FEATURE — Winter 2006

Rafia Zafar, known as "Doctor Z" to undergraduates, is professor of English, African and African American studies, and American culture studies.

Dishing Up Food for Thought

Literary historian Rafia Zafar's research, writings, and teaching blend food and American literature, depicting a cultural identity that is full of different flavors.

By Kenneth J. Cooper

In her American literature class, Rafia Zafar and her students talk about food. Once she brought along canned versions of a traditional Scottish dish hard to find on grocery shelves but the subject of elaborate verse in the late 18th century, when a young United States was trying to figure out what kind of nation it was going to be. "Food and American literary identity," in Zafar's words, is the meat of this innovative course.

"Food is used as a way of maintaining boundaries. So, as a writer, you use food to say who you are and what group you belong to," explains Zafar, professor of English, African and African American studies, and American culture studies, all in Arts & Sciences. "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."

This interest in food in the American literary imagination has led "Doctor Z," as she is known to undergraduates, to teach the course and spend more than a decade on a related book-in-progress, And Called It Macaroni: Eating, Writing, Becoming American. Draft chapters sprawl across three centuries and the subcultures whose culinary contributions prompted some Americans to write.

"Food is used as a way of maintaining boundaries. So, as a writer, you use food to say who you are and what group you belong to," explains Zafar. "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are."

From the 1700s, Zafar considers a New Englander's poem in heroic couplets about "hasty pudding," a cornmeal porridge popular then. Corn is indigenous to the Americas, and that ingredient distinguished the dish from European ones made from other grains. "He is propounding that there is a national identity," she says of poet Joel Barlow.

Barlow's inspiration was another 18th-century poet who wrote about "haggis," the canned goods Zafar took to an early meeting of her class last semester [fall 2006], to the amusement of her students. Scots believed the hearty dish of cooked sheep's stomach stuffed with oats and other parts of the sheep fortified soldiers before battle. A statue of the author of that ode, Robert Burns, stands on campus near Skinker Boulevard.

A later chapter explores African-American cookbooks published during the civil rights movement, when expressions of black pride encompassed traditional "soul food." That chapter is titled "The Signifying Dish," a reference to a book of African-American literary criticism by Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey, and also to the verbal jousting that is part of black culture. Zafar says food played a central role in the movement, with its sit-ins at lunch counters that asserted the right to "commensality," the technical term for eating together.

Other assigned reading in the class, so popular with students last fall that enrollment had to be limited to 30, include writings by Ernest Hemingway (A Moveable Feast), Alice B. Toklas (The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook), and Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate). "We read a lot of heavy, hard-hitting books that are canonical. The course description makes it sound like it's a fluff class, but it's not," says Crystal Alberts, a graduate student who is team-teaching the course with Zafar.

The breadth of the food course and readings reflect the range of the academic specialities of a professor with appointments in three disciplines. Her work straddles cultures in the same way she does as the New York-born daughter of a Jewish mother and African-American father, a jazz drummer who converted to Islam, gave his two children Arabic names but brought them to Unitarian Sunday school. (Rafia means "the patient one" and Zafar "victor.")

Academically, Zafar describes herself as a specialist in 19th-century American literature, "literary historian," and "African Americanist," roles that overlap and reinforce each other in the three books she has written or edited. We Wear the Mask: African Americans Write American Literature, 1760-1870, for instance, makes direct comparisons between the works of black and white contemporaries.

"I am interested in the cultural and historical stuff around literature," Zafar explains. "I'm interested in why people write for cultural-historical reasons, instead of why people write for aesthetic reasons."

Serving up different courses

Zafar came to the University in 1998 as director of the African and African American Studies program, succeeding Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, who had drawn to the program literary scholars like himself. In its early years, the program had focused on the social sciences under psychologist Robert L. Williams, who coined the term "ebonics" for black English, and Jack Kirkland, a professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

Personally, Zafar liked being surrounded by other literature specialists, but set out in her four-year tenure to create "a full-service African and African American Studies program." She helped bring in a political scientist, an anthropologist, and two historians but was unable to land a sociologist. The new director, John Baugh, is a renowned linguist.

One of the historians she brought in was Leslie Brown, assistant professor of history and of African and African American studies in Arts & Sciences, who says under Zafar the program "began to spread out and look more at issues of gender and class." She also encouraged, in Brown's view, a model interdisciplinary approach to the subject area.

"You want a wide range of theoretical approaches," Zafar says. "I think students benefit from knowing there are different ways of approaching a body of knowledge."

Crystal Alberts (right) is a graduate student who is helping team-teach a literature and food course with Professor Zafar, who also serves as Alberts' dissertation director. Alberts says that Zafar does more than just lecture at students, she gets them involved in pointed discussion.

Her own approach to teaching is more inquiring than didactic, frustrating students who try to ascertain her political perspective. "Sometimes students think I'm an Afrocentrist or a nationalist," she says, "or they may not."

Zafar lets students express their opinions in the food course, Alberts says, but always brings the discussion back to the points she has plotted in advance. "Rather than lecturing at them, she always gets them involved," Alberts says of Zafar, who is also her dissertation director.

The other course she teaches is on black women writers. The first studied is Phillis Wheatley, the Boston slave whose volume of poetry in 1773 became the first book to be published by an African American. In the 1960s and 1970s, when student protests forced black studies into college curriculums, nationalist scholars dismissed Wheatley for appearing to disown her homeland in a verse that expressed relief at having escaped Africa—even as a captive.

Zafar makes a more nuanced and sympathetic reading of the 18th-century poet, who in recent decades has undergone a racial rehabilitation, which Zafar contributed to in her book on early black literature. She interprets the controversial verse as a religious statement of a Christian convert who believed her faith to be the path to salvation, and "doesn't mean she was unaware of who she was in that historical moment" racially.

"I love Phillis Wheatley. I think she's complicated," Zafar says. "Things are never black and white."

Her scholarship tastes of life

Zafar has found inspiration for her research and teaching in her own life. She lived for a time in Harlem and grew curious about the renaissance of black writers, artists, and scholars that was centered there in the 1920s. She quizzed her grandmother about a storied period whose stars included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. DuBois. Zafar decided to write about the Harlem Renaissance, but first was drawn deeper into the recesses of history.

She wondered "when African-American literary consciousness began. I started reading further back." That led to the book on early black writers and also to her co-editing another about the slave narrative that Harriet Jacobs wrote on the eve of the Civil War.

In 2002, she returned to her starting point, with the publication of "Fictions of the Harlem Renaissance" in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume Six. She evaluates academic challenges to the period's significance, including whether it was really a "renaissance" since its output did not make America more egalitarian. She dismisses that notion: "How can you say any literary movement that produces that much writing and scholarship is a failure?"

Her first book was a byproduct of genealogical research. She co-edited the memoirs of her great-great-grandfather, who during Reconstruction became one of the first black officeholders in Virginia. God Made Man, Man Made Slave: The Autobiography of George Teamoh was published in 1992.

Then there's the food stuff. How did that begin? With a love of food, and a job. "In 1973, while an undergraduate at City College of New York, I became the first employee—I'm almost positive—of Giorgio DeLuca, who would shortly become famed for his part in Dean & DeLuca," the gourmet food store, Zafar explains.

Hauling and cutting cheese has eventually led to the course, the book, and a Fulbright/Walt Whitman Chair in the cheese-producing Netherlands. She will spend the spring semester of 2007 at the University of Utrecht teaching and lecturing on, among other cultural and literary matters, food.

Kenneth Cooper, A.B. '77, is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning free-lance writer based in Boston.