Canadian author Margaret Atwood introduces The Canlit Foodbook of extracts from national writings on food with her discovery that the "authors could be divided into two groups: those that mention food, indeed revel in it, and those that never give it a second thought" (1). Women writers of the twentieth century internationally give food even more than second thoughts, and it is a proclivity benefiting from the second wave of feminist criticism since the 1960s addressing gender distinctions in culture and literature. Critics have focused on references to food or meals in the century's poetry and fiction of Atwood herself, Anita Brookner, Angela Carter, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Colette, Isak Dinesen, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Duras, Nora Ephron, Laura Esquivel, Duong Thu Huong, Margaret Laurence, Doris Lessing, Katherine Mansfield, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Marge Piercy, Katherine Anne Porter, Barbara Pym, Christina Stead, Edith Wharton, Fay Weldon, Elinor Wylie, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Yourcenar and others, including playwrights Caryl Churchill and Joan Schenkar. (1) Usually the criticism has addressed individual works, sometimes a writer's entire oeuvre, or a small group of novels by one or more authors. But thus far no one has presented a comprehensive view of women writers recognizing how they use food imagery. Hence this paper that, deeming text in its creativity as significant as context, extends to more of the world to show how twentieth-century women's novels, short stories, and poems use food, especially through the concretizing sensory depictions of images both literal and figurative. The evidence is overwhelming; only some of it can be adduced here.
Of course men also use food imagery; in the Canlit Foodbook, men even provide most of the extracts; likewise in another 1987 collection of international literary writings on food, Food for Thought (ed. Digby and Digby), as if women did not use it so profusely. Nonetheless, here the sampling of original texts and the criticism drawn on both inspect only women's achievements, limited to what is available in English. Worth mention, though, is that when men write critically about food references in literature, they often make only token acknowledgment of women authors and typically look back to famous sources such as Homer or Plato's Symposium or precedents in more recent male writers. (2) Women, conversely, typically agree with Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own that "We think back through our mothers if we are women" (76) and write about women without mention of great (or even lesser) men, finding tradition or parallels instead in other women. There is also the circumstance Sarah Sceats observes: Freud's claim that sexual desire grows out of satisfying hunger for food, which for writers like Angela Carter means food and eating "are thoroughly enmeshed with sex and power" (25). Yet, observably, men are more inclined to link food with sexuality than women, who attach it rather to female roles and status in their writing.
Women use food imagery for diverse purposes: to speak of personal and social behaviors and psychological problems, art, sex, sexual politics, poverty, nationalism, murder mysteries and more, especially domesticity. When North American Susan Straight wants to capture the vicissitudes of life for a poor black woman from the Low Country of South Carolina, she titles her novel eloquently I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Why do women use so much food imagery? More narrowly, why, for example, does Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison in "I Am Becoming My Mother" capture her sense of her heritage with the refrain "fingers smelling always of onions" (ll.3, 15)? Psychologist Kim Chernin, in The Hungry Self: Women Eating, and Identity on eating disorders, proposes food as "the principal way the problems of female being come to expression in women's lives" (xi); women have been taught female values via their mothers' presentation of food, and an obsession with food as in anorexia or bulimia bespeaks a problem of female identity through inability to separate from the mother or regression to her. This does not take one far in dealing with nondisorders in literature, though conceivably it pertains to some writers and certainly is suggestive for some characters who do have eating disorders. Cuban/ North American Christina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban, for example, includes the baker Lourdes, who has a precarious relationship with her mother and daughter and binges on food, then almost starves herself out of disgust "because it's nearly impossible to endure [...] the wormy curves of the buttery croissants, the gluey honey buns with fat pecans trapped like roaches in the cinnamon crevices" (169). Or in Chilean Marcela Serrano's Antigua and My Life Before, narrator Josefina veers between stringent dieting--"nothing but boiled potatoes" for a day, then only days of chicken, beef, or bananas (312)--and bulimia, but finally accepts her own body. As Sceats rightly says, arguing for "the centrality and versatility of food and eating in women's writing" in Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction, "Some psychoanalytic theories suggest that because of girls' long period of attachment to the maternal figure, women have compelling boundary concerns as eaters" when in fact "women's writing manifests far more diverse areas of engagement" (2).
Chernin's identification of food as a central and honorific factor in the shaping of female identity--"through the manifold associations we make to food, we are permitted [...] to derive from it essential lessons about the true [and admirable] nature of female being" (199)--does point to an important rationale for women's fondness for food imagery. Cooking, broadly conceived as female context, appears to offer some persuasive explanation why women may be drawn to food imagery. Women's imaginations are experientially linked to food as inspiration for mimesis or metaphor since women are, after all, the infant's first food giver and customarily gendered as the family cook and meal arranger thereafter, even as Goodison's oniony fingers recall. Similarly, North American Audre Lord, in "From the House of Yemanja," captures her rearing in "My mother had two faces and a frying pot / where she cooked up her daughters / into girls" (1-3). (3) When United States writers of color and Latinas founded a press in 1981 to provide a liberating voice for themselves, they called it the Kitchen Table Press "'because the kitchen is the center of the home, the place where women in particular work and communicate with each other.'" Similarly in 1984, the organizers of a conference dedicated to the writings of Latin American and Latina women proclaimed the importance of the kitchen when they published the conference proceedings under the heading The Frying Pan by the Handle (Jaffe 219). Puerto Rican Rosario Ferre, who titled an autobiographical essay "The Writer's Kitchen," declares in it, "I often confuse writing and cooking, and I discover some surprising parallels between the two. [...] The secret of writing, like the secret of good cooking, has nothing to do with gender. It has to do with the skill with which we mix the ingredients over the fire" (226, 227). Caribbean-North American Paule Marshall honors as the major influences on her the women who gathered in "the wordshop" of her mother's kitchen to talk "endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range," furnishing her first lessons in narrative art (1952). But women belong both to and beyond the kitchen. More comprehensively, Eileen Bender (much like Chernin) pertinently identifies "one of the most pervasive of feminine images or archetypes in art, literature, and culture: Woman as nurturing force, as source and provider of food, whether as priestess, mistress, nurse, or servant" (316). Women writers are very aware of that enhancing archetype and respond to it to supplement immediate experience; some may even exploit it.
Although gender issues in literature may have yielded more recently to concerns with race and nationality, twentieth-century women writers have reflected intently on female roles and images. Much of the criticism scrutinizing how women use food references dates from the 1980s as do many pertinent literary works, probably because of contemporaneous changes in feminist focus. Feminism, understood as comprising both the refusal to countenance devaluation and abuse of women and the valorization of female traits and attitudes, shifted in the western world at about that time from an emphasis on combatting injustice, inequity, and social conditioning to an essentialist lauding of women's inherent qualities and the roles they empower, such as in their kitchen kingdom. Bender also calls attention to the "ambiguous role of women [...] apparently valorized through their service, simultaneously empowered and enslaved by the incessant demands of a hungry world for satiation" (316). Are women empowered or enslaved by their role as food givers and, more broadly, nurturers? Feminism since the 1960s has significantly impacted the use of food imagery, for besides encouraging realistic, recognizable literary versions of female life in place of sentimental stereotypes, it has inspired vociferous complaints about woman's traditional role as purveyor of food yet also directly and indirectly championed her nurturing abilities.
If woman as cook/provider is imaginatively at hand for writers either to object to her domestic servitude or to bless her life-enhancing abilities, then third-world literature inclines more to the former attitude. A group of East Indian writings can demonstrate. Mahasveta Devi's consciousness-raising short story "Wet-Nurse," for example, a warning against identifying with a traditional, patriarchal female role, presents the good wife Jashoda, who supports her family as a professional mother, suckling the many children of her rich employer's extended family, besides her own (fifty children in all), only to die finally of breast cancer, abandoned and wretched. Indira Sant's poem "Middle-Class Jane" shows how, despite ostensible liberation-cum-career, the unliberated woman of the house still bears the labor of providing meals; "She who cooks is the one who is cooked" (31-32). Egyptian/French Joyce Mansour's "A Woman Kneeling in the Sorry Jelly" mourns not only aging--"the sorry jelly / Of her menopause" and the "sordid years / Of the great famine / To come" (1-2, 6-8)--but "lambs crucified / To the pleasures of the kitchen" (4-5) of her younger years. Woman's lowly status elicits frequent concern. Amrita Pritam's "The Breadwinner" exposes the emptiness of a relationship based in male power and authority rather than on mutuality and love.
Before I can speak Your bread speaks [..............] my words are weighed down By the weight of bread [..............] I am a doll of flesh For you to play with, I am a cup of young blood For you to drink. (7-11, 21-24)
Egyptian Neamat el-Biheiri, in "Dreaming of Dishes," captures female subordination eloquently as a wife dreams of eating meat with her husband and child and works out menus to do so when the local butcher offers specials. As hope her husband will get anything diminishes, so do the lesser amounts of food she mentally apportions to herself--"the second plate of meat faded from her mind. [...] Only one plate of meat to dream of now" (113)--until there is no provision for her to eat anything.
