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Archive for the ‘Food Symbolism’ Category

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I would not eat an axolotl
For fear he’d get stuck in my throatl

It wouldn’t matter that I was hungry
He’d make my tummy feel too jumbeley

I’ve decided that
(For me)
Eating axolotl-y
Would be sheerly vacuous glaxoluttony.

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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.

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‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ 1557 – Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Breughel the Elder is, of course, a piece of art that tells a story – a proverbial story. And how vividly it does so!

Here is no paper-tray and cellophane-wrapped water-injected boneless white chicken breast for the distanced senses of the diner. This is life full-tilt – the sea thrashes, the men struggle with knives huge and dangerous, small and pointed. The fish flail and scramble, the boats toss. I can smell it. The sea, the innards of fish, the pungent dank liverish smell. The scales fly in the air to land on an exposed cheek, the fingers are numb and cold, slippery with fish.

It reminded me, actually, aside from these musings of life – of stuffed squid. The big fish shape sort of looked like a squid, and naturally all those little spouting fishes were the filling – which had to include anchovy as a matter of course.

Here’s a recipe for stuffed squid (calamari ripiene). It looks almost exactly like the one I  make, except I chop up the anchovies rather than use paste . . . and only three squid to stuff? No. I think they must be larger than the ones I can find. Plus the stuffing/filling needs a generous handful of chopped Italian parsley added to it.

It’s very good.

Lent is coming up. I wonder if it is as common as it used to be to dine upon fish rather than meat.

Certainly the process seems no gentler,  after gazing at the image above.

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Wiki Doodle Dandy has this to say about the dear man:

Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses very sped-up sequences when people walk and interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects coming alive and being brought to life through stop-motion. Many of his films also include clay objects in stop-motion, otherwise known as Clay Animation. Food is a favourite subject and medium. Stop-motion features in most of his work, though recently his feature films have been including much more live action sequences rather than animation.

A lot of his movies, like the short film Down to the Cellar, are made from a child’s perspective, while at the same time often having a truly disturbing and even aggressive nature. In 1972 the communist authorities banned him from making films, and many of his later films were banned. He was almost unknown in the West until the early 1980s.

Today he is one of the most celebrated animators in the world. His best known works are probably the feature films Alice (1988), Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996), Little Otik (2000) and Lunacy (2005), a surreal comic horror based on two works of Edgar Allan Poe and the life of Marquis de Sade. The two stories by Poe, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” and “The Premature Burial”, provide Lunacy its thematic focus, whereas the life of Marquis de Sade provides the film’s blasphemy. Also famous (and much imitated) is the short Dimensions of Dialogue (1982), selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time.[2] His films have been called “as emotionally haunting as Kafka’s stories [3]

If one meal is not enough, there is more to watch on YouTube. Just whistle. You do know how to whistle, don’t you?

Just pucker up and blooooooooowwwwwww

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Finding a vocabulary for meaning, within the subject of food, is not as easy as making a souffle. Food as food as food is one thing – the collection of words for the physical sensation of eating is a wide one (and a wonderfully extravagant one at its best!). If there is doubt in anyone’s mind as to this fact, a quick roll through MFK Fisher should dull the edges of disbelief.

But there is more than eating, there is more than taste. There is more than texture and color and science and heat and there is even more than the finest meal one ever ate. There is also (believe it or not!) more than the finest meal one ever cooked.

What on earth is this thing?

Meaning.

Food has meaning, and that is where mystery comes in the door.

‘Meaning’ is a flitty thing, a thing that soars and moans, grinds and bites, soothes and delineates. ‘Meaning’ stands real over time. It is rarely erasable. It is the proverbial worm in the apple while remaining as the private port in a storm.

How to take the meaning out of the box to look at it, is the question.

Trying to do this can feel like having numbed fingers and blind eyes while trying to open an ostrich egg with the slightest crack on its rough hardened shell. Fumbling away, pulling at the edges, no tools to use but knowing that if only it could be opened then voila! You are on your way to making your own sort of ostrich egg souffle. This souffle might not be to everyone’s taste when done but it would certainly be a wonderfully messy experiment – a fine way to pass the day.

Symbols represent meaning, though they do not pin it down exactly. They do, however, shape it into a slightly more manageable form.

The downside is that writing about symbols occurs mostly in academia and the reading of it feels as if one is becoming immured in some horrid deadly musty place where your eyes become heavy, a place where a nap is quickly required if you want to live even a moment longer, a place where if you don’t escape quickly enough you might be subject to having a conniption which would leave you febrile, weak and unintelligible for the rest of all time co-mingling and stuck forever in the Land of Academic Writing.

Here is an essay on Food and Meaning for those curious to read about it – it is academic but one can still emerge unscathed if you go in with a cautious eye and a nose ready for trouble. It actually is amazingly good.

Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity by Michael Owen Jones

Sadly, there are only fifteen pages here of the entirety of the piece. I’m not sure how long the whole thing is – but even as a single mouthful the piece is quite meaty. It’s a good start to a vocabulary of  meaning (and the symbols which represent it) within Food.

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