The Great Desideratum: Mastering Production in Douglass’ Plantation and Fisher’s Mill

This summer, I took a class on “Reading and Writing Food” at Columbia. Over the next few weeks, I will post a sampling of essays composed for that class. For a final selection, something a little (alright, a lot) more academic in persuasion.

The Great Desideratum: Mastering Production in Douglass’ Plantation and Fisher’s Mill

Immense wealth, and its lavish expenditure, fill the great house with all that can please the eye, or tempt the taste. Here, appetite, not food, is the great desideratum.

—Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, American Food Writing 62

In Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom, the gastronomical experiences of the slave and the master are antithetical. Whereas the slave eats “ash cake” (61), the master and his guests feast on “heavy and blood-bought luxuries” (62). Within the manor house though, a special class of slaves serves the masters their meals, and this “black aristocracy” (63) functions as the intermediate term between “the human cattle” (62) and the country lords; from wardrobe to discourse, they wear false white skins that camouflage their blackness. Production and consumption converge in the manor, a space in which nature and the black man “are made tributary” (62). M.F.K Fisher’s “Define This Word” advances a fundamentally similar representation: sites of proletariat production transform into loci of bourgeois consumption. Whether working in a plantation manor or dining in a renovated mill, the authors describe staggering overabundances. All that is wanting is appetite—the desire to consume. This “great desideratum” defines the relationship between master and slave in the manor house and in the restaurant. In both locales, traces of production infest the pleasures of consumption.

A performance of whiteness distinguishes Douglass’ black aristocracy from the human cattle. Maids don their mistress’ “scarcely worn silk” (63) and servant men “the overflowing wardrobe of their young masters; so that, in dress, as well as in form and feature, in manner and speech, in tastes and habits, the distance between these favored few, and the sorrow and hunger-smitten multitudes of the quarter in the field, was immense” (64). These performed traits of the black aristocracy gesture at white domesticity. Like the horses “kept only for pleasure” (64), the house slaves provide the masters with an aesthetic pleasure that supersedes utility; they are “discriminately selected, not only with a view to their industry and faithfulness, but with special regard to their personal appearance” (63).  For the house slaves, aesthetic characteristics override the external realities of slavery. The aesthetic valuation of the house slave contrasts with “the close-fisted stinginess that fed the poor slave on coarse corn-meal and tainted meat; that clothed him in crashy tow-linen” (62). To bring the slave into the house and “domesticate” him is to neutralize the source of production. By making the slave a reflection of the master, in speech and in style, the master nullifies the threat of alterity. The house slave’s transformation simulates whiteness in order to comfort the white with sameness. Even though this simulation effectively separates the field slave from the house slave, it still introduces elements of production into the space of consumption. However much the master attempts to erase the traces of production from house slave’s body, performance does not erase identity, and the “domesticated” slave remains implicitly entangled with the labor of his brethren outside the house.

For Douglass though, the house slave’s performance of whiteness is inseparable from the master’s performance of hospitality. Douglass comments that “horses and hounds are not the only consumers of the slave’s toil. There was practiced, at the Lloyd’s a hospitality. . .” (64). A second subject position necessarily enters the narrative field. When “viewed from his own table, and not from the field, the colonel was a model of generous hospitality” (64). Hospitality entails more than the provision of fine foods—it means a performance of benevolent mastery before the guests. Douglass questions, “who could say that the servants of Col. Lloyd were not well clad and cared for, after witnessing one of his magnificent entertainments? Who could say that they did not seem to glory in being the slaves of such a master” (64)? Therein, hospitality functions as an ideology, masking the power structure that robs the slave of subjectivity, agency, and independent identity. The performance of hospitality is inextricably tied up in the slaves’ forced performance of whiteness, which renders them aesthetic objects suitable for consumption.

In the dining room, “fields, forests, rivers and seas” (62) bow before the master. Agrarianism powers the kitchen, providing it with a profligacy of natural produce. Simultaneously, the house collects “juicy grapes from Spain. Wines and brandies from France; teas of various flavor, from China; and rich, aromatic coffee from Java” (63). So the “grand consumer” to whom all varieties of food “roll bounteously” (63) constitutes as a cosmopolitan center, too. Emergent networks of capitalism underwrite pastoral modes of production. Food emerges from the kitchen not alienated from its production, but rather as an emblem of the productive force. Just as the master puppets the slave in a grand performance of domestic whiteness, he consumes the produce of the world in order to subjugate it. But Douglass casts doubt on the master’s success, because that alter subject position, the field, affords a kind of binocular vision. With some perspective, the reader recognizes that “lurking beneath all their dishes, are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers with aches, pains. . .” (65). Beneath the aesthetic pleasure of the hedonist lurks a terrifying sickness. Removing the traces of production from food proves impossible, but consuming those traces “is poison, not sustenance” (65). Thus, the house slave brings blackness into the house under a white guise, even as the performance of hospitality infects the site of consumption with the disease of labor.

When M.F.K. Fisher visits “the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants” (234), she encounters “a young servant. . .who was almost fanatical about food” (234). Over the course of her meal, Fisher permutates the master-slave dynamic, designating the diner, the server, and the chef alternatively as masters and slaves. Fisher notes that her servant’s “obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable” (234) The conventional alignment of diner with master and waitress with slave reverses as the meal progresses. Engaging in the subjunctive, the waitress coerces Fisher; phrases like “perhaps Madame would care” and “Madame should be eating” (237) establish the waitress as a didact and a taskmaster. Fisher finds herself “serving a purpose, and perhaps a noble one” and she “protested only to myself when one of Monsieur Paul’s special cheese was cut for me, and ate it doggedly, like a slave” (241). Eating becomes pleasurably laborious; the waitress regulates and authorizes consumption as a mandate. Although the waitress calls the chef “a master” (240), she describes him in terms of a slave as well. As she serves a pate, she tells Fisher how M. Paul “never stops stirring it! Figure to yourself the work of it—stir, stir, never stopping”  (238). In the power hierarchy’s final iteration, the waitress dominates Fisher and the food itself dominates M. Paul. If the “black aristocracy” can be mapped onto this restaurant’s universe, then the waitress operates as the transaction between the world of production (M. Paul) and that of consumption (Fisher). In her essay, however, Fisher inscribes a special power onto the waitress: the capacity to control the guest in a way the house slave never can.

Perhaps obviously, the question remains of whether the French restaurant fulfills the same purpose as the plantation house: to obscure the violence of production in a gesture of consumption. Like in the Lloyd’s house, overabundance characterizes the restaurant. Fisher prays “for ten normal appetites” (238), a course of hor d’oeuvres includes “at least eight dishes” (237), and the parade of food feels pornographic. Hospitality, and more specifically, an excess of hospitality, reifies a structure of power. The waitress subjects the diner to a demonstration of the restaurant’s productive capacity, which in turn rests on exploitation of the land—“unused butter and addled eggs” (240). This “gormandizing” performance identifies the restaurant’s dominance over its surrounding agricultural territories. Of course, such a performance involves the figurative consumption of labor. The diner consumes food as a means of transforming the ugly realities of capitalist production—“Gibson girls, English tavern scenes, and hideous countrysides” (236)—into a pastoral fantasy.  Concurrently, the restaurant space itself attempts to hide its own historical reality: the “traces of the petit-bourgeois parlor it had been” (234). Nevertheless, the site of production continuously infiltrates the site of consumption. Even inside the restaurant’s walls “the air was softly hurried with the sound of high waters from the stream outside” (234), and at the meal’s conclusion, in the exact language of theatrical performance, “no sound came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timid blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain” (242). As in Douglass’ narrative, consumption fails to elide production, because the performance of hospitality inevitably fails to homogeneously incorporate the space of production into the dining room.

Therefore, it is possible to translate Douglass’ plantation house into Fisher’s restaurant; both are committed to the same performance and its attendant project: masking the violences of production under a masquerade of hospitality. Then, it is easy to see the restaurant as metaphor for the plantation house. The plantation and restaurant table’s “great desideratum” is an appetite for control over and possession of the world of production. To master nature or a fellow man is to reduce its power by consuming it. What Douglass explicitly notates and what Fisher obliquely references is the introduction of evil, poisonous spirits into the master’s body. Eating as a performance of mastery inevitably contaminates the capitalist with the unstable and violent forces he so desperately longs to dominate. In this preliminary analysis, it seems transparent that the plantation house and the restaurant are, reductively but necessarily, the same.

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Filed under Columbia University, Essays, Theory and Criticism

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