Yet one gets a very positive sense of woman as cook from Japanese writer Ihigaki Rin's "The Pan, the Pot, the Fire I Have Before Me" praising a tradition of women cooks:
What measures of love and sincerity these persons must have poured into these utensils-- now red carrots, now black seaweed, now crushed fish. (11-16)
This is not a denial of progress, though. For this poet, "Cooking was mysteriously assigned / to women as a role, / but I don't think that was unfortunate" (26-28); if women have "lagged behind the times" (30), now, still serving with love, they will "study government, economy, literature / as sincerely / as we cook potatoes and meat" (35-37), for the world's good. A parallel, but different, sense of a revered tradition emerges in North American poet Maxine Kumin's "Making the Jam without You," in which the speaker reminds her daughter, now distant in Germany, of their annual jam making in New Hampshire, with wishes that her marriage may elicit the same sense of closeness:
Now may your two heads touch over the kettle, over the blood of the berries that drink up sugar and sun over that tar-think boil love cannot stir down. (42-47)
Such motherly wishes for her child's happiness bespeak woman as nurturer, a theme frequently expressed in positive terms. Susan Straight's backwoods black mother character, Marietta, patiently endures nursing her twin babies and nourishes them as best her resources allow, as when "She put chunks of yellow and white egg in front of the boys on the oilcloth sheet where they sat, spooned cooled grits into their mouths" (98). In a compelling image, holding them sick with fever, "They were like hot sweet potatoes against her fingers" (99). But the nurturing instinct is subject to betrayal too.
The Bone People, by New Zealander Keri Hulme, a woman of Maori ancestry, for example, tells of a contemporary need to renew Maori ties by Joe and Kerewin, fundamentally good people but of shaky identity. Single, they become united by their concern for the orphan child Simon, whom Joe adopted but who maddens them to the point that Kerewin finally assaults the boy verbally and Joe beats him almost to death. But while Joe has beaten him before, plentifully, Kerewin has only been kind and repeatedly succored him with food. As soon as Kerewin came across him lurking on her property, in fact, she removed a painful splinter from his foot and fed him "raw fry [...] vegetables and stuff like bacon or eggs or fish, all cooked together" (21). When he had been beaten as a matter of course by Joe, she administered "a cup of warm milk to help remove the taste of the spoonfuls of painkiller and sleeping potion" (149). At one significant point, queried by Simon, she claims that oysters and shellfish don't feel pain eaten live--though "it would be wrong, very wrong, to eat a fowl or a frog alive supposing we had the stomach to do it," presumably because "even a lowly frog, not to mention a fowl, could make one hell of a racket as you gnawed 'em. All the helpless pipi could do, was spurt a feeble squirt of water and die between your teeth. Dammit kid, you've started to make me feel guilty" (124). As well she might. Too late she learns that she should not have relied on palliatives for the defenseless Simon and shielded his abuser, Joe.
There is some lamenting women's role as cook/provider because it diverts time and energy from other forms of creativity. Australian poet Gwen Harwood's "Suburban Sonnet" ruefully compares to her past ambitions of being a concert pianist her life now, a compromise of "Tasty dishes from stale bread" (14). Not only do the children quarrel while she tries to practice, but
A pot boils over. As she rushes to the stove too late, a wave of nausea overpowers subject and counter-subject. Zest and love drain out with soapy water as she scours the crusted milk. (4-9)
Some see woman as cook/provider being cleverly controlled through sexual politics. Rebecca West in Sunflower, based on her experience as a companion of H.G. Wells, deftly shows such politics in action. The character Essington imperiously orders his mistress to feed him:
This was a habit of his when he had risen to a certain pitch of rage against her. He would wait till there were no servants about and would order her loudly to cook something for him. [...] After she had obeyed, and gone down to the kitchen and made him coffee and scrambled eggs or a welsh rarebit, and brought it up to him, he would explain that he really had needed the food, that for some reason he had not had dinner, that he was very grateful to her for giving him this; and after that he would be very kind and good for some time. (228)
In an even more damning way, Egyptian novelist Nawal el Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero recounts the story of a woman turned prostitute in a male-dominant culture for which women have no inherent value, only uses. The first time a man pays Firdaus for sex she realizes that she controls her body, hitherto always in men's power; as significant, she celebrates her newfound power by doing what she was never permitted to do: she chooses and eats her own food in peace. The one exception has been a man who temporarily was kind to her, for "He never raised a hand to strike me, and never looked at my plate while I was eating." But then, "When I cooked fish I used to give it all to him, and just take the head or the tail for myself. Or if it was rabbit I cooked, I gave him the whole rabbit and nibbled at the head. I always left the table without satisfying my hunger" (48).
Atwood offers a western version of such control in her novel The Edible Woman, in which, as Eira Patnaik points out, the protagonist Marian comes to realize that her heterosexual relationships diminish her to nonpersonhood. Once she is aware, she bakes a cake in the shape of herself to offer her boyfriend Peter "as a sacrificial cake at the altar of Peter's ego" (Patnaik 70) and scares him off. (Likewise Patnaik points to metaphoric cannibalism in Marge Piercy's Small Changes.) Sceats adds how Atwood shows women colluding in their oppression through their passivity and assumed innocence; Marian learns that "sexual politics means eat or be eaten" (Sceats 99). Mary Anne Schofield has shown the problem of passivity in Canadian Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel, whose protagonist Hagar has accepted a self as domesticator of men, given her by the patriarchal community; Laurence depicts Hagar's unconscious search for a genuinely feminine self as an "extended food odyssey" (Schofield, "Culinary" 87). Hagar ultimately gives up men's meals of cooked meat for a lighter raw diet of women's fare (Levi-Straussian), thus disencumbering herself of male ideology.
Patriarchal physical abuse of women also finds ready expression through food imagery. Woman as victim to male appetite, for example, appears in Mexican Lucha Corpi's "Dark Romance" as the patrone's rape of appealing young Guadalupe,
a promise of milk in her breasts, vanilla scent in her hair cinnamon flavor in her eyes, cocoa-flower between her legs,
for which he rewards her father with a horse (9-12).
Simone de Beauvoir may have thought that woman's enclosure in the kitchen "teaches her patience and passivity" (665), yet writings of the victimization of women are countered by the many pieces that focus instead on woman's strength and ability to resist, or at least attempt to resist, the demands and strictures of patriarchy. Thus, for example, Elma Mitchell's hardheaded "Thoughts After Ruskin" mocks the Victorian stereotype of frail femininity. Women may have reminded Ruskin of "lilies and roses" (1), but she sees them
Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver, Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap, Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving, Scaling, blanching, broiling, pulverizing. (5-8)
Rebellions can be expressed through food imagery, as in Lebanese Hanan al-Shaykh's story "A Girl Called Apple." Though Apple wants to marry as her friend Banana has done, she does not want to be treated like merchandise--"like mutton or old dates for sale" (1721)--and so prevails on her father not to hoist a color-coded banner proclaiming, as is the custom in her oasis, her marriageability and age. After forty, in despair of marriage she capitulates, futilely raising the flag herself. The food names alert the reader that the oasis and banners are not to be assumed literal realism. Another rebellion that fails comes in Nigerian/ English Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, in which Nnaife's wives Nnu Ego and Adaku, ordinarily jealous of each other, league rebelliously to stop cooking for him because their food allowance is too small. Nnu Ego, the senior, less aggressive wife, ends the strike originally proposed by Adaku, which has proved futile anyway, by preparing Nnaife's favorite dish. Some rebellions fail, but successes, or promise of them, also persist. Marge Piercy's "What's That Smell in the Kitchen" proudly announces that because the female is angry and despairing, "All over America women are burning dinners":
Her life is cooked and digested, nothing but leftovers in Tupperware, Look, she says, once I was roast duck On your platter with parsley but now I am Spam. Burning dinner is not incompetence but war. (1, 18-22)
Fictions about females who refuse to marry also constitute revolts against the patriarchal marital obligation. Schofield has shown how British Barbara Pym, exploring female roles "through the symbolic matrix of cooking and eating" ("Well-Fed" 5), has cast her female protagonists in the role of renegades. The socializing of men, undertaken by females, is central to her novels, but her protagonists frequently refuse the task. "Retrenchment into her own world is the usual process for a Pym heroine: satisfied to remain single, not provide a male with the frequent cooked meals he needs"(2). Debunking romantic myth, Pym shows that woman's place in the kitchen is "not a nourishing role at all" (7) . Schofield finds a similar pattern in British Anita Brookner, whose females go through an initiation rite that involves preparing a meal for a male that proves a failure but shows them that they do not need males. "Her heroines learn to define themselves in terms other than those usually applied to the female and her role as nourisher and civilizer; they learn to cook and eat a spinster's fare" ("Spinster's" 63).
