Food and Identity

In my last post I wrote about the fried food eaten at the Jewish festival of Hannukah; the food laws and various culinary traditions of Judaism provide a key way in which Jews signal their identity to the wider world.

But you don’t have to follow strict food rules and practices to tell people who you are via the food you eat. Like the clothes we wear and the music we listen to, the food we eat sends out clear signals about our identity.

In Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea food occupies an important position in a literary exploration of the interplay between nationality and identity.

Inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester – the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre – her marriage to Edward Rochester and how she is driven to madness. Always known as Bertha in Bronte’s novel, in Rhys’ she is Antoinette, but ‘renamed’ by Rochester, and thus given a new identity, after they have married – an early sign of the control he will exert over her for the duration of their marriage:

‘Don’t laugh like that, Bertha.’
‘My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?’
‘Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha.’

In Bronte’s novel, Antoinette / Bertha is silenced – reduced to an animal-like being:

What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

However, Rhys restores her dignity and power, giving her a voice and making her the principal narrator of the novel.

Part One of Wide Sargasso Sea is set during Antoinette’s childhood, before she meets Rochester. As in Bronte’s novel, Antoinette is Creole (a white person of British or European descent who has been born in the Caribbean). Born and raised in Jamaica, her ambiguous identity is highlighted in the novel’s opening paragraph:

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.
She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl.

Rejected by both the whites and the Jamaicans, Antoinette and her family occupy a problematic position in 1830s Jamaican society. With Jamaica being a British colony, the family’s situation is exacerbated by the fact that Antoinette’s mother is a white Creole from Martinique, a neighbouring Caribbean island and French colony.

The family’s rejection by Jamaican society, and difficulty in establishing a clear sense of identity, is presented by Rhys as one of the factors that precipitates the madness that befalls both Antoinette and her mother in this novel.

Food is also used by Rhys to highlight issues around identity. Christophine, Antoinette’s maid – also from Martinique – takes charge of the cooking. However, near the beginning of the novel, Antoinette’s mother remarries following the death of her husband. Her new husband – Mr Mason – is an Englishman who has come to Jamaica to make money. He brings various English customs to the household, including food, as Antoinette notes:

We ate English food now, beef and mutton, pies and puddings.
I was glad to be like an English girl but I missed the taste of Christophine’s cooking.

Whilst Antoinette clearly does not like English food as much as the Caribbean food she has been brought up on, she feels a profound sense of relief that what she is now eating is giving her the sense of identity she previously lacked. She eats English food, so is on her way to becoming an English girl.

Rhys goes into no detail about the food Antoinette now eats – it is simply generic English food of ‘beef and mutton, pies and puddings‘ – so that gave me plenty of culinary freedom. With the weather being still so cold at the moment, I fancied a good old-fashioned English pudding and thought I would try making a ‘spotted dick’ – with its schoolboy snigger-inducing name, it’s a pudding that has ‘English’ written all over it!

Ingredients (Serves 6):
150g plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
75g vegetable suet
120g dried fruit (I used a mixture of raisins, cranberries and cherries)
75g caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of 1 orange
90ml milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix the flour, baking powder, suet, dried fruit, sugar, salt and orange zest in a large bowl.
Add the orange juice and milk to the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Grease a pudding basin with butter and spoon the mixture into it.
Cover the top of the basin with a piece of folded, greaseproof paper (to allow the pudding to expand) and tie securely around the circumference with string.
Place the basin into a large saucepan, ideally placing it on an inverted jam jar lid to lift it off the base of the saucepan. Pour boiling water into the saucepan and between half and two-thirds up the side of the basin. Place a lid on the saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for one hour. Make sure the saucepan does not boil dry.
Serve with custard or cream.

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