Louisiana Foodways in Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying

By Courtney Ramsay


The culture that Ernest Gaines presents in his novel, A Lesson Before Dying, is heavily influenced by a dependence on the land to fulfill essential needs. Food in its acquisition and its preparation not only provides nourishment and a means by which love is expressed but also serves as a medium to exert power, to express other emotions of acceptance or rejection, and to communicate these feelings to others. Specific food define ethnicity. Gumbo, often considered a Cajun specialty, functions as a prominent symbol. The kitchen is easily recognized as the room where meaningful interactions occur around the table. Visitors are entertained with the serving of coffee and, sometimes, dessert. Because of this intimate relationship to the foodways of these people, the kitchen is, without doubt, a room of extreme importance in the homes of the African Americans who live in the quarters on Henry Pichot's plantation, a major setting in A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines not only reveals the types of foods that this culture prepares and shares during meals and at gatherings, but clearly underlines the central significance of foodways as powerful symbols in this culture and in his novel.

The term"foodways," according to Don Yoder, "includes the study of the foods themselves, their morphology, their preparation, their preservation, their social and psychological functions, and their ramifications into all other aspects of folk culture" (325). Yoder further comments that John Honigman's term "foodways" has become useful in that it includes the entire "cookery complex, including attitudes, taboos, and meal systems—the whole range of cookery and food habits in a society" (325), Paige Gutierrez, in Cajun Foodways, agrees:

Folklorists and anthropologists use the term foodways to refer not only to food and cooking, but to all food-related activities, concepts, and beliefs shared by a particular group of people. Many scholars who have studied foodways say that food has a symbolic or expressive dimension, that it conveys meaning. (Preface xi)

The African American community in A Lesson Before Dying has foodways closely associated with the Cajun and Creole Cultures in Louisiana. Louisiana's foodways reflect the cultural diversity of the area and its regional Identity:

South Louisiana enjoys great cultural diversity. The population of the region today includes descendants of many cultural groups. . . Despite this diversity, a Louisiana brand of French culture held sway throughout colonial times, and the Americanization that began after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 had little influence in some areas until well into the twentieth century. (Gutierrez 5)

Definitely Gaines, like the Cajuns as seen by Gutierrez, seems to find identity in both the region in which he grew up and in the foods which he eats. Gutierrez comments further on the relationship between ethnicity, foodways, and the regional identity: "Regional and ethnic labels used by Cajuns and non-Cajuns indicate that Cajun identity blends will regional identity. . . . Cajuns have a strong sense of place and often describe themselves as uncomfortable or unhappy when away from the region for a long time" (22).

As Michael Jones, Bruce Guiliano and Roberta Krell ascertained through numerous cultural studies, "we in America as individuals have a multiplicity of identities some of which might be associated with particular foods or ways of preparing , serving, or eating food" (Prologue x). Gaines explains the difficulty he had when he was fifteen and left Louisiana to go to California:

It took me all day to pack, unpack, and repack the old brown leather suitcase. I didn't have many clothes. . . but for some reason I could not get it done. Maybe it was the bag of oranges, or the shoebox of fried chicken and bread, or the tea cakes and pralines wrapped in brown paper, or the bag of unshelled pecans—maybe it was one of these or all of these that kept me opening and shutting the suitcase. (Qtd. in Babb 2)

Interestingly, all of these foods with the exception of oranges are also named in A Lesson Before Dying.

In looking at the reasons for the food choices and behaviors of the characters in A Lesson Before Dying, it is important to "consider the reaction of man to his basic natural environment" (Yoder 328). Yoder suggests:

The study of folk cookery covers such subjects as the influences of environment on cuisine, seasonal foods, and local crops and local foods of the various cultural landscapes studied by cultural geographers and ecologists. (328)

How are the characters in A Lesson Before Dying affected by their environment? The book is set in the late 1940s or early 1950s in rural Louisiana west of the Mississippi and a bit north of Baton Rouge. In Old Louisiana Lyle Saxon describes the plantations and life of this area about twenty years earlier:

Old people have died, the young people have realized that it is a losing fight and have abandoned it. The magnificent houses are falling into ruin. . . . Louisiana was essentially an agricultural country; this is still true in a measure, but plantations no longer boast vast acreage and hundreds of laborers. (55)

The area had experience difficult times even before the Depression. Considering Maslows' hierarchy of needs (Weiten and Lloyd 55), this culture is, then, concerned with the fulfillment of its most basic physiological needs, those of hunger and thirst.