There is also the possibility of discovering resentment at what marriage entails. Mexican Rosario Castellanos's "Cooking Lesson" is ostensibly about cooking a meal upon returning from the honeymoon with a bad sunburn, but the subtext of this allegory is married life: not sex but subjugation. Since she is but meat in the patriarchal scheme of things, the narrator establishes a connection between her lost virginity and her sunburn and the process of cooking and ruining her first pot roast: her discovery of disillusionment with marriage. Red with frozen cold, then gray with cooking in sizzling fat, "The piece of meat first appears with a color, a shape, and a size. Later it changes and becomes prettier and one feels very happy." But "it keeps changing" and left "indefinitely exposed to the fire, it will be consumed until there's nothing left of it" (11). The crisis provoked by her burning the meat heightens her resentful awareness of loss of individuality to which the domestication of marriage has subjected her. (Comparably, Mexican Amparo Davila's cryptic allegory "Haute Cuisine" has been explained by Kemy Oyarzun as a mini-bildungsroman, tracing passage into adulthood through its narrator's perceptions of creatures who shriek as they are being cooked. (4))
Swedish Margareta Ekstrom's story "Lobster in Dinard" depicts an unmarried woman's decision to remain in a relationship with an adulterous man to retain the freedom that marriage would curtail. She acknowledges that a nondomestic life in which she fully enjoys her appetites and adventures also threatens her being destroyed, like the beautiful lobster she is dining on. That her lover, who has chosen lamb, seems negligible to her and that her sensory life is strong is captured in the description of the meal : "Then the lobster made its entrance. His leg of lamb crept in behind like an insignificant brown portion of protein. The lobster shone, and exuded aromas[... and] bits of truffle lay like black marble chips in the puffed, bubbling sauce. Cheese gleamed golden. It smelled of chervil and tarragon and [... maybe] thyme" (815).
The way the lobster is described points to another tendency in women's writing of food: providing detailed descriptions and menus and, in some cases, even the pertinent recipes. Serrano, in her Antigua and My Life Before, has character Bob cook "dinner for us. He makes a Japanese-Antigueno salad, vermicelli, mushrooms, chives, sesame, and a dressing of soy sauce" (337); and when Irish Julia O'Faolain sends character Judith to the store in No Country for Young Men, it is for "three pounds of back rashers [...] cut as thin as you can, a pound of black pudding and half a pound of white, tea, sugar, candles, oatmeal, matches, paraffin" (131). New Zealander/British Fleur Adcock in "The Voyage Out," lauding women's strength in history, itemizes for twelve lines the weekly rations for a pregnant, pioneering mother traveling steerage to the New World with her four young children:
pork and Indian beef, three pounds together, one of sugar, two of potatoes, three and a half of flour; a gill of vinegar
and so on (2-5). Even North American Marilyn Hacker's facetious "Runaways Cafe II," imitating Sappho's stimulated lover in the presence of a beloved, provides detailed description: "I hardly noticed what I ate / salmon and broccoli and Saint-Veran" (1-2).
Recipes prove surprisingly frequent. Susan Leonardi has argued that a recipe properly is "an embedded discourse"(340), an exchange between reader and recipe-provider, requiring a context, not just a list of ingredients. East Indian Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things shows how well fiction provides that context. At its center is the unallowable lovemaking of a middle-class woman, Ammu, and an untouchable, Velutha, two fine people destroyed in ugly fashion (others are swept in too) when their affair is discovered. An analogy capturing Roy's contempt for class and caste strictures appears early in the book when Ammu's son Estha, now adult, visits the defunct family factory, Paradise Pickles and Preserves, which used to make not only "pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples," but also banana jam, even though it had been banned as "neither jam nor jelly [...] An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency." So too, he sees, did the family break the rules defining emotional life as if people were just cookable substances. "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how" (30-31). Later in flashback comes the recipe for banana jam in great detail (186-87), serving not only as metaphor but as influence on the action. As young Estha is recopying it for his mother, he gets an inspiration that he, his twin sister, and a cousin Sophie Mol should get a boat and cross the nearby river--enacted, it unintentionally effects the tragedy of the lovers' discovery, plus Sophie's drowning.
Recipes serve other purposes in North American Nora Ephron's witty Heartburn, which provides homey recipes for (among others) lima beans and pears, sorrel soup, bacon hash, pot roast, bread pudding, cheese cake, and key lime pie. The novel is Ephron's thinly veiled account of her failed marriage to Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist and Watergate hero, as Leonardi points out, suggesting that the narrative itself becomes a kind of recipe for surviving a disastrous marriage by making a story of it (Leonardi 136). Protagonist Rachel Samstat Feldman is a cookbook writer who declares she loves "cooking for its certainty in a world of uncertainty" (Ephron 133) but who also identifies cooking with love, the uncertainty of which she refuses to acknowledge. Instead, she retreats into food. The issue is her need to face up to the reality of her husband Mark Feldman's philandering, dishonesty, and lack of love. Growth begins when she acknowledges that she should write about her situation--for "to write it down was [...] to admit that something real had happened" (119)--but she cannot do so and instead goes on to talk about how she has always cooked potatoes for anyone she has cared for, which leads her to a five-page essay-cum-recipes for potatoes, from crisp to mashed, her preferred comfort food (123-37). Finally, however, she throws the key lime pie she baked at Mark in a long overdue declaration of war because she has transcended self-pity and admitted his failings.
