Thursday, August 19, 2010

Food Memoirs: "Tastes Like Cuba"

What are the limitations of a food memoir? Eduardo Machado's memoir Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home reads like an object lesson on what you can -- and can't -- do with this genre.

The early chapters are delightful: the foods of Machado's childhood in Cuba effectively illustrate the relationships of his various grandparents and his early feelings of security, belonging, and family loyalties. One grandmother makes "Newspaper Soup" every day -- from a recipe that was long before published in a newspaper and torn out without its proper title. One grandfather, though he lives with his wife, cooks separately -- his job on the docks gives him access to all kinds of imported luxury foods. The author distrusts the food at his Catholic school because of a roomful of taxidermized animals, whose flesh, he fears, is what's for lunch. He loves Cuban tamales from a street vendor:
Piping hot cornmeal, the saltiness of pork, all heightened by the bits of fatback throughout. The skin gave texture while the fat delivered the taste of corn and the pork in swirls of steaming flavor. So much that I ate one every day. (p. 12)
Vivid. Iconic. Just what most food memoirs do best with their subject.

But Castro takes over -- cheered on and supported by Machado's whole family. Disillusionment sets in quickly. The grandfathers lose their jobs and businesses to Castro's policies. The family aren't eating quite as well.

Soon the author and his brother are sent alone to America to live with impoverished and unwelcoming relatives. All they have to eat is Spam and other poverty foods supplied by welfare organizations:
At around five we had a dinner of cold Velveeta cheese sandwiches on white bread with a salad of lettuce and canned garbanzo beans in vegetable oil and distilled vinegar. ... The food tasted more like the chemical processes used to preserve it than any kind of actual flavor. The salad was a disappointing Easter basket, all plastic frills of soggy iceberg covered in wet beans that tasted like metal." (p. 71)
When the brothers' parents arrive from Cuba, finally, their mother manages to make even the low-quality American food taste more like home, which of course reinforces the theme of separation, anxiety, and restoration of the family. His father finds no work in Miami, and quickly accepts an offer from Catholic Social Services to relocate them to Los Angeles, sponsored by well-meaning Americans. (Unfortunately, Machado can't resist making fun of their clothes and some of their habits.) Life becomes much more complicated as the author adapts to life in L.A. -- and food, while still important and iconic, begins to fail as a metaphor for all of his life.

One food experience involved the author's family's road trip from L.A. to Miami, where they decided to visit the relatives who were still there. Crossing the Deep South, they are not recognized to have the white skin privilege that would allow them freely into the public accommodations that they might choose.

"Maybe they thought you were Mexican," says his mother when his father is refused a room at a hotel with a VACANCY sign in Dallas. In Louisiana, "The bathroom signs said WHITES ONLY and there was a long line of black customers waiting to use a ramshackle outhouse way in back. My father had gotten on that long line. I just looked away, unable to believe what I was seeing."

That evening, they rented a tourist cabin in an area that was evidently reserved for blacks. But they had dinner in a whites-only restaurant, making the other customers whisper and making the waitress very nervous. She convinces them to order dessert to go. "That night we felt much safer in the security of our own little porch in the long row of cabins. It's easy to forget injustice as you feast on the glorious flavors of homemade peach and pecan pie. Maybe that's why pies are so popular in the South. They're good when your soul hurts." (p. 165-169)

I think the author's reduction of his family's treatment to a remark about pie was a little too flippant and over-simplified. Maybe it's a limitation of what you can do in a food memoir, though I doubt that. It seemed to me that his idea of injustice was that they should have been treated as whites, not blacks. He doesn't really seem to have any empathy for the real victims of that era. I'm really uncomfortable with this!

The author's high school years involved conflict with his father -- who was becoming very successful as a CPA. Descriptions of food are far from adequate to describe the author's struggle to become an actor, and then, after graduation, his development as a successful playwright. He meets a woman who makes and eats huge, hippie salads, which is interesting, but this isn't enough to express the marriage of the 19 year old author to a 42 year old counter-culture-type. At this point, I think the food memoir genre begins to get in the way of the autobiographical goals. In fact, sometimes I felt as if it was a way to avoid dealing with lots of issues in the author's life.

The second half of the book documents the author's successes writing and having his plays produced. (I must admit that I had never heard of his work, and was aware of this book only via a favorable review in the NYT Book Review some time ago.) The later chapters also describe his development as a gay person, though this is not done with much depth. He seems to have finally settled down with his co-author Michael Domitrovich, but Domitrovich's role as a significant other and co-author is not particularly elaborated.

Only when Machado returns to Cuba to present one of his works in a theater festival does the food theme return effectively, representing his homecoming and coming to terms with his Cuban identity. It's never as clear and iconic as it was in the first few chapters, though. Too bad.

I recently ordered this and two other food memoirs from my long list of books to read. So I'll be adding more to these thoughts. Incidentally, these books were all very heavily discounted -- I wonder if that represents a softening of interest in the subject. Tastes Like Cuba only cost $1.08 (no shipping, I'm an Amazon Prime subscriber) for the hardcover -- I wonder if there will ever be a paperback.

For a completely different point of view about this book, see Tastes Like Cuba - Eduardo Machado - Book Review.

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