Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 28: Ana Menéndez, Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings (#99)

Ana Menéndez, "Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban Seasonings" (2004) from American Food Writing:

Cuban-American Menéndez traces her family's shifting traditions of Thanksgiving as a barometer of their deepening exile. Just to make sure that we understand the melancholy edge of this, Menéndez ends with the encroaching senility and mortality of the elder generation. That last shift seems out of place, untethered from the main thrust: cultural change comes to us all and death comes to us all, but that doesn't mean they're related, and Menéndez doesn't do enough work in this short piece to connect them.

That little bump to the side, this piece is full of clear writing on complex issues. I pretty much fell in love with this piece at the second line. After recalling how their "Tanksgibing" was originally super-Cubany, Menéndez says, "Back then we didn’t know enough to know we were being ethnic, much less trendy." You want to read that again?

"Back then we didn’t know enough to know we were being ethnic, much less trendy."

Look at that recipe: we get the innocence of the recent immigrant just learning that the way they do things is peculiar, i.e., that they are peculiar. (Shades of Malcolm X noting that recent black immigrants to America are about to learn their first English word, a word that will forever set them apart as Other.) And in with that exile experience, there's the countervailing (or parallel) force that marks that peculiarity as culturally (or monetarily) valuable.

Which brings up another thread in Menéndez's complexly packed piece: we have the melancholy of exile; the immigrant marked as Other; the Other re-absorbed as value--and the transformation of culture in the face of American capitalism. Now, we should add that Menéndez's memories of her immigrant background are a child's memories. So who knows what the family had to do monetarily to afford that whole roast pig when she was young and it just seemed to appear magically. (Well, not magically: Menéndez as a child knows the pig was once a living pig. But there's no hint of the capitalist system they're already embedded in.)

So it's interesting to note how often Menéndez's thoughts of cultural change are marked by the market: in the old days, families would keep their mojo sauce secret, but today you can buy some "chemical syrup" called mojo in the store. And her family's first experience of traditional Thanksgiving food was not just a pumpkin pie, but a pie bought at the supermarket. And so on.

Food traditions change because lifeways change, which makes food a great representative of that change, but also only a sliver of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment