MLA: Community, Food, and Fiction; January 6-9, 2011 in Los Angeles

full name / name of organization: 
Jeff Birkenstein
contact email: 
jbirkenstein@stmartin.edu

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Community, Food,
and Fiction

 

“What
is distinctive about American food writing is how constant and close to the
surface is its sense of moral struggle.”

—Molly
O’Neill[1]

 

 

Food and
foodways have long been present in American fiction, of course, but inadequate
critical attention has been paid to this often most fundamental of narrative strategies.  What I call “Significant Food” in fiction is
food used as a significant plot or other substantial literary device, food
where the important concomitant cultural signifiers related to nourishment and
the table (or the absence thereof) assume a crucial narrative role.  The reasons for investigating Significant
Food in fiction are simple.  On one
level, food can be pleasurable, and writing and reading about it can also be
so.  Yet from myriad political, economic,
cultural, medical and moral perspectives, food can also be a source of great
conflict. This breadth of significance exists because in some fiction food
becomes so much more than itself.  Food
becomes a food act—the gathering or buying of it, the preparation of it at home
or the restaurant-going, the ritual of eating around a common table, or not—and
this is the focus of this panel.

Massimo
Montanari writes that this language of food, “[t]his aggregate of conventions,
which we shall call ‘grammar,’ informs the food system not as a simple compilation of products and foods,
assembled in a more or less casual fashion, but rather as a structure, inside
of which each component defines its meaning.”[2]  Roland Barthes argues that food is “perhaps
the functional unit of a system of communication.”[3]  The possibilities are no doubt endless, but
in order to provide us with a context, I hope to focus on American fiction from
the 20th and 21st  centuries. 

Please send a
500-word abstract and a brief c.v. (separate MS Word attachments) by March 15,
2010 to Jeff Birkenstein at jbirkenstein@stmartin.edu
or by mail to Jeff Birkenstein, Department of English, Saint Martin’s
University, 5300 Pacific Ave, SE, Lacey, WA 
98503

[1]
Molly O’Neill, introduction, in American
Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes
, ed. Molly O’Neill (New
York: Library of America, 2007) 1.

[2]
Massimo Montanari, Food Is Culture, trans. by Albert Sonnenfeld (New
York:  Columbia UP, 2006) 99. 

[3]
Roland Barthes, “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” in
Food & Culture: A Reader, 2nd ed., eds. by Carole
Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 2008) 29.

cfp categories: 
american