The Politics of the Plate: Foodways and Southern Culture in Ernest Gaines' Of Love and Dust

By Jennifer Morrison


Ernest Gaines's second novel Of Love and Dust appears to revolve around the conflict between two men: one a black convict sent to work off his sentence on Marshall Plantation, the other his white overseer in pre-Civil Rights Era Louisiana. The text naturally engages in discourses of masculinity, race, sexuality, and segregation. Yet the conflict between Marcus, the convict, and Sidney Bonbon, the overseer, engulfs all of the inhabitants of Marshall Plantation and impacts every aspect of its contained society, right down to the plates on the dinner tables. While the novel ends with Marcus's murder by Bonbon, there are other minor moments in the story that simmer with the same tension that leads to the explosion of violence at its end. Gaines uses food and kitchen politics in these small moments to explore the major conflicts of a post-World War II Southern society on the brink of technological and social change.

First, he complicates the image of the black domestic in the text through three characters with very different perspectives: Miss Julie Rand, Marcus's aunt and former head cook of Marshall Plantation; Aunt Margaret, Sidney and Louise Bonbon's domestic worker; and Pauline, current head cook at Marshall Plantation and Sidney Bonbon's lover. Then, Gaines highlights the kitchen as a space of conflict and negotiated power on the plantation while also interrogating the dynamics between the "Big House" and the "Quarters." Finally, he combines food and space to express the individuality and humanity of his characters, challenge segregation, and resist dominant ideologies regarding race, sexuality, and masculinity in the South. By looking at three key scenes situated around food or in food spaces, we see that moments of consumption and food appear in the text as layered with multiple meanings that rely on intricate knowledge regarding Louisiana culture and Southern society.

Susan Kalcik argues that by eating the food of different ethnicities, "we symbolize the acceptance of each group and its culture" (1984:65).The dynamics of this acceptance are complicated, though, particularly in regards to the black women who worked as domestics in the South. As Deane Curtin notes, "There is a dynamic between those who marginalize and those whose lives are marginalized. While everyone eats, some are enabled by the conceptual scheme of a dominant philosophical culture to bracket off those food-related experiences, to leave them unspoken and unacknowledged" (1992:4). In Of Love and Dust, this dynamic is magnified through the lives of the three domestic workers: Pauline, Mrs. Julie Rand, and Aunt Margaret. These women, especially because of their occupation, represent the marginalization of African Americans in Southern culture, even as that culture relies on them for sustenance. Many black women worked across the nation as cooks, and the image of the warm and nurturing Mammy1 emerged from their prolific presence in American homes. As such, their identities are defined, sometimes completely, by the consumption practices of the people they served. Gaines's domestics simultaneously engage and defy the stereotypes surrounding the typical African American female domestic worker, popularly characterized as Mammy in the American cultural imagination.

Pscyhe A. Williams-Forson argues that "whereas black men were considered a major threat to white American society, images of black women as mammies, cooks, and caretakers were perceived as a salve to soothe the burdens caused by a burgeoning society" (2006:7). From folk to popular culture, Mammy's image has been used to sell products and forward cultural narratives about black women's domestic prowess and social submission. And much like in folk and popular culture, actual domestic workers, as black women with a skill that was valuable to the plantation, had a negotiated status in the community. As masters of the kitchen, the space where their status and dominance was most realized, African American domestics in the Deep South had a special and complicated access to power. By preparing food, particularly food that was a part of their own folkways and traditions, these workers were allowed to be in close domestic spaces with whites in ways that black men were not. This access engendered a sense of responsibility and community that tied black domestic workers to these families. The acceptance that many black domestics received was limited, though, even as they were allowed in the kitchen to prepare food. Most black people, regardless of gender, were relegated to segregated housing, schools, water fountains, and public facilities. There is tension here, in that those who are responsible for food production are regarded as impure,2 thereby violating the rules regarding racial purity that regulated social relations throughout the Jim Crow South. The message to these domestics/cooks/preparers of food and sustenance was that their skills and foodways were acceptable within a specific and controlled context, but other aspects of their identity were not.

