Food as Literary Theme Analysis

Food as Metaphor

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

So central is food to life that writers often describe seemingly unrelated experiences and events with food-related language. In Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (1945), the narrator is so anxious for company that when relatives visit she “clung to them like the smell of frying”; a baby looks “as if he had been molded out of dough”; a logging victim “cracked” his “head like an egg”; and Maw’s “large white breasts bobbed to the surface like dumplings in a stew.” In the same book, image merges into symbol in the significance of the title. Eggs not only are food but also are the essence of productivity and fertility. MacDonald’s book explores the fertility of nature, garden, orchard, and families.

Food and Cultural Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Food in literature often helps to define a cultural or geographical setting. MacDonald’s Onions in the Stew (1955) evokes the gastronomical glories of Northwestern seafood, while Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek (1942) explores the delights of Northern Florida’s rural cooking. Willa Cather’s novels trace special foods identified with various cultural groups: dried mushrooms and “kolaches” with the Bohemians in My Ántonia (1918); the French devotion to salads, vegetables, and fine wine in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931); and the pleasures of Southern meals in Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).

Women and Food

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In most cultures women are traditionally the preparers of food, so women’s identities are often bound up in food and cooking. In affluent societies particularly, the result has been a struggle for women who seek to separate themselves from overidentification with food and eating. This tension is explored in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Edible Woman (1976), in which Marian works as a tester of consumer products, usually food, and finds herself threatened by a society that is intent on consuming her as if she, too, were food. One of the most complete fictional explorations of the relationship of women to food is found in Laura Esquivel’s novel Como agua para chocolate (1989; Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies, 1992). The novel centers on the experiences of a daughter raised on a ranch in the Rio Grande border area of Mexico, close to the United States. Tita’s life centers on her relationship to cooking and food. The novel is organized around recipes appropriate to the months of the year. Throughout much of the narrative, Tita’s passions are close to boiling—like water ready for chocolate beverage. In contrast to Atwood’s novel, however, Esquivel’s narrative depicts a mixture of positive and negative experiences inherent in the life of a woman defined by food.

Eating Disorders

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Refusing to eat, or anorexia nervosa, has typically been a woman’s disease, although the emphasis on thinness as an index of beauty began to affect increasing numbers of men in the last decades of the twentieth century. Anorexia goes against societal expectations, providing a mark of identity; she who refuses to eat demonstrates a degree, however self-destructive, of control over herself and her surroundings. Religious fasting and appetite control have traditionally been seen as transcendent, but when the religious symbolism is eliminated, self-starving becomes a rebellious attempt to establish identity in a society that is oblivious to women as people. One early American portrayal of intentional hunger centers on a male character searching for identity in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853). Bartleby’s rebellion against normal human expectations begins with refusals to work and ends in death from refusals to eat. Literary treatments of eating disorders typically center on women and, more often than not, on girls and young women. Young adult books that explore the dilemma of characters bent on denying themselves food and, thus, normal female development and growth, and bent on establishing an identity of thinness, include Deborah Hautzig’s Second Star to the Right (1981), Ivy Ruckman’s The Hunger Scream (1983), Susan Terris’ Nell’s Quilt (1987), and Margaret Willey’s The Bigger Book of Lydia (1983).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bevan, David, ed. Literary Gastronomy. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Hinz, Evelyn J., ed. Mosaic 24 (Summer-Fall, 1991), complete issue.

Restifo, Kathleen. “Portrait of Anorexia Nervosa in Young Adult Literature.” High School Journal 71 (1988): 210-222.

Schofield, Mary Anne. Cooking by the Book: Food in Literature and Culture. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.