In the opening sketch of the third episode of 1977’s ill-fated The Richard Pryor Show, two diners are sat at tables facing opposite, in a restaurant so faux-fancy its candleflames leave red trails on the film. Before them is a real spread – spaghetti, steaks, grapes, corn on the cob, what looks like a green aspic – inspiring an edible erotic pantomime between them that escalates from Marsha Warfield’s seductive beer-sipping to Pryor cramming fistfuls of pasta past his quivering moustache. This all ends with a drenching from the restaurant’s gilded firehose, and the pair scrambling amongst the ruins of their meals to feign innocence at the arrival of their respective dates. It is too irresistible not to taste notes of irreverent genius from one writer for the show during this period of its brief existence.
The genius is that of Fran Ross, author of the 1974 novel Oreo, a work as dazzling, as absurd, as uncategorizable as its publication history. After falling out of print and into unwavering obscurity many times since then, this year’s Picador republication seems particularly powerful, especially when, as Marlon James puts it in his introduction, ‘Oreo’s time is most certainly now.’ For a work so idiosyncratic, so of its time and yet out of it, with the backdrops like the Black Power Movement and Pynchon-esque postmodernism at once embraced and satirised, this notion is a strange one, yet one rooted in the novel’s explosion of the myths of American mores and identities.
One myth of a different sort to be found in Oreo is that of Theseus, whose tale is one thread that runs traceably through the labyrinthine narrative of the eponymous heroine’s quest ‘for the secret of her birth.’ Moving from Philadelphia to a bustling New York, it weaves a tale of her search for her absent white father, swapping the Greek ‘sword and sandals’ under a boulder for a crumpled list of clues and a mezuzah-necklace in a sock. The Greek hero’s conception – ‘On the same night, both Aegeus and randy sea-god Poseidon sleep with Aethra. Aethra conceives. Who’s the father?’ goes Ross’ version of the tale in her appended ‘A Key for Speed Readers, Nonclassicists, Etc.’ – is one of many mirrorings of Theseus in Christine. His ambiguous paternity finds its match in her mixed Jewish and Afro-American heritage, and it is this ‘gleeful miscegenation’, that Danzy Senna recognises in her introduction for an old edition, that both casts her as ‘Oreo’ and resists such strict dichotomies. The packaging of the Theseus- myth and the strict duality of the ‘Oreo’, which is ‘defined’ after the racial slur in an epigraph as ‘someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside’, is belied by the hilarious flux of the novel, an intricate and ever-shifting feast that the reader greedily consumes, lured in by its mime of cookie-cutter clarity when its reality could not be more different. After all, as Ross warns us, ‘epigraphs never have anything to do with the book.’
Oreo is, as a novel, obsessed with ideas of consumption, whether its own ingestion by the reader, or the various feasts that teem within it. Christine is misnamed ‘Oreo’ by her neighbourhood after her grandmother’s dream- proclaimed ‘her name shall be Oriole’ is distorted by a Southern accent ‘thick as hominy grits’:
But when they looked at Christine’s rich brown color and her wide smile full of sugar-white baby teeth, they said to themselves, “Why, that child does put me in mind of an Oreo cookie – side view.” And that is how Oreo got her name. No one knew that Louise was saying “Oriole.” When, through a fluke, Louise found out what everyone thought she was saying, it was alright with her. “I never did like flyin’ birds, jus’ eatin’ ones,” she said. “But I just love them Oreos.” And This time she meant what everyone else meant.
This ‘cookie smile’ of Oreo’s, which reappears at her moments of triumph, not only exemplifies how shifting and unfixed the novel’s world is, where definitions slip and identities misalign, but also how this fluidity is made accessible to the reader through food. We might, like Louise, ‘love them Oreos’, but here they become something we are tricked into thinking we are consuming at face-value, as a token of her ‘honeychile’ sweetness, or her biracial labelling. Oreo, and Fran Ross, will refuse us that easy privilege. ‘A secret cauled Christine’s birth. This is her story – let her discover it’ she chides, forcing her readers to pull up a seat at the table of steaming satire only she could have concocted.
