Food & Fiction: Memorable Meals in Literature
Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.
- More important than our need to self actualise
by killing a white whale, or finding mister right
or saving all of Middle Earth,
is one of our most important needs for survival.
The need to eat, hey, it's right there at the base
of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
And across the thousands of years of human existence,
what we now shun has become indelibly tied to who we are.
From where we come from, to our social status,
to personal identity.
Whether it is daydreaming over Wonka bars,
getting disappointed over Turkish delight
not being anywhere near as good
as C.S. Lewis made it out to be,
food has captured a huge slice of our literary imagination.
And if Herman Melville could dedicate an entire chapter
of Moby Dick to cod and clam chowder,
so can too It's Lit raise a toast
to one of the written world's most enduring
and complex players, food.
Most hunter-gatherer food origin stories
have been lost to history,
but once human kind shifted to agrarian societies
and began keeping records we can see
that there was always a fascination
with how cultures cultivated their food.
Most cultures have creation myths
and it's rare that you have one without a myth
that explains where the ability
to cultivate food comes from.
For example, harvest seasons exist according
to Greek mythology because of Demeter's grief
over her daughter's descent into the underworld.
Here the fruit of the underworld,
often depicted as a pomegranate,
is used to bind Demeter's daughter Persephone
to the underworld for half of the year,
giving the world above seasons.
Unlike other constants such as oxygen, water
and 24 hour cable news, food varies wildly
from place to place and from culture to culture.
Since humans are such sensory creatures,
using words to evoke the experience of eating
is an excellent way to bring a text to life.
What does the role of food say
about the world the story exists in?
When building fantasy worlds, we often see a variety
of fantastic fare that aligns with existing food
in the real world but with a magical twist.
Perhaps some of the most notable examples
are the various magical treats found
in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,"
where cakes, mushrooms and tea party's spreads
the seemingly harmless hallmarks
of Victorian middle class cuisine take on a more uncanny
and sometimes even menacing property.
In "The Lord of the Rings," hobbits are defined
by their traditional English-style foods,
making their parts of the narrative feel grounded
and comforting to the presumed English-style reader.
Lot's of cheeses, dried meats and crusty, satisfying pies
and of course, ale.
But in the same universe,
we also have the Elven Lembas bread.
One bite can fill the stomach of a grown man.
It doesn't go bad and hey, it's pretty good too!
Boy, those elves sure are magical.
Under the worldly yet, practical.
We see the dichotomy of familiar and magical foods again
in Harry Potter.
The fun and wonder of Hogwarts food,
from bangers and mash, to butter beer,
is intricately described in stark contrast to Harry's hunger
and neglect by the Dursley family
and by extension, the real world.
The wizarding junk food in Harry Potter is so iconic
you can now buy mass produced versions of it
from chocolate frogs to Bertie Bott's Every Flavored Beans.
Meanwhile, over in the more practical
and sometimes grim science fiction genre,
we also see hypothetical food stuffs
as a staple in world building.
There are your non-scarcity universes
where food situations are relatively abundant
Take for instance "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's"
Nutri-Matic machine which produces a
"cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite,
"entirely unlike tea."
On the less appetizing end of sci-fi feasting
we see a lot of utalitarian, practical food
that makes the school lunches of now look great.
Think baked meats, pills, sludge.
You've got the flavor capsules
in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series,
the appetizing yeast culture vats in his "Caves of Steel"
and there's protein which is made from mutant algae
in Philip K. Dick's "A Solar Lottery".
And in Margaret Atwood's "The Year of the Flood"
you've got secret burgers
'cause you don't know what's in it.
But it's probably human flesh.
In Atwood's universe all this serves to drive home
the hyper-consumerist world the characters live in
and will eventually die in.
All in all however disgusting and practical snacking becomes
in these future worlds, these examples speak
to our primordial dependence on food
no matter how technologically advanced we are.
The future is here.
And boy, it's kinda gross.
But outside of building worlds more fantastic
and futuristic than our own, food as metaphor
is one of literature's great traditions.
And Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate,"
each chapter of the book begins
with a traditional Mexican recipe
that ties into specific points in the heroine's life.