Gaines sees the acceptance of the skills and folkways of black women as a means of maintaining Southern society's values while simultaneously upholding segregation. In addition, the kitchen space complicates the relationships between the members of Gaines's fictional communities and pushes Kalcik's argument about food and acceptance into discussions revolving around gender, race, ethnicity, and food culture. However, the domestic workers that appear in Gaines's fiction are manipulative and cunning, completely subverting the image of the sweet and docile Mammy. Because Gaines focuses on the interaction of the domestic worker inside and outside the kitchen and within the context of the African American community, a more complex portrait of this cultural figure emerges. One of the ways Gaines reimagines the role of the domestic worker in his fiction is by reconfiguring the kitchen space into a zone of contact and contestation between members of the community across ethnic, gender, and class lines.3

By doing so, Gaines challenges the notion of a benign and nostalgic pastoral. In Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature, Thadious Davis argues that black authors like Gaines use space in the South as a means of addressing social, political, and psychological boundaries and stratification. Davis argues that for Gaines, the segregated South and Jim Crow may be a reality in the eyes of the law, but socially and psychologically it is an illusion (2011:290). Intimate relationships cross the color line with impunity, especially when it comes to the lived experiences of the domestic worker who must prepare, serve, and ultimately nurture white families. The shattering of this illusion and the myths propagated by laws and other narratives surrounding the South are the primary concerns of Gaines's fiction. The most notable way Gaines shatters this illusion in Of Love and Dust is through the politics of the plate.

Manipulation and the Mother: Confronting Masculinity Take One

Most of the action in Of Love and Dust takes place on plantation property in a small town. Because Gaines's fiction is confined to these locations, each action, particularly the smaller ones, are magnified in meaning. This makes the plantation, with its distinctions between the "Big House" and the "Quarters" and the incremental spaces like bedrooms and kitchens, a site of tension. Gaines's characters may be confined to seemingly small domains, but the power dynamics that play out over these small spaces have high stakes. The proximity of the kitchen to rooms in the "Big House" that black servants were forbidden to enter make these spaces "highly symbolic thresholds" (Titus 1992:15).

Gaines uses the plantation in his work, as Davis notes in Southscapes, by intertwining it with prison culture, where "the spatial geography of the physical world utilizes the plantation and the social geography of first slavery and then segregation to constitute the incarceral for African Americans" (2011:293-4). The plantation thus functions as a panopticon for its inhabitants. They are all constantly being watched. Miss Julie Rand, Marcus's aunt and the former cook at Marshall Plantation, understands the constant surveillance and enlists Jim Kelly, the narrator of the novel and a field hand, to help keep Marcus out of trouble. For example, Miss Julie believes that Marcus must be "broken" by Sidney Bonbon, the overseer, if Marcus is to function in "his place" on the plantation and fully serve out his sentence. Miss Julie Rand is no fool, as another character Pa Bully says about Marcus,

"That one won't be here long, Pa Bully."
"And on the other hand he might."
"Six feet under, you mean?" Aunt Ca'line said.
"Six feet under," Pa Bully said. (1967:74)

As the cook on the plantation for forty years, Miss Julie Rand understands the dynamics of the plantation and she knows that Sidney Bonbon is a brutal man who will have to break Marcus in order for him to submit to the plantation system. Because she was in the kitchen as a domestic worker for so long, she has incriminating information regarding the illegal activities of both Hebert and Bonbon. Jim says:

I nodded, but I didn't believe her. To me she was a little old gangster just like Bonbon was. She was even worse than Bonbon. Bonbon was white and you expect this of white people. But she was my own race–and a woman too. (10)

Rand disgusts Jim, and it is her attempted manipulation of him that turns him off the most. It is the incongruity between her identity as an "aunty" or "mama" figure and her behavior that disturbs him. Rand appears as

a very small old lady, and now sitting there with her feet hardly touching the floor, she looked even smaller. Her head was tied in an old pink rag, and her gray dress nearly touched the floor. The old brown slippers on her feet looked pretty near old as she did. (10)

Miss Julie Rand is one of the elders of the community, respected because of her former occupation as cook at Marshall Plantation. She also assumes the posturing of a maternal figure in her conversation with Jim. She does this because she knows it will make Jim deferential, as he would never disrespect an elder in the community to which he still belongs. She needs Jim to submit to her needs in order to convince him to make Marcus submit on the planation.

