Life Lessons from Literature About Food
Eating isn’t only for nourishing the physical body, it’s to keep an individual mentally balanced. Though well-prepared dishes are thought mainly to affect the visual and olfactory nerves, words depicting gourmet meals are also powerful ways to engage all the five senses. It’s intriguing how some authors can capture, in vivid detail, the personal and slippery concept of taste. When the writing technique is executed strategically, the reader can smell the house-brewed Butterbeer in Hogsmeade from Harry Potter, or feel the sting of the point and counterpoint of tastes in the fiery curry prepared by Hassan in The 100-Foot Journey.
Themes incorporating food are popular in visual arts, in hand crafts, and in film, but examine food in literature and it’s astounding how black letters on a white page can evoke the hues and shades, even the aroma of a dish, and provide a kaleidoscopic sensorial experience inside the reader’s mind. Sometimes reading about the dish is almost as good as tasting the actual thing. Sometimes, the descriptions outdo the dish. But as the authors demonstrate below, food isn’t only to be consumed, it’s also a tool for transferring knowledge and moral lessons.
Food As An Instrument of Instruction
Amy Tan, a Chinese-American author, fell in love with the minister’s son and prayed to look more American on the outside so he would like her. To her surprise, her mother invited the minister’s family over for a typical Chinese Christmas Eve dinner. Even more horrifying was when her mother prepared a strange menu for the guests.
“She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging fish eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A towel soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings, so they resembled bicycle tires.” Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan.
Imagine being at a dinner party and dining on rubbery tofu, or swallowing squid that looks just about as edible as bike tires. Imagine picking up with your chopsticks pieces of fish that, only hours earlier, pleaded with its eyes to have its death sentence reversed. Imagine crunching on prawns with missing intestines. Sound delicious? Savoury? Aphrodisiac almost?
Amy Tan felt nauseated, ashamed of the meal they were serving the American guests.
Amy’s mother sensed her daughter’s apprehension. Once the guests had left, she reminded Amy that even though she wanted to be American on the outside, inside she was Chinese, and she must always be proud of her origins. Her only shame was to have shame. Amy realized this lesson years later when reflecting back on this horrendous meal; because for that Christmas Eve, her mother had actually prepared all of her favourite dishes.
During the 15th century, cooks studied recipes that didn’t have measurements or instructions. Written like rhyming poetry, chefs recited and memorized theses “recipe-poems” that not only included the descriptions of the ingredients to make the dish, but also moral virtues to live by.
For Baked Lampreys
First scald your lampreys fair and well,
As I told before, so have you bliss;
Then, raise a coffin of flour so free,
Roll in the lamprey, as it may be;
Take minced onions thereto, a good quantity,
But first take powder of pepper, anon
Of maces, cloves and grains of paradise also,
And dates all whole you take thereto,
Pour red wine thereto you shall,
Color it with saffron and close all.
In the middle of the lid an opening you make,
Set it in the oven for to bake;
Carefully take it out, feed it with wine,
Lay on the opening a very fine paste,
And bake it forth, as I teach you,
To serve in hall before good men.
Since the recipes contained no instructions or measurements, it was up to the cook to prepare the dishes based on his observations, experience, and instinct. It was assumed that the cook knew what was meant by “scalding a lamprey well” or the approximate quantity of minced onions to be used. The following lines dictate that the cooks should have learned how to prepare the lampreys before wrapping them in pastry. Since they already know the technique they should be in perfect bliss about it. In other words, no need to panic.
“First scald your lampreys fair and well, As I told before, so have you bliss; Then, raise a coffin of flour so free, Roll in the lamprey, as it may be;”
Afterwards, the cook is to make a crust out of flour to wrap the lamprey in “as it may be”, then it is to be seasoned well before being baked. Once it’s ready, the dish is “To serve in hall, before good men.” And the hall was probably where the bearded patriarch sat at the head of the table with the lords and ladies seated beside him, all laughing and toasting to each other while feasting on baked eels. At a closer reading, it seems that the recipes in the Liber Cure Cocorum were not only instructions for cooking, but instructions for perfecting technique, for character development, and for building relationships. Food was merely a by-product of these teachings, a medium of instruction.
Food as Inspiration
Most people liken food to energy for the body as gasoline is to a car; something to burn to keep the engines running. Neil Flambé, child chef prodigy of the young adult series The Neil Flambé Capers by Kevin Sylvester present different perspectives on what it means to eat and cook. Food isn’t only fuel, it’s inspiration. It’s life.
“Neil slid the rest of the cake into his mouth and chewed happily. He could feel life coming back into his body. That was what good food did. It’s didn’t just give you energy –heck, a raw potato could achieve that much — but it excited all your senses. It inspired you.” Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert by Kevin Sylvester.
Neil wolfs down a slice of cake and feels his body being recharged. Life was coming back to him, and that was what good food was supposed to do. Good food is inspiring, fulfilling, uplifting. Good food isn’t purely for energy, it should make you smile.
As Colley Cibber, the playwright of The Lady’s Last Stake (1708) said:
“Tea! Thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid, thou female tongue-running, smile-smoothing, heart-opening, wink-tipping cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moment of my life…” The Lady’s Last Stake by Colley Cibber.
The writer is excited and emotional; overwhelmed by the delicate and enchanting powers of soaked leaves, causing him to generate a flux of adjectives capturing the essence of tea-drinking.
Sipping tea is a simple act of pure delight. The steaming, soothing liquid sliding down the gullet can inspire calm and tranquility. A writer’s ability to pen down the exhilarating effect one gets from drinking tea could be more exciting than the actual experience; reading Colley Cibber’s tea description is possibly more satisfying than the actual act.
Food is a type of material, subject to a person’s whim and manipulation. Lots of dishes use similar ingredients, but the outcome can vary drastically depending on whose hands or imagination is in charge. Words, as the base ingredient for writing, can also be tasty. Descriptions can make a reader salivate in imaginary anticipation of breaking the crust off the pastry surrounding the baked lamprey, or it can make the reader give a contented sigh when they feel the warmth of the sober, sage and venerable liquid that which is tea enter their throat. But more important than satisfying the imaginary digestive organs, literature based around food have common goals: to create a tastier world, a more inclusive world, one literary morsel at a time.
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