The innards have carefully

been exposed.

Their sweet flesh

ready for feast.

Meat, the staple of life,

is consumed with satisfaction…

Sedating our need

for new words.23

In the hands of more contemporary poets who are not Native American, as Charlie Blatchford was, meat continues to signify substantial food and is often joined by a kind of substance that could serve as a separate topic alongside food—intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs.  In Whitman, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and many other writers, wine, beer and other kinds of mind-altering substances often accompany food and especially meat.  This range of consumable signifiers has a history in all literatures that is as ancient, as interesting and as important as that of meat and other foods.  Indeed, putting the light of interest on food has again brought into focus an important stream in the lives of all peoples that could well serve as a topic for extensive further research, discussion and writing.  In many poets, the connection between meat and wine is briefly made, as in the fourth verse of “Asylum” by Herman Fong (1963-):

At meals they barely feed her,

give her the smallest cuts of meat,

mostly fat, and a few red drops of wine.24

A concentration on the details of ordinary life characterizes the style of many American writers, both older and younger.  John Steinbeck, a Nobel laureate and one of the pre-eminent American literary voices of the 20th century, frequently drew for his characters and settings from the everyday lives of people in California.  Some of his best and most popular writings, novels such as Cannery Row, Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, and the short story collection, The Long Valley, feature characters and settings in coastal, southern and central California.  Tortilla Flats features the lives of “paisanos” who lived near the central California coastal town of Monterey.  According to Steinbeck, a paisano was a “mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods” (Ch. 1).  The main character, Danny, and his friends hear about a ship that has been wrecked on the nearby coast.  They go to the beach and salvage flotsam from the wreck then sell it.  The sale puts five dollars into Danny’s possession, an unusually large amount of money:

The five dollars from the salvage had lain like fire in Danny’s pocket, but now he knew what to do with it.  He and Pilon went to the market and bought seven pounds of hamburger and a bag of onions and bread and a big paper of candy.  Pablo and Jesus Maria went to Torrelli’s for two gallons of wine, and not a drop did they drink on the way home, either. (Ch. 5)

Part of Steinbeck’s genius as a writer and one of the aspects of his stories that set them apart from other American writings is the deliberate use of food items and activities for characterization and plot development.    Tortilla Flats provides an example of his style as well as continuing to demonstrate the importance of meat in the American diet across all geographic regions and ethnic groups:

Danny’s business was fairly direct.  He went to the back door of a restaurant.  “Got any old bread I can give my dog?”  he asked the cook.  And while that gullible man was wrapping up the food, Danny stole two slices of ham, four eggs, a lamb chop and a fly swatter.

“I will pay you sometime,” he said.

“No need to pay for scraps.  I throw them away if you don’t take them.”

Danny felt better about the theft then.  If that was the way they felt, on the surface he was guiltless.  He went back to Torelli’s [the wine merchant], traded the four eggs, the lamb chop and the fly swatter for a water glass of grappa and retired toward the woods to cook his supper. (Ch.1)

The particular food item of onions appears in the first passage from Tortilla Flats as a small detail that signifies a range of regional foods in an American southwest first colonized by European settlers from Spain not from England.  Between hamburger and onions are both the continuity of easily prepared and consumed meat and the discontinuity of regional American cuisines.  Another great American literary voice, that of William Carlos Williams, also picked out this range of southwestern signifiers on his one and only trip to that part of America.  Besides a fine ear for the peculiarities that distinguish American English from all other kinds of English, Williams also had a keen eye for the small details of place that brought the reader in close to the object of Williams’ writing.  The following passage is from “The Desert Music” which was based on Williams’ trip to the American southwest and his sojourning in towns that, at that time, were far more Hispanic than Caucasian:

–paper flowers (para los santos)

baked red-clay utensils, daubed

with blue, silverware,

dried peppers, onions, print goods, children’s

clothing     .      the place deserted all but

for a few Indians squatted in the

booths, unnoticing (don’t you think it)

as though they slept there      .25

The use of activities around food to develop plot and character is also part of the style of another American novelist who received a Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner (1897-1962).  From the deserts and sparse valleys of the southwest to the lush forests, swamps and meadows of the deep south, American literature, like the perduring literature of every language, has consistently insisted that the physical place and its features are part of the story.  In the following passage from Light in August, Faulkner uses Mrs. McEachern’s attempt to nourish Joe as a reflector for both characters:

He was lying so, on his back, his hands crossed on his breast like a tomb effigy, when he heard again feet on the cramped stairs….

