If the apple is that most iconic of American fruits, what is its counterpart among diasporic cultures from Asia? When I was growing up in Baguio City in the Philippines, one could buy tissue-wrapped “Red Delicious” apples and “Sunkist” oranges imported from the United States in the “PX” (post exchange) section of the market, but not fresh peaches. Canned “Cling Peaches” in syrup were the only version I knew. We’ d mix them with canned “Fruit Cocktail,” sweet coconut strings, and heavy cream. Straight out of the refrigerator (their flesh icy and firm, so smooth and globular), they almost looked fake. Hard to reconcile with the real thing—skin of blushing fuzz, insides that could be soft in spots, exuding a musk teetering almost on the edge of ammonia. It is in such ways that culinary memory becomes a familiar source for poets writing about diasporic identities and communities. Often-nostalgic evocations, re-imaginings, and reworking of symbols from alimentary experience become enfolded in narratives of migration and assimilation, within environments where conflicting claims to visibility and acceptance are experienced.
In her fourth full-length collection of poetry, Peach State, Adrienne Su continues to write about some of her favorite subjects, with a preference for what she once described as “the daily [over] the exotic.” The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and professor of creative writing at Dickinson College, Su was raised in Georgia and in Chinese America by way of family and circumstance. She relates in a 2019 interview that her father arrived in Atlanta in 1948, a time when there were exactly four Chinese restaurants in Georgia. The poems in Peach State might also be seen to track the development of Chinese cuisine in this part of the American South, through stories of earlier generations of Chinese immigrants like her parents who made their way to The Big Peach or The Empire City.
Peach State is enjoyable and formally satisfying (there are ghazals, sonnets, a sestina, epigrammatic couplets, even a palindrome poem). Its fifty-seven poems are distributed across five sections, invitingly titled “Elements,” “Small Eats,” “Your Table Should Be Round,” “Never Mind, Let’s Go Out,” and “Desserts and Drinks.” The poet takes us not so much on a culinary tour but rather through a personal interrogation of alimentary representations. Specifically, she examines how Asian Americans query mainstream attitudes and characterizations of their bodies, their subjectivities, their foodways, and other aspects of culture.
Say “Let’s eat Chinese tonight,” and any of the food delivery apps and services will likely offer several choices of Chinese restaurants in your vicinity. According to one of Grubhub’s surveys, “General Tso’s Chicken” is one of the most frequently ordered of Chinese takeout foods, though it is a dish more American than Chinese. It’s similar to chop suey, a stir-fried mishmash of meat and vegetables supposedly concocted by a Chinese chef working in a California mining camp in the 1890s during the Gold Rush. The Chinese Restaurant News reports that there are at least 41,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States. A quick scroll through Yelp pages shows there are, conservatively, at least 196 Chinese restaurants in metro Atlanta. Yet Su’s opening poem, “Substitutions,” immediately situates its speaker in a locale where she feels there is a lack of access to original or authentic resources, ranging from pantry staples like vinegar to ham and made-from-scratch noodles; to family and whole cultural contexts of sensory experience. This is because like translations, substitutions will never be exact. Balsamic vinegar isn’t the same as Zhenjiang vinegar. Filleted fish in Styrofoam trays are not “carp head-to-tail.” The sounds of language will fall either fluently on children’s ears, or on ears straining toward understanding. In this way, the book immediately announces itself as a map to at least two places, two interiors, two sensibilities. “My Mother’s Pantry” sums up the ways in which varied influences have arrived into this family’s life, along with them in their movements: “gefilte fish” sits without comment next to “Dole fruit cocktail,” above “thousand-year eggs, chrysanthemum / tea, rice.”
The poems house complex and subtle layering of identities: not just Chinese American and Southern, but also other identities acquired even prior to migration to America. Su recounts in “The Jews of Kaifeng” how the Chinese community of Atlanta go to “an exhibit on China that wasn’t old vases.” The poem’s title refers to China’s oldest Jewish community in Henan, established sometime in the seventh century by itinerant merchants from Persia and the Middle East.
Jews were Chinese in more ways than food.
Migration was not always out of the places
our families had fled; it had once been to.
Through assimilation or intermarriage as well as the dictates of Chinese Communist rule, there are fewer than a thousand of them today. Some who continue to reside in a city that once was the bustling capital of the Northern Song dynasty have considered migrating to Israel, out of a desire to learn more about Judaism and their disappearing spiritual heritage. When they pray (in both Hebrew and Mandarin), Kaifeng Jews follow the Talmud. As with other Jews praying in the diaspora, they turn their faces toward Jerusalem.
For Kaifeng Jews as well as for Su, therefore, questions about provenance and identity are a complicated field to traverse. She fends off questions like “You’re from the South?” which, offered in incredulity, ascribe only foreignness to those like her. American-born, just like any other child she ached to spread her wings and fly away from the family home. She declares, “the South is an illusion,” in much the same way as the nearly ubiquitous egg roll of Chinese takeout fame
prefers to be defined on its own terms,
like a cowboy pitching a tent at a crossroads,
setting up his fire and fat, and growing rich
on the legend of where he claims to be from.
