Like the agricultural workers who invisibly bring food to our tables on a daily basis, and who comprise the novel’s unforgettable cast, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods satisfies all our readerly cravings and without ostentation.
Delicious Foods is the story of a family torn apart by violence and tragedy, reunited, and ultimately healed by the escapism that almost destroyed them. Darlene and Nat are a young married couple who fight to make a life for themselves and their son Eddie. For eleven years the couple run a respectable general store in Louisiana—Mount Hope Grocery. One day the store is robbed by a group of racist teenagers, and Nat is killed at gunpoint. Devastated by her indirect role in her husband’s death—she’d asked him to fetch her some aspirin from the store that night—Darlene spirals into a crack addiction, eventually wandering off and leaving Eddie afraid and alone for several months. Through flashes forward and back in time, we watch the pair go their separate ways, only to find each other again when they are both conscripted in a sort of modern-day slavery, taken by a “Death Van” to a large-scale farm of questionable legality known as Delicious Foods. Like Darlene, all of the workers are drug addicts whose dependencies prevent them from leaving a place where their next fix is more or less guaranteed. These farmers are anything but the up-before-dawn, straight-laced men and women who cultivate America’s heartland; rather, how much they sow and reap is dependent upon the state of their high, and the only thing that might be “laced” is their next hit.
On the surface, there’s little about this story that inspires hope for a happy ending, or even a happy middle. We’re constantly reminded of Darlene and Eddie’s physical and emotional suffering. The loss of Nat elicits withdrawal symptoms as bad as any drug’s: one day in the field, Darlene hallucinates a vision of Nat in the eyes of a black bird and is overcome by emotion, until she realizes “what it gong on feel like to kiss a grackle, have that beak poking her cheek or piercing her lip, comparing that to the memory of her husband lips on hers [. . .] In a split second Darlene finally snapped out her insanity, and show she seen that the grackle just be a normal animal that couldn’t talk and aint had nobody dead husband spirit inside. She felt stupid and ashamed.”
“Delicious,” then, is a cruelly ironic description for the foods being grown in those fields. There are echoes of the centuries-old slavery system upon which this crew is modeled: the brutal master named How demands that young Eddie work the same shifts as the adults when he first arrives; he keeps them in the fields long past dark with school bus spotlights to guide their harvesting of watermelons; and the workers find small comfort in singing hymns to pass the time. Most brutal of all is Eddie’s unfathomable deformation at the hands of his enemies and inept allies: when he starts to demonstrate the kind of competence that would threaten Delicious’s management, he’s forced into iron handcuffs and freed by amputation (the crack-fueled solution of Darlene and her friends), becoming a “handless handyman.” The story’s twists are at times implausible but nonetheless are a great feat of imagination. Hannaham has put his characters in the perfect conditions for these issues to play out—and for us to believe them.
Despite its despondent plot, Delicious Foods sustains a lightness and playfulness with its style. Maybe it’s because everyone is high all the time, or maybe it’s because Hannaham is able to channel that mindset so evocatively and without judgment. One of his most prominent and mysterious narrators is “Scotty,” who voices the chapters that focus on Darlene’s experiences. Scotty is crack. He and Darlene love to “brain dance” together, and he’s irresistibly charming. In addition to adding levity to the conditions at Delicious, he revels in his dominance over Darlene: “she feel a intense need to hang with me again, so she could smoke and smoke and smoke until I filled up her empty insides with smoke, and we could do a spiral dance together up into that heavenly ballroom full of drugs way above the planet Earth.” Because we see Darlene primarily through this lens—her biggest weakness—we sympathize with her even when her choices are abysmally bad.
Toward the end of the book, Darlene has a heart attack that brings Eddie back to her side after years of estrangement. He escaped after his hands were cut off, and went on to have a family of his own, a family that he feels was stolen from him. All the while, the third-person narrator of Eddie’s chapters has provided a clear-eyed, sensible perspective indicative of the boy’s promising future . But now, in the final chapters, Darlene has felt enough shame and remorse to rid herself of Scotty and, triumphantly, resume control of her own voice. Although we hear it indirectly, through Eddie, we realize how much Darlene had actually been feeling all along—and understand her need to numb some of that. Her main support at Delicious, a man named Sirius (after the constellation), tells her frequently that the stars are made of carbon: diamonds in the sky, of Beatles fame. She realizes what was precious about her life with Nat and Eddie:
the romance of it; of human beings, all by themselves on a wet rock in an outpost of a universe whose size they couldn’t comprehend, staring into the heavens to make primitive pictures in the air based on lights that might not even exist anymore. And one of these days it would all disappear [. . .] Why, she asked, if all these small things we do, all this work that gets dumped on us day after day, if all our love and our attachments mean absolutely nothing and everything will eventually get incinerated, why do we bother to do anything? [. . .] How do we do it? How do we go on?
Darlene never gets a clear answer, but we do. From what we’ve seen go down at Delicious, from the tenacity of this mother and son, we know it’s love that keeps us going. Love is a rock every bit as hard as those diamond stars. Its indestructible beauty is enough to break down the earthly rocks that are its meager imitations.