Review: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but that rule should be laid aside for James Hannaham’s second novel, Delicious Foods. The cover is illustrated by none other than Kara Walker, one of the greatest American artists working today, and her images perfectly capture the essence of Hannaham’s novel: it is a tale both hopeful and tragic, of the triumph of the human spirit, and the cruelties of man and nature. Feel free to judge Delicious Foods by its beautiful cover, because you’ll be right.

Delicious Foods is the story of Darlene, a college graduate and loving mother, who spirals into a deep depression after the murder of her husband. Addicted to crack and desperate for a steady job she travels to Delicious Foods, a farm in Louisiana that promises good wages, deluxe accommodations, and plenty of drugs. When she arrives, however, Darlene discovers deplorable living and working conditions – and no way out.  

“When you working hard, she thinking, you don’t really be getting paid, and you can’t go nowheres, everybody know the name for that.”

Meanwhile Darlene’s eleven-year-old son, Eddie, searches the streets of Houston for his mother, and willingly goes to Delicious Foods to rescue her, even though crack has left her a shell of her former self: “His mother reminded him of the proverbial stopped watch that tells the right time twice a day. Every day he would wait for those two times.”

The novel is told from three perspectives: Eddie, Darlene, and the point of view of crack cocaine (known here as Scotty). The opening of the novel moves from present to past, setting up the heartbreaking juxtaposition of Darlene today against the woman she once was.    

And while the opening sections are evenly paced, time slows to a crawl when Eddie arrives at the farm, then moves far too quickly when Darlene transitions from worker to overseer and begins to sympathize with the master she once feared.  

his uneven structure makes it difficult to find the novel’s central climax, but perhaps that’s part of Hannaham’s plan, as the life of an addict – and the son of an addict – is filled with equal parts tedium and chaos. 

Delicious Foods is, above all else, an American story: A story of slavery and power, defiance and grit, and hope for a better day. A story entirely worthy of a cover by a great American artist.