Fruits and Culture: A Preliminary Examination of Food-for-Sex Metaphors in English-language Caribbean Music

Fruits and Culture: A Preliminary Examination of Food-for-Sex Metaphors in English-language Caribbean Music

Lyra Spang
Indiana University

Abstract:

The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways that food, sexuality and gender roles interact in the Anglophone Caribbean, specifically in the country of Belize. Using analysis of food-for-sex metaphors in popular music, it explores the role of homosociality and separate gender roles in defining food and sexuality as highly charged spaces for cross-gender interaction. The objective of this exploratory analysis is to determine whether these two areas of interaction overlap to form a highly gendered “food-sex arena” that shapes discourse about food, sexuality and gender roles therein.


Introduction: Food is often used as a metaphor for sex and sexualized bodies in English-language Caribbean music. But not all foods are created equal, and canned ham is less likely to be the object of sexual innuendo than a ripe, juicy mango. In this paper, I begin a preliminary investigation into what foods are used in food-for-sex metaphors in English-language, Caribbean music and ask what broader roles these foods play in Anglophone Caribbean culture. What meanings do these foods carry beyond the sexual realm? And do these meanings determine why they are used in food-for-sex metaphors?

The limited research available on this topic necessarily restricts the scope of my conclusions. What I present here represents the first step in a broader investigation into the food/sex arena in Anglo-Caribbean culture. My analysis focuses specifically on how the popularity of these songs may relate to and reflect Belizean (and more broadly Anglophone Caribbean) gender roles and the often antagonistic relations between men and women in the generally homo-social environment of Belizean society[1].  This highly gendered social milieu is the product of Belize’s particular colonial history and globalized present (Wilk 2006). Discourses on proper gender roles permeate discussions about food and sex. They inform everything from who should prepare food to Belizean views on sexual orientation. With a historically gender-divided labor pool, Belizean society has traditionally been homo-social in nature. Men and women have historically participated in different professions, often lived apart for extended periods, and therefore eaten separately for much of the year (Wilk 2006). Food and sex may represent two of the few things that function both symbolically and in actuality to bring men and women together, especially during holidays when workers return home. I argue that the importance of both food and sex for both genders ensures that these arenas exist as sites of intense social scrutiny which has resulted in the proliferation of competing discourses on sexuality and gender, of overlapping meanings of food and sex, and of intense power struggles between men and women (Foucault 1978).

The ubiquity of food related sexual innuendos in both popular music and everyday conversation in Belize is noteworthy in comparison to what is heard on a top 40 music station in the USA, but commonplace for the English-speaking Caribbean. Similes, metaphors, jokes and other sexual inferences related to food represents one of the preferred methods of creating metaphor and verbal play; I believe this phenomenon reflects one facet of a functional connection between food and sexuality in Belize as two key areas where men and women interact. The use of food as a sexual symbol is found throughout the world (Biersack 1985; Bill 1994; Braun and Kitzinger 2001; Crumpacker 2006; Probyn 2000 ). This food/sex overlap may be a particularly fruitful space for examining the variety of discourses on gender roles and sexual expression in Belize. To this end I conducted two months of fieldwork in a traditionally Creole village in Belize in the summer of 2010.  The tentative conclusions of this initial research suggest that Belizeans regularly use food as a metaphor for sex and sexual acts, but that the reason for this may be more functional rather than purely symbolic, that is, food is not necessarily the “ideal” metaphor for sex, but rather may simply be the most readily available.  In Belize sexual innuendo is a very common, almost expected aspect of cross-gender communication.  Cross-gender interaction, though not limited to these arenas, usually occurs in the context of food or a sexual environment. In Belizean popular culture, it is considered impossible for a man and a woman to have a platonic friendship. Any kind of cross-gender interaction between unrelated persons, therefore, is believed to have a sexual component, even when this may not actually be the case. Because cross-gender interaction between unrelated persons is thus constrained to limited channels that focus conversation on sexual topics, sexual metaphors are an important component of these interactions. My fieldwork indicates that the metaphor chosen often seems to be driven by what is at hand. Because cross-gender interaction often occurs in the context of the preparation, sale or sharing and consumption of food, food is often the most readily available metaphor to fuel the expected sexual banter. The prevalence of aphrodisiacs in Belizean popular culture may also increase this likelihood. However, when other options presented themselves, they were also seized upon and pressed into service. The image of a fireman putting out a fire, for example, was a common sexual metaphor.

How are the foods that are utilized in food-for-sex metaphors chosen? Simply because a given object is present when a cross-gender conversation is taking place does not mean that it will be utilized as a sexual metaphor. A preliminary review of popular metaphors appears to indicate that they must fulfill two requirements. First, they seem for the most part to be drawn from foods that are either local products or imported staples or luxuries that are well-known to the musical audience. Foods that are not known to the audience (whether that audience be conceived of on a national or regional basis) are rarely utilized in this manner. Even if they are rarely consumed locally, they need to at least be recognized by the audience, or else the metaphor will not be appreciated by those present. For this reason, a song written by a Belizean for a Belizean audience is highly unlikely to use pistachios or tartar sauce in food-for-sex metaphors. While there are always exceptions, a Caribbean artist is more likely to discuss mangos than peaches, calaloo than collard greens, and curried goat than broiled steak.   By referencing a food known to the target audience, the composer draws on a common “food lexicon”, a shared vocabulary of foods whose qualities and meanings are intimately known to the musical audience and the songwriter. Understanding the physical qualities of the food is a pre-requisite to grasping the details of the metaphorical similarity between the food and the body part or sexual act being described, although a good understanding of the discourse regarding what are considered to be the salient attributes of a particular sexualized body part or a sexual act may potentially allow an astute listener to intuit the probable characteristics of the food being used as a metaphor (Crumpacker 2006).

