Read the author interview with Professor William Dalessio on his recently published book, Are We What We Eat?

Cambria Press is pleased to announce that Are We What We Eat? Food and Identity in Late Twentieth-Century American Literature by William Dalessio is now available.

Below is a transcript of the Q&A session with Professor Dalessio.


1. Why did you decide to write this book?

I decided to write Are We What We Eat? Food and Identity in Late Twentieth-Century American Literature because I recognized the important roles that cooking and eating play in the process of identity formation both in literature and in life. I first began to analyze food in literature extensively when, as a graduate student in a course on ethnic American women writers, I read Tina DeRosa’s novel Paper Fish.  Although set in the Italian-American ghetto of  Chicago during the postwar years, the novel immediately reminded me of my childhood just outside of Providence, Rhode Island, during the 1970s and 1980s.  More specifically, the characters of Sarah—with her indifference and sometimes aversion to her culinary tasks—and her mother-in-law Doria—with her hearty appetite—reminded me of my mother and paternal grandmother, respectively, to whom I dedicate my book. De Rosa put into words what I knew as a child when I watched my mother running around the kitchen, trying to have supper ready before my father got home, and my immigrant grandmother enjoying the same foods that she ate in Italy: Cooking and eating play a crucial part in shaping and determining one’s ethnic, cultural, and gender identities.

After Paper Fish, I read other cotemporary pieces of ethnic American literature by writers such as Julia Alvarez, Oscar Hijuelos, and Gish Jen, who, like De Rosa, prominently featured incidents of food preparation and food consumption in their texts.  As I looked to outside sources to enhance my understanding of culinary signification in these pieces, I discovered that there was (and still is) relatively little scholarship on food in literature.  Through my research, I also learned that to date most of the scholarship on cooking and eating in ethnic American literature has focused on a specific group but has not provided an analysis that considers the common culinary, historical, and cultural experiences among several ethnic groups.  Because of this, I decided to write a book that provides a cross-cultural literary analysis while, at the same time, considers the specific ways that each ethnic group was and (in some cases, still is) marginalized by the dominant American culture.

2.  What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

I hope that my readers will understand how food functions in the literature and, by implication, in American culture.  I offer a theory of culinary signification in my book’s introduction, and in each chapter, I illustrate this theory by analyzing two texts that present incidents of cooking and eating in a thematically similar way.  In my first chapter, which focuses on Our House in the Last World and Typical American, novels by Oscar Hijuelos and Gish Jen respectively, I look at how American  immigrants used cooking and eating as survival strategies either to assimilate into the dominant American culture or to maintain a visceral connection to their mother cultures.  In my analysis of Tina De Rosa’s novel Paper Fish and Peter Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate, the subject of my second chapter, I draw the connection between cooking and storytelling—two creative acts that allow third-generation Americans to embark on imaginative journeys to their ancestral homelands.  I continue with my comparison of Julia Alvarez’s novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Andrew X. Pham’s memoir Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, which include actual journeys that American immigrants take to their homelands, where they hope to assume “authentic” cultural identities through acts of eating.  Then, in my fourth chapter I discuss Oreo by Fran Ross and Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen, two novels whose female protagonists work to undermine essentialist views of race, ethnicity, and gender by satisfying their physical and emotional hungers.

I conclude my book by explaining that I have provided a specific and subjective way of analyzing cooking and eating in these eight texts, and I suggest other ways of organizing and interpreting them.  I do this, in part, because I hope that readers will look to my book as an example of how to discuss food in literature in a scholarly and comprehensive way.  I hope that by writing this book, I will encourage others to seriously consider the importance of cooking and eating in these eight texts and in other pieces of literature.

3.  What other research do you believe is needed on this topic?

I believe that much more research on food in ethnic American literature is needed because, to date, there has been relatively little scholarship on this important topic.  Certainly many late-twentieth century authors, such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ntozake Shange (whose texts I did not include in my book), demonstrate how cooking and eating work to shape one’s racial, ethnic, and gender identities; and in the twenty-first century, this trend continues in novels and memoirs by writers such as Diana Abu-Jaber, Louise DeSalvo, and Nancy Rawls. To be sure, there are many works of ethnic American literature, featuring cooking and eating, that are ripe for serious literary analysis. I hope that Are We What We Eat? will be one of many books that considers this topic.


With analysis that is articulate and accessible to most, Are We What We Eat? will be an illuminating study for all who are interested in food, ethnicity, or gender in American culture.

Recommend this book to your librarian today! They can order it directly from Cambria Press or they can order through their preferred academic book wholesaler (Cambria Press is on the approval list of premier wholesalers like YBP).

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