In the first chapter of A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson, a young black man, is accused and convicted of murder. Sentenced to death in the electric chair, he is actually innocent of the murder, but he is guilty of drinking whiskey at the scene and stealing money from the cash register. His actions are justified by their being an attempt to satisfy his basic physiological needs. His defense claims, "Jefferson was merely an innocent bystander. He took the whiskey to calm his nerves, not to celebrate. He took the money out of hunger . . . " (Gaines 7).

Grant Wiggins, who lives with his aunt and teaches at the plantation school held in the church in the quarters, is the narrator and protagonist of this book. His Tante Lou and Miss Emma, Jefferson's nannan, have encouraged the reluctant Grant to teach Jefferson the virtues of manhood before his execution. Grant has to get permission from the white sheriff of Bayonne, the town nearest the plantation on which Grant works and lives. His series of visits to see Jefferson are central to the story and to the understanding of foodways found in this novel. Jefferson's basic need to satisfy his hunger has always been critical to him and to others in this culture. Jefferson tells Grant why he wants a gallon of vanilla ice cream as a last meal, "Ain't never had enough ice cream. Never had more than a nickel cone. Used to run out in the quarter and hand the ice cream man my nickel, and he give me a little scoop on a cone" (Gaines 170).

When Grant and Miss Emma visit Jefferson for the first time in Jail, the other prisoners stretch out their hands through the bars. Grant says, "Miss Emma stopped to talk to them. She told them she didn't have any money, but she had brought some food for Jefferson, and if there was anything left she would give it to them" (Gaines 71). Food is too important to waste. Miss Emma says, "If he don't eat it all, can you give it to the rest of these children?" (Gaines 74). Food is a commodity to be guarded. During the Christmas program at Grant's school, the food is placed in the back near the blackboards and someone sits "guarding the food until after the program, when everyone would eat" (Gaines 143).

Because these people are so conscious of their basic needs, food and its attainment have a heavy influence on this culture. Food is often the only material asset available to the individual to express love or a giving of oneself to others. Many of the foods in this book are ones that Gaines also mentions in a letter where he names some "soul" food—fried chicken, fried fish, gumbo, chittlin, pralines, pies, and cakes" (Simpson 68-69). The word "soul" carries a connotation of spiritual essence. With special preparations, the food's presentation become even more meaningful. How does the exertion of power and expression of emotion relate to foodways?

In providing pleasure and satisfactions personally and immediately, food can enliven social relations, enrich spiritual affairs, and enhance an individual's sense of well-being, it an be used to threaten, reward, cajole, or punish and in other ways manipulate behavior. (Jones 2)

Nearly every character in A Lesson Before Dying is portrayed by their employment of emotions associated with food to communicate with others a display of power, love, or anger. By rejecting food, one also rejects the person offering it. Numerous scenes exemplify and aid in the interpretation of this type of behavior.

Grant says in speaking about Tante Lou, "Nothing could have hurt her more when I said I was not going to eat her food" (Gaines 24). This control that Grant has of either eating or rejecting her food provides for him a sense of power. His aunt's strong response to his rejection of the night before is evident. Grant says that upon his return,

. . . I had gone to her room to say good night, but she pretended to be asleep, just to avoid speaking to me. And this morning, when I passed her on my way into the kitchen, she said over her shoulder, "Food there if you want it. Or you can go back where you had supper last night."

Breakfast was two fried eggs, grits, a piece of salt pork, and a biscuit. . . I tried once more to speak to her before leaving for school, but to avoid me this time she pretended to make up her bed, which I knew she had already done two hours earlier. (Gaines 35)

When Grant visits Henry Pichot's house to ask permission to visit Jefferson in jail, Pichot's cook Inez offers him coffee and later food. He refuses both, but not as a rejection of Inez. Grant explains his actions:

I was hungry. I hadn't eaten anything but a sandwich since breakfast. But I would not eat at Henry Pichot's kitchen table. I had come through that back door against my will, and it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. Well, I had to put up with that because of those in the quarter, but I damned sure would not add hurt to injury by eating at his kitchen table. (Gaines 45-46)

Inez persists in offering food and coffee to Grant, but he does not accept. By Inez's repeated attempts to serve Grant, she is offering to him more than physical nourishment—she is revealing a caring concern for him.