This shared food lexicon operates on multiple levels within the realm of Anglophone Caribbean music. When local foods are used in food-for-sex metaphors, these often vary by country: thus songs originating in Jamaica might refer to the national dish, salt fish and ackee, while a Belizean song might talk about conch soup instead. Songs that reference a specialty food associated with only one country or ethnic group explicitly appeal to a smaller, more restricted audience. This use of a food item in food-for-sex metaphors that is only associated with one particular group or nationality directs the appeal of the song to a smaller “in group” that can appreciate the specialized food lexicon being used and enjoy the metaphor as a kind of inside joke that other listeners may fail to appreciate. These specialized or localized food-for-sex metaphors may serve a bonding function, which, like lyrical references to local geography, politicians and scandals, helps to build in-group social capital, promoting a sense of community and unity among the people who recognize the underlying meaning of the metaphor (Field 2003).

With food products that are common across the region national and ethnic differences in cuisine are downplayed and Caribbean-wide commonalities are stressed. Food-for-sex metaphors of this sort serve a bridging function by bringing together a diverse mix of people from across the Caribbean Basin who, despite other differences, have many similar values, experiences, customs; foods thereby build a sense of imagined community through these connections (Anderson 1983; Field 2003). While Coca-Cola and cheese may be imported foodstuffs[2] their common presence in the Belizean food lexicon has led to their incorporation into the national vocabulary of sexual innuendo and wordplay. The common recognition of Coca-Cola products and imports like cheese across the region allow Belizeans and other Caribbean citizens to understand and appreciate the food-for-sex metaphors in songs originating from a wide range of Caribbean nations. Locally produced foods that are found across the region, such as mangos, similarly have the potential to unite a broader cross-section of the Caribbean population in shared appreciation of the verbal artistry inherent in a skillful double entendre.

The second requirement for a good food-for-sex metaphor is that the foods bear a physical resemblance in some manner to the body part/s or physical act being described (Crumpacker 2006; Parasecoli 2007). Especially when standing in for body parts, shape, texture, smell and taste all bear a part in determining the food used and the metaphor in which it will be deployed. This becomes clear upon examining food-for-sex metaphors used to describe body parts. Smell, taste, and qualities such as softness, hardness and shape are all important dimensions in determining the appropriateness of a particular food as a food-for-sex metaphor, as the sexualized body is considered to exemplify these physical characteristics (Parasecoli 2007). Thus, across the English-speaking Caribbean long and hard foods like sugarcane are seen as an appropriate metaphor for an erect penis while a juicy, ripe mango is considered the best representation of a woman’s genitalia. Once an audience has been determined and these two basic requirements have been fulfilled, the composer is free to select whatever food seems most original and appropriate to the song. In everyday cross-gender conversations that I observed in Belize, these two rules were invariably followed by both men and women engaging in sexual banter.

Music and Metaphor: Belizeans appreciate a wide range of music. Apart from homegrown genres such as Brukdown[3] and Puntarock[4], they listen to American music, from country to hip-hop, and Spanish language genres such as Rancheros, Merengue, Reggaeton, among others (Greene 2002). English-language Caribbean music is hugely popular. Classic Roots Reggae, Dancehall, Ragga, Calypso and Soca all find devoted audiences in Belize, with bands regularly performing during September Celebrations[5] and the carnival associated with that month.

All these Caribbean sounds plus Belizean Brukdown and Puntarock are hotbeds of verbal play: sexual innuendo and the use of metaphor and simile are rampant (Frank 2007; Greene 2002; Lesser 2008; Olsen and Gould 2008). A preliminary examination of popular songs reveals the range of foods used in this manner. Food-for-sex metaphors are only one group among many; doctors, firefighters, construction materials and workers, guns, hypodermic needles, animals and elements such as fire, water and wind are all common fodder for sexual word play. The sexualized use of food imagery in these songs seems to fall into two broad and overlapping arenas: one is the food-for-sex metaphor, and the other is the lyrical association of food and its consumption with the act of seduction. An example of the former would be Soca star Byron Lee’s metaphorical use of a mango to represent a woman’s genitalia, an example of the latter would be references to women sexually “tying” men to them through the use of food magic or allusion to the sexual-stamina producing powers of certain foodstuffs (Bullard 1974; Olsen and Gould 2008). Our focus here is the food-for-sex metaphor although in some songs one food may be used for both types of lyrical play.

Two musical genres imported from the Caribbean islands that are replete with food-for-sex references are Soca and Dancehall. These energetic dance-oriented forms of English-language Caribbean music have been adopted enthusiastically in Belize. Soca, a high energy style of carnival music derived in part from its more sedate ancestor, Calypso, was invented by the legendary Lord Shorty of Trinidad in the early 1970s (Leu 2000). From the beginning the music has been strongly sexualized. Lorraine Leu, in her article “‘Raise Yuh Hand, Jump up and Get on Bad!’: New Developments in Soca Music in Trinidad”, argues that Soca is in the process of dispensing with sexual innuendo: “ ‘Smutty’ calypsos make use of an elliptical sexual language of double entendres (…) Soca however, is tending more and more towards a very direct sexual discourse (Leu 2000). However, even in newer Soca songs, the tradition of using of metaphor, simile and innuendo to convey a sexual narrative appears to remain strong. Over twenty years after the invention of Soca music, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires recorded the song “Julie Mango”, a 1995 hit whose lyrics were built entirely on a food-for-sex metaphor that let a juicy mango stand for a woman’s genitals:

Mi gal come and make a mango telling me that its sweet fa so,
I said darling go and wash it, bring di ting and let mi eat it.
I don’t mind di butt stick up in mi face,
Bring di mango gal I know dat its sweet

Give me a suck on your Julie mango
Give me a suck on your Julie mango (a suck on your Julie mango)
She give me orange (I don’t want that)
She give me grapes (I don’t want that)
She give me apple, Oh mi Julie I want a taste
Give me a suck on your Julie mango
Give me a suck on your Julie mango

Here the sexually explicit lyrics that Leu references are thinly veiled behind a commonly recognized metaphor that references one of the most sought after varieties of mango, known to be particularly juicy and sweet, qualities also attributed to a woman’s genitals. The verbal play between the type of mango and the fact that it is also a woman’s name further reinforces the double entendre. Byron Lee then goes one step further when he compares the mango to more mundane fruits: oranges, grapes and apples, all of which have long been commonly available in temperate zone grocery stores. It is unclear what, if any, body part the orange, grapes or apple might stand for, but the superiority of the juicy mango is made clear as Byron Lee rejects these northern fruits in favor of the indigenous Julie Mango.  This explicit dismissal of fruits associated with the northern temperate zone speaks to the unique suitability of a local fruit as the appropriate food to symbolize a local woman’s sex. The ubiquity and widespread popularity of mangos across the Caribbean Basin combined with a regional appreciation for the metaphorical appropriateness of the mango as a descriptor of women’s genitalia ensured that Byron Lee’s song would be immediately understood and enjoyed by Caribbean citizens of many nations. For those accessing the song via the internet, a video that shows a woman dancing seductively every time the word mango is mentioned helps drive the point home.

Metaphors that explicitly refer to genitalia are a particularly common form of food-for-sex symbolism in Caribbean music. Another reference to women’s genitals is found in an early Soca hit “Saltfish” by the famed Soca performer, The Mighty Sparrow. Released in 1976 the song has been a long-running hit and similarly to Byron Lee’s later work, uses food to tell a sexually explicit story:

Saltfish stew is what I like
So doo-doo, give me day and night
I like you food, so don’t find me rude
My favorite, I sure every man in here already eat it

Saltfish
Nothing in the world sweeter than
Saltfish
English, colloquial, Bajans
Saltfish
It’s sweeter than meat
When you want to eat
All salt fish sweet

Very well, I like the taste
Though the smell, sometimes out of place
It hard to take, but make no mistake
I want you to know, it’s because it extra sweet it smelling so boy it’s Saltfish

The Mighty Sparrow and Byron Lee both use food-for-sex metaphors that reference traditional local foods that are considered to have physical qualities reflected in women’s genitalia. While Byron Lee focuses on the sweetness and juiciness, through his use of a mango, The Mighty Sparrow references conceptualizations of women’s genitals that typify them “sweet” but also salty, fishy and strong smelling (The Mighty Sparrow, 1976).  However, these latter attributes, The Mighty Sparrow argues, are only further evidence of the “extra sweet” ness of the “salt fish” (The Mighty Sparrow, 1976).

The use of food-for-sex metaphors to describe a woman’s genitals and the act of cunnilingus in a positive light, (Byron Lee begs for a taste of the juicy mango, while The Mighty Sparrow’s comment “I like you food” is a direct reference to his enjoyment of oral sex), is not ubiquitous in Caribbean music (Frank 2007).  This positive attitude is directly contradicted by many dancehall songs that reflect a very different and highly restrictive code of sexual behavior that rejects oral sex in general, but especially the performance of oral sex on a woman, as inappropriate and un-masculine sexual behavior (Frank 2007; Saunders 2003). Competing, often contradictory discourses regarding the regulation of sexuality abound in popular Caribbean music. Saunders considers this to be a reflection of  a deep seated ambivalence about sexual expression found in the contradictions inherent a mostly Protestant, often deeply conservative society that simultaneously embraces sexual activity as an important part of forming social ties and building personal reputation, key ingredients for personal survival in Anglo-Caribbean societies, including Belize (Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003).  The popularity of highly prescriptive and restrictive songs alongside songs that celebrate sexual experimentation in Belize and many other parts of the Caribbean reflects this ongoing debate regarding appropriate sexual behavior.

