Cooking by the Books: Food in Literature

Given the current media obsession with novel ways of cooking and dining, food seems to have become an art form in its own right. But it’s worth remembering that long before The Great British Bake Off, we had chaotic tea parties, sheep’s heads and enchanted wedding cakes.

While I was at university, I developed an interest in cooking and experimenting with new recipes, and over the years I’ve read plenty of books that celebrate, place notable events around or draw on the varying symbolic qualities of food. In fact, it is incredibly easy nowadays to walk into a bookshop or go online and find a considerable range of recipe books inspired by written classics. From the fantastic feasts of the Harry Potter series, to the hearty Hobbit fare in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels, to the celebrated Boeuf en Daube in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, food has played diverse roles in literature, and in this post I’ll be offering you some food for thought on its symbolic and critical values.

First, let’s look at how food is used as a form of social commentary, starting with the most iconic tea party in literary history: the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. In his article, “Eating and Drinking in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” , children’s author Philip Ardagh notes that the strange and chaotic setting and circumstances of the tea party, with its riddles, frequent seat-changing and the coating of a pocket watch’s clockwork in butter, while undoubtedly surprising to a modern-day reader, would be a cause for profound outrage to the novel’s nineteenth-century audience. This is because during the Victorian era, mealtimes followed strict rules of etiquette, even to the point of being ritualistic. Reading a scene like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, then, where Alice seats herself without an invitation, where a dormouse lies sleeping while the other two hosts rest their elbows on him, and where the characters shout over one another instead of sitting demurely and drinking quietly, must surely have struck terror into the heart of many an aspiring tea host. As if this scene of mayhem were not startling enough, we can only imagine the Victorian reader’s horror at Alice’s unquestioning obedience to the “Eat Me” and “Drink Me” commands on cakes and bottles within the novel, given the strict rules against consuming unknown foods or liquids due to the illegal adulteration of ingredients practised by many traders during that time – with arsenic in bread flour being one of the most infamous examples of said practice. As a result, there is considerable justification to Ardagh’s argument that eating and drinking in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is “fraught with dangers”, as it could be reasoned that Lewis Carroll is drawing attention to and reflecting the dangers of food in Victorian reality.

Credit: John Tenniel

To give a perhaps lesser-known example of food in literary criticism of social norms, we can look at the role played by food in the Spanish Golden Age tale, Lazarillio de Tormes. In this story, thought to have been written by an anonymous Jewish converso[1], Lázaro is taken in by an avaricious priest who, while miserly in the rations of bread and onions he offers to the boy – under strict supervision to ensure that no more food is taken than the tiny amounts permitted – is himself a hypocritical glutton, consuming large amounts of meat, from which he does not abstain on Fridays as per traditional Catholic practice, and goes as far as eating an entire sheep’s head on Saturdays. In the sixteenth century, meat was considered a symbol of impressive wealth and status, even more so in the case of animals’ heads, and the general population would have rarely had the opportunity to place such coveted fare on their tables. Therefore, the author uses food to underline the institutional corruption of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition; to heighten this illustration, parallels have been drawn between Lázaro’s near starvation and consequent theft of Eucharist bread and the Biblical story of the poor man Lazarus who feeds on the crumbs from a rich man’s table. With that in mind, the choice of name for the protagonist can hardly be treated as a coincidence.

Furthermore, a simultaneously similar and yet rather more bizarre role played by food in literature is as a way of channelling characters’ emotions. A particularly effective example of this is Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s magical realism masterpiece, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). In this novel the protagonist, Tita de la Garza, is forbidden from marrying by her duty as the youngest daughter to care for her strict and abusive mother, Mamá Elena, and the only way she can find a release for her intense feelings is through her gift for cooking. When Pedro, her lover, is pushed into marrying her older sister Rosaura, Tita is tasked with preparing the wedding feast, including the cake, and in her unrelenting sorrow her tears fall into the cake batter. When Pedro later reassures her that he is only marrying Rosaura as a way of staying close to the woman he truly loves, the cake has no effect upon the now emotionally healed Tita, while all the other wedding guests are struck with a profound sense of melancholy nostalgia for lost loved ones. In fact, the intensity of the sadness brought on by the tear-infused cake makes the guests violently ill and satisfactorily ruins the festivities. In a later chapter, Pedro gives Tita a bouquet of roses which, under orders by her mother to throw them away, she instead uses to cook quails in rose petal sauce for the family. During the preparation, Tita cuts herself on the roses’ thorns and her blood seeps into the petals, so that when Pedro eats the meal he is able to feel and taste Tita’s intense passion. Through magical realism, therefore – a concept accredited to the late Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, in which the everyday is presented as fantastical and vice versa – Esquivel uses food to highlight the communication of forbidden love, to enable rebellion against the restrictive social norms of Revolutionary Mexico and, if you now feel persuaded to read the novel for yourself, to demonstrate the great power of a home-cooked meal made with great care and devotion.

