Mint Julep, Madeleine cake and Jam: The role of food in literature

‘Is that vodka?’ Margarita asked weakly. The cat jumped up from its chair in indignation. ‘Excuse me, your majesty,’ he squeaked, ‘do you think I would give vodka to a lady? That is pure spirit!’”

William Thackeray, Vanity Fair

yummyness

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Food is fundamental for ours lives as it is not only important for our survival, but it  determines our standing in society, our preferences and even our emotions. Additionally, it defines and shapes our culture. It is then no wonder that it figures so vividly and so often within literature. According to Annette Cozzi, literature and food are often conflated as they both are, among other things, the ‘essential elements of mental and physical identity- you are what you eat and you are what you read.’  Through the imaginary centered around food, writers are able to establish a character, to highlight the setting of the narration or to explore themes such as the decline of harmony, madness, the inability to communicate or to question gender roles.

A.H. Watson

A.H. Watson

Most books have food in them, however, while in some novel it is used as a mere activity to define the passing of time and the lives of the characters, in many others food takes center stage. Think for example of all those books in which the writer carefully writes down and describes in a very detailed way what his characters are eating: some of this descriptions are basically recipes for the reader.  Proust,  Henry James, Ian Flaming or Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, among many others, are a fine example. Needless to say, there are also exquisite examples in more recent texts: Nora Ephron, Ian McEwan or Kurt Vonnegut.

Food in books has the majority of the time a symbolic element. If we take into account children’s literature, for instance, the theme of food goes hand in hand with comfort and coziness (Charlie and the Chocolate factory) imagination and magic (Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia) or as a cautionary element (Hansel and Gretel). In many folk tales food  is used to lure adults and children, to trick them or to do something evil. In some cases food is used a pivotal element to push forward the story. Alice, for instance, moves throughout the novel thanks to the eating and drinking of magical items. In his story Carroll’s does not limit himself to present the fancy ‘drink-me’ bottles or ‘eat-me’ sweets. He carefully describes the taste of each items giving us not only a sneak-peak of Alice’s characters (she likes sweets immensely) but also a sensory experience for the reader. When the girl decides to drink the little bottle at the beginning of the adventure she notices that it has a ‘sort of mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.’

Courtesy of Etsy

Courtesy of Etsy

Because food involves not only the sense of smell and taste, but also the other senses, food has the ability to evoke within a person memories and feelings. Think for example of how eating our favorite treats triggers a series of recollections of a given moment of our childhood. In the same way, in literature food is oftentimes used as a source of associations leading into the depths of the characters’ memory. In the famous ‘episode of the Madeleine’ in his novel Remembrance of Things Past Marcel Proust uses the little cakes as an instrument to evoke specific scenes of the past, a mechanism referred as involuntary memory. The visual memory is triggered by the taste of the little cake dipped in the protagonist’s cup of tea: ‘The taste was of the little piece of Madeline which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane.’ The two events, the dipping of the little cakes, overlaps creating an extraordinary moment that Proust himself called ‘extra-temporal’.

If food is quite prominent within literature, drinks are equally important. Needless to say, tea is often the drink of choice for the characters within a novel. It is not only important to define the passing of time within the narration but also to point out the sociological and cultural context of the entire text. While having tea with biscuits has been pretty popular in Europe, it is quintessentially a British rite. Depending on when a given novel has been written, and published, it is possible to identify the social standing of the characters. While after the turn of the century generally everyone was able to sip a nice cup of tea, during the Victorian era only the rich could afford to buy tea leaves and whole tea sets made of porcelain of silver. Tea was, like other exotic things, a status symbol.

cocktails!Of course it isn’t only about tea or coffee, cocktails and spirits take center stage in many stories. Think for example of Ernest Hemingway’s A Memorable Feast, F. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby or even Ian Fleming’s James Bond . Drinking is not about the taste of the drink itself (sometimes). It  is about the social status of the people engaging within a certain environment. Parties, fancy dinners, brunches are described in a very detailed way and are oftentimes used to address or question  all sorts of problem within a given society and time. You cannot help but think that all that partying and drinking happening in The Great Gatsby is just a facade used to cover up and to disregard all the dysfunctional relationships engaged by the characters. The famous roaring twenties were, after all, synonym with vanity and waste (of lives and of money).

With the arrival of the dandy and always impeccably dressed Agent 007, cocktails became the must-have accessory for all gentlemen. Ian Fleming does not hesitate to describe the beautiful and certainly tasty dishes that his spy enjoys and the beautiful drinks that Bond sips while flirting his way around to save the world. Martinis (shaken and not stirred), Mojitos, a simple Vodka or the iconic Vesper, have left a mark within our culture.

Literature has been fascinated by what we eat and what we drink since the very beginning because both define the evolution of our culture and of our identity.

References:

Adam Gopnik, Cooked Books: Real food from fictional recipe, The New Yorker, April 9, 2007.

Annette Cozzy, The Discourses of food in nineteenth-century British fiction, 2010

Mary A. Stephens, Nothing more delicious: Food as temptation in Children’s literature, 2013.

Food in Literature, http://food-in-literature.wikispaces.com/Food+in+Literature

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