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.)

Criticism: Food As A Literary Device

Minrose Gwin (essay date Winter 1984)

SOURCE: “Mentioning the Tamales: Food and Drink in Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas and Other Stories,” in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1984-85, pp. 44-57.

[In the following essay, Gwin discusses food related visual images and how they are used in Porter's short stories, noting that the rich descriptions enhance the realism of Porter's writing.]

Many efforts have been made to penetrate what Eudora Welty has called, with deliberate contradiction, “the eye” of Katherine Anne Porter's fictional art.1 Welty finds this “eye”—the penetrating vision of Porter's stories—to be interior, subjective, and nonsensory. Yet,...

(The entire section is 3351 words.)

Charles G. Whiting (essay date June 1988)

SOURCE: “Food and Drink in Shepard's Theater,” in Modern Drama, Vol. 31, No. 2, June, 1988, pp. 175-83.

[In the following essay, Whiting analyzes the use of food and drink in the staging of Shepard's plays, theorizing that they are significant contributors to setting the mood in various scenes.]

Half of Sam Shepard's published plays have food or drink onstage at or very near the beginning, and in at least half of his plays food and drink play an important role. Except perhaps for lobster in Cowboy Mouth and tequila in the same play and in Fool for Love, these are always very ordinary comestibles, but never are they used by Shepard merely to achieve an...

(The entire section is 4393 words.)

Carol E. Dietrich (essay date Summer/Fall 1991)

SOURCE: “The Raw and the Cooked: The Role of Fruit in Modern Poetry,” in Mosaic, Vol. 24, No. 3-4, Summer/Fall, 1991, pp. 127-44.

[In the following essay, Dietrich examines the use of the fruit metaphor in modern poetry.]

Claude Lévi-Strauss once proposed that some foods are chosen not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think” (Totemism 89). Indeed, when we think about food, we are often ambivalent in our conception of the moral status of eating and drinking. On the one hand, ingestion supplies the imagery of our largest and most intense experiences: we speak of the wine of life and the cup of life; we speak also of its...

(The entire section is 7407 words.)

Linda Underhill and Jeanne Nakjavani (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: “Food for Fiction: Lessons from Ernest Hemingway's Writing,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 87-90.

[In the following essay, Underhill and Nakjavani present an overview of Hemingway's use of food and related imagery in his novels.]

More than any other American writer, Ernest Hemingway inspired the lifestyle of “living it up to write it down.” He traveled the world, drove an ambulance in World War II, boxed, married four times, hunted big game in Africa and big fish in the Gulf Stream. In general, he sampled most of what life had to offer, including the food and drink of many nations. He conveyed his experiences through...

(The entire section is 3163 words.)

Criticism: Rituals Invloving Food

Lindsey Tucker (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Duffy's Last Supper: Food, Language, and the Failure of Integrative Processes in ‘A Painful Case,’” in Irish Renaissance Annual, Vol. 4, 1983, pp. 118-27.

[In the following essay, Tucker discusses the relationship of food and religious ritual in James Joyce's story “A Painful Case.”]

Any discussion of James Joyce's “A Painful Case” comes up against three troublesome concerns. First, the story is one that Joyce considered one of the two weakest in Dubliners.1 Second, it contains a considerable amount of autobiographical detail lifted directly from the diary of his brother Stanislaus.2 Debate over whether this...

(The entire section is 3176 words.)

Joy L. Davis (essay date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: “The Rituals of Dining in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence,” in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, Summer, 1993, pp. 465-80.

[In the following essay, Davis theorizes that Wharton's dining scenes are metaphorical representations of the social and personal relationships among her characters.]

The act of dining fascinated Edith Wharton as a social ritual exposing aspects of human behavior that people in her world preferred to conceal. Beneath the complex etiquette of their formal dinners she saw people torn by rivalries, revolts, hostilities, and betrayals. In their social posturings they could divert and deceive where concealment was crucial....

(The entire section is 4594 words.)

Lamar York (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “Breakfast at Flannery's,” in Modern Age, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 245-52.

[In the following essay, York offers a survey of dining and mealtime rituals as portrayed in Flannery O'Connor's short stories.]

Flannery O'Connor made the peacock as familiar a cachet of Southern fiction as the Persians made the phoenix of mystical iconography. The two great birds can still be found together in Georgia, O'Connor's peacock feathers shared with countless established and aspiring writer-friends of hers, and the fabled phoenix on the great seal of the City of Atlanta. How fowl came to play so large a role in O'Connor's imagination is as mysterious as the...

(The entire section is 4550 words.)

Criticism: Social Food And Ethnic Identity

Elizabeth B. House (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The ‘Sweet Life’ in Toni Morrison's Fiction,” in American Literature, Vol. 56, No. 2, 1984, pp. 181-202.

[In the following essay, House explains that Morrison relies heavily on food metaphors to convey images of an idyllic life and dreams of success in the lives of her characters.]

In each of her novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981), Toni Morrison juxtaposes two categories of people's dreams and aspirations, visions of how life should be lived. The first dreamtypes are idyllic, for their proponents' chief aims are to live in concord with people and nature while remaining...

(The entire section is 8750 words.)

Charles P. Toombs (essay date September 1993)

SOURCE: “The Confluence of Food and Identity in Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills: ‘What We Eat is Who We Is,’” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1, September, 1993, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Toombs theorizes that in Linden Hills, Naylor offers food consumption as a viable way of understanding problematic issues regarding African-American identity.]

