How do we think of food? We think of it as something to eat, of course. We think of it as pretty pictures on a page – and the growing numbers of food pornographers, both amateur and professional, testifies to the immense hunger existing for viewing food this way.
We think of it as fodder when it is something we don’t like or don’t approve of (usually in this case it is always someone else’s food – not our own, of course!) Some think of food as a thing that describes who we are in a deep essential way – so much so that the oft-used quote ‘You are what you eat’ can almost be heard as a battle-cry sounded by a gathering tribe, fingers pointed as if sharpened spears.
Some of us think of food as a way to make money. Some of us who think of food in this way pretend not to. It’s important to pretend not to, or the sparkling glamour of it all may disperse into the everyday. And goodness knows that would be unfortunate, within how we think of food.
And of course food is a craft, an art, a political tool, a necessity, an economist’s important focal point. Food is memory, memory sad or pleasant or delightful and always memory that might be just the tad bit false, as memory can be.
One of the ways I like my food is when it is a character – when it gets a life, one with movement and passion quite aside from how it passively tastes and looks – a life where it does not lay in wait submissively to be gobbled up by the diner. When it stands up and becomes something alive – with every bit as much power to wield as any real person has (and each to their own levels and forms). I’m not talking singing bananas here, nor cute little tomatoes bouncing along batting their false eyelashes. There are other ways to be real.
Food is often used in writing as allegory or through metaphor. Allegoric or metaphoric use of food to strike meaning into the hearts and minds of readers has been effectively used in the Bible and in other texts preceding it. Foods are used to hint at beauty, at hubris, at the salacious, at the appetites man (or woman) may have for these things.
Just as common is the use of food as definer, in literature. One will understand who the characters are in the stories, by what they eat. Their social status, their personality, their aspirations, their cultural background . . . all can be known by just putting a plate with food on it right in front of them and watching their reactions.
But there are times when food is not the condiment to the story but rather the yeast. A vital, integral part, a living thing that moves the narrative forward – an unacknowledged yet essential character within the plot. In these cases, the food is not merely consumed to give the story flavor. Rather, it is a secret antagonist – or sometimes a false protagonist – in the story line. Not exactly a personification is the food in these cases, yet the relationship exists. A mysterious relationship, one of smoke, mirrors and imagination – but without this relationship how flat the entire narrative might become!
Three writers come to mind when I think of food getting a real life. M.F.K. Fisher’s strength as a writer (aside from her great ability to teach about foods ‘foreign’ to some and of ways to cook) was her use of food as symbol – but her incredible ability to express every strong human emotion through those foods brought the foods close to being alive. One could believe in the power of the foods every bit as much as one could believe in the power of any human person in her narratives.
Haruki Murakami often includes food in his writing. Three of his short stories – The Year of Spaghetti; The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes; Crabs – each of these stories offers the reader a look at how food can get a life through the author’s pen.
One food I’ve seen get a life is many people’s favorite way to start the day: coffee. In Mark Helprin‘s Memoir of Antproof Case it is coffee – not as something actually imbibed, not as a commodity bought or sold – but coffee as an idea so vital in the protagonist’s mind as to be as real as any actual person – that drives the story from fantastic start to magnificent end.
If you don’t know of any foods who have gotten real lives, try reading some of the above stories.
You may find that food is not just a pretty plate.