Miss Julie Rand is also the only representative of Marcus's family in the entire novel. She raised Marcus and negotiates with Jim for his welfare. Part of Jim's anxiety is the behavior Rand's status excuses. Kelly Oliver argues that, "Within our culture, for the child who needs to become an autonomous subject, the maternal body is threatening even when it is fascinating and sublime. That body, the body without borders, the body out of which this abject subject came, is impossible.... It is a horrifying, devouring body. It is a body that evokes rage and fear" (1992:69). Rand requests Jim's help because Jim is a part of her community. In a sense, he is one of the "children" who will respect her. Jim is disgusted partly because of her insistence on his submission in order to enforce Marcus's, but also because of her "devouring" body that assumes his will to be an extension of her own-Oliver's "body without borders." For Jim, Miss Julie Rand and Marcus represent the part of the black community of Bayonne that will not recognize each of its inhabitants as autonomous subjects. This is why Miss Julie can demand so much of Jim. It is also why Jim, despite his reservations, will ultimately carry out her wishes.

Rand feels she can enlist Jim's help because of her former position as cook. She claims, "I ain't saying they owe me nothing. Because they was good people to me when I was there. . . . But sometimes good people forget.... Sometimes they need reminding what you did" (113). Rand cannot make the people whom she really feels owes her–Bonbon and Marshall Hebert–bend to her will, so she must manipulate Jim instead. It falls on Jim's head to take care of Marcus and thus ensure the stability of the plantation. Jim's assessment of Rand is rooted in sexist notions of what women, particularly older maternal figures, are supposed to do or be. She is too direct with her manipulations and she has violated the code that is only made explicit later in the text: no one speaks ill of Marshall Hebert. Yet mostly, Jim resents her drive to make him control Marcus. Marcus, for the most part, is relatively disinterested in his aunt, as he notes later that no one is going to protect him. He tells Jim, "When they let me out of jail, I promised myself I was go'n look out only for myself; and I wasn't go'n expect no more from life than what I could do for myself" (253). For all of her power on the Marshall Plantation, Miss Julie Rand could not protect Marcus from systemic racism and economic exploitation at the hands of the church and state. Marcus's disillusionment with institutions is directly juxtaposed with his aunt's strategic and oddly cynical belief in them. On the one hand, Rand realizes that Marcus is in trouble and she understands the stakes. On the other hand, she will not acknowledge the system that will eventually crush Marcus. Instead, she speaks in "code"4 to Jim, relying on his interpretation of their shared understanding of plantation "rules."

Ultimately, the root of Marcus and then Jim's resentment of Rand stems from her refusal to name the real danger or threat. As a way to soften the blow of her request, Miss Julie Rand ends her meeting with Jim with another offer, one of nourishment. She says, "Let's go eat some ice cream" (15). Trudier Harris notes that with older female characters in African American literature, often "there is an implied ideology of domination–emotional domination, though sometimes physical as wellin most of their interactions with their offspring.... In such cases these mothers may inadvertently replicate the power dynamics of masters over enslaved persons for they seldom allow anyone to challenge their authority" (2001:14). Part of Rand's tactics for domination is to use food, especially a comfort food or luxury item like ice cream, to lessen the blow of her manipulation. In post-war American culture, ice cream was considered a treat, an item enjoyed as a reward or as comfort food for its consumers. In this moment in the novel, ice cream signifies as a reward to Jim for his acquiescence, but it is an infantilizing one. Ice cream is a dairy product, indirectly tied to the original food of maternal nourishment, milk. Lisa Hedlke argues that "our standard example of altruism is the mother who feeds her children first" (1992:303). Children are given ice cream as a reward, and Jim is not a child. Miss Julie Rand, by offering ice cream, can reassure herself and possibly convince Jim Kelly that she is not just acting out of self-interest. The food item functions as an exchange to "massage" the magnitude of her request. Jim, however, sees her machinations in direct keeping with the oppressive nature of the plantation system.

