Sunday, 30 January 2011

Food, Glorious Food.

I am still busy learning how to read like a Professor and today I have discovered that when the characters in a novel sit down for a meal what they are actually doing is celebrating a kind of communion.  I am given the warning that I need to understand 'communion' in its widest sense, but nevertheless meals are about bringing people together to further understanding and celebrate the 'union' of their relationship.

Except, of course, when they aren't.

Well, yes, definitely!

Last term, I was teaching Titus Andronicus, which, if you've ever had a strong enough stomach to watch it, you will recall has a pretty powerful banquet scene towards the end that is calculated to do anything except unite the participants in friendship.  By this stage in the play half the cast are wandering about minus at least a hand and the other half are gloating about the fact that they have been responsible for this state of affairs.  When the first half invite the second half to a feast you can be fairly sure that friendship is not top of the bill of fare.

And yet!

Oh yes, and yet, because when you think about it this scene is, if nothing else, the very communion service itself distorted for the purposes of revenge.  We can argue another day about whether or not it is a righteous revenge, but nevertheless, the feast that Titus prepares for Tamora and Saturninus is in actual what the communion service is symbolically.  The dish that Titus concocts for the Queen of the Goths and her depraved Roman lover is assembled from the blood, bones and flesh of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. There is no need for a service of transformation here.  Titus offers up the real thing.  Mind you, I am right about one thing.  It isn't friendship Titus has in mind.

Apologies if that has completely put you off your Sunday lunch.  Let me try to make amends because there are some wonderful instances of food in novels and instances where I would have to argue with Thomas Foster when he contends that meals in novels would be boring if they were just about the food.  I suspect he must be a man who has never been on a diet and dined vicariously on a fictional character's fictional six course banquet, the only sort that doesn't add inches to your waistline.

The first books that came to mind when I was reading this section of Foster's text were Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.  How come those children never burst?  How come they never made it into the government's stats on obesity in the under twelves?  They never stopped eating.  Everywhere they went the picnic basket went with them and it was always stuffed to the gills with enough carbohydrates and cholesterol to induce heart failure by their early twenties.  Perhaps this is why there have been no more of these books in later years.  It has nothing to do with the demise of the author and everything to do with the demise of the characters - early death from calorific overload.  But the food was magnificent and all you wanted to do was find a space on the picnic rug and help yourself.

There was even, some twenty years or so ago, a Dragon and Dungeons version of the Five.  And did the points that you earned buy you extra powers in the shape of magic swords and skills?  Of course not, you earned points that bought you support in the shape of a picnic basket and the goodies to go in it.  What more could a first class hero ask?

The other series that I thought of almost immediately was Frank Tallis's books about Max Liebermann and Oskar Rheinhardt set in turn of the (19th) century Vienna.  Like all the best crime novels the police and their sidekicks spend as much time eating and drinking as they do detecting, but there is nothing so sordid as grimy Glasgow pub or downtown New York bar for these two.  Oh  no, they spend their time in up market Viennese coffee houses and Tallis describes every last flake of pastry, every single mouthful of whipped cream.  I know people who read these books solely for the second hand delights of gourmandising on forbidden fruits or, more accurately, forbidden cream cakes.  Don't get me wrong.  The books are absolutely fine, but the pastries.....well!

So, while I'm perfectly happy to look with Foster for the symbolic significance of any banquet or afternoon tea that I might stumble across in my reading, I am certainly never going to look on the food as boring.  Stomach turning occasionally if Shakespeare's had a hand in the menu, but boring, never.


  1. Hi Annie,

    Food is never boring, especially when prepared by someone else!

    To me sitting down to a meal should be done as a family unit, or with friends, but completed in a leisurely fashion and used as a time to catch up on and discuss, events that have taken place during the day.

    So many treat mealtimes as a function, with many not eating together, or even worse, allowing children to eat sat in front of the television.

    To me a meal should be eaten in a civilized fashion at a table, and used as an opportunity to air and exchange views and opinions and get problems out into the open, where they are much more likely to be solved.

    Just see how important a meal noew becomes in our everyday lives!


  2. Yvonne, I do so agree with you. It was always that way in my family and one of my best memories as a teenager was visiting with friends in France where Sunday lunch began at 12 and finished at 5 with the whole family coming from where they lived and worked (and there were eight children) to catch up on the family week.

  3. The Belly of Paris by Zola and Babette's Feast by Dinesen immediately come to mind. Like the notion of communion or union in feasting but it is often not that as you suggest. Love your continuously fed children here too! One always wonders about that, right? Is plentiful food a childhood fantasy even for the well-heeled? I think of the feasts that magically appear at Hogwarts.

  4. Oh, my goodness, Frances, I'd completely forgotten about Hogwarts, how could I have done? What would Hermione say to me, neglecting all that hard work put in by the house elves? Those feasts would have satisfied even Dudley!

  5. Completely agreed. I get annoyed when characters don't eat, for whatever reason -- busyness, emotional trauma. They still need to eat! I've seen it most often in detective novels where the main character is too busy working to eat. It drives me nuts. You surely can't work and think well if you haven't eaten! I'm happy whenever characters in a book have a good meal -- it's such a pleasure!

  6. Your comments about the Famous Five made me laugh out loud! Those kids used to eat a lot, didn't they? They always had lashings of this and lashings of that. Used to make me hungry as a kid. And it also used to make me jealous that the picnics we went on never had the same quantity or quality of food -- we'd be lucky enough to have a vegemite sandwich and maybe an apple! ;-)

  7. Yes, Dorothy, and then there are all those other bodily necessities that never seem to get satisfied either. To pick up on Frances' post, we know where the grist bathrooms are at Hogwarts but nobody ever mentions the boys!!

    Oh Kimbofo, we clearly went on the same picnics as a child. Sometime though, we ran to a slice of swiss roll. I hope I'm not making you jealous.

  8. One of the things I enjoy about novels written by women is that they often include domestic things like meals - usually of course with some import for the story but that's partly it, isn't it? For women in particular, meals - the shopping, the preparing, the getting people together - is an important part of our lives and so it's not surprising that they feature.

    As for memorable meals in books, how about Laura Esquivel's Like water for chocolate. (I'm cross that I lent my copy to someone whom I knew was unreliable and have never got it back, even after asking. I don't usually mind if it's a book easily replaced - like a Penguin paperback - but this was a nice little hardback I bought in the US. So sad).

    My favourite childhood ones are Gene Stratton Porter's Girl of the Limberlost and her most wonderful lunchbox. How I wanted that lunchbox (and its contents); Joanna Spyri's Heidi. Those white rolls she took back to Peter! (But also their rustic farm food sounded good to me too); and all the midnight feasts in school stories (like the Chalet books).

  9. Oh yes, WG, i'm all for the school midnight feast - just as long as there are no residual crumbs in the bed. I have to admit I haven't read 'Like water for Chocolate', but that did remind me of all the descriptions of the chocolate goodies in 'Chocolat'. I din't actually like the book, for once I thought the film a considerable improvement, but I did love the contents of the shop. I'm allergic to chocolate and that's the only way I can enjoy it.

  10. Oh Chocolat. Yes. I can't even recollect whether I read the book. Perhaps I did, but I've seen the movie a couple of times. Like it a lot.

    And yes, crumbs in the bed. Yuk!

  11. WG even I as a non-Christian thought that the book was out on an anti-church witch hunt. The film changed the villain and was consequently very different in tone.