Food in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Food in Literature


Food in Literature

Eating is a fundamental human activity, an activity that is both necessary for survival and inextricably connected with social function. Eating habits and rituals, the choice of dining companions, and the reasons behind these behaviors are fundamental to fostering an understanding of human society. Recent psychoanalytic theory suggests that eating practices are essential to self-identity and are instrumental in defining family, class, and even ethnic identity. Although food and related imagery have long been part of literature, psychological theories have led to the examination of food and eating as a universal experience. Themes related to food are common among all types of writing, and they are often used as a literary device for both visual and verbal impact. For example, food-related images in the theater are commonly used to create a mood or convey an idea. Food is also a significant theme in literature by and about women and in children's literature.

A common setting related to food in children's literature is teatime. Usually employed to dramatize states of harmony or disharmony, teatime is used to great effect in such works as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1866), in which Alice learns to come to terms with the world around her via her experiences at the Mad Hatter's distinctly uncivilized tea party. Food and order images are also used liberally in such tales as Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1961), where food denotes coziness and plenty. In addition to reflecting social order and civilization, food is often representative of the limitations imposed upon a child's world, blending well with the idea of excess as a key element of childhood fantasy. For example, Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (1963) uses food as a vehicle to express strong childhood emotions, and, like many other children's texts, uses rituals of eating as a metaphor for the power struggle inherent to family dynamics.

Food offers a means for powerful imagery in adult literature as well. Visual images in the works of such authors as Katherine Anne Porter and Margaret Atwood are often used to increase the realism in their writing. Details about food in such collections as Porter's Flowering Judas and Other Stories (1935) create a powerful sense of richness and convey the indefinability of human experience, representing an external and physical manifestation of human complexity. Likewise, food and drink play an important role in drama, especially on stage. In his essay on Sam Shepard's work, Charles G. Whiting notes that the playwright often makes eating and drinking an important and significant activity, something that is not only used to achieve realism but also to accentuate the action on stage. Whiting notes that Shepard's staging in particular uses food to create spectacle as well as visionary mythic imagery. In the same way, food is used in poetry as a sensual and sensory object. Specifically focusing on the role of fruit in poetry, Carol E. Dietrich notes that it often represents nature, offering the poet an objective symbol of the presence of God. Among fiction writers, Ernest Hemingway was noteworthy in his ability to create a particular mood though his fictional accounts of food. Hemingway often had his expatriate characters eat native foods, allowing them emotional access to the world they were inhabiting.

Dining rituals often provide a framework that both reflects and expresses human desires and behaviors. Many authors, Edith Wharton primary among them, have used the ritual of dining to present the powerful conflicts that simmer underneath the surface of order. Additionally, food metaphors are often used to characterize people and their status in society. This is especially evident in the works of such authors as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, who often use food images to explore the struggle for an African-American identity. Food has been acknowledged as a key indicator of ethnicity. In their essay on the role of food, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Claude Fischler demonstrated that the domain of food includes appetite, desire, and pleasure, but also serves as a reference point for society's structure and world vision. In his analysis of Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (1976), Paul Outka notes that her memoir, using stories, recipes, and reminiscences, portrays the transcultural writer as an exile from both Chinese and Western cultures. Her attempts to enunciate a self that is both enduring and dynamic are revealed in her passionate concerns with food, as she learns to resist both physically and psychologically the message of Chinese patriarchy that women are nothing more than bodies, unworthy even of nourishment.

Food and its related concerns with feminine identity and domesticity have been given a central place in many works of women's literature. For example, authors such as Margaret Atwood have used food and eating disorders to address issues of gender, language, and sexual politics, as well as social dislocation. In her essay on The Edible Woman (1969), Tracy Brain notes that in this novel Atwood uses anorexia to explore women's strategies to develop alternative languages. For feminists, the kitchen has symbolized the marginalization of women. In contrast, however, many Hispanic women writers have used the domesticity of women, as symbolized by the kitchen, as a vehicle for their creativity and for promoting female solidarity. In her essay on Como Aqua Para Chocolate, (1989; Like Water for Chocolate Janice Jaffe examines Laura Esquivel's novel from this perspective, noting that in contrast to the view that considers women's confinement to the kitchen restricting, Esquivel has reclaimed the kitchen in her novel, affirming it as a woman's domain.

Representative Works

Alessandra Arachi
Briciole [Crumbs] (novel) 1994

Margaret Atwood
The Edible Woman (novel) 1969
Lady Oracle (novel) 1976

Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights (novel) 1847

Anita Brookner
Fraud (novel) 1992

Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (novel) 1866

Laura Esquivel
Como agua para chocolate [Like Water for Chocolate] (novel) 1989

Kenneth Grahame
The Wind in the Willows (novel) 1961

Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929

James Joyce
“A Painful Case” (short stroy) 1914

Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (memoir) 1976

A. M. Klein
The Second Scroll (novel) 1951

Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970
Sula (novel) 1973
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Tar Baby (novel) 1981

Gloria Naylor
Linden Hills (novel) 1985

Katherine Anne Porter
Flowering Judas and Other Stories (short stories) 1935

Flannery O’Connor
The Complete Stories (short stories) 1982

Gianna Schletotto
Una fame da morire [Starving to Death] (novel) 1992

Maurice Sendak
In the Night Kitchen (picture book) 1963
Where the Wild Things Are (picture book) 1963
Higglety Pigglety Pop!, or There Must Be More to Life (picture book) 1967

Sam Shepard
Cowboy Mouth (play) 1964
4H Club (play) 1964
The Rock Garden (play) 1964
Fool for Love (play) 1983

Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920

Criticism: Food And Children's Literature

Wendy R. Katz (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: “Some Uses of Food in Children's Literature,” in Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 11, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 192-99.

[In the following essay, Katz presents an overview of the theme of food and its uses in children's literature, focusing on such texts as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Hobbit.]

When Lewis Carroll's Dormouse begins his story about the three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a well, Alice breaks in almost immediately to ask “What did they live on?”1 Carroll's narrator, accounting for this curious interruption before the Dormouse's answer of “treacle,” tells us that Alice “always took a...

(The entire section is 3584 words.)

Jean Perrot (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Maurice Sendak's Ritual Cooking of the Child in Three Tableaux: The Moon, Mother, and Music,” in Children's Literature, Vol. 18, 1990, pp. 68-86.

[In the following essay, Perrot examines the rituals surrounding food and their significance in children's lives in the works of Maurice Sendak.]

To Music
Mother of Memory
and Feeder of Dreams.

—Edmond Rostand1


To enter the fantastic world of Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen brings the sheer literary delight of discovering a peculiar inventive process at work: a child is...

(The entire section is 7535 words.)