Dancehall, a high paced, stripped down and lyrically driven genre of reggae, arose in Jamaica in the late 1970s and by the early 1980s quickly swept the Caribbean and then the world (Lesser 2008). Its focus on dancing, sex and gangster activity further distinguished it from roots reggae although a new wave of “conscious” dancehall performers has brought Rastafarian spirituality into the musical form. The use of metaphor and sexual innuendo is rampant in much dancehall music, and food-for-sex metaphors are popular and widely used (Lesser 2008; Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003). Mad Cobra, Beenie Man and Ninja Man, are all highly acclaimed dancehall stars whose work embraces a hard “gangsta” lyrical style, have released songs reflecting fear, distaste and rejection of oral sex as unmanly (Frank 2007).   Mad Cobra goes so far as to compare the performance of oral sex on a woman to being homosexual. In the highly homophobic culture of the Caribbean, to be homosexual is to not be a real man. Mad Cobra explicitly equates oral sex to the emasculating act of homosexual behavior and violently condemns both in his song: “Boy weh tek bumpa [men who take it in the ass] and taste below waist [give oral sex] / Put gunshot in a yuh blood clot face” (Mad Cobra, 2005). While it is not clear here if the men are performing oral sex on women or on men, the act by itself is explicitly named and condemned in Mad Cobra’s lyrics.  Beenie Man affirms this stance with this line in the smash hit song King of the Dancehall “Mi stand up and d’weet nuh bow dung and taste” [I stand up and do it, I won’t bow down and taste (perform oral sex)] (Beenie Man 2005). Ninja Man, another famous dancehall star, devotes an entire song to the topic, similarly dismissing the performance of oral sex on women as disgusting in “Renking Meat”:

Now all a de men dem
We a nyam [eat] de renking meat…
Gal give me piece of de renking meat…
Nuff [many] man get nasty and eat under sheet
Me tell yuh de truth Ninja man naw [doesn’t] go do it

In his song Ninja Man compares a woman’s genitals to a piece of sour and bad smelling meat and avows that he won’t “eat” that “nasty” dish (Olsen and Gould 2008). In the song “Cyan Get No Gyal” [Can’t get a Girl], Spragga Benz explicitly references and then violently dismisses The Mighty Sparrows praise of cunnilingus in the song “Saltfish” when he sings “What ah nastiness, like we bettah change de national dish to Jackie and salt fish”. This word play refers to Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and salt fish, suggesting that so many Jamaican men have lowered themselves by performing oral sex on women that the name of the national food should be changed to a woman’s name. The use of words like “tasting” and “eating” further strengthen the metaphorical parallels between performing oral sex and eating food, both of which involve the mouth. Later in the song Spragga Benz brings food in again, in the shape of exotic imported northern fruits. In one stanza he describes what he has heard about other men’s sexual activities: “Me hear when dem ah nyam [eat] it dem ah nyam it like peach”. In the next, he reasserts his position, once again using a foreign and unusual fruit that is rarely found or eaten in the Caribbean to designate women’s genitals.

Even though Kim have de gum
Still nah goh chew it an’ me nah bite de plum

The more commonly recognized temperate zone fruits such as apples, pears and grapes have long been appreciated as imported luxuries associated with Christmas-time in Belize and other parts of the Caribbean. Therefore, Spragga Benz’ use of lesser-known and rarely eaten fruits such as peaches and plums, deliberately presents a woman’s genitals as “foreign parts”, unknown, untrustworthy, and inedible. By choosing fruits that exist on the margins of the average Caribbean resident’s food lexicon, fruits that, if recognized, are associated with foreign countries and cold climates, Benz is explicitly positioning the performance of oral sex on a woman as a foreign, imported and literally tasteless act that has no place in a man’s sexual repertoire, unless he wants to be emasculated in the same manner as a homosexual (Saunders 2003).

Women aren’t the only ones whose genitals receive so much attention in Caribbean music. Narratives of sexual encounters, a common topic for these musical genres, often include descriptions of male sexual prowess; as well as bragging about stamina, strength and promiscuity (Frank 2007).  In such cases a man’s penis and testicles may receive as much attention as female genitalia, with metaphors regularly referring to local food products, from sugar cane to sapodilla, coconuts to bananas. This greatly differs from American conceptualizations of male body parts, which often use food-for-sex metaphors comparing penises to meat products and testicles to nuts (Crumpacker 2006; Fiddes 1991). Caribbean food-for-sex metaphors draw from a different food lexicon of what is eaten and readily recognized locally as an appropriate representation of male genitals. In Strictly Soca’s song “Nine Inch Banana” the performer sings about his wife’s desire for bananas and sapodilla fruit, playing with the idea of overlapping sexual and alimentary appetites:

But one thing I could tell you bought di gal is dis
Sapodilla and banana is she favorite dish
In and out of season that is all she crave
sapodilla and banana til she reach di grave

Ooooh sapodilla and a 9 inch banana
(What she wants, what she wants)
Ooooh sapodilla and a 9 inch banana
(What she wants, what she wants)

Why 9 inch gal I want to know?
9 is mi favorite number and I tell yu so
2 sapodilla and a 9 inch banana
(What she wants, what she wants)

Here again we see the same two rules being applied when foods are selected for food-for-sex metaphors. Because the song is sung from the male perspective, it does not delve into the rapturous (or disgusted) descriptions of taste and smell found in songs about women’s genitals. But the woman’s specific sexual desires and, indeed, demands, are clearly described by the male performer. Later in the song the male singer describes how her demands have worn him out sexually. A woman’s insatiable sexual appetites are thus both attractive (the singer remarks on the high quality of his wife’s loving) and at the same time potentially dangerous and deleterious to a man’s strength.

