Sunday, 30 January 2011
Food, Glorious Food.
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.
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.