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Delicious Fictions: Reading Food in Literature

By Nimisha Sinha

The virtual revolution brought about by the Internet has made food much more visible, deliberate, and available for life writing. Food is so intricately bound with life, its construction, and its representation that its alimentary aspect is but just a part of its importance to humankind. Literary traditions have long banked on the inclusion of food within narratives for realism, symbolism, or sheer joy. Literature stands out particularly amongst other discourses on food as it adds to food a lot of its own significance. The encoding of food in fictionality and language can tease by appealing to desire, console by striking a chord of familiarity, or even invite us to identify with it – but ultimately, it makes food immediately unavailable for eating. Fiction and food also affect each other by creating alternate creative, linguistic, and narrative possibilities. Literary articulations of food provide pathways for exploring the multiple meanings, possibilities, and potentialities of the practices that surround food. This is perhaps why Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” (xxxv) has held the test of time, because food has always had something to tell us – which, coincidentally, literature allows it to do efficiently.

Food has a fascinating ability to transform itself completely: its materiality is always in flux, continually changing until it is embodied and eventually discarded. Each stage of this change holds distinct interpretive peculiarity, and studying the complex networks of food can allow us to locate it in relation to other modalities of power. The mundane nature of food or our repetitive dependence on it effectively ensures a continued embodiment and performance of what that food represents. Exploiting this eternal need for food lets us raise questions of identity, consumption, gendering of eating spaces, and the ethics of an eating body. Food studies, as a branch of knowledge, creates an inter-disciplinary space to raise these questions, and that is why it is important to find pathways between various kinds of food writing and the rapidly developing field of food studies. The advantage that literary instances hold over its rivals is that in literature, we find food in all capacities: as a metaphor, as images both central and peripheral to a narrative, loaded with narrative or political intent or present merely in a decorative capacity. This paper looks at three such seemingly disparate instances of food writing in three women’s texts – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) – situated far apart in time and space to test the limits of Brillat-Savarin’s saying, and find out how much one can tell by looking at food: what happens to it when it gets written about, what happens to people who eat it, the interactions between the bodies and the spaces it creates, and the kind of emotions it can elicit in people.

Practices, traditions, and knowledge of food, in varying degrees, are more readily available to a large section of living organisms. Of course, such statements about the universality of food cannot be made without acknowledging the problems of access, economy and the distribution of wealth, and life itself. Establishing connections between food writing and food studies then becomes important in how it forces us to reconsider who occupies the domain of food as opposed to the domain of pure academic intellect and ideas. Closing the gap between the two can help us explore and examine the operative modes of power within which food and other associated practices circulate. Another benefit of reading food in literature is that this exercise lets us extract the pleasures of one kind of human creation and read it in another. In doing this, one can savour literature – take the time to properly taste it – and acquire an awareness that gives due attention to the minute details that make up the world of sensory and affective pleasures and displeasures in literature.

Texts that are not directly about food but use it as metaphor, symbols or a marker of reality give us a chance to read politically the place of food and eating through individual, familial and social relationships depicted in them. The delineation of cooking and eating in a novel can make accessible unique experiences that make legible new and different ways to think about identity and power. Besides, the presence of food in texts that do not use food with narrative intent, that is, when the presence of food is not directly relevant to the progress of the story, challenges conventional notions of what amounts to an appropriate subject matter to be written about and how. Virginia Woolf, for instance, uses food to mark meaning, memory and convey emotions in her novels. To the Lighthouse is the story of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, their colleagues and friends, through the years preceding and following the First World War. This story is woven between two scenes of eating, one an elaborate banquet in the summer home of the Ramsays in the isle of Skye, and the other a small picnic, described in a couple of lines, involving the remaining members of the Ramsay family at the lighthouse. It is in the first dinner party that Woolf uses food to create literary parallels, elaborate symbols, narrative structures, and a dining-hall that unites a disparate group of individuals by separating them from the outside. The novel continually sets up food in highly charged moments of happiness, excitement, jealousy, and sorrow, and invites the reader to look for meaning in it, but there is a deceptiveness at the heart of this: Woolf ensures all food items maintain a matter-of-fact quality to them, such that their materiality is not reduced to symbolism. This effectively redirects the reader from looking for meaning in food to looking at food as meaning.

Writing strips some of the most essential qualities of food, like its taste, smell, and it even restricts us from seeing how it looks, but it gives new significations to food and weaves its lost qualities into storytelling. Food items often become a register through which a character, a situation or a moment is built. The dish that garners the most attention, both from the author and the characters, is the bœuf-en-daube in To the Lighthouse. Other dishes like the soup that the dinner starts with, or the fruit basket with which it ends, also incite anger in Mr. Ramsay or pensiveness in Mrs. Ramsay. But it is the daube that best reflects Woolf’s use of food in her writing, to create new emotional and narrative orders. The qualities of the daube that are directly unavailable are redirected to other uses: its smell fills up and unifies the atmosphere of the hall (“an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish” (93)), its intensity finds a parallel in the charged interiority of Mrs. Ramsay (“a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender” (93)), and finally, the promise of disparate ingredients coming together to create a daube parallels the possibility of the banquet to be a success in spite of the varying kinds of people assembled there (“And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion” (93)).

In the cooking of the daube over three days, all its ingredients blend together, resulting in a “confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine” (93), and transform into more than their sum total, but perhaps if one ‘peers’ like Mrs. Ramsay does, one can distinguish each of those items for what they were. The depth of its flavours is also expressed by actual physical depth in how Mrs. Ramsay looks “into the dish” (93), and the daube becomes visible below the oily walls of the dish. A very different kind of looking happens at the end of the novel. The food is remarkably unimpressive when Mr. Ramsay takes the living members of his family to the lighthouse more than a decade after this banquet:

Mr. Ramsay opened the parcel and shared out the sandwiches among them. Now he was happy, eating bread and cheese with these fishermen. He would have liked to live in a cottage and lounge about in the harbour spitting with the other old men, James thought, watching him slice his cheese into thin yellow sheets with his penknife. (194)

Unlike Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts that were so completely undistinguished from the elaborate daube, the focus here has completely shifted from the food to the man sitting with food, and we do not even get a glimpse of Mr. Ramsay’s own interiority. Instead, we look at James while he looks at his distant father assembling sandwiches, and wonders what he could have been thinking. The immediacy that the exquisite sight, smells and flavours of the bœuef-en- daube provided are gone – and in describing and framing the food like she does, Woolf also is able to build a parallel between the two scenes, the two sets of characters, and two moments separated by a world war.

At the end of the twentieth century, Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy also uses essential qualities of food in her storytelling albeit in vastly different ways in her debut novel The God of Small Things (1997). The novel navigates the early life and experience of fraternal twins Rahel and Estha who move to their maternal house with their mother in a small village in Kerala after the separation of their parents. Through its non-sequential narrative working its way through trauma and memories, Roy presents the story almost as an inevitable consequence of the smallest of all things. Food and hunger become another small thing such that it occupies a mundane reality while also binding together many creative, semiotic, affective and narrative aspects of the book together. Food is the duty of the women towards their family, it is a method of self-preservation of a blinding old woman, it is present in the moments of lechery and harassment, it is a symbol of quiet resignation, and so much more. It is also the touchstone for love and friendship, and a symbol of threat and protection. The abundance of smells, burps, dirty hands, stained clothes and other liminal materialities acts as a reminder of the effects of food before and after its consumption. Through these traces of food, The God of Small Things shows the transgressive potential of food through its affect and liminal qualities.

The novel looks back at the early life and experiences of Rahel and Estha to see how small moments, decisions and miscalculations play out against long standing socio-cultural traditions. The story is not about food and neither does it feature a big eating ceremony, but food – because of its givenness in real life – becomes an essential part of the novel’s vocabulary. In the very first chapter, the narrator establishes a direct connection between a character and her perception of the world through the food she sees around her – thus, inviting us to do the same:

They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Product Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said.

As per their books.

Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question. (30-31)

In the case of the banana jam, literal and symbolic qualities of food come together in the jam- jelly question which is not just about food: it extends to problems in categorisations, legal definitions, and relationships between people. The impossibility to classify the banana jam into the neat categories of a jam or a jelly is also revealing of the impossibility of language to perfectly encode food in significations. 

The God of Small Things starts with the history of Mammachi’s pickle-making entrepreneurship that now marks the identity and status of her family in the small village of Ayemenem. The story allegorises the blind old woman’s struggle for self-preservation against years of domestic abuse. Later, the same space of Paradise Pickles becomes a threat for little Estha when his abuser uses its popularity and exposure as a veiled threat against him. Names of food are also imposed on a person or a memory only to signify something else: Estha’s trauma of being sexually abused is condensed in and substituted by the infantile description, the Orangedrink-Lemondrink Man, for the predator. Roy employs a non-sequential narrative and in each frame of time, food figures in vocabularies of the characters, in the subject matter of conversations, and most importantly, in how numerous metaphors and images of food are used to delineate some of the most important moments of action.

