It’s Lit!


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.

AIRED: August 11, 2019 | 0:08:58

(gentle music)

- 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.

(upbeat music)

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

and dynamic.

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.

(joyful music)

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.

That happens.

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...


(upbeat music)

I'm sorry.

(upbeat music)


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv