Friday, March 24, 2006

Dancing skeletons

Food in Dancing Skeletons

In a book that concerns itself with an anthropologist’s encounters with malnutrition in Mali, it is little wonder that mentionings of Western food are given such prominence. Dettwyler makes special points to mention when she is able to obtain American foods, and takes care to note the responses of others to it.
Three specific incidents occur in the chapter titled “Turtles All the Way Down,” including three particular foods—pizza, macaroni, and peanut-butter cookies. Pizza occurs in a discussion of a Bambara proverb, “Just when it is time to go to bed isn’t the time to say you’re hungry.” Moussa, Dettwyler’s traveling companion, explains the meaning of the quote—that since millet and rice take so long to cook, one cannot simply announce at bedtime that they want food, since it is far too late by then to begin cooking into the night—to which Dettwyler answers with her explanation of why the quote would lose its meaning in the United States. In the “Land of the Midnight Snack” as she dubs the United States, food is readily available. And, in a book where food descriptions have occasionally described the rich variety of foods in Mali though have mostly been limited to peanut-sauce and rice or millet, the appearance of such words in the narrative in sudden profusion seem to reflect a longing for such foods. Ice cream, cereal and milk, and pizza exist as a contrast to the foods of Mali, and are almost an accusing finger pointed at the decadence of American society—not only for the richness of the food, but the ease with which it can be acquired. Then again, perhaps this is too harsh a reading of the book, and Dettwyler does include this only to illustrate the differences in food habits in America and in Mali. It is amusing, though, that Moussa remembers pizza with great longing from his time in New York. That, by itself, can be interpreted as a miniature moral for the reader about appreciating things before they are gone.
The later instances of western food included in the chapter, are Dettwyler’s baking of peanut butter cookies at a friend’s apartment. This particular incident also includes elements of the differences between life in Mali; this time serving to illustrate the resources taken for granted in the Western world—what we consider the simple given of having an oven. Dettwyler describes the various methods of cooking, baking, and roasting throughout the book, specifically in the previous chapter, where the process of creating karite butter is described in detail. While the reader gains an understanding of the involved process, it is not truly put into perspective until we see how easily the peanut butter cookies are made. Dettwyler accomplishes this with a stylistic tactic, making the process of making such cookies into a three-sentence ordeal, in comparison the half-chapter karate-butter making.
The other, and perhaps lighter level of food in the chapter is that of the small child, Ami, who playfully accepts “macaroni money” from Dettwyler. As Dettwyler says earlier in the book, macaroni and other “western” foods are considered to be occasional treats by some of the native peoples of Mali. Thus, what is a simple pasta for westerners is food of significance to some of the natives of Mali.

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