Review: Intimate Eating

Anita Mannur Intimate Eating: Racialized Spaces and Radical Futures. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2022. 180 pp. ISBN 9781478017820

Fabio Parasecoli (New York University)

What does it mean to eat together? Who is invited, and who is excluded? Does eating by oneself necessarily mean to be lonely? Is togetherness the only dimension that allows a meal to acquire emotional weight, social meaning, and political relevance? What is the role of pleasure? What does all this say about who we are as individuals and communities? To a certain extent, the Covid pandemic has forced all of us to reflect on these questions, and not just out of intellectual curiosity. Involuntary isolation has led many to find renewed appreciation for shared food consumption, both analogic and digital. As a result, the act of eating individually or with others has become even more entangled with social media and the production of spectacle for public and private enjoyment.

These are some of the dynamics that Anita Mannur, a cultural critic that also embraces her identities as a blogger (74) and a self-proclaimed foodie (100), explores in her new volume Intimate Eating: Racialized Spaces and Radical Futures. She draws on material as varied as Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik’s curry-based art installation to Ritesh Batra’s film The Lunchbox, Miko Aikawa’s photos of solo eaters, Nani Power’s blog Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture, and Love, Mary Anne Mohanraj’s novel Bodies in Motion, the performative politics of Michale Rakowitz’s performance art Enemy Kitchen food truck, and The Great British Bake Off TV show. Such dizzying assortment reflects both Mannur’s interests and preferences and the multidirectional and often unexpected connections among the diverse cultural objects she engages. To tackle such complexity, she uses theoretical and methodological approaches from food studies, queer and gender studies, literary and visual analysis, as well as postcolonial, feminist, and critical race theories. As it often happens in interdisciplinary popular culture analysis, the associations the author evokes are partly an effect of the interpretative work of the observer herself, partly an echo of the manifold, interlocked, and expanding networks of cultural production from which the phenomena she observes emerge.

Mannur shows no compunction in inserting the “I” in theoretical conversations and underlining the centrality of one’s positionality in scientific discourse. Her reflections move back and forth between a scholarly tone which at times does not recuse itself from jargon and a personal voice that is able to express raw—at times joyful, at times painful–emotions. Both styles are effective in weaving engaging arguments and developing a critical analysis of the material at hand. Mannur’s memories of family dinners and the progressive dissolution of her marriage are honest, direct, and passionate, without invalidating the rigor of her analysis. 

The multiplicity of tones and approaches well reflects the variety of topics and cultural objects that the author examines in the book and some could deem “frivolous, unimportant, subliterary, or all three” (7). Mannur emphasizes popular culture’s characteristics as a simmering but thoroughly enjoyable mess. She also shows how its previously carefully guarded boundaries with highbrow culture are increasingly blurred, partly thanks to the references, trends, and fads that the bubbling cauldron of social media generates and distributes. It is quite clear that the author appreciates the cultural value of this material even when criticizing it or, maybe, especially when criticizing it. We can talk smack of Bridgerton or American Horror Story as much as we want: that does not make those artifacts less relevant, in all their bricolaged fleetingness.

Mannur guides us to think “through the pleasures, possibilities, and impossibilities that an intimate eating public can produce for rethinking radical ways to belong and not belong to larger collectives” (143). She clarifies: “Intimacy, as I understand it, is not about imagining lives teleologically oriented towards securing forms of normativity or couplehood that are buoyed by the desires of the nation” (8). Moving beyond mainstream expectations about personal connections, the author builds on the phenomenological difference between solitude, loneliness, and isolation that Hannah Arendt outlined in Ideology and Terror. While loneliness threatens people’s very individuality and isolation destroys their participation in public life, with grave political consequences, solitude is about enjoying the company of one’s self.

It is this solitude that Mannur locates at the core of the “intimate eating publics” that “cross the seemingly rigid demarcations that would separate the public from the private” (5-6). These include semipublic experiences like “friend- or kin-based feasts, neighborhood restaurants, village markets and roadside stands — places that are not quite private but not quite public either” (5). Apparently unrelated, these environments are all marked by “ambiguities and contradictions” (5) that constantly generate new meanings. Mannur draws attention to occurrences ranging from solo dining in restaurants (rather than in the private sphere to which the pandemic has relegated it) to cooking and eating in virtual and physical provisional spaces that favor transitory but not for that less intense intimacies among strangers, from offices to public eateries and food trucks. 

In exploring these food-related experiences, the author provides a counterpoint to Jurgen Habermas’s “public sphere” as allowing the establishment of communities that, without necessarily existing in any specific space, generate discussions, opinions, and values. For Habermas, this dimension of the lifeworld of society checks the power of the state and provides opportunities for the development of autonomous subjects capable to participate in and contribute to democracy. Mannur’s intimate eating publics also explode Ray Oldenburg’s idea of “third spaces” that exist outside of work and the home and contribute to the functioning of civil societies. In Intimate Eating, the focus shifts from the discursive aspects of politics to its more physical and tangible dimensions, as the focus shifts towards food and how the bodies of nonnormative, queer subjectivities interact with it. The protagonists of Mannur’s observations are not necessarily comfortable in heteronormative masculine third spaces or public spheres. In finding unconventional ways to connect, express themselves, and thrive they implicitly provide an embodied and affective critique of established powers. Here the author’s framework of references is provided by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Gopinath, and Sara Ahmed, among others.

In her critical examination of established third places, Mannur draws our attentions to what she describes as “neoliberal multiculturalism,” in which difference is apparently embraced only to be commodified and packaged for commercial consumption. The white tent of the The Great British Bake Off is offered as an example of dynamics that, while performing attempts at post-racial identities, constantly verge on blandness through the erasure of the less digestible (pun intended) aspects of migrant ethnicities. In fact, the author is highly skeptical of all attempts at framing eating as a shared experience that intrinsically overcomes suspicion and mistrust toward other cultures. After all, the British Empire successfully adopted curry by changing and domesticating it to the advantage of the colonial palate, all while maintaining rigid separations among races and classes. Plenty of people who are against recognizing migrants’ and refugees’ rights can be happily appreciative of their foodways; in the US, supporters of a wall with Mexico have no qualms declaring their love for tacos. As long as they are under control, marginalized communities can bring spice to otherwise boring national menus, as bell hooks famously argued in her essay Eating the Other. Neoliberal multiculturalism is not about actual embrace of difference but rather about making hegemonic communities feel better about themselves, their openness, and their adventurousness. 

Despite all these caveats, Mannur sees transformational potential in food. She asks: “How might the culinary be mobilized to strategically critique, advance, and convene into discourses of intimacy?” (4). Moving beyond patriarchal longings for the family table, indicated as a place that can also cause tensions and suffering, and bracketing hopes for shared meals with dedicated lovers, the author remains committed “to establishing nonnormative and nonromantic ties with friends and chosen family.” In conclusion, it is not inappropriate to evoke the Sunday meal in The Ignorant Fairies (Le fate ignoranti) by Turkish filmmaker Ferzan Özpetek: it is arguably one of the most poignant scenes in contemporary cinema where a meal is shown as an opportunity for deep emotional connections among those excluded from mainstream relationships: queer men and women, sex workers, immigrants, as well as the sick and the dying. I hope the author will not mind this reference. In Intimate Eating, Mannur pushes us to embark on our own explorations to reassess pieces of popular culture that we may be familiar with but whose power we may not be fully aware of.

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