Not all songs are as explicit as those employing food to describe oral sex acts and human genitals. One of the best examples of more subtle food-for-sex metaphors are the songs by dancehall superstar Shaggy (born Orville Richard Burrell). His songs were wildly popular in Belize and much of the English comprehending world in the mid to late 1990s and were known for their sexually evocative lyrics (Meschino 2003). Many of his most famous songs use food imagery in simile and metaphor to describe women’s bodies and sexual acts.  In his smash hit “Boombastic”, the entire song uses innuendo and metaphor to describe the DJ’s sexual prowess. Food-for-sex metaphors are only one of many in this allegorical song.

Gee wheeze, baby, please
Let me take you to an island of the sweet cool breeze
You don’t feel like drive baby hand me the keys
And I’ll take you to a place to set your mind at ease
Don’t you tickle my foot bottom ha ha baby please
Don’t you play with my nose cuz I might ha-chum sneeze
Well you a the bun and me a the cheese
And if me a the rice well you a the peas

In another song titled “gal yu a peppa” he compares a hot and confident dancehall queen to a habanero pepper:

The girls them a hot stepper, uh
You know say a them girl deh a the original stepper, yeah
Hot like a scotch bonnet pepper
Me say
Gal yu a pepper you alone the man a ask for

While scotch bonnet peppers and rice and peas are popular and “traditional” local foods in the Caribbean, Shaggy’s bun (most likely locally produced from imported flour) and cheese (almost always imported) are not the only signs of processed globalized food commodities that have entered the regional food lexicon. The widespread use of Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles as a symbol of female body type in the Caribbean is captured in dancehall DJ Simpleton’s smash hit “Coca Cola Bottle Shape”.

I just de coca cola bottle shape,
A it a run di place,
Bruck-out bruck-out gyal a u have de shape,
I just de coca cola bottle shape,
A it a run di place,
Skin-out skin-out gyal a u have de shape

This song reflects the high desirability of a specific female body type in the Caribbean. Anderson-Fye, author of the article “A “Coca-Cola” Shape: Cultural Change, Body Image, and Eating Disorders in San Andres, Belize”, notes the importance of shape over size in Belizean culture. Having a body shaped like the glass Coca-Cola or Fanta bottles found across the country was something that both women and men appreciated in women, while overall size, height and weight were not of great concern (Anderson-Fye 2004). Anderson-Fye found that reference to Coke products was the common shorthand for the two idealized body shapes: the hourglass represented by the Coca-Cola silhouette, or a figure with a more slender top and a wider bottom, as illustrated by the Fanta bottles (Anderson-Fye 2004). Although Coca-Cola products were not available in the country until 1950s, even older women could not recall a time when a different term had been used to refer to the preferred body shape (Anderson-Fye 2004).

What, if anything, does this corporate food-for-sex metaphor say about Caribbean culture? That a multinational soda company bottle should be the prototypical representation of ideal feminine beauty in Belize and the wider Caribbean, expressed in everyday conversation and popular music and etched into generations of Belizean’s minds, begs the question of the naturalized ubiquity of a beverage that did not even exist in the country 60 years ago. Coca-cola products are now available at every corner store, restaurant, cool spot[6] and grocery store; hosts are expected to provide them, along with beer and sometimes rum, at parties, weddings and events of all types. Children drink Coca-Cola products before they are even weaned. For many Belizeans today, the traditional plate of rice and beans and fried bananas is best accompanied by a cold Coke or Fanta. The naturalized presence of Coca-Cola in the country reflects a long history of participation in the global trade of food commodities (Wilk 2006). Its use as a metaphor for women’s bodies is based off of a similarity of shape between the bodily ideals and the glass (and now plastic) soda bottles found across the country.  Whether a different food related symbol was utilized previous to the arrival of Coca-Cola seems to be unknown (Anderson-Fye 2004). Regardless, here the common focus on local foods breaks down once again as one of the world’s most popular international beverage commodities becomes the beauty standard for the women of an entire region of the globe. While they may be juicy like a Julie Mango, if they don’t have the Coca-Cola shape then that local flavor may not carry them too far in the often highly sexualized world of  interaction between the genders in Belize (Wilk 1995). It is worth noting that no particular food imported or otherwise, is used to describe a man’s overall “shape”. Dancehall, Soca, Brukdown and Punta music are all dominated by male stars, although many exceptions do exist (Frank 2007; Greene 2002; Mahabir 2001; Olsen and Gould 2008; Springer 2008). The songs often describe women’s bodies, and food-for-sex metaphors are regularly used to that end. Contrarily, everyday conversation and music in Belize rarely references a particular body “shape” as important or ideal for a man. It has been personally observed, however, that in some parts of the country economic prosperity appears to be indicated by a large belly that some older men will flaunt by pulling up their shirt on public streets to expose their girth. My fieldwork suggests that some men also acknowledge that having a “good structure” (a reference to strong muscles and bones) is a positive thing. Regardless, no ideal shape equivalent to the coca-cola bottle appears to exist for men.

