This tends to be the response I hear when describing my Masters degree in food in literature. I was at a party on Saturday night, and amongst the usual introductions and who-do-you-know-here conversations, I had to explain my postgraduate studies to at least twenty-three different people. They tended to react as if I’d said I am a postgraduate of music in mathematics (which would be incredible, come to think of it!) However, I was mostly greeted with confusion and disbelief that one could even study food in literature; character analysis is one thing, but reading into the charcuterie of the novel is surely over-egging the academics?
Studying food in literature necessitates applying the smörgåsbord of anthropological research on food and culture onto fiction. Claude Levi-Strauss (not the jean maker, the theory maker), Mary Douglas and Carole Counihan are all anthropologists that I find quite hard to shut up about. There has been much investigation into how cultures and societies eat (think colonialists scribbling notes whilst observing remote tribes in Africa), and food is perhaps one of the most basic ways to distinguish yourself from someone else. We are all quasi-ethnographers when we first travel abroad and stare in disbelief at the things these newly discovered homosapiens put in their mouths. A recent trip to the US led me to declare, “Sweet potato! with marshmellows? Gross!” whilst a Spanish friend was shocked by gammon, “Pineapple? With meat? How strange!”
Studies of food in literature use food as a window through which to see the formal and contextual elements of a novel. In every book, whether they never eat or eat non-stop, food is rich with symbolism. How and what a character eats, how food is shared, cooked or even avoided, all contribute to the overall effect of the novel. A brooding American-style detective, for example, will just drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Somehow I imagine a lot of detectives are troubled by indigestion and excess stomach acid, as their food necessitates minimum preparation and they rarely even adorn the coffee with such frivolities as milk or sugar. You would be hard pushed to find a detective novel where the hero tucks into a three-course meal, as the great detective has crimes to solve, my dear Watson; digestion is not a priority.
Characters like Alice in Wonderland (eat me! drink me!) or Oliver Twist, however, are almost entirely defined by what they eat. The challenges of childhood and adolescence take a fantastical route in Carroll’s classic, as Alice’s adventurous eating leads her to shrink, grow and perhaps be a little more cautious about taking food from strangers in the future. In Oliver Twist, Dickens uses hunger as trope to critique contemporary politics and Oliver asking “for some more, sir” brought about great social reform as well as giving us the most literary way to get a second helping of pudding. As Alice and Oliver suggest, food is more than just a literary detail to create atmosphere or a sense of realism — food distinguishes characters, sets the tone, genre, and drives the action forward.
If my fellow party-goers on Saturday night weren’t convinced by my literary examples, films were a more readily received example of how a piece of chocolate or some noodles can create a story. One only has to think of Like Water for Chocolate, Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman, or 9 1/2 weeks to see that food has more than just a bit-part in the creative process. Although I have some trouble with Kim Basinger’s overactive tongue in the 80’s classic 9 1/1 weeks, perhaps I should save that for another blog. Surely I don’t need to extrapolate on the limitations of Basinger constructed as the dish, whilst Mickey Rourke is the chef who garnishes her with ever-increasingly viscous foodstuff.
Who feeds who, who gets to eat what, how much and how often we eat, are all indicators of power. Since everyone needs to eat to live, there is great authority associated with the distribution of food. Breadlines during economic crises, or dishing out the dinner are re-enactments of authority as the reciever must take what they are given. Portions can reveal preferences; I am one of four children, and my mother had to be careful that we all got the same to prevent a small riot breaking out. “Who ever cuts, the other one chooses” was the most peaceful way to ensure that we could all have the same amount of cake and eat it. I remember my knife hovering over the iced buns as I cut them into four, ensuring that each piece was exactly the same size — so that even if I didn’t get the biggest bit, my sisters didn’t either.
Food not only makes up an individual’s place in a family, but defines groups and cultural events too. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without turkey. What is Holy Communion without bread? Passover without matza? or a hangover without the fry-up? “Food has a constant tendency to transform itself into situation,” the French sociologist Roland Barthes said, as the food becomes as important as the ceremony it is associated with. The party on Saturday night was a clear example of how food can set the tone of a situation, as our hosts lavished us with a selection of cheeses, three types of tortilla, mini spinach and feta parcels, fresh tomato sauce for bruschetta, and home-made brownies. Amongst the subtle lighting and sophisticated music, I would argue it was the generous and delicious servings of food that made everyone relax and enjoy themselves.
I had brought the ingredients for nachos with me, but felt too embarrassed to get out such a crude dish in the shadow of melt-in-the-mouth croquettas made by a Spaniard and freshly fried risotto balls, oozing with melted mozzarella. Come 3.30am however, when the jamming session started and the drinking still hadn’t stopped, my baking tray crammed full of crisp nachos, spicy tomato sauce, avocado and melted cheese carb-fest was just what the impending hangover ordered. When the standards lower, any snacks make sense, even if my academic conversation didn’t.
I don’t always bring such analytic rigour to my social life, but one thing my studies have taught me is how we reproduce ancient rituals through our food on a daily basis. Although the messages may have changed over the years, you can be sure that generations of people — even before the word foodie was invented — made love, made friends, and made sense of the world through food. That’s why I study food in literature; it might not be mathematics, but it certainly does add up.