Cheng, Anne Anlin. “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids: Race at the Intersection of Food and Animal; or, David Wong Louie’s Sushi Principle.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 1 (2014): 66-95
“How we think about our social principles (our supposedly unique and elaborate network of kinship structures; our specifically human relation to property; above all, our presumed sociality over and beyond biology) has never been free from our conceptualization of the animalized and racialized other. And, I propose, no other site demonstrates this complicity more acutely than where and what we eat.”
Introduction to “The Sushi Principle” and “Critical Eating Studies”
The field of food studies was offered a companion in 2012 when Kyla Wazana Tompkins coined the term “critical eating studies” to theorize food not just as a commodity, but to foreground the eating racialized body in American food history. Shifting food from a system of signs towards a corporeal practice asked not just what was being eaten, but also a consideration of who was doing the eating, and how edible aesthetics and ethics materialize in literature and art. The commodity history has long been a part of the relatively short food studies canon, however the emphasis on food-as-object elides the close relationship bodies have with food. Studies that go beyond anxieties of the modern consumer, towards corporeality, embodiment, and eating are in need of theorization. For instance, centering the eating body allows an analysis of the Other as a commodity consumed, particularly in corporeal representations of consumable black bodies from the eyes of white consumers. Food studies can greatly benefit from incorporating critical eating studies as a crucial approach to the complex study of food.
Anne Anlin Cheng’s “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids: Race at the Intersection of Food and Animal; or, David Wong Louie’s Sushi Principle” continues Wazana Tompkins’ “critical eating studies” by presenting “the sushi principle” which uses the aesthetics of sushi as a food to consider the fleshy act of eating. The principle is as useful as it is complex, a key framework to understand food as an edible entanglement. While the article looks across multiple art and literary representations of eating, Cheng focuses on the short story “Bottles of Beaujolais” by David Wong Louie, which tells the story of the unlikely intimacies between a sashimi bar worker, a woman who comes to eat, and the otter who lives in the restaurant’s life-size aquarium. Through a close reading of the story, the article advances feminist and posthuman studies to consider sushi as a disruptive foodstuff, practice, and way of being. In particular, Cheng asks what potential relationships and ontologies can be formed through eating by mobilizing the sushi principle.This principle can guide future scholars in their approach to metaphors and realities of food in literature, film, art, performance, even science, to ask how consumption figures into the ontological questions of the human, the animal, and the other.
Sushi Principle in Practice
Cheng offers a methodology through the sushi principle, a concept of eating across difference, across-and-with flesh, an intimacy or queering of an eater. Through the principle, she analyzes “Bottles of Beaujolais” by David Wong Louie, to articulate the relations and ontologies produced throughout the story. The story centers on a sushi restaurant, where unlikely convergence of an Asian American man who works at the restaurant, a white woman who frequents the restaurant due to romantic entanglements with the man, and Mushimono, an otter who lives inside a “life-size” aquarium in the middle of the restaurant. These characters all become a strange family through the proximity and consumption of sushi and flesh. For Cheng, sushi is a food but also a principle, encompassing the theoretical value of more-than-commodity. Cheng mixes both metaphorical and literal interpretations of the way the edible is considered through her principle, such as the woman who becomes near-mermaid, near consumable for the man:
“In this moment of transgendered and transspecial queering, Mushimono and Luna [the woman] mirror one another in a simultaneous evolution, both becoming an other-other, a different sort of semiaquatic animal, a mermaid.”
The sushi principle complicates the messy act of eating, in that the body is both eating and edible, consuming across difference. Cheng’s article layers historical references, embodied experience, literary analysis, and a love of food into an argument that rejects the structuralist approach to food. Instead, Cheng encourages us to be “radically open to difference,” a quality we as scholars can encourage in the future generations of food thinkers.
Slippery Relations and Scales of Difference
Cheng’s close reading of Wong Louie’s story, peppered with analysis from canonical literary and art works, offers a method for food scholars to explore the possibilities of resituating the act of eating as central to the field of food studies. Mushimono, the large otter that lives in an aquarium inside the sushi restaurant where the story takes place, challenges the role of the nonhuman when considering “eating”. Human-animal relationships are complicated within the walls of the restaurant. The slippage that Cheng identifies between human/otter, woman/man, racialized other/white woman, is a guiding element of the sushi principle. I believe this offers great implications for how food studies can expand the scope of inquiry beyond commodity towards the entanglements and fleshiness that consumption encapsulates. As foodscapes have become increasingly blurred throughout global food trade, future food scholars can turn to Cheng’s work to go beyond considerations of commodity toward those of aesthetics, metaphor, corporeality, and ontologies of being that theorize human-nonhuman relations, where consuming across difference link the fleshy experiences of all eaters involved and the ethics involved of having done so.
Cheng hints at more-than-human ethics in the closing of her article, shifting away from anthropocentric readings of food, while tracing the complex power relations that the sushi principle materializes. By articulating the scales of difference across human, gender, race, nonhuman, and matter, Cheng offers an approach to literary analysis that disrupts Enlightenment taxonomies. Bringing together food, race, and animal studies, the sushi principle echoes the multiplicity of each field’s interests in “the contingent nature of the human.” While Cheng’s literary analysis is fruitful, intimate, and insightful, the article makes its key intervention by considering the ontology of sushi. Cheng shifts away from a sociology or history of sushi as a commodity through theorizing a principle rather than analyzing a fixed resolution of “sushi”. While acknowledging sushi’s role as a bourgeois exoticized foodstuff, Cheng notes that it is “not through its apparent racial sign nor through its supposedly exotic origin, but through its disruptive effects on our human ontology” that eating sushi muddles our human ideas about flesh, what food becomes as we digest it, and how, by this fleshy ‘becoming’, confront our own fleshy and edible bodies. The raw and fleshy nature of sushi, intermingled with the phenomenology of its consumption, opens us to reconsider if and how ‘otherness’ makes kin in Cheng’s sushi principle. Sushi ontologies extend food as a commodity, metaphor, signifier, and matter towards a consideration of how we become with food.
I propose Cheng’s article, and the larger implications of the sushi principle for inclusion in our messy garden of food studies scholarship for three reasons. First, Cheng’s article supplements the ‘critical eating studies’ put forth by Kyla Wazana Tompkins as both conceptualize and imagine disruptions of the formal and structuralist interpretations of how we as humans consume and are consumed by food. Second, Cheng’s essay considers the affect of food as edible matter, which I believe is essential to unearthing the sticky, entangled, and alluring qualities of food studies as a field; as it invites in, or demands, consideration of the material, agentic, and phenomenological experience that dictates how our bodies are made fleshy, and in relation, in the act of eating. Finally, the excitement that theories of affect bring to food studies can also become a site for an embodied engagement with pedagogy. Pairing a reading of David Wong Louie’s short story “Bottles of Beaujolais” with the critical essay provides tools for closely reading literary and other art forms through the lenses of race, gender, and animal studies, with an attunement to the edible.
 Anlin Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids: Race at the Intersection of Food and Animal; or, David Wong Louie’s Sushi Principle,” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 2, no. 1 (2015), 21. https://doi.org/10.5250/resilience.2.1.006
 Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012).
 bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2015).
 David Wong Louie, “When Your First Date Is Orchestrated by an Otter,” Electric Lit, August 28, 2019, https://electricliterature.com/when-your-first-date-is-orchestrated-by-an-otter-david-wong-louie/.
 Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids,” 13.
 Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids,” 20.
 Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids,” 3.
 Cheng, “Sushi, Otters, Mermaids,” 7.
 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).
Elizabeth Schiffler is a PhD student in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA, (Certificate in Food Studies). Her research focuses on the intersection of food and performance, examining contemporary edible acts at quotidian and theatrical scales. Her undergraduate degree is in Theater Design and Comparative History of Ideas at University of Washington. The inaugural Artist in Residence at the Pacific Science Center, she also practices in performance and video art. Find more at www.elizabethschiffler.com.