Without turning his head the boy heard Mrs. McEachern toil slowly up the stairs.  He heard her approach across the floor.  He did not look, though after a time her shadow came and fell upon the wall where he could see it, and he saw that she was carrying something.  It was a tray of food.  She set the tray on the bed.  He had not once looked at her.  He had not moved.  “Joe,” she said. He didn’t move.  “Joe,” she said.  She could see that his eyes were open.  She did not touch him.

“I aint hungry,” he said.

She didn’t move.  She stood, her hands folded into her apron.  She didn’t seem to be looking at him, either.  She seemed to be speaking to the wall beyond the bed. “I know what you think.  It aint that.  He never told me to bring it to you.  It was me that thought to do it.  He dont know.  It aint any food he sent you.”  He didn’t move.  His was calm as a graven face, looking up at the steep pitch of the plank ceiling.  “You haven’t eaten today.  Sit up and eat.  It wasn’t him that told me to bring it to you.  He dont know it.  I waited until he was gone and then I fixed it myself.”

He sat up then.  While she watched him he rose from the bed and took the tray and carried it to the corner and turned it upside down, dumping the dishes and the food and all onto the floor.  Then he returned to the bed, carrying the empty tray as though it were a monstrance and he the bearer, his surplice the cut down undergarment which had been bought for a man to wear.  She was watching him now, though she had not moved.  Her hands were still rolled into her apron.  He got back into bed and lay again on his back, his eyes wide and still upon the ceiling.  He could see her motionless shadow, shapeless, a little hunched.  Then it went away.  He did not look, but he could hear her kneel in the corner, gathering the broken dishes back into the tray.  Then she left the room. It was quite still then.26

Faulkner lived and wrote in the Bible Belt.  The Bible Belt signified the fact that most people in the south were fundamentalist Christian Protestants who girded themselves with the spirit of austerity and yearning for an otherworldly paradise of simplicity and peace articulated so strongly by New England writers such as Wylie and Bishop.  Although food occurs frequently in Faulkner’s work, it is rarely ample, elaborate or wasted.  Usually it serves to highlight the physical scarcity and tenuous moral condition of people who live on the edge of a society whose abundance seldom appears in his work:

And Judith.  She lived alone now.  Perhaps she had lived alone ever since that Christmas day last year and then year before last and then three years and then four years ago, since though Sutpen was gone now…she lived in anything but solitude, what with Ellen in bed in the shuttered room, requiring the unremitting attention of a child while she waited with that amazed and passive uncomprehension to die; and she (Judith) and Clytie making and keeping a kitchen garden of sorts to keep them alive; and Wash Jones, living in the abandoned and rotting fishing camp in the river bottom which Sutpen had built after the first woman—Ellen—entered his house and the last deer and bear hunter went out of it, where he now permitted Wash and his daughter and infant granddaughter to live, performing the heavy garden work and supplying Ellen and Judith and then Judith with fish and game now and then, even entering the house now, who until Sutpen went away, had never approached nearer than the scuppernong arbor behind the kitchen where on Sunday afternoons he and Sutpen would drink from the demi-john and the bucket of spring water which Wash fetched from almost a mile away….”27

Another indication of Faulkner’s genius is his ability to see in an event as ordinary as a young man ordering pie and coffee from a waitress with whom he secretly wants some kind of relationship the potential for fine, deep drama.  Faulkner’s preference for scant food and small food items continues to display the themes of scarcity and purity that were inescapable in his social and historical environment.  In the following passage, Faulkner describes Joe, the boy in the passage just presented, who has come to a restaurant to be served by the waitress, in terms that transparently bring into play the signifiers of purity as immaterial dimension and food as binding, burdensome material necessity:

He believed that the men at the back…were laughing at him.  So he sat quite still on the stool, looking down, the dime clutched in his palm.  He did not see the waitress until the two overlarge hands appeared upon the counter opposite him and into sight.  He could see the figured pattern of her dress and the bib of an apron and the two bigknuckled hands lying on the edge of the counter as completely immobile as if they were something she had fetched in from the kitchen.  “Coffee and pie,” he said.

Her voice sounded downcast, quite empty.  “Lemon coconut chocolate.”

In proportion to the height from which her voice came, the hands could not be her hands at all.  “Yes,” Joe said.

The hands did not move.  The voice did not move.  “Lemon coconut chocolate.  Which kind.”  To the others they must have looked quite strange.  Facing one another across the dark, stained, greasecrusted and frictionsmooth counter, they must have looked a little like they were praying:  the youth countryfaced, in clean Spartan clothing, with an awkwardness which invested him with a quality unworldly and innocent; and the woman opposite him, downcast, still, waiting, who because of her smallness partook likewise of that quality of his, of something beyond flesh.  Her face was highboned, gaunt.  The flesh was taut across her

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *