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'The Tropics Bite Back' is a feast of words on the cannibal and the edible

By Dana Goldman | Emory Report | Oct. 16, 2013

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Professor of French and English Valérie Loichot connects food and culture in her new book on Caribbean literature. Emory Photo/Video.

It's possible that Professor of French and English Valérie Loichot thinks about food more than most. But for Loichot food is also connected to culture, history and her academic interests. She explores the topic in her latest book, "The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature" (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

Loichot talks with Emory Report about her latest scholarship:

How would you summarize this book in one sentence?

This book focuses on the surprising role eating and cooking play in slavery and post-slavery Caribbean contexts – not only to preserve but also to rebuild humanity and culture, cultures that were affected by slavery and colonialism. 

What sparked your interest in this topic?

What I first noticed when I was reading Caribbean folktales was this obsession with food, the omnipresence of food – cooking, eating – that really sparked my attention. I've been trying to answer this question: Why is there such an obsession with food? And there's an easy answer: rampant hunger on slave plantations. But I wanted to go further than that – and show that food and expressions of food were about much more than an expression of hunger.

In researching this book, what unexpected discoveries did you make along the way?

The frequent reaction of people in academia or outside academia that were quite surprised I was working on food. People often thought that food was too trivial to constitute a serious academic topic.

What do you think will most surprise readers about your book?

The word "cannibal" is born into language at the moment of the encounter between Christopher Columbus and the Carib Amerindians [natives of the Caribbean]. When Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean islands and the Americas he heard Carib Amerindians screaming the names of their nation: Caribá. But he heard caníbal. The words are linked in language. It's quite interesting to see that Columbus' mistake had giant implications for how first Amerindians, and later Africans were represented as cannibals.

What kind of impact do you hope this book has? 

I'm hoping the audience will understand that food is never just about food. Like other cultural productions, it's a crucial way to understand how people remember, make connections with the past, and build communities.