The most effective way of sizing up an author, I think, is to look at the way he or she writes about food. Food in literature is a strange thing. A convenient vehicle to parquet with colors, textures, thinly veiled biblical allusions, and moral pulp, food in literature is usually obese with symbolism. A ripe, red apple is an immediate indicator of temptation and sin, and Miss Havisham’s rotting and spider web-encrusted wedding feast a surreal and grotesque representation of age, waste, and spoiled youth. When food is transcribed into words, it is never just food; it is always something more. It is always a statement. A cigar may sometimes be just a cigar, but a cake is never just a cake; a fish is never just a fish.
For me, some of the most memorable moments in literature are food-related. Maybe this doesn’t mean a whole lot because a lot of things in my life are food related, but it really isn’t because I’m always hungry (even if I am). Food-based moments in literature reveal facets and dimensions of a text that we never realize are there, or even thought to think about before.
Take for instance, the scene in The Great Gatsby where the gang is drinking mint juleps at the Plaza Hotel in New York City sticks in my head almost more than any other. For one thing, it was the first time I learned what a mint julep was when I read the book in high school, but now having read it since, it’s easier to see how the mint juleps actually tie the scene together. As they sit in the hotel on a hot summer day, each character seems to be having their own internal soap opera, each of which is only half-way communicated as their dialogue bumps into each other’s in the stifling, hot confines of the room until it eventually explodes into an argument between Gatsby and Tom. But before the fight, it’s the mint julep that’s holding the scene together and keeping civility in place.
A mint julep is a posh, Southern drink that screams high society. Despite the romantic tension and feuds between Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby, they all attempt to engage in civilized conversation, drinking mint juleps as if the only real care they have is how fast they can get ice delivered up to the room. The mint julep is a strange kind of thread of civility and decorum, a refreshment that is valued by the characters for relieving the heat, but also a sort of impotent reminder of the lives they live now as the drama from their pasts break through the façade of politeness.
In other works, too, food is appreciated as much for its deliciousness as much the meaning inherent behind it. The first line of this post on Tumblr was what inspired this blog article. When JK Rowling writes about food, she writes with intent. Perhaps her descriptions of food don’t have the same visceral quality of say, George RR Martin’s in A Song of Ice and Fire, but food in the Harry Potter series is meant to be appreciated for its ability to fill one’s stomach and to bring people together. Our first introduction to Ron Weasley is through his corned beef sandwich on the Hogwarts Express, which he offers half of to Harry. We don’t really realize the significance of this gesture until later, when we discover that Ron comes from a poor family, that Ron’s attitude towards food, towards life, is that you share what you have. Food is a great equalizer, which is most apparent in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, where all the students and staff join for every meal. No matter what house you’re in, what your blood-status is, everybody enjoys the same food.
Still, however, we later discover that food might not be a great equalizer after all, when in The Goblet of Fire Hermione learns that the food is prepared by what is basically slave labor. How does the way food is prepared change our attitude towards it? How does it change our enjoyment and experience of it? How is the food prepared by the house elves at Hogwarts different from the food prepared by Mrs. Weasley at the Burrow? They’re both enjoyed in equal measure, but where the food at Hogwarts is supposed to be at once decedent and a symbol of a problematic system in the wizarding world, the food prepared by Mrs. Weasley, I think, is a truer representation of equality, and more than that, love.
Food is a complicated creature. When we read about food, the way we experience the descriptions inspire a physical reaction as much as they inspire a view of the text from the point-of-view of the table. In all honestly, this isn’t really a topic for an online blog entry, but for a book or five, so I’ll just say this: reading is just another form of eating and food can tell just as complex of a story as a novel.