Listen: Cooking for One and The Gustatory Gaze
Last month, Anita Mannur, associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, gave the 2019 Genevieve Lee Lecture in Asian American Studies. In this presentation, she offers a reading of what it means to eat alone, and in particular, why is there such a social stigma against being a solo diner, and more importantly, how has Asian American cultural production encouraged us to think more about the social freight of being a solo diner? She juxtaposes Bodies in Motion, a diasporic romance novel by the Sri Lankan American writer Mary Ann Mohanraj, with an art exhibit titled “Eating Alone in New York” by the artist Miho Aikawa.
“To be sure, the dynamic that makes solo dining fascinating is not necessarily whether people are actually looking askance at solo diners, but the anxiety that comes from the imagined freight of being an object that is looked at, pitied, and jeered," says Mannur. "In short, how might looking at visually oriented works that teach us to look differently allow us a different point of entry into understanding what it means to eat alone?”
Lei: I'm Lei Ouyang Bryant, I'm from the Department of Music and Dance and I'm also participating faculty in the Asian Studies' Program and it's my great pleasure to welcome you to the 2019 Genevieve Lee Lecture in Asian American Studies. We're so appreciative of this lecture. This annual lecture in Asian American studies provides us with the opportunity to invite prominent scholar of Asian American studies to our campus to present a lecture each spring and so keep your eyes out every spring for this lecture.
This lecture is made possible by the Genevieve Lee Memorial Fund and so we wanna thank Genevieve Lee's family for creating this fund to make it possible to support this annual lecture as well as a summer research fund that supports student research in the summer and so we're really excited to have this opportunity to lift up Asian American Studies at Swarthmore and so please do keep your eye out for the Genevieve Lee programming and that's it with my business and it's been my great pleasure to work with my colleague Professor Bakirathi Mani in English to invite our guest today who she will introduce.
Bakirathi: Thank you so much. Hi everyone, I'm Bakirathi Mani. I teach in the English Department at Swarthmore. I coordinate the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and I'm also a member of the Asian Studies Program and it is a real privileged for me today to introduce Professor Anita Mannur for the annual Genevieve Lee Lecture in Asian American Studies.
I actually want to begin by thanking Professor Bryant for her brilliant idea of inviting Professor Mannur whose name popped up immediately, I realized whom we both knew and had worked with in the field of Asian American studies.
Professor Mannur is an associate professor of English at Miami University, Ohio. She is the author of the seminal book Culinary Fictions from Temple University Press, 2010 which examines the centrality of food and eating in South Asian American diasporas and she's a co-editor of the [inaudible 00:02:01] volume Theorizing Diaspora from Blackwell and Eating Asian America from NYU Press. She's currently completing a book manuscript titled Intimate Eating Publics: Food and Radical Forms of Belonging under contract with Duke University Press.
That's Professor Mannur's official bio but since our paths have crossed for nearly 20 years, I want to tell you a little bit more about how central her work has been. Stop, that's my age, okay.
So I want to tell you a little bit more about how [inaudible 00:02:31] her work has been in all of its various forms to the current configuration of Asian American studies. Professor Mannur was previously the editor of the flagship journal of the field, the Journal of Asian American Studies, and in that capacity brought interdisciplinary scholarship in the wide range of Asian American public culture to the forefront of intellectual dialogue and the field. She's also been a leader in the shaping how the field of literary studies as a whole incorporates a political work of Asian American studies. She was past chair of the Committee on the Literature of People of Color in the United States and Canada of the Modern Language Association and she was also an elected member of the Executive Committee of the Division of Asian American Literature for the Modern Language Association.
In addition to her work on Asian American food cultures and diasporas studies, Professor Mannur has published on a wide range of topics including environmental justice studies, eco-criticisms, race, fashion, and beauty, and the transnational circulation of post colonial literature.
Through her published work, she's also shaped the pedagogical curriculum of Asian American studies, foregrounding the centrality of critical race and ethnic studies and in particular it's intersections with queer and feminist studies. In addition to her long standing career at Miami University where she's taught for the past decade, Professor Mannur has also taught at Dennison University, Wesleyan University, the University of Illinois, and at MIT.