During Grant and Miss Emma's first visit with Jefferson, the interactions concerning the basket of food show much about deeper communication through foodways. Miss Emma says, "Look what I brought you" (Gaines 72). She feels certain that she has pleased Jefferson. Continuing she says, "I knowed how much you like my fried chicken. Brought you some yams and some tea cakes, too. Ain't you go'n to try some of it?" (Gaines 72). Jefferson answers that it does not matter, that "nothing matter," and that the chicken "is dirt" (Gaines 72). Miss Emma reassures him that he does matter to her and questions, "My chicken?" She adds, "You always liked my chicken. Every Sunday" (Gaines 73). Persisting, she asks, "You want a tea cake? You don't have to eat no chicken if you don't want. You don't have to eat no old yam neither. But I know how much you like my tea cakes" (Gaines 73).

Grant understands how important it is to Miss Emma for Jefferson to eat her food. He tells Jefferson on a later visit, "You ought to try it. It'll make her happy" (Gaines 82). Grant fails, but he says to Jefferson:

But when I go back, I'm going to tell her that you and I sat on the bunk and ate, and you said how good the food was. I won't tell her what you did. She is already sick, and that would kill her. So I'm going to lie. I'm going to tell her how much you liked the food. Especially the pralines. Gaines 83-84)

On subsequent visits, Miss Emma continues in vain to encourage Jefferson to eat her food, but Grant finally succeeds. Grant told Jefferson, "It would mean so much to her if you would eat some of the gumbo. . . . Will you be her friend? Will you eat some of the gumbo? Just a little bit? One spoonful?" (Gaines 191). Jefferson consents with a nod of his head.

After the visit, Grant is elated and wants to share his joy with his girl friend Vivian. He says, "I was feeling good, and I wanted to tell it to her before I told it to anyone else. How he and I had gone back to the table, and how we had eaten the gumbo though it was cold, and how his nannan was so proud" (Gaines 195). Grant knows Vivian will appreciate his triumph. Vivian comprehends the gravity of foodway protocol in this culture. While visiting Grant's aunt's home, she accepts a cup of coffee when it is offered to her. Grant says, "I knew Vivian didn't want the coffee, but it would have seemed impolite to refuse it" (Gaines 163).

Grant understands that foodways are often an avenue to express anger. When Vivian is angry with him, he asks, "Still mad, huh? (Gaines 208). He notices that "she picked at her food, but she didn't eat. . . . She held the fork in her hand, but she did not bring it up to her mouth" (Gaines 209). Finally when he seems to fail at alleviating Vivian's anger, Grant tries some rejection of his own in saying, "You can have your goddamn red beans and rice and towel and everything else. Damn this shit" (210).

Vivian also accepts the responsibility and foremost duty of her role as mother and woman in preparing food for those about whom she cares. When Grant calls her on the telephone from Thelma's café, he asks if he called at an inconvenient time. She answers, "Getting these children something to eat." Vivian then offers, "You want to come over here? I can fix you a sandwich" (Gaines 26).

Food preparation contributes to self-pride as is evident in many of the scenes that have already been mentioned. Thelma clearly accentuates a self-acclamation through food. Thelma and her husband, Joe Claiborne, run a café and a bar in the nearby town of Bayonne. She says in answering Grant, "All my food's good" (Gaines 26). Grant describes the Claibornes, "But they were good people, both of them. When I was broke, I could always get a meal and pay later, and the same went for the bar" (Gaines 27). Foodways define this couple, and people like Joe and Thelma Claiborne define a part of this culture that Gaines values. In an interview with Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton, Gaines Says,

We don't now how to keep the nice mom-and-pop restaurants anymore. . . . Yes, I'd like to retain those kinds of things. Keep them there, so I don't have to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat some chicken. I don't want that. I can go over there and get some red beans and rice and something else, you know, and sit around there and talk with people whom I care to be around. (Gaudet and Wooton 49-50)

Foodways and the mentioning of the picture of The Last Supper hanging in the Grant's classroom, the church (Gaines 34), add to recognition of Jefferson as a "Christ figure" later in the story. In Jefferson's diary, the notations made about his last meal confirm the drastic changes in his personality—changes in his self-identity. When asked what he wants for dessert, Jefferson says, " . . . i tol him jus a little ice crme in a cup" (Gaines 232). Then, Jefferson records his enjoyment of the food, ". . . it was the bes meal i kno my nanan ever cook" (Gaines 232).

The eminence of the kitchen—the room where food is prepared, served, and shared— is highlighted by the many scenes in A Lesson Before Dying that take place around the table. After Jefferson's trial is over Grant finds his aunt and Miss Emma sitting at the table in the kitchen (Gaines 10). Good times and bad times are relived within this room. Serious discussion as well as the entertaining of friends and family take place here. Grant grades his papers upon this same table (Gaines 98(.