That truth is more valuable than sensory gratification is also the burden of Vietnamese Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind, which includes menus, recipes, cooking instructions, detailed food rituals, and a supplementary eight-page glossary of Vietnamese food and related cultural terms. As I have demonstrated in "The Feminist Artistry of Duong Thu Huong," food is shown here as a way to gratify the senses. Seductive like beauty, palliative like sweets that may pacify children but are deleterious deceptions for adults, food can provide the immediate taste of paradise, allowing one to ignore ugly realities. The corollary, food as cover-up, is vivid in the description of a Hanoi working-class slum, with its street vendors who "hawk their homemade snacks: sticky rice, fried dumplings, steamed rich cakes, spring rolls, snail and crab soups and other delicacies. [...] the aroma of onions, crispy dumplings, and red chilies fried in oil filled the air, their fragrances overpowering the stench of the garbage, the open sewers, the walls reeking of rancid urine" (Duong 41). Paradise contains an indictment of communism but is structured as a feminist statement about the need for women to seek self-development instead of settling for traditional norms that demean and enslave them or for easy gratifications. Protagonist Hang's mother Que and her Aunt Tam, who vie for control of Hang, are emphasized as sources of food: Que through the food she vends on the streets to support the family, prosperous farm owner Tam through her generous gifts of food. But Que, almost starving Hang, also diverts her food to feed her brother Chinh and his boys, for males are more important than females. Since Communist Chinh was responsible for the death of Hang's father, Tam's brother, during the purges of the fifties, Tam's lavish banquets and gifts to Hang entail dissociating herself from her mother. Hang has a nostalgic attraction to the traditional Vietnamese foods, drawn to their smells, texture, and tastes, but finally refuses her mother's self-sacrificing devotion to male relatives and her foster mother Tam's bitterness and an unenlightened cultural tradition oppressive to women.
The political theme addresses the land reforms of the fifties, when obsessive, destructive Nan, mother of one daughter, is appointed as one of two new village leadersfor the upheaval: a glutton who, parallel to Tam and Que's food excesses, cannot stop eating, especially "incapable of controlling her sweet tooth" (Duong 27). The other leader is Bich, a lazy, filthy-minded drunk. Such leaders convey Duong's indictment of a nation that debased itself body and soul during the time of land reform and must cease to continue to put material comfort and satisfaction before spiritual good. Comparably, though North American Toni Morrison does not include recipes, Elizabeth House has shown that she also objects to palliative sweeteners. Morrison associates natural foods like raw fruits with life-enhancing idyllic values but links sweets, especially commercially made candy and pies, with dreams of competitive success propagated by Caucasian society to show that neither sugar nor success is truly nourishing. Morrison's characters often forsake their heritage for such dreams. She also indicts milk, House speculates maybe because of its color.
Possibly the best-known novel incorporating recipes is Mexican Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, which begins each chapter with a traditional Mexican food recipe for each month in turn, besides providing scattered recipes for home remedies. Esquivel asks for a reassessment of female community, the ties formed among women based on interests in common, here centering on roles in the kitchen around which women have built a culture of shared recipes and other lore and conviviality. These things are assumed as important as wars; the setting is the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, but the war is relegated to the background while the more important conflicts occur in the home, a deliberate reversal of values that deem domestic concerns trivialities. Hence this casual description of the fate of the family's wet-nurse who
one morning, while on her way to the village [...] was struck by a stray bullet from a battle between the rebels and the federales and was mortally wounded. One of her relatives arrived at the ranch to bring them the news, just as Tita and Chencha were combining all the ingredients for the mole in a large earthenware pan.
That is the final step, which is done when all the ingredients have been ground as indicated in the recipe. Combine them in a large pan [... etc.]. (75)
The main character and chief cook, Tita, literally kitchen-born, loses her lover Pedro to her unscrupulous sister Rosaura because her mother will not let Tita marry, but unquenchable Tita conducts a clandestine affair with Pedro for years and ultimately her recipes survive for future generations. As Janice Jaffe points out, the recipe-sharing community, which includes Indian servants, cuts across patriarchal Mexican norms that forbid alliances across class and racial lines; its different codes of female solidarity are based on characters' responses to the kitchen. Bonds of friendship form among characters who appreciate the artistry in creating and preparing recipes; the wicked outsiders, Mama Elena and Rosaura, who reject the social codes of the kitchen, instead die of digestive causes (Jaffe 222, 225). The recipes are tied to the story and sometimes influence the action, as, for example, when Tita's dish of quail in rose petal sauce proves such a powerful aphrodisiac that it drives her sister Gertrudis into running off naked with a soldier; but then the rose came from Pedro, so Tita's frustrated desires have enhanced the cooking, even as her unhappiness at being forced to make Rosaura's wedding cake so adulterates it with her tears that all the wedding guests are sickened by it. That the feelings of the cook determine the nature of her dishes is the prevailing premise, helping to emphasize that cooking is a form of creativity like any other art.
