Thursday, September 04, 2014

What do American Gods Eat?

Of course I mean the food of the gods of Neil Gaiman's great book American Gods. I just enjoyed rereading this for around the third time. I don't reread many books, and in this case, I was gratified at the way I could focus on some of the details because I wasn't distracted by wanting to know how the plot wrapped up.*

Gaiman is a highly inventive writer, with lots of variation in his choice of details, and in how he portrays the characters' reactions to minor events. Of course I was especially interested in what and where the central character Shadow and all the gods ate. Being a typical midwestern American, Shadow tends to eat hamburgers and fries, sometimes with a bowl of chili. Or an "all day full breakfast -- it came with hush puppies." (p. 192) 

Shadow generally likes basic midwestern food, whatever the region -- if it's not badly cooked. As he roamed he shared a funeral meal for a black woman while briefly staying with some Egyptian gods of the dead in Cairo, Illinois. That meal included  a kitchen filled with "tubs and with saucepans and with Tupperware." And "a table... laden high with coleslaw and beans and cornmeal hush puppies and chicken and ribs and black-eyed peas." (p. 222)

A depressing Christmas lunch takes place at a "hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned peas. From the way he attacked it, and the way he smacked his lips, Wednesday seemed to be enjoying the food." Wednesday's real enthusiasm, though, turns out to be for the underage waitress. (p. 234)

Michigan Pasties (source)
While hiding out in a Wisconsin town near Ironwood, MI in the Upper Peninsula, Shadow meets Mabel, who has a diner. She offers him a pasty: "Shadow had no idea what a pasty was, but he said that would be fine, and in a few moments Mabel returned with a plate with what looked like a folded-over pie on it... . Shadow ... bit into it: it was warm and filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions. 'First pasty I've ever had,' he said. 'It's real good.'" (p. 266)

More myth-like was Shadow and Wednesday's earlier meal in Chicago, cooked by a woman named Zorya Vechernayaya, shared with her sisters, also named Zorya, and their relative Czernobog, a god so obscure I had to look him up -- he's Slavic. His bargain with Shadow, made during the meal, is important. There's an absent relative named Bielebog too. 

But I'm focused on the food. The meal took place at a small table in the living room of the small apartment:
"Zorya Vechernayaya took five wooden bowls and placed an unpeeled boiled potato in each, then ladled in a healthy serving of a ferociously crimson borscht. She plopped a spoonful of white sour cream in, and handed the bowls to each of them... The borscht was vinegary and tasted like pickled beets. The boiled potato was mealy.  
"The next course was a leathery pot roast, accompanied by greens of some description -- although they had been boiled so long and so thoroughly that they were no longer by any stretch of the imagination greens, and were well on their way to becoming browns. 
"Then there were cabbage leaves  stuffed with ground meat and rice, cabbage leaves of such a toughness that they were almost impossible to cut without spattering gound meat and rice all over the carpet... At the end of the meal Shadow was still hungry. Prison food had been pretty bad, and prison food was better than this. 
"'Good food,' said Wednesday, who had cleaned his plate with every evidence of enjoyment." (p. 84-85)
On another jaunt with Wednesday, Shadow finds himself in San Francisco. A beautiful woman named Easter offers them: "Eggs, roast chicken, chicken curry, chicken salad, and ... lapin -- rabbit, actually, but cold rabbit is a delight, and in that bowl over there is jugged hare." And says: "On my festival days they still feast on eggs and rabbits, on candy and on flesh, to represent rebirth and copulation." But Wednesday remarks that despite the continuation of some practices, even hunting eggs, they no longer know who Easter herself is. (p. 309-310)

Some of Shadow's acquaintances have more complicated foodways -- for example two sisters who invite him to dinner next door to his Wisconsin  hideout. Marguerite offers Shadow "a steaming bowl of spaghetti... crusty garlic bread, thick red sauce, spicy meatballs." To his compliment she replies that its "from the Corsican side of the family." He wonders, "I thought you were Native American." She describes her parents, and how her sister was born after they split up. And her sister adds, "my mom's family were European Jewish... from one of those places that used to be communist and now are just chaos. I think she liked the idea of being married to a Cherokee. Fry bread and chopped liver." (p. 390)

6th century bronze with dancing Odin --
used as a die for decorating Viking helmets (source)
Gaiman uses tons of other devices for portraying his enormous cast of characters. I've selected food because I always select food -- and his descriptions are  so enjoyable to read. He seems to nail something essential every time, and he doesn't neglect to mention, often, the process of cleaning up the dishes and pots and pans that were used for cooking and serving. Fantasy, yes, but rooted very much in this real world.

* If you haven't read American Gods -- which by the way will soon be a TV series as well as my book club's September selection -- here's my excessively brief summary:
At the beginning, a man named Shadow is in jail. He's made time pass by practicing coin tricks and also has learned to keep himself safe. Shadow gets out two days early because his wife Laura has been killed in a freeway accident. Soon after her funeral Laura is brought back from the dead -- or at least she's re-animated even though still dead. Thus she plays a significant role in Shadow's adventures. 
Immediately after his release, even before he gets home for Laura's funeral, events begin to have a surrealist (or maybe magical realist) tinge, particularly his encounter with a Mr. Wednesday, later revealed to be the Norse god known as Odin, Votan, or the All-Father. Mr. Wednesday's associate, a leprechaun, demonstrates some really impressive coin tricks -- first indication that not all is realistic. He makes a bargain to work for Wednesday -- and later makes a few other bargains as well.
In a complicated series of plot twists Shadow encounters many more mythological figures from Norse, American Indian, Eastern European (including a Rabbi with a Golem), Asian (especially the Indians Kali and Ganesha, who likes to cook), African (above all, Mr.Nancy who is the spider god Anansi) and other traditions. The gods generally express their frustration at having lost their worshippers. In the New World their godly powers only serve them for rather mundane survival. Mr. Wednesday, for example, needing money, involves Shadow in an ingenious bank robbery.

All of these gods are roughly connected to one another, and they are especially aware of the sacred sites America offers: sites that are mainly known to the general public as roadside attractions. All the gods and minor mythological characters are nervously expecting "a storm." As Shadow becomes more and more aware of this, he has dramatic dreams, including one dream of the mighty thunderbirds of Indian myth. His dream is so dramatic that all the sacred or formerly sacred figures can sense what is happening in it.
Shadow's dreamlike states become strongly part of his reality as he becomes increasingly aware of who all the gods are, what they are up to, and what it has to do with him and the un-dead Laura. Shadow ultimately participates in a final battle among the gods on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. It's a fascinating plot, and I've scarcely summarized any of the nearly 600 exciting pages.

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