Some Tentative Conclusions: While the tentative conclusions from my fieldwork in Belize indicate that function may have a larger role to play in the selection and use of a food-for-sex metaphor than symbolism, the fact remains that across the English-speaking Caribbean, food and sex are tied up together in a number of different ways. Academic work on the overlap between food and sexuality has been multi-disciplinary and, until quite recently, relatively sparse when compared to the extensive research performed on food and gender roles[7] in the last 40 years. More recently, however, research on the sexual symbolism of food has expanded. Sex researchers often run across food/sex metaphors and symbolism as illustrated by Shokeid’s article title, “You Don’t Eat Indian and Chinese Food at the Same Meal: The Bisexual Quandary”, the first part of which was lifted from a respondent’s explanation of why dating a man and a woman at the same time was not practical for her (Shokeid 2001). Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger’s ethnographic sex research in New Zealand on female genital slang incorporates the aspect of “edibility” and the use of food-for-sex metaphors (Braun and Kitzinger 2001). At the same time as sex researchers are noting the role of food in the sexual realm, food scholars have begun to examine the sexual aspects of food. Crumpacker’s The Sex Life of Food, Parasecoli’s Bite Me! Food in Popular Culture, Probyn’s Carnal Appetites: Food Sex Identities and detailed ethnographies such as Farquhur’s Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China are a sampling of this new focus on the contested arena formed by the interpenetrating worlds of food and sex (Crumpacker 2006; Farquhar 2002; Parasecoli 2008; Probyn 2000 ).

Most research by anthropologists has focused on the food and sex taboos of small non-western groups, although this too is beginning to change. Flesh has been a particularly compelling topic in the area of food/sex taboo research. The carnal ambiguity of the word allows it to be applied equally well to food as to sex: those “pleasures of the flesh”, a fact that has been noted by several researchers (Adams 1990 ; Crumpacker 2006; Probyn 2000 ). As a symbolically, economically, ecologically and cultural important food stuff, meat, and the symbolism and taboos surrounding its consumption, has long been the topic of anthropological research (Harris 1974; Harris 1998; Harris 1987; Tambiah 1969). Marvin Harris, inventor of that pragmatic derivative of cultural ecology, cultural materialism, wrote three books and numerous articles where he argued for an analysis of animal taboos on the basis on ecological factors (Harris 1974; Harris 1998; Harris 1987). Mary Douglas and S. J. Tambiah also wrote pieces referring specifically to food taboos surrounding animals, many of which were highly gendered or analogous to rules governing human sexual behavior (Douglas 1972; Tambiah 1969).

So what does this all mean for Belizean society? This focus on flesh in western, academic research on the food/sex arena contrasts with Caribbean, English-language, food-for-sex metaphors which seem to most often reference fruits and then starchy staples such as rice and beans or peas and bun and cheese. Despite its presence in the everyday diet, meat seems to be mentioned quite rarely, although when it is, it is most often as a metaphor for female genitalia. This is quite different from what is found in a society like the United States of America, where meat is usually associated with masculinity and male genitals. Fish is more commonly used in sexual metaphor in the Caribbean (perhaps not surprising given the ubiquity of seafood in coastal diets) but is still noticeably absent when compared to the broad range of sexually symbolic produce. This contrasts with American uses of red meat and sausages in food-for-sex metaphors, which strongly associate the consumption of meat and meat products with masculinity (Adams 1990 ; Fiddes 1991). These differences may reflect the fact that American society has traditionally emphasized the importance of red meat in diet, thus increasing its visibility in the national food lexicon, while fish and produce retain a more prominent place in the Caribbean food-scape. Research delineating the full extent of the food-for-sex metaphorical lexicon in Belize and across the Caribbean is lacking, and is needed if we are to gain a better understanding of the importance of the food/sex nexus in Belizean culture.

Despite the extent of ethnographic work in other regions, little research on the sexual symbolism of food appears to have taken place in the Caribbean. The relationship between Caribbean musical cultures and gender relations has attracted significant attention from a number of disciplines (Frank 2007; Leu 2000; Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003; Smith 2004; Springer 2008). However, the strong presence of food in Caribbean sexual symbolism and its importance as a site of contested gender and sexual roles remains to be explored.

This very preliminary examination of the discourses surrounding the food-for-sex metaphor in popular Caribbean music reveals a simple overall format for the selection of foods that may be imbued with sexual symbolism. This is complemented by tentative conclusions from my fieldwork in Belize that suggest that the social proximity of food and sex as arenas of cross-gender interaction may point to the existence of some functional underpinnings of food-for-sex symbolism. It also begins to illustrate the complexity and diversity of the often antagonistic and highly gendered sexual discourses underlying these food-for-sex metaphors. The application of Foucault’s ideas regarding the role of social scrutiny in the production of diverse discourses on sexual expression would seem a productive way to examine the furor surrounding the interaction between food and sexuality in Anglophone Caribbean culture (Foucault 1978). The existence of a multitude of discourses concerning acceptable expressions of sexuality and proper performance of gender roles may point to a broader societal ambivalence about food, gender and sexuality that could be a product of conflicting views on sexuality dating from the colonial era (Saunders 2003).

