Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Food as Symbolism

Amazing Discovery of the Week!

3-2-1 Cake

Yes, you can make a cupcake in the microwave!
My friend showed me this great after school snack that's as easy as 1-2-3, I mean, 3-2-1.

No, it doesn't look like this when it comes out of the microwave.
First, purchase any flavor cake mix you like. Also purchase an angel food cake mix.

Combine the two dry cake mixes (no other ingredients added) and store in a container in the pantry or cupboard.

When you (or your munchkin) want a treat, merely mix, in an ungreased cup or cereal bowl:

3 Tbs of the combined cake mix
2 Tbs of water
1 minute in the microwave later, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

So, I'm not sure why all my Amazing Discoveries in recent weeks revolve around food instead of writing, but I figured for today’s post, why let a good fixation go to waste (waist?).

My friend recently admitted to me that she has a guilty pleasure in reading. She loves stories with descriptions of food. To be honest, never in my life have I really thought about food in literature. It even took a minute to think back to a time when reading about food really impacted my life. Here it is:

In my church on the first Sunday of the month we fast (don’t eat or drink) for two meals and donate the money we would have spent on food to the needy. As a kid, I was not nearly as altruistic as I am now (cough cough) and it felt fairly excruciating to ‘starve, literally starve!’ – or so I told my mom. (this wasn’t forced on us at all, I could have eaten, but the expectation was there in my family, and it was stronger than my desire for food). Anyway, my favorite pastime to while away the hours till dinnertime was reading cookbooks. I know, I know, like pouring salt on a wound. But I still remember devouring those pages with my eyes, especially the pictures of desserts until I could almost taste them.

In real life, food is hardly ever just fuel for our bodies. It can be a reward, a threat, a friend, an enemy, a gift, solace or dozens of other things. In literature, food can also be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal. A character’s relationship to food can explain so much of how he or she sees the world, can give so much background, in so few words. The following are a few examples that came to mind.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta attend a victor’s banquet in the Capitol. It’s described this way:

“But the real star of the evening was the food…Whole roasted cows and pigs and goats still turning on spits. Huge platters of fowl stuffed with savory fruits and nuts. Ocean creatures drizzled in sauces or begging to be dipped in spicy concoctions. Countless cheese, breads, vegetables, sweets, waterfalls of wine, and streams of spirits that flicker with flames.”

Katniss is stuffed to the gills when her prep team demand to know why she’s not eating. When she admits she’s full, they explain how ‘everybody’ goes to the toilets to puke so they can keep eating more. Peeta’s response and Katniss’s reaction tell us everything we need to know about their situation.

“’You go along, thinking you can deal with it, thinking maybe they’re not so bad, and then you -‘ he  cuts himself off.

“All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what parents can’t give. More food.” (Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins, pp79-80)

Suddenly Peeta and Katniss are thrown out of the glamorous world of the Capitol and realize that they will never be able to forget or leave behind who they are and where they came from. The symbolism of food as decadence is a turning point in their attitude about the rebellion.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Let me just say, I adore this book about a thirty-something girl, Jane, obsessed with Jane Austen’s works (especially the Colin Firth BBC version of Pride and Prejudice). When Jane is gifted a stay at an Austenland resort for the wealthy promising period dresses, romance, and men in snug britches she accepts, convinced that if she lives Regency England she can overcome her obsession.

Throughout the novel, a great deal is made of the procession of people into dinner. In regency times the order of precedence was quite strict with the most important members of the dinner party going in first. Jane is continually shunted to the end of the line and made to walk alone, in large part because she was not their ‘usual customer’ (someone wealthy enough to be a repeat client to Austenland).

“Glum, glum, glum. That was the sound her feet made as she descended to the drawing room that evening. Glum, glum, as she walked alone at the back of the line of precedence into the dining room. It sure felt cold back there. She sniffed and rubbed her arms…

“Jane click-clacked her fork on her plate, pushing her food around. Her mother would’ve been shocked. It was not often that Jane was truly and absolutely despondent, and tonight she felt enslaved by the word. It shouldn’t matter what they thought of her, she reminded herself. This was her game, and when she won it would be her victory. She just had to dig in her heels and keep playing. But the reality of the men being bored by her, paid to pretend to like her, intruded too much on her fun tonight, coupled with the dread that she wouldn’t be able to conquer her obsession before her time in Austenland was up.” (Austenland, by Shannon Hale, p149)

Her discontent is so perfectly mirrored in the dinner arrangements that when a certain snug-britched fellow (who shall remain nameless in case you haven’t read the book), breaks precedence just to be with her, it’s huge, and awesome and ahhh. You know?

Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

This book is one of the most perfect examples of using food to help a reader truly understand a character. In fact, it was this book (along with my friend’s confession) that set this whole blog post in motion.

Princess Elisa’s story begins:

“…Today is the day of my wedding. It is also my sixteen birthday.

“I usually avoid mirrors, but the day is momentous enough that I risk a look. I can’t see very well; the lead glass ripples, my head aches, and I am dizzy from hunger. But even blurred, the wedding terno is beautiful, made of silk like water with tiny glass beads that shimmer when I move. Embroidered roses circle the hem and the flared cuffs of my sleeves. It’s a masterpiece, given its rushed stitching.

“But I know the terno’s beauty will be much diminished when buttoned…

"‘Done!' (her attendants) announce together, and step back, one on each side to admire their handiwork…

“I shake my head. ‘I am a sausage,’ I gasp. ‘A big, bloated sausage in a white silk casing.’ I want to cry. Or laugh. It’s hard to decide.” (Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, p1-2)

If you hadn’t guessed, Elisa’s refuge from the pressures of palace life is in the kitchens. The kindly kitchen master always has a pastry or two for her and a comfortable seat where she won’t be judged. Throughout the novel, her descriptions of food and her changing relationship with it mirror so acutely her own transformation into someone confident, powerful and whole that it is really a masterpiece of symbolism.

In what ways have you noticed food used in literature, or better yet, incorporated it into your own stories?

Happy writing!

~ Susan


  1. I read Austenland the same week that I read Twilight...I remember because I was on vacation in Florida. I really didn't like Austenland at all, but so many people loved it that I'm wondering if I should revisit it now that the Twilight halo has faded.

    You already know how much I loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns. You really nailed one of the things I loved so much about it--the way her perception of food evolved as her own sense of empowerment grew.

    I haven't used food at all as far as I can remember--well, there is one scene where a fire fairy tricks Jenny into eating some super hot peppers, but I don't know if that counts. Given my own scary relationship with food, this seems like a huge oversight on my part.

  2. I now have to read A Girl of Fire and Thorns. That's how you do a hook.

    I've noticed C.S. Lewis focuses on food in his Narnia books. The characters are often sitting down to eat, and he goes into a lot of detail about all the different kinds of food. In fact, Aslan's entire downfall started with some Turkish Delight.

    I've noticed now in several YA books, that the characters never stop to eat, or eat just a quick bite before going off to kill the bad guy, or make out with a mythological creature.

    That's so not truthful. If I had to go several days without food, I think that's about all I would think about, and I'd be grumpy, and sleepy, and weak.

    And probably much thinner than I am.

    Now, I'm off to go eat lunch like a regular person, and then maybe later I'll save the world before grabbing some fast food. I'm just saying.

    Melanie, go reread Austenland, right now. I didn't like it so much on the first reading, because I didn't know who to root for, but since you now know which cute boy she ends up with, go and read it. It'll be so much better the second time.

    I love that book.

    Great post

  3. One minute and you have your cupcake? That is too easy which, considering how much I like cupcakes, is not good. :)

    You know I've never paid much attention to food in books before. Although, I do remember that scene from Catching Fire. I do have my characters eat only because eating is so essential to life. I never thought of using food for characterization before. But it is a great advice considering really how much food plays a role in real life.

    Great Post!


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