Professor Mannur has been a colleague, and advisor, and a mentor to so many in Asian American Studies and her scholarship has shaped the work of the field and its future. It is such a pleasure for me to call her a friend. She will be sharing with us today her talk entitled Cooking for One and the Gustatory Gaze.
Please join me with a very warm welcome to Professor Mannur.
Anita: Oh my goodness, thank you so much for that lovely introduction. I was like who is this person? She's actually done something with her life. I feel like I should record it, oh it is recorded. I'll send that to my mother so when my mother's like what are you doing with your time even though I'm not actually 25. I just dye my hair really well.
So thank you all for coming out. I'm really excited to be here and I was just noting that I may just stay here because, well that's actually because of the weather so I may not get to go home but I'm kidding. I actually don't live in Miami, Florida, I live in Miami, Ohio which is like a constant source of disappointment to my mother. Like why can't you live somewhere warm? Sorry I'm like trying to find my timer so that I don't talk for too long.
So, as Professor Mani explained, I'm working on a new book called Intimate Public Fears and so this is very new work so be nice or actually just totally I would love to hear your feedback and I sort of been fascinated by the phenomenon of solo dining and I want to begin my paper today with an anecdote.
About a year ago my husband of almost ten years and I separated. It was painful, emotionally difficult, and came with all the attended issues that come with the end of a relationship that has defined more than a decade of one's life.
One of the first things I did was to force myself to go out and eat in public spaces alone. How many of you like eating alone out of curiosity? Oh good, I've already got a winning crowd. Awesome. And I don't mean just going to a sandwich shop or a coffee shop but actual sit down restaurants like [inaudible 00:06:00] star restaurants 'cause I spend a lot of money on food. Where someone would bring me a menu, I would choose food, and eat alone. But I've also spent many years traveling alone and during all of those various trips I also have to often eat alone and so I often do what many solo diners do, I bring two crucial accessories. A cell phone and a book because to have a book or a phone is to signal to the rest of the world that you are self possessed and do not feel abject.
I also Instagram a lot of my meals so taking pictures is my way of also making the experience of solo dining less solitary. I have made a habit now of eating alone at several restaurants. Over the course of two vacations in the past year, I solo ate my way through Bali, Rome, and Bangalore India. Indeed I am arguably a brown Elizabeth Gilbert who only ate but did not pray or love.
What was remarkable for me about this experience is that I was insistent about not being seated at a bar but getting a table of my own. The bar, after all, is often where wayward solo diners are relegated. I certainly enjoy a good meal at a bar, I had a very good meal at a bar last night, but I also do not like to be made to feel less than and that I must unyielding accept that my providence is the bar, sitting as a lonely person among a crowd.
More over, the act of eating out in restaurants is also a way to making the public's face feel intimate for a certain period of time. Certainly restaurants and restaurant designers are often thinking about ways to create intimacy via the design of the space.
In an article for the Atlantic titled, Creating Public Intimacy: Designing Restaurant Booths and Banquets, architect David Rockwell discusses how in his line of work, he must think about ways to create a sense of intimacy within the public space of a restaurant.
I'm just gonna pause, so this is me, I'm not drinking booze I'm just drinking a really big lemonade there in Bali but the other cartoon is sort of like my imagination. I mean it's a cartoon that I found online and I'm not crediting the artist which is terrible, of what it's like to be under the gaze of solo eating.
So Rockwell notes that the way people sit in groups, inhabit space, behave, and make eye contact, is all directly affected by the seating configuration of the restaurant. In other words, the forms of social engagement within restaurants is almost always contingent on how tables are arranged. Are there booths? Banquets? Spaces of communal dining? And I've noted in his article is the idea that the booth actually created a room within a room, private space for two, three, or four people.
And I wanna pause here for a moment and note that his concept of creating intimacy is predicated around the social unit that compromises two to four people. The booth allows for friends and loved ones to create a form of intimacy but one might ask what does booth dining afford the solo diner who may alternatively seek privacy via the booth or a form of stranger intimacy by sitting in a less protected environment at an open table or at the bar?
Rockwell's inability to imagine a space for the solo diner is not unusual. Simply put, these are not who restaurateurs are necessarily invested in. Despite the fact that solo dining, if we were to believe the recent results of the web booking service Open Table, reservations for solo dining have grown by 85% since 2015. And yet when one thinks about eating, one thinks about the conviviality of the eating experience. It is not just about what one eats, though in my case that's really kind of what's primarily important, but with whom and where one eats.
So one might ask, how do we work through the anxiety that seems to surround the idea of women eating out alone? As early as 1964, celebrated food writer Craig Claiborne discussed the subject. In an article that I love the title of, Dining Alone Can Cause Problems for a Woman, actually problem like who's this copy editor? He notes, some New York restaurants are reluctant to accept unescorted women during the dinner hour. He goes on to anecdotally share stories about ways that women have been successful in gaining reservations for solo dining. He applauds one particular diner for her approach which he describes as both naïve and ingenious but also notes that there are numerous women who do not know how to manage making reservations for dinner.
Curiously, perhaps, the problem stems not from women seeking to eat alone at lunch, but at dinner. There is, one of the interviewees says, not a place in town where a woman can't dine alone if she knows how to manage it. It should also be noted that Claiborne did come back to this topic many times and these are just two of the articles I just screen grabbed, persuading New York Times readers that eating alone did not have to be a chore for a single female diner and so while one may forgive readers in 1964 for thinking women should not eat out alone, one can't, perhaps, grant the same lapse in imagination for a restaurant that is less than accommodating of solo female diners in 2019.
In January of this year, it came to light that the Manhattan restaurant Nello came under fire for essentially refusing to seat a female solo diner. In an essay titled, quote, the Night I was Mistaken for a Call Girl, Clementine Crawford, a regular visitor to the restaurant describes an incident that seemed particularly ugly. She used to go to his restaurant for a year and often chose to sit at the bar alone and she remarks on being asked to sit at a table instead while a male diner was allowed to remain seated at the bar and she preferred to sit at the bar is her point. She writes, why, I wondered, was I suddenly being treated so frostily? Surely in America of all places, the customer was still king or in this case queen. After further interrogation it transpired that the owner had ordered a crack down on hookers, the free range escorts who were on the upper east side, hunting prey in his establishment. In other words, the restaurant had deemed that any solo diner could potentially be a sex worker.
Apart from the obviously sexist and misogynistic implications of suggesting that sex workers should be hidden from view, the restaurant also automatically coded Crawford as a sexual object. She continues, so when doing an optics inventory on their patrons, they treated the single woman girl in a patriarchal fashion. They automatically objectified, sexualized, and put me in a box, their treasure chest of pleasure. Would a man on a business trip or one who routinely ate alone have attracted the same attention and treatment? Well, no, clearly not because as I saw, they served him.
I begin with this as a way of centering the topic of my talk today and to address the large spread anxiety about eating alone and to think about the optics of eating alone. I think it's all too easy to say oh, it's just me and I don't feel comfortable eating alone but what if we pressed this logic to think about how we are often socialized to think that eating in public spaces comes with particular desires and demands for normativity. In particular, why does this social stigma so often focus on the visual, the sense that one is being looked at, that one's choices are being surveilled and scrutinized? To be sure, the dynamic that makes solo dining fascinating is not necessarily whether people are actually looking askance at solo diners but the anxiety that comes from the imagined freight of being an object that is looked at, pitied, and jeered. In short, how might looking at visually oriented works that teach us to look differently, allow us a different point of entry into understanding what it means to eat alone.
Though I may not have time to fully flush out all of the details, I want to discuss two different cultural objects today. The first is a series of photographs titled Dinner in New York and Dinner in Tokyo by Miho Aikawa and the second is an arrestingly beautiful scene from the novel by Sri Lankan American author Mary Ann Mohanraj. I juxtapose these two cultural objects because of the ways in which they train us to reorient our gaze on the solo diner. What if, instead of seeing isolation and a lack of happiness, we see scenes of solo eating as a profound act of intimacy that is brokered by a radically different relationship between the diner and their meal?
With that in mind, let us turn to the work of Miho Aikawa. In a series of 24 beautifully composed photos, Aikawa captures diners as they are eating dinner. In several of the photos, 17 to be exact, she captures people eating alone. The settings range from eating on the train, at the workplace, at home, in bed, in front of the TV, at home with a laptop, or at a restaurant and I'll show you these photographs in a second. In each photograph, we see a solitary figure in the middle of their meal. Their faces display neither happiness nor unhappiness. They are often focused on the act of eating, looking at their food, taking a bite out of a sandwich, slurping noodles, and on occasion their gaze is directed to another object such as a laptop, TV, or computer screen.
The people are of all ethnicities, races, and ages. They are variously clad in comfortable clothes, work attire, and pajamas. In her artist statement, Aikawa notes, quote, I have no intent on saying that having dinner with a cell phone is bad and eating alone is sad. My idea of this project is to propose what dinner is to people, how different it can be for everyone, and present the diversity found in this everyday act. When you enjoy mealtimes, you're more likely to eat better. With each photo, Aikawa invites us to see both the pleasure and intimacy of eating alone.
These aren't the kinds of scenes of unbridled happiness that are propagated by the now famous series of memes titled, Women Laughing Alone with Salad. In an article of the same name, Edith Zimmerman constructs a picture essay in which we see, and these are just some of the images, a series of stock photos of 19 thin, and mostly white women who seem to derive complete joy from eating salad. I just don't understand these people. These are not my people. Of course, what is present in these images, in contrast to those of Aikawa, is that there is nothing about the texture of everyday life captured in these meme-able photos. What is actually being sold is a kind of aspirational version of happiness. Fitting into an ideal of womanhood means not just eating your salad but laughing when you do so. I'm usually like why do I have to do this to myself? Why can't I be healthier in general, blah blah blah.
And so the perfect happy woman loves her salad and is thin and relishes that she can move through the world without feeling guilt. These women want to eat what they're supposed to eat and they are unquestioningly happy, even elated by it, right? I mean I love these images.
By contrast, Aikawa's photos traffic in no such idea of healthfulness. I'm gonna show you a few and I just want to note that this is the actual caption on each of these so there's usually an image of a person with a little bio about them and then their age, the time, and the location. And the people in these images simply are. They eat, they live their everyday lives, and the focus on the intimate setting of their meals unmasks the way in which eating is part of the texture of everyday life. And yet, while viewing these pictures, the viewer also establishes a moment of intimacy with these diners. We are not voyeurs but we have a glimpse into how they eat and how they move through the world.
Okay I'm just gonna show you a few of these. So in this particular image, we see a young woman, barefoot in her kitchen caught in medius rest as she's eating a strand of pasta. The caption tells us Quinny loves to cook simple dinner at home like pasta and enjoys taking the time to relax. The image conveys a sense of stillness. She's not ecstatic about her meal but we learn that she is simply partaking in an act she enjoys, eating a meal she has prepared for herself.
A photo from the dining in Tokyo series, captures a woman also in the middle of a bite. The artist notes, this is not the same image. This is the one. Okay. [inaudible 00:18:44] lives in an apartment by herself and usually has a quiet dinner in the dining room but when she is too exhausted she has a light meal on the bed watching TV. Again there is a simplicity to the everydayness of this moment. She sits at her dining table with a place setting laid out for her while she presumably enjoys a meal. Overall, the images that we see are quiet and are almost wholly unremarkable.
At heart, this photo series also tells stories about the lives of people in urban spaces. By placing these domestic scenes in public view, these photographs create an intimacy among diners who eat alone at home and those who eat alone in restaurants or the workplace. There is an unhurried quality about all of these photos. Whether the subject is someone like [inaudible 00:19:29] who we are told is a 52 year old woman who lives with her son and daughter but usually eats dinner alone watching TV. 22 year old [inaudible 00:19:39] who we see eating a salad, notice she's not smiling, and drinking a beer. We see women who clean out a space to eat a meal, without apparent regard or concern for how they are being looked at. Eating in both instances is an unhurried act and the photos capture the quiet moments of pleasure that each diner carves out for herself.
But what if we considered eating to be about more than a form of solo communion? What if we extend the narrative of solo dining pleasure to think about the possible underlying erotics of cooking and eating? Notably, must eating alone always suggest that one is excluded from the possibilities, pleasures, and erotics that immerge from sharing a meal?
To examine this, I turn now to a work that quite deliberately unsettles the idea that erotics of eating can only immerge from the normative structure of a couple sharing a meal. Rather, I wish to explore what it might mean to think about the erotics of eating when one is a solo diner. There is, of course, a long tradition of erotically charged images of women eating.
In 2009, I cannot give a talk and not talk about my favorite person in the world, Padma Lakshmi. I'm always trying to get her to like my comments on her Insta, but I'm not sure if I should comment on her cornrows 'cause I'd be like what were you doing? You should not have been appropriating but I don't know if you know about that but I was like maybe not. Anyway, so in 2009, she's the host of top chef, right? She famously appeared in a commercial devouring a hearty thick burger. It's also the same chain as Carl's Jr. I think. I'm not showing you the commercial but you can see some stills from it and we can certainly talk more about these images.
As she sits on a stoop of a building, her legs slightly akimbo, the camera focuses our gaze on her slowly and seductively eating her burger. As the sauce drips she licks it clean. Announcing that she has always had a love affair with food in the ad, she reveals how much she revels in the experience of not just eating but devouring a meaty burger. This is arguably the definition of food pornography but if we look at this advertisement another way, it is to be sure for the male gaze, but it is also a celebration of sorts of the female eater who will gleefully eat something other than a salad and revel in the fact that people are watching her. The pleasure in this moment is from the knowledge that she is eating alone but also that this intimate moment is very much in the public eye. I mean, it's to sell burgers.
And you may have seen other notably awesome women like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian doing the same ad. This is why you should write about food, you get to write about all kinds of interesting things.
So the gusts were a gazed that falls on Lakshmi is as much about watching her as it is about realizing that this is a moment of intimacy between a woman and her burger. Sometimes I have to laugh when I'm writing some of these things. I'm like is this what I'm writing actually? And it is in this pleasure of seeing and being seen that this scene from the ad acquires legibility.
And so to turn now to my final object, I wish to discuss the scene from the novel Bodies in Motion by the Sri Lankan American author Mary Ann Mohanraj. So in this novel, I'm focusing, or at least in my analysis of it, I'm focusing in particular on a character whose name is Mongai. She's a single woman who appears in two chapters of the novel and what's interesting is that this novel kind of refuses a narrative of compulsory heterosexuality within the kitchen so it's not about women who are cooking for their families and so in the first instance, I used the term refused to signal a rejection in favor of alternative epistemologies and in the second instance it signifies a refusing of ideology, one that creates a different kind of assemblage to negotiate the heterotropic space of the kitchen.
So the novel Bodies in Motion is a multi-generational novel that spans several decades through the 20th century and chronicles the stories of two extended families and their lives in Sri Lanka, Britain, and the US. In the novel, the possibilities of inhabiting queerness is enabled by the workings of the culinary. Through a series of interlocking stories that span the six decades from 1939 to 2002, the novel weaves a story of two families, the [inaudible 00:24:26]. In their search for a place to feel at home in the world, the characters in the novel continually negotiate the [inaudible 00:24:35] of immigration, war, and displacement that impact their everyday lives.
So, I mean, this is also a novel that starts in precolonial times, goes through the civil war, and then post civil war. And in particular it's about characters who are mostly of the ethnic Tamil group. And from the onset, the heterosexual scenes that stitch together the tapestry of this sprawling extended family are carefully unraveled. Through the course of the novel, marriage rarely acts as a guarantor of unyielding hetero normativity, right? Even the people who are married to like, you know, the marriage between a cis man and cis woman, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are not engaged in queer practices and indeed, some of these moments of queerness gently chip away at the edifice of heterosexuality around which the architecture of familial life is built.
And so one such narrative in the novel emerges through this character Mongai [inaudible 00:25:37] who remains unmarried into her old age. Like most of the characters in the novel, her story occupies little space within the larger narrative. Only two distinct vignettes among the 20 that make up the whole novel are specifically focused on Mongai and in fact one of the most important scenes occurs outside of the narrative time of the novel and is in sort of the afterward epilogue section. And we first encounter her character in 1948 when she is 17 years old and we don't see her enter the narrative again for another 48 years when she is 65 years old. And spatially the novel makes an analogous move where as she is first introduced in the northern city of Jaffna, the final section takes place in Columbo and what's interesting is that she is the only character in the novel who doesn't migrate, right? So she's the person who stays in place where everyone else has migrated.
And from the very first chapter when she's introduced, she is marked as a queer subject and there's a longer section that I took out of this where it really gets into this sort of very erotically charged scene of drinking water. I mean it's the most amazing scene of drinking water. If you thought that water was erotic, Mohanraj does a great job with it. And though she doesn't appear in the novel [inaudible 00:27:07], her story is reintroduced in the closing section of the book and at this moment the narrative centers on her weekly ritual which involves preparing an elaborate meal which is described as consisting of rice, fish, leeks, potatoes, and eggs large enough feed, I have a quotation here, to feed a man four times her size. That's only for her, only she will consume this meal. And her meal, which is the final meal of the novel and the final scene of the novel, is sort of this elaborate act of producing a kind of culinary perfection that is not about creating a network of care in any conventional sense. She's very much not a kind of maternal care taker who cooks for the heteronormative family.
So each week as she prepares the meals she's aware that the neighborhood girls all gather around the perimeter of her home and watch her and so the text writes that they peer in through cracks and over windowsills as she cooks but despite the sort of voyeuristic surveillance, she actually knows that they're all watching her and she's in her kitchen. She waits until they're settled before she cooks and it's sort of an unspoken part of the bargain with her neighbors.
But meal preparation is only one part of makes this moments of gustatory gaze seem interesting. As she cooks, Mongai takes off all of her clothes. As she stirs the potatoes, she undoes the hooks on her blouse. While the leeks braize in the pan with tumeric and salt, she unwraps the layers of sayer. She gradually prepares the meal, removing articles of clothing along the way. When her meal is prepared, she's completely naked in the kitchen and completely mindful that she has been under the watchful gaze of the girl children the whole time but at no point are the children ever allowed to join her meal but she performs for them none the less but in this solitary gesture of refusing to cook for children, I mean think about how often we sort of imagine parents, mothers especially, cooking for their children. That's just not who she is. She refuses to become wedded into an ideological system that would deem that women's labor must resolutely engage in a kind of pedagogue, teaching the next generation of wives and cooks to prepare meals for their families.
Rather, her pedagogical moves involve inviting implicitly a network of girls to contemplate that cooking can be about bodily pleasure and sensual self affirmation. That cooking isn't always about becoming good wives to future husbands. I wish my mom had taught me that. That cooking can be about pleasure and communing with the self and the text notes Mongai could tell the girls that this kind of cooking is not learned by watching or even by teaching, that it is only the passage of time that grinds the lessons into the muscle and bones but she cannot be bothered. So she never actually tells them anything but she is implicitly telling the reader this, right?
And so in addition to framing cooking as a learned bodily knowledge, the absence of caring about how others feel, the disinterest she so patently feels in feeding others might be understood as part of what makes her a resiliently queer figure. I'm gonna repeat some of the words that I brought up earlier, which are the posing words of the novel and this is the text you have here.
When the fish is ready Mongai turns off the last burner. She takes a plate down from the shelf, a battered tin. She fills a tin cup with cold water. She serves herself rice, fish, leeks, potatoes, eggs. There's enough on her plate to feed a man four times her size. She undoes the ties on her underskirt and lets it fall to the floor. Mongai carries the plate and cup over to the wall, she sits down cross-legged on the dirt floor with her naked back against the wall with the water sliding down, running along her wrinkled skin, over her ribs, pooling in the hollowness of her hips. She takes a drink from the cup and a sharpened edge cuts the corner of her lips. She balances the plate on her boney right knee and shuddering with pleasure, she eats.