The kitchen is also the setting for a mixture of activities for other characters besides Grant. Reverend Ambrose, the minister in the story, is depicted as a character in conflict with Grant. Nonetheless, Reverend Ambrose utilizes both his kitchen and his table for a plethora of purposes, even as a place of prayer (Gaines 237).

So much transpires within the kitchens of this culture. Even in prison, a proper atmosphere of a kitchen is desired and achieved in A lesson Before Dying through the use of proper place settings and a tablecloth (Gaines 188). The rituals are necessary to provide an appropriate environment for the deep communication of love and emotions that transpires over what seems otherwise to be only the mundane activity of the ingestion of food.

Page Gutierrez points out the possible symbolic meaning of a dish of gumbo, a food often served in southern Louisiana at special events (132). Gumbo, the soup-like food to which Gutierrez refers, is a meaningful food to the Cajuns, and an equally meaningful symbol in A Lesson Before Dying. Cold gumbo is the food that Jefferson finally eats to please his aunt. Because of the associations and meanings he has with eating gumbo, this food offers to Jefferson the same love and comfort that he would receive if he were eating it at his nannan's kitchen table.

Coffee also is associated in Louisiana with symbolic and ritualistic attributes. The characters in A Lesson Before Dying drink much coffee. Gaines even names the famous southern grand "Luzianne" that Grant smells brewing in Miss Emma's kitchen: "You smell that Luzanne coffee all over the kitchen" (161). When Grant realizes that his aunt has brought some of her women friends home with her after church for coffee, which he has just consumed, and cake, he offers to make more. Tante Lou answers, "I'll make my own coffee," and accuses Grant of walking over her when he persists. She concedes but only after asking, "You taking over my house?" (113). Tante Lou feels she should be the one to make coffee in her kitchen. It is her duty. Grant's understanding of the role of coffee making to his aunt, the woman of authority in the household, is evident later when he is "at the stove, making coffee" in Miss Emma's kitchen (161). Gutierrez also stresses the importance of coffee preparation and drinking as rituals of importance and meaning in southern Louisiana (49).

According to Roger Abrahams, "the currencies of exchange of primary importance in culture are these three: food, sex, talk. Through the interaction of these three, we endow relationships with value and invest them with meaning. . " (21). In a culture where the voices of the people have traditionally been silenced, food becomes an even more essential currency of exchange, and at times, the only comprehensible means of communication. In A Lesson Before Dying, food plays this role in communication, particularly between Jefferson and his aunt, Miss Emma.

Ernest Gaines understands the vital use of food as symbols and of foodways as representative of an integral part of the culture with which he himself identifies. For this reason, and because foodways are ingrained as deeply into this author as are other character traits of his personality, a reference to foodways is represented in all thirty-one chapters of A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines simply tells the story as he discerns it would have taken place, naturally including foodways. Food thus plays the communicative role in the novel that it authentically does in the culture Gaines describes.

References Cited

Abrahams, Roger. 1984. "Equal Opportunity Eating: A Cultural Excursus on things of the Mouth." Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, Eds. Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, pp. 19036. Knoxville: U Tennessee Press.

Babb, Valerie Melissa. 1991. Ernest Gaines Boston: Twain.

Gaines, Ernest. 1993. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gaudet, Marcia, and Carl Wooten. 1990. Porch Talk with Ernest Gaines: Conversations on the Writer's Craft. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Gutierrez, C. Paige. 1992. Cajun Foodways. Jackson: University Pres of Mississippi

Jones, Michael Owen, Bruce Guiliana, and Roberta Krell, eds. 1983. Foodways and Eating Habits: Directions for Research. Los Angeles: California Folklore Society.

_____. 1983. "The Sensory Domain." Foodways and Eating Habits: Directions for Research. Los Angeles: California Folklore Society.

Saxon, Lyle. 1950. Old Louisiana. New Orleans: Robert L. Crager.

Simpson, Anne K. 1991. A Gathering of Gaines: The Man and the Writer. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Weiten, Wayne, and Margaret Al Lloyd. 1994. Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the Nineties. 4th ed. Belmont: Brooks/Cole.

Yoder, Don. 1972. "Folk Cookery." Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Ed. Richard M. Dorson, pp. 325-350. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This article was originally published in the 1995 issue of the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany and is reprinted with permission. Courtney Ramsay is a folklorist and creative writer as well as a teacher of high school English based in Lafayette, Louisiana.