In this this interview, Carrie Tippen
talks with Catherine Keyser
about early twentieth century fiction and the role that modern food plays in literature as a language for talking about race and racial categories. In Artificial Color: Modern Food and Racial Fictions,
published in 2019 by Oxford University Press, Keyser explores the ways that modern fiction writers responded to the theories and anxieties about race in the early twentieth century through related anxieties about modern industrial food. In each chapter, Keyser focuses on a few closely related authors and texts, linked by their common use of food for plot, imagery, and metaphor, each one shedding some light on how that food carried meanings of racial identity. Keyser uncovers the historical context around each food to help today’s readers see what it might have meant to the writers and their contemporary readers. Keyser examines the use of soda pop and syrup or images of effervescence in Jean Toomer’s Cane
as a metaphor for inevitable racial intermixing; the promises of raw food for revitalizing African American resistance in George Schuyler’s speculative fiction; Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s search for a cosmopolitan identity through European terroir; the fragility of whiteness in F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s anxieties about coffee, wine, and the sticky Mediterranean; and the failure of capitalism to secure black masculinity through the figure of the grocer in Zora Neale Hurtson’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
and Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy.
Keyser’s careful pairing of familiar texts with their less canonical contemporaries brings an important new perspective to both.
Catherine Keyser is Associate Professor and McCausland Fellow at the University of South Carolina. Cat’s research focuses on Modern American Literature, African American Literature, Periodicals, Gender, and Food. She is also the author of the 2010 book Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture
from Rutgers University Press, 2010. You can follow Cat on Twitter @Cat_Keyser.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.