So this is an interesting kind of contrast from I think, the longer work. I wanna sort of put this in conversation more with that scene of Padma Lakshmi's ad.
And so although she derives pleasure from this act of solitary eating, we might also consider this a form of disaffection in the terms that anthropologist Martin [inaudible 00:32:01] proposes. For [inaudible 00:32:04], disaffection is an alternative mode of domesticity and this is coming from his work on caregivers, Filipino gay men who are caregivers of the elderly in Israel who work as caregivers during the day and then at night are drag performers so if you haven't seen this, this is a fantastic. So his article is about this fantastic documentary called paper dolls which then became a musical called Care Divas and so his work in this article is based on the interviews with some of the, I'm sorry, it was based on a reading of the film in which some of these caregivers are interviewed.
And as he puts it about disaffection, disaffection is not resplendent in its heteronormative structure-ation but it's fraught with the intrusions and intersections of contradictory non-maternal feeling, interests and desires that immerge out of the benile, repetitive routines of domestic labor.
So this is, again, about people who are continually taking care of others and yet they are always imagined that if you're a care giver and if you're Filipino, of course you do it because you love to take care of other people and so his reading's really interesting because it's kind of intervening in that discourse and saying sometimes you do things because it's just what you do and that's where the disaffection comes in. It's not really about because one is supposedly nationally like that is a national characteristic to care for people which is actually what gets said about Filipino caregivers and so Mongai resolutely enjoys cooking but she's not interested in cooking for others. She displays traces of disaffection that inhabit an alternative mode of domesticity in so far that cooking for her is about making herself happy but not about making others happy in the conventional ways in which women are imagined to be happy homemakers who will willingly slave over a hot stove to prepare intricate meals for loved ones.
And yet this space becomes one of female intimacy, not because Mongai necessarily wishes it to be so. As she puts it, there are no boys outside, only girls. That is one of the rules strictly enforced by the parents but not by Mongai. Only girls outside to see what they will become in time. She brings her neighbors more pleasure as present scandal than she ever could as past expulsion. So even though she's not expelled as a queer woman that everyone knows as queer, the presence brings them a scandalous level of pleasure that than they could if they got rid of her from the community. It is at times like this that they have an excuse to tell her story again. It will give them something to talk about for days. In a way, it's almost a gift she gives them. Perhaps they know it but she does not do it from them.
Right this way, Mongai ceases to be a pitiable figure or even a [inaudible 00:35:14] for triumphing over adversity. She is neither unhappy nor happy and so rather than viewing her as a failed subject who falls out of narratives of normative couples, whether queer, straight, or gay, I would suggest that she's a queer single figure whose everyday demeanor embodies the kind of resilience precisely because her narrative is not about being happy or unhappy.
Her cooking, which as she puts it is about sustaining her on a normal day, positions her as a subject who has managed to overcome various kinds of violence. Both as a result of her position as an ethnic female and as a queer woman. While neither of the vignettes, I'm also referring to the one that I didn't discuss, disclose what happens to her in full detail, we learn that in the intervening years spanning the Civil War and what takes place presumably after this, she was shot and that the neighbors scandalized by the woman who had lived with her servant for decades in a house with only one bed. A woman who they had insulted behind her back and to her face. They left her for dead, bleeding out on the floor of her home while they looked the other way.
She is thus guilty of being both the wrong ethnicity and of not being in a conventionally normative relationship. So there is a refusing of what violence looks like. The center against the ethicized body becomes linked to homophobic violence. In either case she is a queer figure, an assemblage whose very presence disturbs the community in which she lives.
She refuses to allow the failure of entering into couplehood to exile her from the kitchen, though. Though she may not be a conventional figure, preparing food within the home space to produce or reproduce a kind of culinary nationalism, she does not stop cooking.
