It’s been months since I last worked on a large research project, and it’s time I got back to my roots. I need to revisit my driving interests, the reasons I started investigating media, race, and gender in the first place. Judging from my work at The Love Machine, my main interests may not be completely clear; I’ve written about everything from Nicktoons to restaurant decor so far. However, my most pressing interest is food. Food is perhaps our most basic form of self-expression. It’s something we have to partake of multiple times a day to survive, so forming an identity around preparation and consumption of food is an obvious way to express one’s self. We observe halal, crash diets, veganism, intuitive eating, raw diets, bulimia, primal eating, and scavenging, not to mention countless ethnicities, each with a specific manner of cooking and eating.
Not only can we build our identities by attaching ourselves to certain rules and practices concerning food, but we can operate within existing food practices to create personalities unique from the group the practice is attached to. For example, a Catholic could affirm her religious commitment through observation of regular communions. However, she might one day decide that, in an effort to build a more authentic relationship with God, she will only eat communion bread accurate to the era in which Jesus lived. This would not only affirm her Christianity (as she sees it, anyway) but would operate within the existing communion protocol to set her apart from her fellow Catholics as one who is pursuing a self-guided, authentic, and nontraditional form of Catholicism. I say all this to explain my research motivations. I am exploring how characters in different media build their identities with certain food practices while tweaking the details within those practices to make their own unique practice that works for them.
All this “food practice” talk comes to mind because, in my effort to return to my roots, I watched a film I’ve been meaning to watch, by a filmmaker I’ve used before in my research. The film is What’s Cooking? by Gurinder Chadha, comprised of the simultaneous Thanksgivings of four Los Angeles families. The Latino Avilas, the black Williamses, the Jewish Seeligs, and the Vietnamese Nguyens are all aware of the ideal Thanksgiving dinner: a happy white-bread nuclear family smiling around a table, as set forth by the turkey ads plastering their LA suburb. However, the families of What’s Cooking? don’t fit this ideal. The Avila matriarch and patriarch are recently separated; the Williams family is torn apart by generational politics and career choices; Mr. and Mrs. Seelig are trying to understand their daughter’s homosexuality; and the Nguyens have two children dating non-Vietnamese people in secret.
The families work within the practice of Thanksgiving dinner while serving their own needs. The dinners are far from the perfect meal, but are a reaction to the ideal pilgrims-and-Indians harmony (encapsulated in the idealized school play at the beginning of the film).
Some characters still try for the ideal, though. Audrey, the Williams matriarch, single-handedly tries for perfection just as she attempts to keep the disagreeing generations of her family together all by herself. She meticulously plans a classy, high-end organic meal (complete with oyster and shiitake mushroom stuffing) until the middle leaf of the dinner table falls through with all the food on it and she almost has a panic attack from the combined stress of her splintering family, dishes, and table.
Meanwhile, Johnny, the youngest member of the Nguyen family, has his heart set on the kind of traditional Thanksgiving day he saw in his school play. His actual Thanksgiving day ends up having more chopsticks than gravy trains. However, he has a better time coping with his disappointment since his mother and grandmother do try to make concessions to his Americanization: “There’s one meal for the parents, and one meal for the kids.” Mom and Grandma grimace as they open cans of cranberry sauce and roast a turkey that’s half plain, half basted in a Vietnamese sriracha rub. (Can I just say that, though Johnny’s sister Trinh turns up her nose at the sriracha, I thought it looked like a delicious way to cook a turkey?) Unfortunately, the Nguyen’s turkey burns when they are distracted by Trinh’s newly-revealed boyfriend, then the dessert course gets cut short when middle son Jerry is found to be involved with a gang. Needless to say, Johnny’s dream does not go as planned.
Both Audrey and Johnny adhere closely to the Thanksgiving dinner ideal, but must learn to work within the ideal to make concessions for their family needs. Audrey is not that flexible, as evidenced by the collapse of her table and her composure. Johnny, perhaps because he is younger or perhaps because his mother and grandmother are at least willing to work with his desires for American tradition, is more flexible. For all his insistence that “We have to have pumpkin pie next!” and pre-dinner prayers that God help the Raiders make it to the playoffs, Johnny is genuinely pleased just to be partaking however he can in a Vietnamese-American-style Thanksgiving. If you aren’t convinced, look at his adorably ecstatic reaction to the replacement of the burnt turkey with KFC. The Nguyen family takes the traditional Thanksgiving dinner practice provided by Johnny and works within that framework to accommodate the Americanized and the traditionally Vietnamese aspects of their family identity. If that means fried dumplings with canned sweet potatoes and KFC, so be it.
I’ll revisit What’s Cooking? next week, when I’ll talk about family disagreements and how individuals can use food to distinguish themselves from groups.