Recipes, menus, and descriptions of food also grace murder mysteries. British Janet Laurence's mystery series, whose sleuth is caterer, chef, and food writer Darina Lisle, includes lavish descriptions of food in A Tasty Way to Die and Recipe for Death. Anne LeCroy and Lynne Veach Sadler call attention to the novels of North American Virginia Rich, whose widowed sleuth, Mrs. Eugenia Potter, is a sixtyish gourmet cook. Rich's three novels not only take their situations from food--The Cooking School Murders, The Baked Bean Supper Murders, The Nantucket Diet Murders--but their end papers provide recipes besides those within the story. Although LeCroy is content merely to praise the skill shown in Rich's mysteries-cum-recipes, Sadler thinks Rich's novels, one set in Iowa, the other two in New England, intend to prove that America is a melting pot. Food "is often the mechanism that cuts through class lines and finds common ground"(50) for characters from different backgrounds and geographic locales; Rich, she believes, provides "a view of food not just for sustenance but for life at its most responsive levels" (59). But the novels are also quite formulaic, in the murder-mystery tradition, if original in Mrs. Potter's habitual inability to guess the correct suspect, and the scenarios with which she attempts to do so in the Cooking School Murders. All the many social events in Rich come with food served. Rich also includes some feminist concerns in The Nantucket Diet Murders, which not only criticizes excessive dieting and brings in anorexia, but makes its murder turn on guilty male ambition versus female friendship and nurturance. The Baked Bean Supper Murders develops its theme of something rotten in the local state by emphasizing the bad cooking therein. (5)
Since meals play a role in novels, especially dinner as the most socialized, most often ritualized, meal, dinner has been the frequent focus of critical attention, though not necessarily with particular concern for the imagery in its presentation; imagery may even be ignored in favor of mealtime situations (that do, nonetheless, imply some concrete references to particular foods). Atwood claims of Canadians that "For some reason, nobody seems to write much about lunch" (3). West's Sunflower character perhaps explains one reason when she observes that lunches are less useful for connecting with a man (218). But sex and courtship rituals are not the issue for the critics, among whom other societal concerns dominate. Diane McGee's Writing the Meal: Dinner in the Fiction of Early Twentieth-Century Women Writers, for example, inspects dinners in British writers Mansfield and Woolf and North American Wharton and Chopin in terms of the larger issues emanating from meals at a time of significant social and cultural change. Presenting the concept of the meal from "an anthropological and sociological perspective" as a "communicative text" and cultural locus (6), McGee suggests that women writers at the beginning of the century used their domestic experience to express the uneasy shifts occurring contemporaneously in everyday life and to reflect attitudes to society's pressures ranging from alienation and rebellion to passivity and complacency. In Wharton, thus, society is defined largely by customs of dining and of sociability; meals provide her characters a means of understanding or of revising their social relations and give readers access to Wharton's social perspective. In Mansfield the sometimes oppressive formal mealtime tradition has been replaced by empty freedom; the relaxation of nineteenth-century strictures now means loneliness and hunger of body and soul. Exploring a rivalry between the creativity of proffering a meal and of producing a work of literature, McGee proposes that the issue for modernist women was whether or not to reject their traditional roles. Woolf valorized women's traditional domestic role but with some misgivings. Modernist women, theorizes McGee, may use dinners as a structural device, presenting a story or entire novel as if it were a meal offered the reader. Her detailed example is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," constructed around a series of meals, which also depicts the conflict between being artist and traditional wife (a conflict, one might add, demonstrably not limited to early twentieth century). (6)
Judith Ruderman finds not conflict but development in British Margaret Drabble's dinner parties. Although all her novels have shown a complex relationship between women and food, her use of the dinner party image has evolved, placing "an increasingly positive value on a woman's preparation and serving of meals--especially [...] dinner parties" (104) since the 1970s. Bender sees in North American Willa Cather's A Lost Lady the dinner party used as "an ideal metaphor for the egregious bad manners--and bad taste--of the contemporary American barbarian, wedded to the modernist 'egalitarian' ethic" (327), while also exposing the shallowness of the cook/hostess, dependent on male company to validate her superficial arts. Yet Bender observes also North American Joyce Carol Oates's fictions, replete with anorexics and gluttons, not as criticisms of society but as renderings of insatiable personalities; evidence is Oates's Wonderland with its "dinner parties of staggering proportions" (329). Don Anderson finds that in Australian Christina Stead's novels, in which imagery of eating is pervasive, consuming food metaphorically represents the relations between the characters present at a feast. Characters cannibalize each other at her dinners, food serving as analogy for displacements of sex and power. Her women who refuse to dine show refusal to accept the hypocrisies of social existence. Likewise, Lynne Gelber finds denial of food in French Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile a statement of alienation, whereas with novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, willful resistance to certain kinds of food is empowering.
