This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
‘Was it really wrong of me to remember the past fondly? It wasn’t, of course it wasn’t – but the past was an easy meal, after all. I could taste it again anytime I wanted, in memory, and it would always be perfect and true. The here-and-now, though, had no recipe. It might be sour or bitter or raw. And yet.’
— N. K. Jemisin, ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’
Food and nostalgia are inextricably tied. Ever since Proust described the mingling of madeleine crumbs in a cup of tea, writers have explored the way unassuming tastes unlock involuntary memories. In Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), the famous madeleine moment provides a form of sensory time-travel, enabling the narrator to conjure up the childhood village of his memory. This return to the past is fuelled by nostalgia, a word originating from the pain of homesickness and, as such, expresses longing for an idealised ‘before’. American speculative fiction author N. K. Jemisin, however, suggests a different way of treating the familiar subjects of nostalgia and food – asking us to turn our eyes towards the future rather than gaze into the past.
‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ is a short story first published in Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (2018). A New Orleans restaurant offers its patrons a unique experience – they can cook to order any meal from your past. Harold, a sceptical first-time visitor, requests the dish his ex-wife made on the day he proposed to her. The food arrives, and to Harold’s shock it appears to be an identical copy. Each bite brings memories of their joyful early days together, but also provokes growing unease: “Someone has looked into my heart and found a long-forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day the memory was made.” He enters the kitchen, determined to discover the truth behind such a cruel trick – only to find a ghostly shade of his ex-wife Angelina, at work creating his meal. It seems the restaurant had found some way of capturing the past, trapping the sensations of taste and smell in a time-slip. Harold can see her, but can’t communicate. The staff ask him politely to leave, but say he’s welcome to return and eat the meal again whenever booking slots free up.
Unlike the majority of stories in How Long ‘til Black Future Month?, ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ doesn’t explicitly deal with the subject of race. In order to understand Jemisin’s treatment of nostalgia, however, we must first understand the racial politics that inform her work. The title of the collection was originally used for a 2013 blog post celebrating the work of Janelle Monáe and criticising the absence of black voices in genre fiction – both as authors and characters. In the introduction to her stories Jemisin describes “how terrifying it’s been to realise no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.” Jemisin is one of a growing number of authors responding to the systematic erasure of their history though slavery, segregation and institutional racism, crafting narratives in which protagonists have futures to look forward to – futures which are often hard-won, but optimistic.
In this regard, ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ ought to be more closely compared to another famous food narrative: Babette’s Feast (1958), written by Karen Blixen and later adapted into an Oscar-winning film. The story is set in 19th-century Norway, and focuses on two Puritan sisters who grant sanctuary to a French woman fleeing the Communard massacre. After twelve years working as a cook and maid, Babette puts on a lavish feast to thank the sisters, revealing that she had once been known as the greatest chef in Paris. Blixen, a Danish aristocrat, treats idealised memories very differently to Jemisin. Out of Africa (1937), Blixen’s most famous work, is a record of her time owning a coffee plantation in East Kenya. Patricia M.E. Lorcin in her book Historicising Colonial Nostalgia describes the memoir as an experiment in fictionalisation, reconstructing Africa as a landscape of poetry and romance years after she had left. Nostalgia therefore becomes appropriated as a colonial attitude: the past reinvisioned as a golden age.
At first this might seem to have little bearing on Babette’s Feast, where characters are mainly driven by memories of trauma. Babette fled a massacre that destroyed her family. General Löwenhielm, a guest at the feast, is haunted by the phantom of his younger self, a manifestation of past regrets. Yet Blixen shows a change taking place during the meal. For Babette, cooking becomes an attempt to recapture her prime as a lauded chef after years of poverty. She meticulously handpicks the right ingredients to reconstruct the experience of Parisian high-dining in a remote Norwegian hut. The effect is so complete that Löwenhielm is gripped by a series of Proustian flashbacks: “Once more he was carried back to that dinner in Paris.” The feast is a work of artistry that carries parallels to Blixen’s own lyrical reconstruction of Africa. While Blixen’s Kenya filters out the racial exploitation of indigenous inhabitants, Babette reframes her time feeding the officials who would later incite the slaughter of her family, explaining it away as the work of an artist trying to do their best.
Unlike Babette’s Feast, which progresses away from regret and towards the acceptance of a cosy, sentimentalised past, ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ takes us on an inverse journey. The comforts of nostalgia are made palpable early on. We understand Harold’s temptation to return and savour those pleasing memories of Angelina once again: “The past was an easy meal after all [...] it would always be perfect and true. The here-and-now, though, had no recipe. It might be sour or bitter or raw. And yet.” Jemisin interrogates the limits of sensation and asks us to stop gazing into the past through a rose-tinted lens. What we learn from discussions regarding the erasure of black history is that nostalgia is a privilege which is not afforded to all, which at its worst can be appropriated for colonialist idealisation. ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ continues the themes of the rest of the collection, providing its characters with the opportunity to look ahead into an uncertain, self-made future, rather than follow the patterns set out before them.
In the final lines of the story, Harold cancels his return booking and decides to give Angelina a call. The phantom in the kitchen is a bottled fragment of his memories, reduced to a single, pleasing moment. It could never hope to contain everything that makes her who she is. One wonders what would happen if Blixen had placed Babette in the ‘Cuisine des Mémoires’ – preserved in the moment of her prime, like a fly in amber – would she ever wish her to leave? ▲
Victor Rees is a freelance writer living in Birmingham. He took an undergraduate degree in English at Cambridge and has recently completed a Masters in Playwriting at the University of Edinburgh.