In this, she almost takes an intense pleasure in cooking only for herself, thus embodying a kind of culinary resilience because cooking is about making herself happy. So her affective landscape thus negotiates between a sense of disaffection and resilience. Disaffection because her work is about a kind of queer pleasure that does not simply seek to reproduce culinary subjects in the next generation and resilience because she's not interested in being redeemed through her cooking and because she continues to live even after she negotiates difficulties of everyday living in a homophobic and xenophobic context.
So the novel thus re-situates the figure of the cook within her home so that her pedagogical imperative is not always about being a wife or a mother, or for that matter a partner in a couple situation and in remapping the contours of south Asian food ways, [inaudible 00:37:54], the author allows for other topographies, not circumscribed by an implicit hetero-normativity. Food indexes queer joy because it is through and against the act of preparing meals that Mongai, amid this narrative of a sprawling family, actually gets to have the last word in the novel.
And so at heart there is a startling symmetry at work in the simultaneous refusal of both these works to invest in perfection as an uncomplicated objective. Happiness in both works is not about creating the perfect meal to be shared with a partner, parent, or child. It is about creating possibilities for intimacy to immerge for the solo diner. In the broader cultural context in which these texts operate, there is an expectation and sort of the discourse of multiculturalism, right? The idea that we learn about others by eating their food and eating with them. There is an expectation of pleasure and joy in the act of cooking and eating. One often expects the act of consumption to be about pleasure and eating food is often about producing happiness. One feels better about difference if one can eat the food of the other and eating is so often predicated on the notion that the commensal tradition is about celebration and perfect endings.
After all, if sharing meals is not about happiness, what, arguably, is the point of commensality and conviviality? Works like Aikawa's and Mohanraj's unsettle the notion that food must always be narrated within heteronormative frameworks. Within the moments of failure are moments of possibility and desire and I [inaudible 00:39:24] to be more of a generative position within the context that Jack Halberstam describes in the Queer Art of Failure. He notes, under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing, may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world. The space time of both Aikawa's photos and Mohanraj's novel, thus, is an evolving present.
Beyond the happily ever afters that presumably eating together can secure, are moments of non-perfect delight and failure and as I suggested earlier, we can see a certain kind of disaffection at play but perhaps also without recourse to the very near liberal implications of the term resilience, we can think of this form of solo dining as a kind of culinary resilience. The term resilience is one I was sort of unsure about whether I should include and that's why it's sort of on my handwritten section that I did this morning.
And so following literary studies scholar Madelyn Detloff, I suggest that resilience stands against normative forms of writing and Detloff notes, resilient writing defers from redemptive writing in its refusal to make loss into a metaphor for something else. It diverges from the unspeakable hypothesis by recognizing the attempts to invent new methods of recognizing community. It respects the dynamic relations between the particularities of suffering than the temporalities of living.
So, in the works I have, and I'm almost finished here, in the works I have discussed today the solo diner is not a reviled figure who needs to be redeemed and Michael Cobbs and I also have singled him as failure is an important critical corollary to my own argument about culinary resilience. His brilliant analysis about the reviled status of the single person articulates well with my point about Mongai's queer and reviled status. Cobb notes, quote, part of the reason being single is terrible is that it's been made into a mystifying condition, marked by failure, characterized by an almost un-assimilible oddity despite its always threatening ubiquity.
And yet, if anything, these works ask us to look differently at the solo diner. If we read through the gaps in [inaudible 00:41:50], we do not see the solo diner as a pathetic figure who has failed. Rather we see eating as something that is enmeshed in the everyday ways of being resilient and against conditions of new liberalism. And perhaps this is where the queerness of these figures of solo dining lie. They are not so easily co-opted into narratives of hetero-normativity and this is precisely what makes them desirable, erotic, and dangerous and yet within such a worldview, when the queer subject and the solo diner continues to cook and continue to live, it becomes possible to embrace the queerness of failure and the happily never afters, to relish meals that are not perfect but delightful and to smile just a little with Mongai's happiness in the face of failure when she declares, quote, none of these meals came out perfectly, somehow she always managed to ruin them. Secretly, she was glad.