Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Warning: Read This Post with Snacks

On PBS.org there is a fascinating bit on food and literature.  They begin, "Since people first put ink to parchment, food has proven an inspiration, a plot device, a method of revealing character in poetry and literature."  It's true that food tells much about a person's culture, background, even their mood.  That is no less true in fictional worlds.  Recall, if you will, what J.K. Rowling describes Harry Potter eating at meal times while living with the Dursleys as opposed to while at Hogwarts.  If you knew nothing else about the story, it would be pretty clear that the meager scraps Harry eats from Vernon and Petunia's table indicates a lower happiness level than the long Hogwarts tables overflowing with pork chops, steak and kidney pie, boiled potatoes, treacle tarts, pumpkin juice, and chocolate éclairs.  (See here for an extensive essay on food in the Potter universe.)

Clearly food is atmospheric.  The reader cannot see, smell or taste the food the characters eat, but through food the author can create wonder or tension, comfort or isolation, satisfaction or foreboding.  It's a wonderful literary device, since it's often so subtle that the reader can pick up the atmosphere of the scene they're reading without feeling like the author is banging them on the head and screaming ATMOSPHERE!  ATMOSPHERE! ATMOSPHERE!  

Conclusion: Food is great.  

So.  Here are some of the greatest literary food moments in YA literature.  (When I say "greatest" I don't necessarily mean "happiest."  I mean, "most effective at using food as a device to illustrate setting, create mood, reveal characterization, reflect cultural identity, and/or advance the plot."  But that was too long to fit in my post title.  So.)

1) The decadence of the Capitol in The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is never more evident than when Katniss and Peeta attend a Capital party in Catching Fire.  At the victor's party in the Capitol, Katniss describes tables "laden with delicacies... everything you can think of, and things you never dreamed of, lie in wait... every table presents new temptations... after about ten tables I'm stuffed, and we've only sampled a small number of the dishes available" (77-78).  When Katniss is asked why she isn't eating, she responds that she can't hold another bite.  This response is met with condescending laughter and an explanation that in the Capitol you simply drink a clear liquid from a table full of wineglasses when you're full.  The drink will make you vomit, at which point you simply start eating again.    Katniss describes her shocked and horrified reaction like so: "All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give.  More food... And here in the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again.  Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food.  It's what everyone does at a party.  Expected.  Part of the fun" (80).  
This passage is genius.  By portraying the Capitol's relationship with food in opposition to District 12's relationship with food, Collins simultaneously characterizes the Capitol's extravagance and ignorance of conditions outside their own city, creates friction between Katniss and her hosts, and advances the plot by giving a conflicted Katniss more reason to go against the Capitol.  

2) Just the mention of Turkish Delight probably conjures images of the White Witch of Narnia meeting Edmund Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  In this story, the White Witch bribes Edmund with Turkish Delight and promises of power if he will bring his siblings to her castle.  Turkish Delight is a sugary delicacy in Britain.  I've never tried it, but I doubt it's good enough to convince me to betray my brothers and sisters to a life of subservience to a shifty lady in a sleigh.  (Homemade peach cobbler though... kidding, Mom.)  Turkish Delight becomes a symbol of greed and selfishness in the novel.  There is nothing inherently wrong with a little dessert now and then, but the moral is nevertheless taught that evil can disguise itself in things as simple and seemingly innocent as food.  So watch what you eat.  Especially, apparently, when you're in British wardrobes.

3) Much of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland revolves around eating and drinking, but when I think of this singular story the first image that pops into my head is of Alice sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter.  At one point during Alice's stop, the Hatter explains that they have tea all day because Time has punished him by eternally standing still at 6:00pm, tea time (via).  I've always thought of the Mad Hatter as suffering the same fate as the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who was doomed to eternally push a boulder up a hill over and over and over.  Both are frozen in a moment in time.  They are trapped.  Stuck.  In both stories the lack of time changes everything.  A nice cup of tea can be terribly satisfying at the end of a stressful day, but the point of the tea is to help the drinker unwind, refocus, and recharge for the next day.  Without a next day, or even a next hour, there is little real purpose to the Hatter's tea or to Sisyphus' boulder.  One can only enjoy a pleasant flavor for so long before it ceases to become so.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the Hatter went mad.  Food is necessary to live, but it does not give meaning to a life.  It can sustain life, enhance life, and uplift life, but eating or drinking itself is only meaningful because it allows the rest of a life to thrive.  The Hatter doesn't truly enjoy tea time because, for him, there is no other time.  In this story food is not the enemy, rather it is a reflection that without perspective and progression, life lacks meaning.  

4) You may have heard the riddle: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.  Where am I?  The answer: The Ocean.  The juxtaposition of being surrounded by food and water and yet nearly starving is ever present in Yann Martel's Life of Pi.  The salty ocean water is undrinkable, and Pi constantly struggles to catch fish or other sea life to sustain him and Richard Parker.  Pi is forced to learn to survive in harsh conditions, and quickly.  Pi's relationship towards food is representative of his journey from civilization to drifting lifeboat.  When we first meet him, Pi is a vegetarian.  But by the end of his journey he hardly thinks twice about eating meat.  In this story, where the procurement and consumption of food is so critical to the main story arc, Pi's relationship to food could easily define him.  But instead, it reflects his adaptation and his fierce will to survive.  Food tells the reader more than whether Pi was able to eat.  It tells us about his character.

5) Food and Fairy Tales is its own massive subject.  Food plays a major role in just about every fairy tale I am aware of.  Cinderella's coach is transformed from a pumpkin; Rapunzel, it could be argued, is a cautionary tale of the dangers of pregnancy cravings; Jack finds his fortune at the end of a beanstalk; Snow White nearly dies from a poisoned apple; The Princess and the Pea is literally a story about a princess and a pea; Little Red Riding Hood nearly becomes food herself, and does in some versions; and Hansel and Gretel has food featured on every page of the story.  In each of these stories food reveals something about the characters: their social standing, their background, what they want, and what motivates them.  Food reflects their feelings, their relationships, their culture.  It's powerfully done in each of these stories, which is one of the reasons why these stories are so memorable.

These are just a few examples.  Clearly food is a very useful narrative device.  Next time you come across the presence of food in books, consider paying attention to what that food is telling you.  I'd bet it's more informative than it may seem.

All this talk about food has got me hungry.  Excuse me while I go grab a slice of pumpkin chocolate chip bread.  November food is the greatest.


  1. You've has 1,563 page views. Wow. You're starting to get popular.

    1. Jeff, you've got me singing "Popular" from the musical Wicked now. :)

  2. How could I not LOVE a post about food and books, two of my favorite things on earth?

    1. Two of my favorite things as well! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

  3. This post was utterly brilliant. I'm not kidding or joking at all. I had never thought about this before, and now it's changing everything I'm reading (currently: The Handmaid's Tale). Seriously. You are a freaking genius.

    1. Thanks! That's pretty high praise! I mostly just like food. Even fictional, literary food. :)
      Enjoy The Handmaid's Tale! (That book is seriously freaky. I doubt much food is required to enhance the atmosphere in that book.)


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