Tita preparing the quails in rose petal sauce. Credit: Miramax Films.

Staying in the vein of food as a symbol of rebellion against repression, we could also plausibly consider the sumptuous feasts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as a great contemporary example of food representing liberation, as his transition from his austere life with the Dursleys to the magic and grandeur of Hogwarts is made all the more poignant by the lengthy description of the variety of food on offer at the Start-of-term Feast:

“Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and, for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.” - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Bloomsbury, 1997.

For our final course in this exploration of food’s functions in literature, what could be a richer offering than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien? Throughout the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books, great attention is given to food, particularly where Hobbits are concerned. In fact, it’s fair to say that as much attention is given to food in the books as is given to battles in the films! For example, The Fellowship of the Ring opens with preparations for Bilbo’s grand birthday party, and in the opening chapter of The Hobbit, Bilbo unexpectedly finds himself catering for a party of thirteen dwarves. What’s particularly interesting about the presentation of food and dining in these books, however, is that in the same way many countries in the real world have dishes and feast days that are at the heart of their culture and national identity, the different races of Middle Earth demonstrate varying culinary cultures of their own. For the Hobbits, mealtimes are practically a sacred ritual (think of Pippin’s call for second breakfast in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring), and meals tend to be hearty and homey, made from locally sourced ingredients and taken as a communal act. The Elves, on the other hand, seem to prefer more delicate and functional foods that will give them lasting energy and refreshment. Take the Elven lembas bread, for instance, made to provide great amounts of energy despite being eaten in small doses, and given to the Fellowship on their departure from Lórien. As for the Dwarves, their love of good food and drink is best illustrated by their raid on Bilbo’s pantry at the beginning of The Hobbit, and their appreciation is brought full circle by Thorin Oakenshield’s claim that “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

A feast for an unexpected party. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

In startling contrast to these races, the creature Gollum subsists on whatever he can hunt and kill, showing a preference for raw fish and further highlighting through his own habits the reverence and community spirit created by food among other races; an idea that is supported greatly by his being the only character in the series to prefer eating alone and in such a basic manner. With all of this in mind, then, it seems reasonable to say that Thorin’s message is carried by Tolkien through all four of the novels. By showing the contentment and conviviality brought about by the practice of coming together to enjoy a wholesome and carefully prepared meal, regardless of the circumstances, Tolkien is, in a sense, advocating traditional dining practice as a reflection of a happy and functional community. Maybe if Sauron had taken a keener interest in food, the fate of Middle Earth might have gone a different way altogether.

Whether or not you consider yourself a foodie, there is no denying that food can and does play important and fascinating roles in the world of literature: as a way of highlighting and criticising corruption, as a satire of stiff etiquette, and as a medium for repressed and forbidden passions. Undoubtedly, it serves many other functions and acts as a symbol for many other themes, and the best way to find them is to continue feeding our eyes and minds with the vast feasts of books we have at our disposal.

References and Further Reading

Anonymous, Lazarillo de Tormes (Letras Hispánicas, 1995).
Ardagh, Philip, "Eating and Drinking in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".
Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Macmillan, 1865).
Dickerson, Matthew, "'Bread, Surpassing the Savour of a Fair White Loaf to One Who Is Starving': Food and the Culture of Hobbits".
Esquivel, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Doubleday, 1989).
Giblin, John, "The Seven Deadly Sins in La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades".
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury, 1997).
Tolkien, The Hobbit (George Allen & Unwin, 1937); The Lord of the Rings (George Allen & Unwin, 1954).

  1. A converso was a Spanish Jew who had converted to Catholicism under the Inquisition. Even after making this change in fear of their lives, the conversos were often treated with suspicion and disdain by those of the "pure faith". ↩︎

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Emma McMullan

Writer, blogger, book hoarder, mug collector and language enthusiast.