Roy also uses food in scenes where it is least expected or even required. Eating, and social customs based on it, continuously bring back attention to the body, and give a visceral quality to all her gastronomic articulations. She fleshes out moments of eating – delineating the acts of licking one’s fingers, sucking on candy cigarettes or on drumsticks, eating excessively and loudly – which causes a split reaction, inviting the reader to read the act of eating while also putting them on alert by forcing them to watch someone else eat. And so, as we pay attention, scenes of eating appear to break down and any tiny feeling of aversion turns into curiosity, fascination and even desire: dramatised again in how Margaret falls for Chacko after watching him eat without regard for anything else at the London café where she worked. Like the title suggests, the text is truly dependent on the smallest of all things that sometimes only exist through reminders of food (stains) or a reversal of the natural order of eating (spits, burps, vomit).

We also see a similar movement where the sight of disgusting objects reminds Estha of the products made at Paradise Pickles. This is a unique illustration of the possibility of finding the familiar – seeking its comfort – at the daunting sight of the disgusting. Estha, a small child, enters the men’s bathroom at Abhilash Talkies and is navigating the adult world alone. He wants to assert himself in this world and feel older than he is by using the urinal, but for his height. In looking for something to stand up on, he sees:

A dirty broom, a squash bottle half-full of a milky liquid (phenyl) with floaty black things in it. A limp floorswab, and two rusty cans of nothing. They could have been Paradise Pickles products. Pineapple chunks in syrup. Or slices. Pineapple slices. (96)

So, in a generally unhygienic public bathroom, he notices a squash bottle – a product also made at Paradise Pickles – serving a very different purpose than its original design by holding a disinfectant, and immediately makes the correlation to the food products familiar to him. It is also interesting that Estha registers all of these things without even flinching. Roy indicates a different emotive order for the child with some form of indifference to or ignorance of the disgusting, abetted by his developing abilities of comprehension and cognition. And so, one of the most disturbing moments of the novel is described through sensations that are familiar to the child, undiscriminating between two different things – a drink and a phallus, conflated in these short lines: “The lemon drink was cold and sweet. The penis was hot and hard” (103).

The most direct way in which food marks its presence in novels is through the recurring tropes of luncheons and dinner parties. Texts that feature these spaces are of great value to us for the spaces they create for the cooking, serving and consumption of food to take place where the interaction of the individual with the social is dramatised; these novels seem to suggest a formative and creative potential in dining-rooms and social gatherings by using food as an idiom for self-expression, to explore the subjectivities of men and women who reflect on their personal anxieties in eating spaces. Eating is a necessary act for survival but through the embodiment of food, one also becomes part of a particular subjectivity. One eats certain kinds of food not just for survival but to embody a particular subjectivity or become a part of a particular cultural tradition. While holding the power to assimilate bodies into the socio-cultural order, eating spaces can also provide modes of resistance by destabilising existing ideas of what constitutes the inside and the outside of the body, the edible and the inedible, and self and the other – categories through which bodies are traditionally understood.

Atwood’s The Edible Woman tells the story of a young woman named Marian MacAlpin as she lives, resists and overcomes the various modes of power that construct her identity and her life through a parallel relationship with food that consists of aversion to food, complete rejection of it, and finally a strangely rebellious feasting of her own image. This is coupled with continued thematic interest in fertility and reproduction that, in this particular novel, overlaps with the social experience of food by women. In fact, the narrative is constituted by several lunches and dinners that function as spaces where Marian’s subjectivity and her relationship with food and her body are really shaped. These dinner parties not only map the progression of her eating disorder but more pertinently they expose the gendering of eating spaces, the embodiment of cultural norms these social spaces represent, and finally, they create radical literary spaces to study the body while located in a flux – negotiating between the inside and the outside, and between what is edible and inedible. 

The Edible Woman is intricately framed both by moments when Marian eats alone and when she is in a group which could be lunches with colleagues to dinners with friends’ in houses and in restaurants. For the most part of the novel, her private moments of eating are always interrupted either by Ainsley (her friend and flatmate) or the landlady. This results in rushed eating, or skipped meals, or even getting chided for cooking in her own kitchen. When a private moment is created by a collapse of social plans — for example, when Peter cancels dinner the first time — she makes a note of how that meant eating an instant meal, “TV dinners Ainsley and I kept for emergencies” (24), as opposed to “something nourishing and substantial” (24). It implies that what one decides to eat is also considerably shaped by where one decides to eat. But unlike the daube that took three days to prepare, Marian is served an instant pudding at dinner with Clara and Joe – effectively highlighting the changing customs of eating developed in Atwood, particularly by an emphasis on easy nourishment.

