Why we need food on the table of literary criticism

Food captures a nation’s culture. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The proclamation had a major ripple effect in the Kenyan government at that time.
  • Food is a metaphor that captures a nation’s culture, tastes and its hungers.
  • Lamb chops grilled to a golden brown colour glistered appetizingly on chop-boards.

Former British High Commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, in a speech to Kenyan businessmen, once described the Narc Kenya government as: “Evidently the practitioners now in government have the arrogance, greed and perhaps a desperate sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons. But they can hardly expect us not to care when their gluttony causes them to vomit all over our shoes.”

The proclamation had a major ripple effect in the Kenyan government at that time.

However, my trajectory will look at the pleasures of food in Kenyan literature, not necessarily on the ones that cause us to “vomit on their shoes” after gorging on themselves but those that express and form our identity markers.

Food is a metaphor that captures a nation’s culture, tastes and its hungers. It defines us and forms a critical signifier of our lives. It is an extension of our identity - where one eats and dines is used as an identity marker.


It is disheartening that politics and gender themes have been dominant concepts preoccupying literary critics and scholars. It is time a shift in critical reading was tilted towards food as new site of reading and understanding literary works coming out of the Kenyan spaces.

Food is critical to our very own existence as human beings. Eating is a vital human function, but not in the sense of Michela Wrong’s It is Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, a mantra that has been the bane of Kenya’s political communication and quest for power.

The tropes of food pleasures in various Kenyan literature reflect our cultural identity — our love for Nyama Choma (roasted meat) is not in question. It is a departure from the worn obsession with politics and gender themes.

Eating activities are universal experiences that are used as essential planks in identity formation, religious affiliation, class and even ethnic identity. The latter on ethnic identity is contentious as some incredulous Kenyan comedians have turned food into ethnic stereotyping as their staple of jokes.

Henry R. Ole Kulet’s Blossoms of the Savannah (2008) allows us to salivate and sensuously feel and smell a meal during the homecoming event of a major character, Parsimei Ole Kaelo, on his return to his ancestral village.

The event is described: “He slaughtered a fattened ox, six rams and four he-goats. In the living room stood four long tables spread with the most astounding array of food Nasila had ever seen. There were large trays laden with huge chunks of boiled meat whose tantalising aroma filled the room.


Lamb chops grilled to a golden brown colour glistered appetizingly on chop-boards. Succulent pieces of pink-roasted liver lay arranged on leaves of Oloirepirepi weed to preserve moisture and taste.

Then there were other choices of meat on skewers and others wrapped up on sacred Oloirien leaves that were the preserve of the elders who were to bless the home of Intalengo.”

The insights give us a thrill and temptation to head straight to Kitengela for sizzling and crunchy “nyama choma.” It is a cinematic description that captures the elements of pleasures of food. The depiction of the sumptuous food in Blossoms of the Savannah excites readers' sensory elements and adds to the cadences and nuances of the narrative.

The local cuisines are not only Maasai but Kenyan in every aspect. Kulet’s use of gastronomy peels off the layers of social customs of Kenya and echoes the practice of celebrations, homecomings that are punctuated with the rituals of eating. The extensive use of food imagery forms an integral yarn that interweaves Kulet’s narratives to perfection.

The consumption of food and its rituals have been credited with the fall of empires, as was the case of the French revolution in 1789. The use of food in literary genres gives us a glimpse into the narratives’ structures.


We should not be stuck with post-colonial analysis of literary genres and gender lens. Food should not be left on the margins of literary canon but should be centralised as part of the literary phenomenon. The act of eating should not be treated as a mundane act but as a critical sphere of our lives that we should apply in the critical reading and explication of works of art.

Okolla Darius argues in an online article titled “Food for Thought: Culinary Cultures and Their Discontents” that “depending on the society’s structure, food either becomes a bonding mechanism for neighbours and friends or a signifier or exclusivity, distance, class and prestige.” This assertion confirms why not everybody can afford to eat at five-star hotels. Many Kenyan workers are confined to “mabati” eateries christened “Hiltons” as the economic situation worsens. The exclusive hotels are now for the nouveau riche and a few fake gold dealers.

Food is not only pleasurable but it is has caused untold suffering and anxiety, especially on shortages and worse during this Covid-19 pandemic. The fears of famine hang in the air. Floods and the emergence of locusts makes it certain that the country is staring at a major famine.

The literary shift from old approaches to new food-based reading of literary texts will enhance broader diversity and inclusivity. It will illuminate social behavior, power relations and structures right from the routinized table activities of eating. Reading literary works will no longer be pigeon holed but liberated from post-colonial shackles of analysis.

The writer is a public relations expert and marketer based in Kisumu