When does a food, herb, or spice become a commonplace item in the cultural vocabulary, like the proverbial neighborly cup of sugar? In “Ginger,” Su answers:
When it’s always available,
not lumped with root vegetables
nor flecked with blue mold.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When its unexpected absence
causes fundamental hunger
Apparently, “Tea Eggs” have not yet achieved the status of the commonplace. The poet recounts bringing lovingly prepared tea eggs (boiled and marinated in a fragrant mix of black tea, star anise, and soy sauce) to a class on literature and food. She gets a tepid reaction from students as well colleagues back in the faculty room. She brings home the rest, to the exclamations of her children, for whom the food has always been a delicious treat. Could she have brought something “easier” to her class? But she muses that bringing potato chips would have been “too easy”:
But what do potato chips
have to do with integrity? It’s a classroom, not a marketplace.
Then there is the story of Yang Guifei in “Lychee Express,” the “concubine to the emperor / a Helen of China.” She loved lychees so much that their procurement “by a chain of horsemen, / laid waste to a dynasty”—implying the story’s emphasis on the dangers of putting pleasure before necessity. In contrast, as evidenced by the PLU (Price Look-Up) codes on produce, the wide-ranging origins of food today show a supposed democratization of access and wealth of choice. No one now seems to selectively or exclusively “choose / who would eat humbly, who like an emperor.” However, there’s an obvious difference in one’s ability to purchase a Krispy Kreme ($0.99) versus a “Golden Cristal Ube” donut filled with champagne and airbrushed with 24K gold ($100). There’s also the need for us to become more aware of the ways in which traditional “soul foods” and staple vegetables in both Chinese and Southern U.S. cooking have been appropriated by mainstream culture. On the one hand, there is that trendy type of cultural food colonialism, with eaters who portray themselves as brave and adventurous consumers of “ethnic food” (chili crisp! rice balls! bao!)—which is really everyday survival food made and eaten by and in communities that have historically been dominated. Additionally, there are those who tout the health virtues of foods like kale, green tea, and tofu, without much concern for their cultural origins or history. Some of this is captured by Su in the poem “Serve Immediately,” wherein she takes to task a phrase placed commonly at the end of every recipe in a cookbook. She bridles at the imperative for urgency that it imposes, especially when one considers that food is only the end product of an invisible chain of labor and reward:
If I weren’t so hungry,
I’ d be reading, sleeping, or burning energy
at the gym, where exertion is meant
to result in replenishment.
That urgency in modern-day cookbooks caters to the type of indeterminate necessity behind the fashionable desire to document meals on social media and elsewhere. Whereas, she reminds us,
[t]he original second-person narrators
. . . preach the ancient urgency
of staying ahead of rot.
The tyranny of a survival ethos is more than familiar to the children of immigrants. Who does not remember Maxine Hong Kingston’s childhood feats of “heroic eating” in The Woman Warrior? Every rib and bone, every part of the plant, every part of the animal can find its way into a dish in order not to waste it. Stripped of historical and cultural context, the concept translates onto a different value register only as environmentally mindful “eating head to tail.” In Peach State, how to be American is equated with extravagance, wastefulness, and privilege. Su conjures “a great-great grandmother / appalled by her distant offspring, / an American who never watched a river // rise above its banks like a cold volcano, / who burns stew while also forgetting / the sprouting onions and potatoes.” But at the same time the granddaughter wants to keep “engaging her” (amusing side note: I actually read “enraging her”) as she multitasks:
I want her to understand the fatigue,
the pull of instant knowledge, the miles
that separate clans, as if she couldn’t see
from her perch in heaven, as if a ghost
who couldn’t read these best-by dates
wouldn’t know I was folding clothes
at 2 a.m., then trying to wake up
in time to wear them to the meeting
Each poem in Peach State brings pleasure and discovery. One of these moments occurs, for me, in “White Rabbit”—an ode of sorts to what is also one of my favorite childhood sweets—
in a lunchbox,
it still got noticed
but with less coldness
than greeted haw flakes.
Who could mistake
sweet milk and vanilla
for a foreign invader?
—and in “Peaches,” which again takes up the linked themes of providence, abundance, love, and labor:
At home I loved to stare
into the extra freezer, reviewing mountains
of foil-wrapped meats, cakes, juice concentrate,
mysterious packets brought by house guests
from New York Chinatown, to be transformed
by heat and my mother’s patient effort,
enough to keep us fed through flood or storm
Moments of delight are also orchestrated through the deployment of forms. “The Lazy Susan” is a mirror or palindrome poem in two stanzas that meet in the middle. In it, Su attempts to reconcile at least two generations of immigrants and the ways in which they interpret their histories:
They live this way because of us.
We live this way because of them.
There is a Chinese fable from around 400 ce, in which a boatman stumbles upon a river winding through a forest of blossoming peach trees. He finds his way to an idyllic village lost in time and stays there awhile until he starts to pine for his old life. After he leaves, he cannot find his way back. This is of course a fable of utopia; in his brief period of exile and subsequent return to his own village, the boatman finds he has developed a kind of contrapuntal vision or doubled consciousness that now only lets him view himself through what he has encountered of that other world.
It seems to be what Adrienne Su acknowledges as the source of her art in the poem “Everything That Can be Eaten” and in this book as a whole—what she creates is “that which I wanted to make, and that which had made me.” Just like the hunger that propels us toward the next moment promising fullness, Peach State gathers for us a bottomless drink, a medley of tastes, so everything looks as it should be “in the only home you know.” Fittingly, we leave with the last poem, “An Hour Later You’re Hungry Again”—a list of wishes and blessings that seem to have no end.
Peach State. By Adrienne Su. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021. 101 pp. $17.00, paper.