Images of eating and dining have been used extensively by both Woolf and Atwood as symbols for socio-cultural or gendered identities, metaphors of power and control, and to construct feminine worlds. However, the topic of food and eating are approached very differently by the two authors: while To the Lighthouse uses food as a prominent part of the narrative, the story of The Edible Woman is told using food. Mrs. Ramsay’s subjectivity, tethered to the dining-space she occupies, is interwoven very intricately with food, oftentimes represented in the food that she is serving. Marian, on the other hand, seems to be moving away from food, and towards edibility, as her body increasingly refuses to accept things from the outside – until she feels completely disassociated from herself. However, in both movements towards and away from food, the texts bring the eating body to the fore.

In her book Voracious Children (2006), Australian scholar Carolyn Daniel points out that literatures about eating demonstrate the embodiment of a culture and reimagine the body as always in a transitionary space between the inside and the outside. In this transitionary space lies the potential to see how bodies are produced and reproduced through eating. Mervyn Nicholson sees food as the object through which one literally reproduces the self on a daily basis: “To exist is an activity of daily transformation; one continually forms and transforms oneself, and the material means by which one performs this act of self-creation is food” (37). Despite its mundanity – or perhaps because of it – the ways in which bodies interact with food continue to hold significance for cultures, modes of power, and the self.

Eating relates to the body in such an apparent way that its alimentary capabilities are at once used as a cultural symbol for womanhood while simultaneously deeming women’s bodies frail and vulnerable. In her book Volatile Bodies (1994), Elizabeth Grosz asserts the need for reimagining women’s corporeality, which, she argues, is constituted by its representation. However, most representation of women’s bodies works in a circular misogynistic logic wherein the specific biological difference of women is interpreted as inequality, which in turn is used to justify social, cultural and economic difference. Grosz argues that sexual difference marks history, reality, knowledge, truth and politics, but unfortunately, all of these things have only been studied from a male perspective so far. A corporeal feminism then takes sexual difference into account and makes the body an ally as opposed to a liability. This in turn allows the creation of specific knowledge which does not work on phallocentric presumptions, problematises universalism, and does not assume the specific structure of the psyche to be human nature.

In The Edible Woman, food is literally used to create a body as is seen in the cake that Marian bakes in her image at the end. By giving her “globular eyes” (342) and “floral design on a pink dress” (342), Atwood’s politics lies in reminding the reader that this edible body created by Marian is also a part of the same societal order as her, and partakes in a similar gendering process as the rest of the women. The creation of a body that exists completely outside of these modes of power is impossible. It is important that the cake fails as a symbol and returns to being just a cake because this failure allows the body to resist the power that constructs it by undermining its own victimisation. Eating spaces prove to be the most formative in terms of providing idioms of self-expression to women who in turn can use these symbols to reconstruct themselves by destabilising socio-cultural norms.

Humans spend so much time with food that it is only natural that they start expressing themselves through it. Women, too, have developed many alternative forms of knowledge and communication systems that have been built on food over generations. The use of food to subvert or resist is not new and definitely not exclusive to literary scenarios. However, literature does allow us to access these instances closely and assess them for their subversive power. It would be wrong to argue that food does a lot more in literature than it does in real life, because it essentially works within the same institutionalised practices of food, and emulates the same socio-cultural conditions that determine its consumption. However, food does open an unlimited set of possibilities which allows us to read some of its relations to the real world, and it also creates a lot more vocabularies, systems of meaning and communication, mediums of expression, and affective responses that need attention – and this is why it becomes so important to create strong and credible pathways between experiences and academics relating to food.

Note: This paper is a part of the author’s Masters Dissertation completed at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. London:  Virago, 2009. Print.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste. Trans. Anne Drayton. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.

Daniel, Carolyn. Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Print.

Nicholson, Mervyn. “Food and Power: Homer, Carroll, Atwood and Others.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 20, no. 3, 1987, pp. 37–55. JSTOR,

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. Gurgaon: Penguin, 1997. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Nimisha Sinha is a research scholar in the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad. She is currently working on the ethics of consumption and the eating body as dramatised in select twentieth and twenty-first and century fiction.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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