Sexuality, Race, and Food: Of Catfish-Easting Cajuns and Loving

Pauline is no Mammy. Unlike Aunt Margaret and Miss Julie Rand, she is portrayed as sexually desirable to most of the men on the plantation. However, Jim is not judgmental of Pauline or of the way she uses her sexuality to access a higher status on the plantation, and he seems to be able to logically assess her motivations. This reveals the brutal reality of plantation life for black women. Gaines writes that Bonbon, "laid with all and any of them" (62), but he eventually settled on and fell in love with Pauline. The fact that Bonbon singles out one woman for his attention is actually seen as an advantage for Pauline, because now she can negotiate for higher status. It is also clear that her status as cook, or maid, in the "Big House" comes with many benefits, like better clothes, better food, and air conditioning. Most of the women on the plantation are field workers who, in addition to toiling under the hot sun in harsh working conditions, are subjected to sexual exploitation by the overseer. So although Bonbon is in love with her, and eventually she with him, Pauline is essentially sparing other women in the field from sexual exploitation. Perhaps Jim's sympathetic narration of Pauline stems from both an understanding of her plight and his own understanding of the practical dynamics of plantation life for any sexually desirable or vulnerable black woman. In this environment, Jim recognizes the cruelty of holding Pauline accountable for something that she ultimately has no control over, her own sexuality. Yet he also seems to understand her prowess in maneuvering to get to a better position on the plantation. Pauline, because she has grown to love Bonbon, can achieve some sense of power because of his desire and love for her.

Marcus is not as sympathetic to Pauline's plight as Jim is, primarily because he wants to seduce her and take her away from Bonbon as revenge for the latter's harsh treatment of him in the field. Marcus knows that Bonbon wants to break him, but he believes that he can take that brutality if only he can have Pauline. Marcus believes that Pauline will see him as a better option than Bonbon, who was "not even a solid white man, but a bayou, catfish-eating Cajun" who could not "compete with him when it came to loving" (57). Marcus distinctively labels Bonbon as Cajun. This is notable because he sees him as non-white, even though other characters in the novel understand his status as that of a white man. His Cajun identify is then emphasized and quantified by a cultural foodway, the eating of catfish. In order to completely understand the insult, it is important to understand that for Marcus, and for many other members of the plantation, Sidney Bonbon is not a "white" man. In post-war South Louisiana, Cajuns were still a unique ethnic group with a strong regional identity which they were able to preserve due to geographical isolation, limited educational opportunities, and little access to technology.5

Marie Hebert-Leiter argues that Gaines uses Cajuns in his literature as a form of racial mediation: "His fiction depicts a complex racial hierarchy; Cajuns' 'white' identity remains complicated to some degree because of popular notions of Cajuns as lower-class and, implicitly, less white in the minds of the wealthy landowners and their African American workers" (2006:95). Through the romantic relationships of Bonbon and Pauline, and later of Bonbon's wife Louise and Marcus, the boundaries that prohibit interaction between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South are transgressed primarily because of the close proximity between the two groups. Bonbon and Louise are signified as not "white" in part because of their status as the overseer and his wife–they are not the owner and the mistress of the plantation. Whatever racial mediation the characters in Of Love and Dust achieve through their romantic and sexual behavior is still limited to those "whites" of a lower class status.

This explains how Marcus processes Bonbon as a threat and romantic rival for both Louise and Pauline, in that he is incredulous that anyone would choose the "catfish-eating Cajun" over him. While many of the residents of South Louisiana consume catfish, the combination of Cajun and catfish signifies a specific cultural insult. Catfish are bottom dwellers, a metonym for how Marcus and Southern society saw Cajuns.6 Aunt Margaret and Miss Julie Rand are unwilling to lay any blame for the events that happen in the text at the feet of Marshall Hebert, the owner of the plantation, because as the owner, he is a "real" white man. It is Bonbon and his family of Cajuns on the river who are blamed for starting trouble with the blacks on the plantation after the murder of Marcus. Aunt Margaret tells Jim Kelly in the final chapter of the novel, "These Cajuns know you and that boy lived in the same home, and they might get it in their heads to do you something" (278). Jim is not afraid of "the Cajuns," of course, as he knows it is Marshall Hebert who is ultimately in charge of his fate. Yet he recognizes the need for the blacks on the plantation to blame the Cajuns because of their proximity to them and their status as not quite white.

For Gaines, the combining of Cajuns with a specific foodway is a shorthand way of signifying their status to the reader of Louisiana literature. Mary Ann Wimsatt notes that, "since the existence of social hierarchies constitutes one of the defining characteristics of southern culture and writing, in the work of these authors certain types of food are consistently associated with the tastes and mores of a given social class."(1992:63) Gaines combines eating, sex, and identity to discount Bonbon as a considerable rival. Marcus's understanding of Bonbon is filtered through food and culture, which he connects to sex. Roger Abrahams argues that conversation, eating, and sex are shared with others based on both cultural and personal dynamics (1984:30). In other words, people are selective about who they talk, eat, and have sex with based on the cultural mores, or rules, of any given society. All aspects of eating signifies status, which includes who we eat with and what we eat when we do. Marcus's designation of Bonbon as a "catfish-eating Cajun" is a power move in the text. By assigning him this identity, Marcus assumes power over his overseer by stripping him of his whiteness. The insult is an intimate and pointed understanding of the unique foodways and cultural dynamics of Cajun identity through the eyes of a black man in the South.