Be it the onion heavy Christmas rolls
around her birth symbolizing her propensity for tears
or the more infamous rose quail sauce she prepares
that leads to some not safe for work results
amongst her loved ones after they eat it.
In "Madame Bovary" the wedding cake for Emma and Charles
is an over-the-top symbol of the marriage's artifice
and Emma's feeling of entrapment
with Flaubert describing the cake like a tacky war fortress.
"At the cake's base, there was a square of blue cardboard
"representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades
"and stucco statuettes all round,
"and in the niches constellations of gilt paper stars;
"on the upper platform, a green field
"with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats
"and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing
"whose two uprights ended in real rosebuds at the top."
Food in texts can also deepen the reader's understanding
of different cultures as a means
of cementing cultural identity
and for readers outside of that culture
to learn something new.
Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians" uses food
to explore Singapore as a cultural crossroads,
showing the dynamic food traditions influenced by everywhere
from China, Indonesia, England et cetera.
The character Araminta describes Singapore as
"probably the only country in the world
"where grown men into fistfights over
"which specific food stall
"in some godforsaken shopping center
"has the best rendition of some obscure fried noddle dish."
Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart,"
considered the most widely read book
in modern African literature, deals with subjects
like tradition, culture, history, parenthood
and of course, how food ties into all of these things.
There's a deep spiritual significance
with the way characters relate to food,
particularly the Kola nut and of course, yams.
The book describes "The Feast of the New Yam
"which was held every year before the harvest began
"to honor the earth goddess
"and the ancestral spirits of the clan."
Food can also be a fantastic vehicle
for setting tone in a scene.
George R.R. Martin loves writing long,
excessive descriptions of feasting
in his "A song of Ice and Fire" series.
The food at the infamous Red Wedding scene
is described thus, "The wedding feast began
"with a thin leek soup followed by a salad of green beans,
"onions, and beets, river pike poached in almond milk,
"mounds of mashed turnips that were cold
"before they reached the table, jellied calves' brains
"and a leche of stringy beef.
"It was a poor fare to set before a king,
"and the calves' brains turned Catelyn's stomach.
That decadently disgusting description tells us
maybe something bad's about to happen.
Meanwhile, Charles Dickens's brute,
sparse description of the diet given
to the tenants of Oliver Twist's workhouse
underlines just how dire the circumstances are.
"Three meals of thin gruel a day,
"with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays."
This builds to Oliver's iconic line, "Please sir.
"I want some more."
Which gives us this image of a child begging for seconds
of a meal that is explicitly meager and unappetizing
and it makes the scene all the more powerful.
The scenes of being forced to eat disgusting food
and moreover, be grateful for it is much more visceral
and memorable than just explaining this abstract concept
of being at the lowest rung of the social status.
On that note, food is also a great means
of exploring socio-political concerns
and if there's ever a catalyst for revolution
in a much grander narrative it's our old buddy bread.
In Suzanne Collins's "The Hunger Games,"
Katniss first interacts with Peeta, the baker's son,
when he throws Katniss some bread when she's starving.
This not only sets up the small bit of empathy
that allows Katniss and Peeta to survive in the games,
but also lays the foundation for their relationship.
And eventually that whole revolution thing.
But perhaps the most famous example
of bread kicking off a much grander revolutionary narrative
is at the beginning of Les Miserables,
where in the lead character, Jean Valjean,
receives five years in imprisonment
for stealing a loaf of bread.
Bread had a strong tie to French political life.
Prior to enduring Victor Hugo's writing career,
the revolution of 1789 was in part,
fueled by a massive bread shortage throughout France.
By the time of the events of Les Miserables,
which spans the first half of the 19th century,
a loaf became a symbol of economic status
in a highly stratified society.
And the myriad ways Hugo describes bread in the book
are a reflection of that.
For example he writes that the rural poor eat bread
"so hard that they cut it up with an ax
"and soak it for 24 hours before they can eat it."
Food is deeply woven into our cultural identity,
our social status, our grounded frame of mind
and even our position in space as mortal beings
that need sustenance to keep going
and as a result, it's also an integral player
in literature's ability to impart the human condition.
So let's give thanks to food,
you really know how to make a book...