'Food is one of the ''keen sensual pleasures of our childhood'' (Lin 339), and such pleasures register in ''the semantic void,'' a term Zizek uses to describe a psychic space where lurks the (Lacanian) Real – enjoyment that is never exhaustively codified by language (Tarrying 202)'
In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan uses food as a means of exploring cultural identity by situating the consumption of food within the mother-daughter dyad. As Wenying Xu points out, food is one of the 'keen sensual pleasures of our childhood' - attached to our memories of food is an enjoyment of limitless expression. The influence of food on the self is boundless, it dips into a vast pool of memory in which notions of identity, love and longing can be summoned through the nostalgic power of taste. As Tan illustrates in the novel, food acts as a connection between the self and the homeland. It is tangible, visible and sensory, and hence, food acts a potent vehicle in which culture can take on a corporeal form.
This connection between food and cultural identity can be seen through the mother's narratives, where eating is often portrayed as spiritual and ritualistic. For instance, in Suyuan Woo's chapter, Tan tells the story of Suyuan through the narrative voice of her daughter, Jing Mei Woo. Jing Mei repeats the tales that her mother had told her about setting up the Joy Luck Club.
'The hostess had to serve special dyansyin foods to bring good fortune of all kinds – dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life'. (23)
From Jing Mei's description it is clear that food assumes a central, symbolic role in her mother's experience of the club. Dumplings, noodles, peanuts and oranges are transformed into talismans and tokens of good luck, fortune and well-being. In other words, food is introduced into a discourse of folklore, in which the belief in the spiritual power of food is passed on through generations, from Suyuan to Jing Mei. Suyuan's voice echoes through her daughter's narrative and thus, Tan emphasises the power that food has as a means of linking individuals together through cultural belief and practice.
The link between food, tradition and culture is demonstrated through the story of Ying Ying St. Clair as she reminisces about being a little girl at Chinese moon festival. Her mother gives her a moon cake and Ying Ying remembers rolling her tongue over her lips 'to lick off the sticky bean paste' (71). She recalls the 'sweet filling', the egg yolk inside and it is here that one is reminded of the statement that 'food is one of the keen sensual pleasures of our childhood'. But the meaning of the moon cake goes beyond childish delight, its symbolism is rooted in Chinese tradition and mythology. Every year at moon festival, the moon cake is prepared in celebration of the jade Rabbit known as 'yue'. In Chinese mythology, a goddess named Chang-o lives on the moon accompanied by a rabbit who makes the elixir of life. Hence the deliciously sweet moon cake remains in Ying Ying's mind along with the memory of the moon festival and the tradition of Chang-o's jade rabbit.
The depiction of food in the novel can also be explored through the ritual of eating and the associations that food has with the maternal. This does not mean that food should be solely associated with the feminine. Rather, I am focusing on an ability possessed by the mother, by which her body can produce a unique potion that will heal and nourish her baby. In this sense, 'food' is transformed into a gift of the body. This idea can be seen in The Joy Luck Club through An-Mei Hsu's story:
'And then my mother cut a piece of meat from her arm...my mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try and cure her mother this one last time....This is how a daughter honours her mother. It is shau so deep it is in your bones' (48)
Here the dichotomy of mother and child is inverted, the flesh and body of the 'child' is a 'gift', it becomes 'food' to heal and nurse her mother. The ritual consumption of the flesh acts as a symbolic expression of love and respect.
Whilst food has the nostalgic ability to return the individual to that land they refer to as 'home', it also has the power to alienate the self. It has the potential to propagate the disfigured notion of the 'other'. The 'other' that is strange, and repulsive and monstrous. In Waverley Jong's story she says that 'a Caucasian man with a big camera' posed her and her playmates in front of Hong Sing's restaurant.
'After he took the picture, I told him he should go into Hong Sing's and eat dinner. When he smiled and asked me what they served, I shouted, ''Guts and duck's feet and octopus gizzards!'' (91).
Tan demonstrates how food has the power to reinforce cross-cultural boundaries. The girls are aware of the differences between Western and Eastern cuisine, and how some Chinese food is perceived as repulsive to Europeans. Thus, the young Waverley Jong uses this knowledge to tease the Caucasian man.
The influence of food on cross-cultural identities is also explored through Lena St. Clair's story, 'Rice Husband'. Through this story, Tan addresses the problematic nature of the collision of Western and Eastern ideals. Lena, being born in America from a Chinese family experiences beliefs and ideologies from both cultures. For instance, the superstition and mysticism that Chinese culture associates with food is merged with the Western association of food with diet and body image. Lena's mother tells her that if she leaves rice behind, the number of rice grains in her bowl will be the number of pock marks on her husband's face. In an attempt to avoid being cursed with a bad husband, Lena devises a plan in which she can 'kill' the evil husband by leaving as many grains of rice in the bowl as possible. This superstitious behaviour concerning food then intertwines with Lena's experience as a young teenage girl growing up in America, in which Lena states that anorexia became fashionable amongst thirteen year old girls. The collision of Chinese and American food values results in the mutation of these values and this manifests itself in the form of Lena's eating disorder. Hence demonstrating the collision of cultural beliefs, such as those surrounding food, has the ability to significantly affect the identity of individuals who find themselves located in the midst of cross-cultural territory.