Manipulation and the Mother: Confronting Masculinity Take Two

The kitchen consistently features as a space of conflict and negotiation in Of Love and Dust. From the fight Marcus starts at the Saturday house fair that turns riotous to the sneaking sexual trysts between Bonbon and Pauline, the kitchen as a space is eroticized, through sex and violence, by the inhabitants of the plantation. Aunt Margaret, an older domestic who is currently assigned to the overseer's home on Marshall Plantation, is one of the few people who is privy to the details of the affair between Louise and Marcus. Jim enlists Aunt Margaret to help keep Marcus away from Louise. Of course she fails, but she manages to keep her distance from Marcus, ignoring him as he and Louise trespass together in every room of the house except the kitchen, Aunt Margaret's domain. Until, one day, they do. Marcus shares a meal with Louise in Bonbon's house, sitting at Bonbon's kitchen table.

The confrontation that follows in the kitchen between Aunt Margaret and Marcus is a moment of intraracial gender conflict and an embodiment of the tensions between blacks under the plantation system. It is the moment where Marcus tests Aunt Margaret's power as he is starting to exercise his own autonomy and assert himself as a man. While the overseer's kitchen is a step below that of the "Big House," it is still a space where Southern rules of racial submission are in place: for example, Aunt Margaret does not eat with Louise and Bonbon when she serves them. Jack Hicks argues that Of Love and Dust "grants that the historical legacy of racism, or fate, or a kind of social inertia may well dominate, but it offers a partial reconciliation between a black man and his historical past...and his psychic need for dignity and freedom" (1997:11) Marcus and Louise's meal is a major turning point in the novel, one that offers this reconciliation with an oppressive past and a glimpse into a different future and way of being. It is the moment where Marcus moves into a new sense of self. The scene vacillates between playful and suspenseful, the tension resting on whether or not Bonbon will come home and catch Marcus openly interacting with his wife, sitting at his table and eating his food and symbolically taking his place. While Marcus is ultimately not able to leave the plantation and be free of all of the constraints placed on black masculinity in the South during this era, his ascending to the status as the "man" of the house and eating at the table is a challenge to the conventions of Southern society.

Robley Evans argues that "the preparation of food and its eating can be read as tropes signifying the hierarchal levels of class structure in which an individual introjects–or rejects–social identity" (1992:142). Meals are laden with meaning in Gaines's novel, and the subversion of a meal is a sign that the dynamics of the relationships between the characters has changed. Louise normally eats her dinner with Bonbon and their daughter Tite, and she has done so for all the years she has been a married woman on the plantation. The moment where she eats with Marcus is interesting because it resembles a relatively normal dinner with her husband, Bonbon, but instead she is eating it with Marcus. The only difference is the man, but this difference means everything as it upends the natural order of Southern society. Normally, eating dinner with Bonbon at the head of the table represents Louise's submission to her white husband, Aunt Margaret's submission to the white family, and Tite's submission to her father. The closest any black man gets to this ritual is working the fields outside, far away on the plantation property. Marcus assuming Bonbon's seat does not disrupt the patriarchal order, because the head of the table is still occupied by a man, but it does challenge, and even upend, just about every rule regarding race and masculinity in Southern society at the time.

