Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and unless you’re Canadian (October? Really?), or anyone else for that matter, really…well, wherever you are, I hope that you’ll be eating well when Thursday comes. Or if not, that you’ll be eating a lot.
It’s difficult, then, to think of a better time than now to ask a slightly bewildering set of questions. If food is such an essential part of our lives (and of all life by default) then why is it so scarce in so many texts – prose, verse, drama, fiction? What does it mean when a text that tries to recreate some aspect of ‘real life’ neglects or avoids food altogether? And what does it mean, cookbooks aside, when food is the central focus of literature?
It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten.
– A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
If we’re going to talk about food and literature, we might as well start with Virginia Woolf, because it seems to me that she’s one of a select few writers who have given serious thought to food, eating, and taste (not that kind of taste, but that kind of – well, you get the idea). It’s a strange phenomenon in and of itself if you think about it long enough. To put it another way, I remember talking with my friends about 24, when one of them quipped: “What if there was an episode where Jack Bauer just shat in the toilet for five minutes? Or an hour?”
Enough pontificating: here’s one of the more memorable scenes from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where the narrator (directly after the preceding quote) describes her “luncheon” at Oxbridge (the not-so-fictional men’s university):
[T]he lunch on this occasion began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges, but if this suggests a couple of bald, brown birds on a plate you are mistaken. The partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And no sooner had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman…set before us, wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled.
After a walk to Fernham (the fictional women’s college), and a lengthy mental digression into Tennyson and Christina Rosetti, she commences her dinner:
Here was my soup. Dinner was being served in the great dining-hall….Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that. One could have seen through the transparent liquid any pattern that there might have been on the plate itself. But there was no pattern. The plate was plain. Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes — a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening and women with string bags on Monday morning. There was no reason to complain of human nature’s daily food, seeing that the supply was sufficient and coal-miners doubtless were sitting down to less. Prunes and custard followed. And if anyone complains that prunes, even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers’ veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth, for eighty years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are people whose charity embraces even the prune. Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core. That was all. The meal was over. Everybody scraped their chairs back; the swing-doors swung violently to and fro; soon the hall was emptied of every sign of food and made ready no doubt for breakfast next morning.
The contrast between the meals is pretty clear: the men at Oxbridge are graced with an extravagant meal, the women at Fernham more or less endure theirs. How Woolf achieves this difference is also interesting, with her varying sentence lengths imitating the experiences well. All of the appositives in the Oxbridge luncheon (whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there…; partridges, many and various, came with all their retinue of sauces and salads…) make reading those sentences a mouthful, and attention is always fixed on those details. And then there’s the Fernham dinner, which reads more like an ESL lesson in simple past tense (Here was the soup; Prunes and custard followed; The meal was over) than…well, a meal. It’s also interesting that the imagery suggested at this meal in particular purposely draws the reader away from the food on the table – we’re swept from the “holy trinity” of beef, greens, and potatoes to the “bargaining and cheapening and women with string bags” who buy them, and from “prunes and custard” directly to the reverberating ‘strings’ of “a miser’s heart” (not hard to see what the echo suggests here). Food is nothing if not socially charged for the sake of Woolf’s argument, and for an entity so seemingly universal to life, it’s a desperately ironic observation that food can be as divisive as it is unifying.
There’s another literary meal that sticks out in my memory surprisingly well, and that’s the Christmas table spread in James Joyce’s “The Dead” (*pats self on back for semi-deliberate internal rhyme*)
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
It’s an extravagant meal, to be sure, but I think what’s always stood out to me has been Joyce’s (his narrator’s) intense positional, tactical detail. We’re made aware of where everything is – relative to the “fat brown goose” lying at one end of the table, along with the “great ham” and “spiced beef” forming a phalanx-like formation – and in the case of the “American apples,” even where the food is from. The decanters at the very center of the table, meanwhile, stand “as sentries to a fruit-stand,” with everything surrounding them in remarkably contrasting colors: brown, green, yellow, black, red, white. It’s a quintessential Christmas meal, yet it’s hardly the unifying cornucopia (look, it’s almost Thanksgiving!) such a meal normally suggests. It’s a battlefield.
Yet Joyce’s waxing over all that detail serves its purpose, what with Gabriel’s awkward dinner speech (an exercise in half-hearted preparation, in contrast to that colorful array of food before him) and the awkward politics of the evening (via his conversation with Miss Ivors). It’s a brilliant appropriation of a conventional scene in the Western tradition, and that “traditional” aspect of the Christmas dinner – with its attendant connotations of peace, warmth, faith, and a real feel-good factor – is precisely what makes this particular passage even more cutting in undermining those very factors.
One final ‘use’ of food that I’ve found really intriguing crops up in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and while it’s not as central a motif as, say, Indian cinema or the body, it’s nevertheless notable. I think of, among other moments, Saleem’s descriptions of how emotions, prejudices, and desires seep into the food that the women – particularly Mary and the Reverend Mother – cook for others. An example:
And now, restored to the status of daughter in her own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her— because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of intransigence, dishes imbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination. And, although Mary’s pickles had a partially counteractive effect— since she had stirred into them the guilt of her heart, and the fear of discovery, so that, good as they tasted, they had the power of making those who ate them subject to nameless uncertainties and dreams of accusing fingers— the diet provided by Reverend Mother filled Amina with a kind of rage, and even produced slight signs of improvements in her defeated husband. So that finally the day came when Amina, …suddenly rediscovered within herself the adventurous streak which was her inheritance from her fading father, the streak which had brought Aadam Aziz down from his mountain valley; Amina turned to Mary Pereira and said, “I’m fed up. If nobody in this house is going to put things right, then it’s just going to be up to me!”
(Rushdie, Salman (2010-07-23). Midnight’s Children (pp. 190-191). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
That passage, to me, is as emblematic of Rushdie’s incredible literary imagination as anything else he has ever written. I love how he brushes aside the semantic impossibilities of meatballs being “intransigent” or fish salans being “stubborn” and simply stirs the otherwise awkward pairs together. Just as if he were – I don’t know – cooking up a story. I mean, it’s at once a novel (poor pun) and intuitive technique – using food to express emotions by putting those emotions right into the food? Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Hell, I can’t even eat or taste anything now without thinking, almost immediately, of the hands (or lack thereof) that shaped that food, of all the intimate lives and private thoughts of the people (or lack thereof) that used their hands to make that food.
So maybe food isn’t as secondary as writers (or Woolf’s “novelists”) assume it to be. True, there’s certainly a huge body of literature that has paid some attention to food or the art of eating – I could just as easily have summoned a great deal from poetry, like William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” for instance. But there’s no denying the impact that a well-timed or well-placed meal, fruit, vegetable, grain, protein, or drink can have on a reading experience.
Just some food for thought for food. Happy Holidays!