Monique Troung's The Book of Salt raises the language of the text into culinary awareness. No event in the book is left untouched without the nuance of food; no character in the book is unsustained by the implication of cooking. The relationally varied plot structure, although revolving around the life of a Vietnamese cook, adheres to a lesson of the trade: that a good storyline, like a good chef, has "to first envision the possibilities" (Troung 66). One can imagine what possible themes and metaphors the title itself solicits.
The language of food is not arbitrarily chosen for the narrative of a Vietnamese working for two American women living in France. As the theme of diaspora is prevalent in the relationships, the story reveals how eating a meal, foreign chefs, and the act of cooking create sensibilities of the diasporic. The language of food is a language of diaspora. But as pervasive and necessary as food is to the everyday context, the awareness created by Troung incorporates much more than theory; it readily acts as a language of seduction as well.
Cooks are sensitive to nationalities; some dishes require ingredients, climate, and hands that cannot be substituted by the mass-produced. But during Binh's dinner with the man on the bridge is a particular instance in which this sensitivity is transcended, or at least overlapped.
Yet, how does a term like diaspora, for which Khachig Tölölyan in his essay, "Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment," helps define in so many terms such as "communities," "homeland," or "kinfolk" (13-14), relate to the space of the kitchen or a dining table? For one, the dinner that Binh and the man share transcends familiar culinary communities. The chef of the restaurant, while trained in America, is Vietnamese. Decorations in the restaurant resonate with French overtones; the cashier is French. At presentation, the meal itself is indisputably made by Vietnamese hands and for Vietnamese mouths, but Binh discovers unexpected ingredients, a sampling of the chef's "remembering the world" (Troung 99). According to Tölölyan, such a re-experiencing or a "re-turn" (14) to the homeland vis-à-vis the surpassed expectations of a supposedly Vietnamese dinner, is a moment of diaspora for both Binh and the man.
But in cooking, the conception of the nation becomes complicated not in a transnational way, a statelessness found between two nations, but through an added complexity in taste. Cooking a meal to one's own familiarity has little bearing to how it will be received by a stranger. Different areas of the world have different kinds of fowl, spices, vegetables, and available meats. After the final preparations, the meal itself can be left in a stateless, tasteless territory -- it may be delectable to the chef, but displeasing to the consumer. In achieving a familiarity with the appetite of the customer, however, a good chef bridges the meal and the consumer with the ingredients he or she chooses to add. Indeed, even the element of timing and the physical can play an important part in cooking; a simple egg can be turned from fried to a soufflŽ depending upon when heat is added.
With these complexities, the kitchen remains not as an arena of nations or states, but rather, at best, a cooperative mixing. The talent of the chef is revealed not only in how accurately one might reproduce native tastes and flavors, but, as in the case of the restaurant chef, how creatively one re-produces native tastes in the rue Descartes. What Binh and the man on the bridge taste that evening becomes a modicum of diaspora, a dish of the subtly unfamiliar steaming within the familiar, upon which the two conclude:
"That was not Chinese food," [Binh] said.
"I didn't say it was, did I?"
"No. But that was not American either, and it was not --"
"Again I made no such claims," he interrupted.
"What do you call it then?" [Troung 99]
If cooking is way of "remembering the world," then the kitchen, as it produces meals that mix dissimilar nations in a familiar, involving way, could be included in the diasporic consciousness.
Troung vividly applies the realm of the culinary to the intimacy of relationships. Binh speaks in the second person when he imagines that the culinary feats he performs relate, in a carnal way, to his relationships. This is not a novel approach to love, but understanding these perspective shifts in the light Stuart Hall's "enunciation" and identity as "production" (Braziel 234), food as a means of cultural identity formation may be a way of understanding diaspora and sexuality.
When Binh describes his dinner menu in Chapter Eight of The Book of Salt, he begins by addressing a "you," for whom he will make the meal. It is not clear exactly whom he is addressing -- it could be no one in particular at all. In every such dialogue (with an ambiguous or non-existent "Other"), it may be well worth advancing that it could be Binh enunciating to and from his own desire. To clarify first, the Vietnamese called men like Binh lai cai, which is, according to Vietnamese, the male "mixed with or partially a female" (Troung 133). In addition, Russell Leong asks the question, "how do Asian Americans figure as the subjects, rather than the objects, of homosexual history and desire?" (Leong 8). The question could be applied to Asian homosexuals as well. Binh, in culturally understanding his position as a lai cai, is further "producing" his identity by engaging in a dialogue with the person within and without, becoming the subject as well as the object of desire:
You two can now dispense with the forks, knives, and spoons. Your hands will tear at an animal whose joints will know no resistance. The sight of flesh surrendering, so willing a participant in its own transgression, will intoxicate you. Tiny seeds from heat-pregnant figs will insinuate themselves underneath your nails. You will be sure to notice and try to suck them out. You will begin with each other's fingers. You will end on your knees. [Troung 79-80]
Thus, when Binh graphically enunciates a scene of intimacy through the language of eating, using an almost forceful language, he becomes the cook and dish, the feaster and the feasted, the subject and the object.
Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Theorizing Diaspora. Eds. J. E. Braziel and Anita Mannur. Malden, Massachussets: Blackwells, 2003: 233-46.
Khachig Tölölyan. "Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment." Diasporas. 5.1 (1996): 3-36.
Leong, Russell. "Home Bodies and the Body Politic." Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong. New York: Routledge, 1996: 1-18.
Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Last modified 7 January 2005