By Jenna Mason
The first pages of Delicious Foods thrust the reader into a horrific drama. Eddie, seventeen, has lost his hands escaping a work farm in Louisiana, where he has spent the past six years with his mother, Darlene. Imprisoned in the same farm, she stanched the bleeding when his hands were hacked off. We get to know Eddie as he flees from Louisiana to Houston to St. Cloud, Minnesota, searching for his aunt Bethella.
Eddie is African American, and his race shapes the various threats against him. His parents were civil rights activists. Nat, his father, was lynched when Eddie was six years old. Most of the people trapped and abused at the farm known as Delicious Foods are African American, too.
Nonfiction articles about modern slavery catalyzed the novel. Though most nefarious enterprises prey on immigrants, Bulls-Hit Farm in Hastings, Florida, inspired the setting for Delicious Foods. This particular farm employed black people almost exclusively, manipulating them into forced labor with drugs and alcohol.
Hannaham used a literary trope to render Eddie a compelling protagonist. The Magical Negro, Hannaham told NPR, “has incredible abilities and has been through some kind of hardship, but it’s usually a little vague. Whenever I see that character, I want the book or the movie or the TV show to take a detour and tell me that story.” The novel begins with a nod to this Magical Negro trope, then moves backwards in time.
By positioning Eddie as the protagonist, Hannaham highlights the generational effects of racism and modern-day labor abuses. Though Eddie’s parents attended college and owned a business, their social position proved precarious, toppled by what their white neighbors deemed too much ambition. Eddie, in turn, spends a good stretch of his childhood trying to rescue his mother from the farm, rather than pursuing the education and advancement his parents presumably would have wanted for him.
Once Eddie escapes, he makes a stable life for himself in Minnesota. He arrives there intent on rescuing Darlene and exposing Delicious Foods. However, his intentions change with distance from the farm. The loss of his hands marks the beginning of a new life for Eddie, who “presumed that by drafting and adhering to such an average blueprint for life, he could overcome his misfortunes and shake off all the agonizing memories of Delicious Foods”.
Eddie builds a repairman business in Minnesota by billing himself, primarily to white customers, as the ‘handyman without hands.’ In the prologue, we read that Eddie “welcomed the mild amusement spread across their creamy complexions…. He preferred curiosity to derision, so he controlled his impatience because the discomfort came with a bag of gold attached” (20).
In his New York Times review of the novel, Ted Genoways points out that Hannaham is able to “achingly [describe] the early-life struggles that Eddie faces as the child of a dead father and drug-addicted mom.” This stereotype of the absent black father and the irresponsible black mother still holds power in popular imagination. Rather than paint Nat and Darlene as innocent, Hannaham develops complex, relatable characters who succumb to idealism (Nat), addiction (Darlene), and trauma (Eddie). And he explores the multiple ways African Americans have navigated these obstacles over generations.
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James Hannaham will speak at the SFA Fall Symposium, set for October 11-13 in Oxford. Tickets go on sale August 1. In a lead-up to that event, this SFA series situates Delicious Foods in the broader narrative of Southern foodways, asking challenging and open-ended questions.
We invite you to read along during our five-part web series. Grab a copy of the novel from your local bookstore. We’re keen on Square Books here in Oxford. Or if your summer includes significant time on the road, we highly recommend listening to the audiobook, read by James Hannaham himself.
Meet Eddie: Race in Delicious Foods
Meet Darlene: The American Dream
Meet Scotty: Addiction and Trauma
Bowe, John. Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. New York: Random House, 2007.
Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Detroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2012.
Rawal, Sanjay. Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields. 2014.