Food is a powerful sexual force in Caribbean culture. In Belize and across the Caribbean Basin, women are traditionally considered to have access to great power over men through their cooking. Many men are wary of eating a woman’s cooking for fear that she may put a magical potion in it that will “tie” him to her (Bullard 1974). This “tying” power gives the woman control over the man’s desires and actions and can permanently and irreversibly bind him to one woman (effectively undermining his ability to build his reputation among other men as a Joe Grind[8] or successful and potent sexual player) (Bullard 1974; Olsen and Gould 2008). For this reason eating the food offered by an unrelated woman is a generally dangerous prospect. A man who eats a non-family member woman’s cooking displays either stupidity or great trust (Olsen and Gould 2008). Because the eating of an unrelated woman’s food is an expression of trust and sexual intimacy, offering food to a unrelated man is often considered a sexual overture (Olsen and Gould 2008). Although some of the fears of “tying” seem to be fading with recent generations, my fieldwork indicates that eating together with an unrelated person of the opposite gender is still a strongly symbolic gesture that implies the existence of a sexual relationship.

Viewed in this light, some of the food-for-sex metaphors that were examined earlier gain additional layers of meaning. The findings of anthropological research on sexual symbolism and food/sex taboos may be useful here. Quite a few ethnographies of non-western cultures have documented food and sex taboos and the often highly gendered connection between these two realms. Mary Bill’s work on food/sex connections in Tsonga folktales, Biersack’s research on food, sex and conceptions of cleanliness and pollution in Papua New Guinea, Pollock’s analysis of gender roles, sexual identity and food among the Culina of the western Amazon, these are but a few examples of ethnographic writings that reflect a deep interest in prohibitions and practices related to the symbolic meanings of the food/sex arena (Biersack 1985; Bill 1994; Pollock 1998). Often pollution in the form of female essences that may weaken a man’s strength and undermine his masculinity is viewed as emanating from a woman’s body, thus contact with her body or anything that she has touched, is considered dangerous for a man. The more intimate the contact, such as consuming food cooked by a woman or having sex with her, the greater the danger (Biersack 1985; Bullard 1974; Olsen and Gould 2008). From this perspective, eating a woman’s cooking and performing oral sex on her can be considered roughly equivalent, in that both may potentially emasculate a man, either through magic or social prejudices against certain forms of sexual expression. In fact, in the song “Saltfish” this is made explicit when The Mighty Sparrow sings:
“Saltfish stew is what I like
So doo-doo, give me day and night
I like yu food, so don’t find me rude
My favorite, I sure every man in here already eat it”

By stating “I like yu food”, he uses the idea of enjoying a woman’s cooking to convey his enjoyment of the taste of her body. This same act is roundly condemned by many Caribbean dancehall artists, a number of whom also reference their fear of being “tied” to a woman through food magic (Olsen and Gould 2008). Thus, both eating a woman’s cooking and “eating her out” [performing oral sex on her] may be either pleasurable activities or dangerous to a man’s personal autonomy, his masculinity and his ability to maintain a reputation among his male peers (Olsen and Gould 2008).

This ambivalent attitude towards women, their bodies and their food (both sexualized and otherwise), may reflect an underlying fear of women’s power in the arenas of food and sex. In a highly homophobic region that regularly condemns not only oral sex but also masturbation in its music, women are the only acceptable source of male sexual satisfaction (Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003). Women’s sexual agency is routinely circumscribed in the highly patriarchal cultures of Belize and other Caribbean nations through a double standard that condemns female promiscuity while celebrating male sexual prowess, their sexuality remains essential to men’s sexual self expression (Frank 2007; Olsen and Gould 2008). Because men’s reputations among each other are built on their sexual promiscuity and their ability to have sex with and impregnate many women, women’s sexuality is a highly prized commodity without which men cannot rise in a male-dominated society (Freilich 1968 ; Mahabir 2001; Olsen and Gould 2008). While Frank, Olsen and Gould describe how the overall power of women is constrained by a patriarchal society and at least partial dependency on men to help pay to maintain their children (Frank 2007; Olsen and Gould 2008). I would argue this does not change the reality that women’s sexuality and fecundity are essential to male homo-social reputation building, and that they thus at least potentially hold great power in relation to men by only granting sexual and reproductive access under certain conditions.

The implicit recognition of this power may partially explain the extreme ambivalence expressed by male musical performers with regards to female corporeal sexuality. It may be that the undeniable value of female sexuality and reproductive capacity causes sex to become an antagonistic arena where gendered power struggles influenced by religious views and state policies are expressed through a variety of competing discourses (Frank 2007; Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003). Food is linked with sex in that both food and sex are “products” or “commodities” that are necessary for life, and are closely associated with women in their nurturing role (Parasecoli 2007). Men consider food obtained from a female family member to be trustworthy and an expression of kinship based networks of reciprocity and mutual aid. Food becomes sexualized and thus potentially dangerous in the hands of an unrelated woman who may be trying to control or “tie” the man through her cooking (Bullard 1974; Olsen and Gould 2008).

