Food and literature have always been my two great loves — sustenance for the body and soul. Hence wherever food is mentioned in literature, I am drawn to those passages again and again. To savour the descriptions and taste and smell the food in my imagination has always been my guilty pleasure. Yes, I can admit to being a glutton; I am not ashamed of it.
Food, its abundance or its scarcity, is often used to create the mood in fiction. Authors use it to depict the situations as well as the emotions of their characters. Descriptions and depictions of meals, right down to how they are served are used to express satisfaction, nostalgia and comfort.
Afternoon tea is perhaps the most written about meal in the English language. Everyone is familiar with the thinly cut bread and butter, cucumber sandwiches, jam and scones that accompany a traditional afternoon tea. A choice of teas( China or Indian), dainty lace edged napkins, rose patterned bone china, and the perfect hostess sitting behind a large silver tea pot and presiding over the proceedings , are all essential. These are rituals that Anglophiles the world over try to recreate.
The most famous afternoon tea in English literature is undoubtedly “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” in “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll. However, this tea party is not the only acclaimed meal in the book. Alice has other “food moments” that are far more eventful. Magical items labeled “Eat Me” and “Drink Me” cause major upheaval in the story and also in Alice’s size.
Food is such an urgent need, and stimulates all of our senses all at once that we tend to fantasize about it. Story tellers and authors from time immemorial have woven magic and food together. Certain foods are supposed to give you supernatural capabilities. Perhaps, the best known is the magic potion that transforms R.L. Stevenson’s scientist Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde. But some may argue that magic potion isn’t really food.
The world of Harry Potter is the place where you can find all kinds of magical associations with food. To quote Miranda Dobson writing for the Independent, “J. K. Rowling is adept in the art of delectable description with Hogwarts feasts, magical treats from Honeyduke’s sweet shop and home cooked meals in the Weasley household.
Feasts are an important feature in the Harry Potter books. They form a backdrop for important announcements, celebrations, but most of all they provide mouthwatering descriptions of food.
“Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were filled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, lamb chops, sausages, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.”
(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone)
Feasts are often used by the author as a gathering of characters. The ensuing conversation at the table then serves to sketch out their personalities and elaborate the story. Charles Dickens, in “A Christmas Carol” shows the Cratchit family waxing lyrical over a single roast goose and in this way expertly illustrating how poor they were and what a luxury this was for them.
“There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of bone upon the cloth) they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onions to the eyebrows!”
In the Arabian Nights, the evening banquet includes “tasty meat, fresh bread and pickles” and sets a mellow mood. Against this backdrop, Queen Scheherazade spins a new tale every night. She leaves the King hanging on for the next installment and so delays her execution.
An abundance of food can also denote decadence and depravity. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” the lavish parties thrown by Jay Gatsby tell us about the extent of his probably ill-gotten gains.
“On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’ oeuvre crowded against salads of harlequin design and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.”
Part of a feast from The Great Gatsby
For a child, nothing is more wondrous than a candy shop. The colours, tastes, textures, and aromas of candy are enough to even mesmerize an adult who is let loose in a candy shop with an unlimited budget and the promise that everything is zero calorie. Roald Dahl has tantalized us with his descriptions of sweets in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”:
“Mr. Willy Wonka can make marshmallows that taste of violets and rich caramels that change colour every ten seconds as you suck them, and little feathery sweets that melt away deliciously the moment you put them between your lips. He can make chewing gum that never loses its taste and sugar balloons that blow up to enormous sizes before you pop them with a pin and gobble them up.”
How can one talk about the magic of candy and not mention the sweet treats found in the wizarding world of Harry Potter.”….Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans, Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Licorice Wands, and a number of other strange things Harry had never before seen in his entire life.” These were some of the delights that J.K. Rowling used to capture our imagination in Harry’s first train ride to Hogwarts.
Perhaps the single most famous candy in literature is Turkish Delight in C. S. Lewis’ magical world of Narnia. “The Queen let another drop fall from the bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box tied with green silk ribbon, which when opened turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never before tasted anything so delicious.”
Authors can adroitly hold our attention with descriptions of food. These word pictures are drawn so skillfully that we can see, smell, and almost taste the food. Although used by writers as plot devices and scene settings they are a treat to read in themselves. Food in literature satisfies our cravings without piling on the pounds — as long as you don’t work up an appetite. The influence of food on literature is so great that it has spawned many new genres like the culinary mystery and the cooking school novel. Good food and good books — what more can you want?