This semester I taught an online graduate level course on American culture to a mixed nationality group – two students from the University of Hawaii studying abroad in Tongji, China, and four students from Tongji who are about to study abroad in Hawaii at UH next year. Food became a way for us to talk about the similarities and differences in histories of colonialism and contemporary experiences with families, relationships, celebratory customs, and dining out within the US and between the US and China. The discussion was also a way of celebrating the friendships that the students had made, and to share in their excitement of venturing to Hawaii next year.
After discussing the importance of food and rituals for Thanksgiving, I assigned a small food studies project. First the Chinese students read an essay by Rachel Laudan on food in Hawaii that focuses on the archipelago’s food culture as a mix of agricultural, colonial, and multi-ethnic influences. Next, students wrote a response putting Hawaiian food into conversation with their own assumptions about American food (since none of the Tongji students had been to America and neither of the Hawaiian students had really been to mainland America). You can read more of Laudan’s work on Hawaiian food in her book The Food of Paradise. Additionally the two US students wrote a longer critical analysis of their family’s food culture, focusing on how race, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, and other factors influence what their family eats, where they shop, where and how they dine, and how students’ own food preferences might differ from their parents’.
Second, students were asked to share a picture and recipe for an essential dish served at an important family celebration. Taken together, that class meal included the following items:
- jiaozi, pork and cabbage dumplings
- Mahi Mahi green bean casserole
- zongzi rice dumplings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waaJ_prlZNk
- pecan pie
- braised prawns
- and cold oven pound cake
Additionally another student from China shared a list of foods typically served in his family at a spring festival:
Braised Plate (Beef/Oxtongue/Gizzards/Chicken Wing Tips/Chicken Claw)
Salad Dried Bean Curd with Coriander
Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce
Glutinous Rice Meatballs
Stewed Meatballs with Brown Sauce
Boiled Chinese cabbage
Braised Pork With Preserved Vegetable
Stewed Duck in Beer
Steamed Pork with Rice Flour
Braised Pork Feet
Hot Pot with Pig Blood and Tofu
Steamed Fish Cake Soup with Cuttlefish, Chicken and Tendons
Fried Corn Cake
With my southern background, I mostly geared our conversations toward the kaleidoscope of American culture – prodding students to identify and analyze why common assumptions about American culture (like frontier films or fast food) are both grounded in fact and not representative of the whole country. I sought to prove to the Tongji students how, due to gender, class, race, and region of origin, how my experiences in the South differed from those of my Hawaiian-born students, revealing many different sides of American culture. And now that we have a collective epic family meal, we have something to plan for next fall when the students are feeling homesick for China and excited for touring the US.
Today I want to share my contribution to the collective class meal – the South Georgia cold oven pound cake.
Food in the South is either and all together, sweet, salty, and fatty (fat is a whole food group down here). An example of salty would be dark leafy collard greens boiled in broth with salty ham bits. An example of sweet would be sweet potato casserole, which is boiled sweet potatoes mixed with sweetened condensed milk and brown sugar, topped with toasted marshmallows. And example of fatty would be biscuits made of lard and covered with butter after baking. An example of sweet and salty and fatty would be our barbecue which often includes salty smoked pork or fatty ribs covered in like a brown sugary sauce.
You can tell we have high, high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, but it doesn’t really sway us. My grandmother is nearly blind and can barely walk due to health problems. She takes insulin for her diabetes – and yet she still eats half a slice of pie after taking insulin. This doesn’t mean that everyone eats this way in the South, as my parents reacted to this by raising my siblings and me to eat low fat or sugar free foods that were often processed – perhaps just as unhealthy as the full fatty Southern versions.
Frequently at a Thanksgiving my family would serve turkey, cornbread stuffing (like a slightly soggy savory bread casserole dish), gravy and cranberry sauce (not actually a sauce but more like a cranberry-flavored gelatin that is super sweet and slightly sour and what you’re supposed to dip the stuffing and turkey in), sweet potato casserole, collard greens, and maybe some other additions like homemade macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, a light broccoli salad, and/or a green bean casserole.
We’d always have at least one type of bread – usually a sweet store-bought roll. And for dessert we’d serve pumpkin pie, maybe pecan pie, and pound cake, although there might be other additions. Generally you eat dinner at about 4:30/5 and then eat a second plate at about 7:30ish whenever your food has settled enough to eat more. And then a 9:30ish dessert sampling. By the end of the night, you should be walking funny or grunting from the discomfort of eating so much. It’s a masochistic ritual.
These are all very normal southern foods but a family favorite connected with my hometown is my grandma’s special cold oven pound cake which is the recipe I’d like to share for this course. To be frank, it’s called a pound cake because historically it included a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of eggs… And it tastes pretty much like a cake version of a shortbread cookie which is made of those ingredients. Normally pound cakes are pretty moist and dense, but the cold oven technique popular in Southwest Georgia where I’m from requires you don’t preheat the oven but put it straight into a cold oven when you go to bake it, creates an effect in which the outside of the cake is crunchy. Some people think it makes it too dry. I think they’re crazy and can’t stand pound cakes that are too soggy. This is clearly a preference thing, and because I grew up with only one type of pound cake, I favor the Southern style.
Recipe for cold oven pound cake taken from Paula Deen (who is from my hometown, is a world-renowned Southern cook, and is known in American popular culture for making super fatty food and being racist to African Americans. For more on her and how racism is perceived as “accidental” and therefore tolerated in the South, read this essay by author Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/the-guileless-accidental-racism-of-paula-deen/277153/.)
For the original link to the recipe, go here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/southwest-georgia-pound-cake-recipe.html.
Also, you’re supposed to bake this cake in a Bundt pan that creates a whole in the middle. My grandmother ALWAYS chops up an apple and stuffs the slices in the whole or just throws them into the container covering the cake. This makes the cake smell like apples and also adds moisture to the air which the cold oven pound cake needs since cakes normally progressively dry out. Because this cake will last a few days, you’ll need to add more apple slices or replace them as they dry out every day or so.
Side note: I grew up with a family tradition to eat certain foods on New Years Day for luck. I haven’t many people that follow this tradition so I wanted to share. For this meal each food is supposed to represent a source of good fortune in the upcoming year. The meal includes black eyed peas which are supposed to represent coins for money, collard greens to represent good health, and ham to represent strength, although no one can ever seem to remember what anything means except for the black eyed peas. I remember this being the one day that my mom would pressure my siblings to eat their whole plate otherwise they would have bad luck.