The only people to bear witness to this transgression are Louise and Aunt Margaret, but their presence is important. Like Miss Julie Rand and Pauline, Aunt Margaret represents an idea of black womanhood that is closely linked with power in this society, the cook of the plantation kitchen. As cooks, these women belong to the plantation, and the fruits of their labor are to be enjoyed by the Big House's or overseer's family: Bonbon, Louise, or Marshall Hebert. Williams-Forson notes that, "Mothers, by and large, control and determine the foodways–obtainment, preparation distribution, and even consumption–within the family. They also monitor social mores, which are a microcosm of behaviors deemed right by society" (2006:92) Aunt Margaret is the head of this family, at least in regard to all of the domestic duties. She cooks, cleans, takes care of Tite. The only domestic duty she does not have to perform is sex with the head of the family, Bonbon. Another black domestic on the plantation, Pauline, takes care of that.7

When Aunt Margaret serves Marcus and Louise at the overseer's table, Gaines makes clear the black domestic's dilemma in the plantation system. Before this moment, Louise and Marcus would only eat Aunt Margaret's food in her and Bonbon's room. By doing so, Louise and Marcus still respect, to a certain extent, Aunt Margaret's domain, the kitchen. Yet at the beginning of part three of the novel, they rebel:

Louise came out there and told her to set two places at the table. Aunt Margaret did as she was told, and she had just finished setting the table when Louise and Marcus came back there. Marcus wore a brown silk shirt, dark brown pants, and brown and white shoes. Louise wore a pink dress with a white collar. Aunt Margaret stood by the stove looking at them. She said her heart started jumping. Not because she was scared, she had got over being scared; she wouldn't have been scared even if Bonbon had come and found them there. She would have stood her ground and told him, 'Go on and kill me, go on and kill me. I know what I was doing was wrong, but I was doing it for your child. If you want kill me for protecting your child, then go right on and kill me.' So her heart wasn't jumping because she was scared; her heart was jumping because she was mad. Mad because she couldn't do a thing but what they wanted her to do. Since she hadn't told on them that first time, they knew she was guilty as they were; and now she had to go along with them no matter what they felt. (205)

Both Marcus and Louise come to the kitchen table dressed for dinner. The couple's dress is relatively conservative and indicates that they intend to mimic Louis and Bonbon's dinner ritual. Because most of the interaction in the text between Louise and Marcus is sexual, this is a marked change in their relationship. By eating dinner together and dressing conservatively, they are signaling that they view their relationship as more than just sex. And by moving from the bedroom to the kitchen, they are making it clear that they are no longer intimidated by either Bonbon or Aunt Margaret.

Part of Aunt Margaret's anger originates from their defiance of her authority, but she is also justifiably concerned for her own safety. Her authority is predicated on keeping order in the house, which also means keeping Marcus and Louise in their places. She is to work for Bonbon in his absence and she knows that she has somehow failed, while simultaneously understanding the unfairness of her situation. She is always at the will of someone else. She cannot tell anyone of their dinner because she will be blamed for letting Marcus sit at that table, yet she cannot defy them, because Louise is still mistress of the house. The most Aunt Margaret can do is voice her opinion, which angers Louise because she still views Aunt Margaret as a maternal figure and looks to her for approval, a consequence of the complicated relationship between domestic female worker and employer. Indeed, Aunt Margaret infantilizes both Louise and Marcus as she says:

"Y'all think y'all children," Aunt Margaret said. "Y'all think y'all making mud pies in the yard. Not a black and a white child–no, 'cause a black child and a white child old enough to make mud pies already know they can't ever live together. No, y'all act like two black children or two white children playing in the yard. There ain't nothing to stop y'all from going North 'cause North right round the house. Well, North ain't right round the house, and y'all ain't no children. Y'all grown people, and y'all white and y'all black. And there ain't no North for y'all. There ain't nothing but death–a tree for him; and as for you." "Honey come here and kiss me," Marcus said. Louise got up and went to him. (207)

Aunt Margaret, unlike Louise and Marcus, cannot envision a future in which the two of them can be together. She is the voice of reason, because her entire life has been about maintaining the status quo. She has accepted the hierarchy of Southern society and has been rewarded status, though she too is stuck in the system. And while the "confrontation" between Aunt Margaret and Marcus lacks physical violence, it is hostile nonetheless. Aunt Margaret resents Marcus for his boldness, but also for his selfishness, as she realizes his actions will likely have consequences for every black person on the plantation.

Marcus's rebellion, though, must include a rejection of Aunt Margaret, especially in her domain, because it is also a rejection of Pauline and his aunt Miss Julie Rand's accommodations, survival techniques, and manipulations in this system. Marcus is not privileged with status and relative freedom of movement throughout the plantation. However, he has access to something the three women do not: the ability to imagine another way to live outside the plantation system. His daring to sit in Bonbon's place at his kitchen table displays an ability to defy the system in ways unavailable to the three women. Or as Mary Titus says of Southern food culture and the power of the dinner table, "Thus dinner, properly prepared and consumed indicated culture, achieved and enacted." (1992:13) Gaines is noted for writing the trials of black masculinity; yet in Of Love and Dust, he is able, through recognition of the politics of the plate and the power of foodways, to write the complications of black femininity as well.