Oreo has a ‘vision’ on a subway train that images precisely the kinds of American cannibalism that the novel resists. In a paragraph subtitled ‘Football: a subway reverie’, she pictures a figure loosely identified with herself, a woman, who ‘in full football gear (custom-made) runs onto the field’; ‘What happens next? This is the Super Bowl, folks. Bon Appétit! They Eat Her. Yes, fans, one crackback block and opposing players join the gorge. They tear that cheeky female apart, devour her, uniform and all.’ When the president at the end of this daydream has ‘proclaimed football the national sport (and diet)’, when a scrap of her uniform floats past ‘the tumescence-red first-down marker, one of the many totems of the male klan that klulux the field’, it becomes a moment of the novel which illuminates that which its playful fragments resist. However tongue-in-cheek Ross’ neologismic imagination, it knows very well to keep in its sights the strictures of discrimination that want to tear it to shreds as it escapes them.
Senna, too, recognises that Oreo, is ‘multifaceted and multilingual, making it an awkward presence on the landscape of American literature, where “ethnic” literature can be put in kiosks like dishes at a food fair, and consumed just as easily.’ If Ross’ novel is in itself like this food fair, it is one where all the stalls have been crushed by the untraceable variety of the fare, one which overspills out into the safe banquet of reading and frustrates our lazily noxious habits of pigeonholing.
This is crystallised in the central pages of the novel, which transform from prose into the menu for Louise’s ‘nice little homecoming meal’ for her daughter, Oreo’s mother. The eight-course cornucopia that is ‘Le Carte du Dîner d’Hélène’ begins with a notice to ‘Allow 40 mins for AMERICAN AND/OR JEWISH DISHES’ that is frustrated by the plethora of foods that might flaunt some readers’ expectations of both this binary and of a West Philadelphia kitchen. In the Hors d’Oeuvre the Clarks can expect delights as various as ‘Leberknödel’ and ‘dim sum’ washed down with ‘Pepsi’ or ‘Zubrowka’; ‘New England Clam Chowder’ is served alongside ‘matzo-ball soup’; ‘tatsuta age’ elbows up against ‘noisettes d’agneau Christine’ in the Relevé, and a ‘Sachertorte’ or ‘halvah’ can be washed down with ‘Chock full o’ Nuts’ brand coffee or a ‘1953 Sauternes’ alike.
The abundance overwhelms us. We might almost suffer the same fates as the ‘five people in the neighbourhood [who] went insane from the bouquets that wafted to them from Louise’s kitchen.’ It is as if Ross here creates a concrete reminder of the myth of what is ‘American’, or what might be cooked up in the average Afro- American home, one that the reader is forced to taste. Confronted with the melange of reality, it is hard not to reject it as absurd. But the truth is that for every American home feeding its family ‘osso bucco’, there will be others that gather around ‘pickled herring’ or ‘Pei-ching-k’ao-ya.’ So many are the dishes and their provenances that it would be hard for anyone to recognise them all. Here, as where the novel reminds us of its culinary redolences, such as where Oreo’s adoptive half-brothers ‘bobbed around the rich broth of a woman’ – their caretaker – ‘like dumplings’ and when Oreo ‘changed the hamburger to a grilled cheese; since she would soon see her father, she wanted to be in a kosher state of grace’, or even when the pimp’s minion Kirk ‘had cornered the market on smegma…He could open a cheese store under there’, we are reminded that, like the world, the edible delights with which Oreo entrusts us, are beyond abstraction. Such chaos is delicious, for all the difficulties it poses to fixed notions of identity, because it ensures that Ross’ audience embrace the ‘polymorphous-perversity’ of life.
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, another brilliant figure of the literary-culinary world of the 70s who, like Ross and Oreo, grew up in Philadelphia, wrote with frustration in her Vibration Cooking : ‘if you are wondering how come I say so-called okra it is because the African name for okra is gombo. Just like so called Negroes … Negroes only started when they got here. I am a black woman. I am tired of people calling me out of my name. Okra must be sick of that mess too.’ Part of the brilliance of Oreo is that it recognises the same dangerous fact as Smart-Grosvenor, that ‘people are always calling people out of their name, too’, enacting a performance of the stereotypes it goes on to dismantle. Near the book’s beginning, Ross draws a literal graph, with strictly delineated gradients, that charts the ‘Colors of black people’ from 1 to 10, the summation of a discussion of Oreo’s black grandparents; ‘in the DNA crapshoot for skin color, when the die was cast, so was the dye. James came out nearest the color of the pips (on the scale opposite, he is 10), his wife the cube.’ But, of course, race cannot be simply contained in neat numbers. Oreo exemplifies this. No one ‘gon tell me what to do. I’ll give him such a klop in the kishkahs!’ she quips after a letter from her mother that warns of the dangers of ‘male chauvinist pork’, ‘lapsing into the inflections of her white-skinned black grandmother and (through her mother) her dark-skinned white grandfather, as she often did under stress.’ The blur between her father’s surname – ‘Schwartz’ – and the Yiddish word ‘shvartze’, meaning black person, is only the beginning.
Ross creates Oreo’s identity as fluid as this slip in language, and it is this ever-shifting nature that she uses throughout her odyssey. Whether imitating her grandmother’s ‘down-home’ accent when with ‘he jus’ gib me de ‘scription. Say fill it’ she tries to feign simplicity at the GI sperm bank when collecting the novel’s seminal secret, or when she records an advert for ‘Tante Ruchel’s Kosher Kitchens’ at ‘Mr Soundman, Inc.’ whose mute proprietor praises her ‘NICE VOICE, SLIGHT JEWISH ACCENT’ via prompt card, she is a self constantly eluding the racial boxes society reads her into.
Her ability to pass, liminal, through these boundaries not only is triumphant in its subversions of them, but also becomes something to be celebrated. Without her idiosyncrasies, from her private martial art WIT which consists of such moves as ‘hwip-as’ and ‘tō-blō’ that allows her to defeat the threat of Parnell the Pimp, to her joyous mastery of speech – who else could describe the penis as resembling ‘the head of a mandrill (a serendipitous pun)’ – Oreo could not have completed the quest that was ordained to be hers and, like Theseus, hers alone. Where words are, for the heroine and the author alike, something to savour for ‘their juice and pith’, the ludic overflow of Ross’s prose makes comedy out of even the darkest sides of America’s fixation on tick-box demographics, and one whose grasp on language is as hilarious as the jokes that populate it, even if no one might get all of them. Except Oreo, of course.
One reason Oreo resists being written about, is that the experience of reading it is so funny, almost ineffably. From the wonderful ridiculousness of Oreo’s education – ‘“Conflation, from conflare, to blow together,” she said to herself. “Oh shit. The professor’s just talking about plain-old sixty-nine”’ – to its motley cast of characters and misadventures that defy enumeration, Ross’s masterpiece is nebulous as Ulysses, and incomparable to it. She died young of cancer in 1985, tragically never completing another novel, yet Oreo, despite its obscurity, remains unsurpassed, simply because no other book could ever be like it.
The novel’s real gift lies in the ecstasy that emanates from it. The kitchen of Oreo embodies in each reader their own partaking in the flux of identity. ‘Everybody eats!’, as Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor would say, and in devouring this novel, we leave its feast with a transformed understanding of both our interdependence, and with a churning deconstruction of society’s urge to abstract its citizens. One of the thinnest moments of Oreo, where the reader can truly glimpse themselves, is when, on the Penn Central Line to New York, she shares her mammoth packed-lunch with the entire carriage: ‘In a few minutes, groans and moans were heard amidst all the fressing. Between bites, Waverley [the occupant of the seat next to her] kept saying “Oh my God, it’s so good I’m coming in my pants.”’ Maybe someone, in that blissful anonymous crowd, might be gulping down mouthfuls of leftover ‘APPLE PIE WITH OREO CRUST’, deliciously crushed beyond recognition.
Art by Ellen Sharman