What are some examples of famous food scenes in literature? What happens in these scenes and why is it important?

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andraa eNotes educator| Certified Educator


    It is obvious that writers integrate food in their literary works, as it is a basic human need, directly linked with survival.  Present on a daily basis in human life, society often took eating beyond its primary function of nutrition. In literature, eating habits speak about the eater’s social and moral status, offering raw insight into the life of the characters. Often, eating habits hold great significance that transcends the present time of the narration or are depicted as a ceremonial time.

     The Madeleine scene in “In search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust:

 The construction is circular in this French novel, alternating present time (of the narration) with memories from the past. The action in the famous episode of the madeleine is apparently simple: the narrator tastes a piece of madeleine with tea in the present time of the narration. However, the scene becomes important because, when tasting the madeleine, by involuntary memory, the narrator recalls his childhood Sunday mornings at Combray, when his aunt used to give him madeleines with tea. This way, we have an example of food as a stimulus of memory, a physical item that facilitates transcendence.

In "Great Expectations" the Christmas dinner:

  Apart from offering a view on the eating habits of lower to middle class society in Victorian England, the dinner party speaks about the condition of the orphan Pip.

 His place at the table, crowded in a corner, the comments and his fear of punishment, are all representative for his poor orphan status. Pip who usually did not get enough to eat, this time is too terrified to think about food. The reason: he stole the pork pie and brandy from his sister. This leads us to another important food scene in the same novel, which happened previous to the Christmas dinner: Pip bringing food to the convict. This gesture represents for Magwitch hope and kindness. He sees past Pip’s fear and interprets it as an act of goodness and he later becomes his secret benefactor.

Taillefer’s lavish dinner in “The Magic Skin” by Balzac:

 This dinner is a typical high society dinner for 19th century France: the best foods and wines, alongside important men and pompous conversation, all described in great realistic detail by Balzac. However, the importance of this dinner doesn’t reside only in the detailed view of the French society. The dinner holds mystical significance, as everything happens exactly how Raphael previously wished for, when finding the magic skin in an antiques shop.

Margueritte Gautier’s candies form “The Lady with the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas the son:

The author informs us that when Margueritte goes to the opera house, she is never seen without her telescopes, her camellias and her candies. This is food that becomes a self pampering habit and introduces us into the psychology of the French courtesan. She is a child at heart but also a woman that decided to give up morals to enjoy the pleasures of life.