Traditional food magic often further conflates food, sex and female bodies by requiring that certain bodily excretions be introduced into the food to “tie” the man to them (Bullard 1974). In Belize concoctions such as “coco soup”, “guaranagu wata” and “sweat rice” involve the introduction of sweat, pubic hair or menstrual blood into a man’s food (Bullard 1974). While it is unknown how often these magical foods are actually prepared, the specter of their presence lingers on even in today’s society. Thus not only the woman’s food but actual products of her body are consumed that are considered to contain the magical force used to control a man. Given the total power that these magical preparations are believed to give a woman over her male victim, it is not surprising that oral sex on a woman, which involves the danger of consuming some of these same bodily products, is often viewed with distrust and compared, via food-for-sex metaphors, with the consumption of (unknown and potentially dangerous) foods. Songs that celebrate the consumption of a woman’s food and her body through oral sex appear to be less common than those which condemn it although a complete review of Anglophone Caribbean music would be necessary to draw firm conclusions. Only further research will reveal why this seems to be the case, but perhaps it is because the trust that these songs illustrate as necessary for comfortable consumption is not widespread in Belize or indeed in most countries in the Anglophone Caribbean (Frank 2007; Olsen and Gould 2008; Saunders 2003).

Food and sex are both interrelated sources of potential contamination and pollution, yet at the same time are considered essential for social and biological survival (Olsen and Gould 2008). I believe that as a result of the value placed on these two “commodities”, the food/sex arena has become a highly contested space of interaction between men and woman who deploy multiple competing discourses about appropriate sexuality and gender roles in a power struggle to define the meanings of (and power behind) food and sex in Belize and the broader Anglophone Caribbean.  This would explain the ubiquity of food-for-sex metaphors in both popular music and everyday conversation, as well as the existence of multiple, often conflicting discourses about sexuality. The complex layers of discourse and meaning surrounding food-for-sex metaphors await our further investigation. Until then, in Anglophone Caribbean music, a banana may not be “just a banana”, but we can rest assured that it also represents far more than a simple phallus.

Notes

[1] Belize is a very diverse country with a number of culturally distinct ethnic groups. I focus my research here on the traditionally dominant Belizean Creole culture, which has strongly shaped popular culture in Belize.

[2] Coca-Cola products are bottled in Belize but were not introduced to the country until the 1950s, while cheese was imported since the early colonial era. Locally produced cheese has only recently appeared on the market thanks the establishment of a small dairy industry by recently immigrated Mennonite farmers and business persons.

[3] Brukdown is a style of music associated with the Belizean Creole ethnic group.

[4] Puntarock is the modernized, electrified version of a drumming and dance style (punta) associated with the Garinagu ethnic group.

[5] September Celebrations refers to the celebrations organized by all municipalities to commemorate two national holidays: The Battle of St. George’s Caye Day on September 10th and Independence Day on September 21st.  Official events, concerts, parties and a carnival parade in Belize City take place during this month, especially the middle two weeks when the main holidays take place.

[6] A cool spot is a small store or shack that sells snacks, drinks and sometimes entire meals for take-away or consumption on the spot.

[7] In this paper I refer to gender as the socially constructed categories of man and woman that are found across the English-speaking Caribbean and in Belize, and which carry with them a large number of culturally constructed restrictions, expectations and stereotypes regarding each gender. Sex here refers to sexuality and sexual acts.

[8] Joe Grind is a generic name, like “Joe College” or “average joe” that is used to refer to a man who builds his reputation through the sexual “conquest” of many women.

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Discography

Simpleton. 1992. Coca Cola Bottle shape

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. 1995Julie Mango

Shaggy. 1995.Boombastic, Gal yu a Peppa

Spragga Benz. date unknown. Cyan get no Gyal

Strictly Soca. Nine Inch Banana

The Mighty Sparrow. 1976. Saltfish

Mad Cobra. 2005. Put Gunshot

Ninja Man. 2005.Renking Meat

Beenie Man 2005. King of the Dancehall

Lyra Spang is a graduate student at the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her research interests include food studies, gender, globalization and international development issues and human sexuality. She is currently conducting pre-dissertation research in Belize.

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3 thoughts on “Fruits and Culture: A Preliminary Examination of Food-for-Sex Metaphors in English-language Caribbean Music

  1. Fascinating study. I wonder if you’re aware of the 1940s term

    coke frame [from coke = Coca Cola + frame, a body] (US black) a curvaceous figure; thus ‘banter play built on a coke frame’, an attractive woman with a good figure.

    Here are some examples:

    [1942 Z.N. Hurston ‘Story in Harlem Slang’ in Novels and Stories (1995) 1005: Dat shape you got on you! I bet the Coca Cola Company is paying you good money for the patent!].

    1944 D. Burley Orig. Handbook of Harlem Jive 12: She’s shaped up like a Coca-Cola bottle, wide open at the throttle. [Ibid.] 16: Up pops a banter play built on a coke frame frocked down to ain’t it a shame.

    1958 Murtagh & Harris Cast the First Stone 23: A lush, ripe sixteen with a figure that the colts at Monkey’s called a ‘coke frame – streamlined like a Coca-Cola bottle.’

  2. I did not know that, no! Fascinating. In Belize “frame” or “structure” is usually used to refer to men and their build, I haven’t heard it used to refer to women. If you are a man someone might say you have a nice structure, which means you have good muscle tone and a nice build.

    I often wonder what people said before coca cola showed up in Belize. Did women get compared to something else?

  3. Fascinating paper, Lyra. I wonder if the contrasting views about oral sex on women is related in any way to the different eras of the musicians you cite. It seems that the approving songs come from the older genres while the disapproving songs are from more recent styles. Are the younger men less certain of themselves sexually so they express “hyper-masculine” personas?

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