Yet the people went on living and reproducing in spite of the bad food. Most of the children had straight bones, strong teeth. But it couldn't go on like that. Even the strongest heritage would one day run out.


(The entire section is 6092 words.)

Ksenija Bilbija (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: “Spanish American Women Writers: Simmering Identity over a Low Fire,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 147-65.

[In the following essay, Bilbija examines the exploration of Latin-American identity through the use of kitchen and alchemy metaphors in the fiction of such authors as Laura Esquivel and Silvia Plager.]

“… for example, food is to be eaten; but it also serves to signify (conditions, circumstances, tastes); food is therefore a signifying system, and must one day be described as such.”

—Roland Barthes, Critical Essays


(The entire section is 6305 words.)

Marta Dvorak (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: “The Ethno-Semiotics of Food: A. M. Klein's ‘Second Scroll’ as Recipe for Multiculturalism,” in Mosaic, Vol. 29, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 15-33.

[In the following essay, Dvorak presents an analysis of the social and political nature of food in Klein's Second Scroll, noting that the novel represents the author's efforts to recover an ethno-religious heritage.]

Ottawa's two-decade-old policy of encouraging immigrants to preserve and enhance their heritage, coupled with the current high levels of nonwhite immigration, have transformed Canada into a multiracial, pluri-ethnic society. Yet at the same time that major Canadian cities such as Toronto,...

(The entire section is 8053 words.)

Paul Outka (essay date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: “Publish or Perish: Food, Hunger, and Self-Construction in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 447-82.

[In the following essay, Outka contends that Kingston's autobiographical memoir blends myths, stories, and fiction to create a transcultural identity for the author.]

Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts is a difficult book to define generically. Kingston originally intended it for publication as a novel, but Knopf thought it would sell better as nonfiction and labeled the first printing as such.1 The publisher's strategy...

(The entire section is 14139 words.)

Criticism: Women's Relationship With Food

Janice Jaffe (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: “Hispanic American Women Writers' Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel's Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate),” in Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, March, 1993, pp. 217-30.

[In the following essay, Jaffe studies the symbol of the kitchen in Esquivel's novel, contending that it serves as a mode for women's creativity as well as a means to promote female solidarity.]

During the same era that inspired the suspicion of women's activities in the kitchen cited in my epigraph,1 the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz boldly celebrates the phenomena of the kitchen as worthy of philosophical observation:


(The entire section is 5846 words.)

Tracy Brain (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Figuring Anorexia: Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman,” in Literature Interpretation Theory, Vol. 6, No. 3-4, 1995, pp. 299-311.

[In the following essay, Brain theorizes that Atwood uses anorexia in her novel as a means to explore women's strategies for developing alternative languages.]

In her novel The Edible Woman, written in 1965 and published in 1969, Margaret Atwood prefigures contemporary debate about the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. Though the word anorexia is never used in the text, Atwood examines the condition and its meanings with a sophistication rarely equalled in subsequent discussions of the illness. Atwood uses anorexia...

(The entire section is 7146 words.)

Emma Parker (essay date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: “You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall, 1995, pp. 349-68.

[In the following essay, Parker contends that eating is a political act in Atwood's novels, denoting power and control over one's body.]

While literature is suffused with scenes of men eating, there is a conspicuous absence of images of women engaged in the same activity. Margaret Atwood displays a sensitive awareness of how images of women eating have been suppressed and erased. She remarks, “I think I first connected literature with eating when I was twelve and reading Ivanhoe: there was Rebecca, shut...

(The entire section is 8499 words.)

Giuliana Giobbi (essay date March 1997)

SOURCE: “‘No Bread Will Feed My Hungry Soul’: Anorexic Heroines in Female Fiction—from the Example of Emily Bronte as Mirrored by Anita Brookner, Gianna Schelotto and Alessandra Arachi,” in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 73-92.

[In the following essay, Giobbi traces the relevance and meaning of anorexia in the novels of four women novelists.]

We're hungry.
Hungry! But it's pitiful
To wail like unweaned babes and suck our thumbs
Because we're hungry. Who, in all this world
(Wherein we are haply set to pray and fast
And learn what good is by its opposite),
Has never hungered? Woe to him who has found
The meal enough! (…)

(The entire section is 8413 words.)

Sarah Sceats (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Food of Love: Mothering, Feeding, Eating and Desire,” in Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 11-32.

[In the following essay, Sceats draws connections among mothers, food, and love, briefly examining the use of these motifs in the works of a variety of women authors.]

Food is a currency of love and desire, a medium of expression and communication. The crucial centrepiece of Christian worship is a simulated meal—the giving of symbolic bread and wine as a token of love and trust—and in most religions ritual communicative eating of some sort is prominent. From infants' sticky offerings...

(The entire section is 9252 words.)

Further Reading


Kiell, Norman. “Food in Literature: A Selective Bibliography.” Mosaic 24, No. 3-4 (Summer/Fall 1991): 211-63.

Detailed bibliography of essays dealing with food in literature, including annotations.


Beach, Cecil. “A Table: The Power of Food in French Women's Theatre.” Theatre Research International 23, No. 3 (Autumn 1998): 233-41.

Examines the metaphor of the table as related to women and food in the theater.

Biasin, Gian-Paolo. The Flavors of Modernity: Food and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, pp.1-15


(The entire section is 434 words.)