Gaines uses moments of food and its consumption to expose the complex power relations lurking behind the rules of Southern society. As Williams-Forson notes, "Food, as politics, is subtle and unexpected because it is not seen as a tool of opposition but as a necessary substance"(2006:23). Gaines's interrogation of the mythical benign pastoral relies on small moments of resistance and subversion that an analysis of foodways and food culture can reveal. Prominent in his work is the image of the black domestic worker, the racially liminal whites, and the angry and frustrated young black men. All of these characters are looking to assert some control or dominance over an environment that seeks, instead, to control them. Of Love and Dust has moments of intense violence and conflict, yet it is its more subtle reliance on the inherent power of folkways that provides a fuller understanding of the intricacies of Southern culture.


1. Elizabeth Berenstein argues that Mammy's image has disruptive potential, but the idea of her devotion to the white family as the faithful servant and cook reconstructs her as safe. In the Southern imagination she is sexless and unattractive, the physical opposite of white beauty. In addition, the Mammy's mythologized power is frightening because of her capacity to be a surrogate mother. In relation to food and Southern culture, Mammy is the white male's first source of food, "establishing an influence over him which she will retain after he reaches adulthood"(1992:78).

2. Mary Titus recalls Mary Douglas's argument in Purity and Danger in her essay, "Food and Race in the Nineteenth Century:" "Some such we break we would expect to find whenever the production of food is in the hands of the relatively unpure" (1992:127).

3. Cf. Roger Abrahams, "Equal Opportunity Eating" (1984:9).

4. Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser argue that coding, or hiding meanings in behavior, occurs in a specific context where opposition to oppression or dominance cannot be expressed. Coding, for feminists, African Americanists, and scholars of other oppressed groups, is an important area of study because understanding "covert expressions of ideas, beliefs, experiences, feelings, and attitudes that the dominant culture–and the dominated group–would find disturbing or threatening if expressed in overt form" can help illuminate anxieties and hidden ideas within the context of cultural behaviors and artifacts, like the novel (1993:4).

5. Paige Gutierrez, in her essay "Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana," gives an analysis of Cajun's relationship to one of the most popular foodways for their community, crawfish. In the essay, she provides a detailed background of the history of Cajuns and their assimilation.

6. Roger Abrahams asserts that eating styles are associated with different ethnic groups in direct relation to stereotypes about ethnic groups' behavior, and these animals become mascots for groups of people, i.e, if catfish are bottom dwellers, so is the ethnic group that is known to consume them (1984:33).

7. For Southern woman, as Lanser notes that, "this kind of race and class complexity continues to structure domestic work, so that it remains entirely acceptable and is no sign of failed femininity for an upper class woman to hire another woman, most likely a woman of color, to clean and maintain her house" (1993:41).

Works Cited

Abrahams, Roger. 1984. Equal Opportunity Eating: A Cultural Excursus on Things of the Mouth. In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, edited by Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, 19-36. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Berenstein, Elizabeth. 1992. Bread and Race: Communion in Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream. The Southern Quarterly 30(2-3): 77-80.

Curtin, Deane W. 1992. Food/Body/Person. In Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, 3-22. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Davis, Thadious M. 2011. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Evans, Robley. 1992. "Or else this were a savage spectacle": Eating and Troping Southern Culture. The Southern Quarterly 30(2-3): 141-149.

Gaines, Ernest J. 1967. Of Love and Dust. New York: Vintage.

Gutierrez, C. Paige. 1984. The Social and Symbolic Uses of Ethnic/Regional Foodways: Cajuns and Crawfish in South Louisiana. In Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, edited by Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, 169-182. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Harris, Trudier. 2001. Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature. New York: Palgrave.

Hebert-Leiter, Marie. 2006. A Breed Between: Racial Mediation in the Fiction of Ernest Gaines. MELUS 31(2): 95-117.

Heldke, Lisa M. 1992. Food Politics, Political Food. In Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, edited by Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, 301-327. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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This article was first published in the 2016 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Jennifer Morrison is the graduate assistant at the Ernest J. Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.