Fiction can be constructed around meals, as many critics have pointed out, but food imagery may be useful for characterization and thematic development other than in terms of eating. Phillipa Palfrey in British P.D. James's Innocent Blood, for example, adopted out at eight but now eighteen, seeks for and attains a positive sense of life by reattaching to her mother, newly released from prison. She finds them an apartment above a greengrocer's, a symbolically appropriate setting for her happy new life, and they get work at a fish and chips eatery to sustain them. Philippa's adoptive mother Hilda, an insecure woman except for her cooking in which she immerses herself, is by inclination a nurturer, denied her own child through her husband's sterility. She serves as the antithesis of the biological mother, who abused her own child and killed another one--truths about her birth mother that Phillipa learns only belatedly. Mary Gordon's Men and Angels uses baking to link female protagonists in the reader's imagination and to characterize a marriage. Characters Anne and Laura, Anne's "mother's helper," share similarly deprived backgrounds in unloving mothers, but with different effects on their personalities, Laura's having become warped. Unsuccessful at personal relations, she loves Anne obsessively in order to save Anne's soul. Laura, who imagines herself a faith healer, bakes for a Mission in which she participates, whereas Anne ordinarily bakes cakes for individual persons as an expression of love. Although she is cornered by her children into making a birthday cake for Laura, her inability to love Laura is manifest in her feeling of reluctance to do so. The third important female character, Jane, a loveless sophisticate who drove her husband to suicide, considers baking a trivial topic. For Anne and her husband, however, "a loaf of bread they'd made together was a precious vessel holding all they wanted for their lives" (21).
As has already become evident, although food imagery often concretizes gender-related issues, it serves for other matters too. War, colonialism, sense of national identity, poverty, and class transcend gender. In "Town Under a Rainfall of Eggs," Japanese poet Shiraishi Kazuko uses food surrealistically for her vision of immediately postwar Tokyo in which "While taking a rest in a pool of green lettuces, / we are showered with a rain of eggs" as well as babies and various creatures that "trickle away through our fingers" (1-2, 8). Lesothan (African) Caroline N.M. Khaketla's "The White and the Black" uses food to attack colonialism and promise rebellion:
While I'm gone, white mother, kill the fattened oxen And feed your dear ones well, prime meat and curds Overspilling so the dogs too lap the juice, And still enough is left to throw a surplus To your close kin across the seas. (1-6)
But she urges the "black mother" to "hold on firm" for as the earth turns, "The fleeing partridge finds the forbidden grain" (10). Alda do Espirito Santo, from the former Portuguese colony of St. Thomas, in "The Same Side of the Canoe" sounds a call for nationhood addressed to "My sister, laundering, laundering / for bread to feed your sons," and my "brothers, in the harvest of cacao / together again on market day / where roasted breadfruit and chicken will bring money" (11-12, 24-26). In Irish Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men, brown soda-bread has symbolic value for protagonist Grainne, serving as "her madeleine; its turfy substance told her that she was home. You ate it with smoked salmon or oysters, marmalade or egg. It reminded her of childhood, picnics, smokey cottages and the Shelbourne Rooms. It was the substance of Ireland"(99).
Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo's novel in prose and verse, Our Sister Killjoy, a sustained attack on the black diaspora, uses images of food to develop its valuation of African identity and denigration of western and local exploitation. Ghana has become but a place that "picks tiny bits of / Undigested food from the / Offal of the industrial world" (53), where Third World rulers are oblivious to the poverty in their people's lives, trading "Concessions, in exchange for yellow wheat which / The people can't eat" and shipping away needed yams to decorate luxury tables (57). Food is also symbolic of corruptive Europe, which offers only tinned, synthetic unnatural food:
First course: Cream of asparagus soup thirty months in an aluminum tin. Second course: Chicken moriturus under Pre-mixed curry. (39)
Food symbolizes the ugliness of racial distinctions when Germans look to protagonist Sissie like "pickled pig parts" (12). Sissie has been chosen to go to Europe by the Ghanaian arm of an international volunteer group of teenagers. The experience is her fall from innocence into awareness and growth in self-values confirming her African identity. Already uncomfortable with compatriots who sing for their supper by praising Europe, before leaving she is reluctant to ingest the food at the group's farewell banquet. The first stage of her journey, in a section titled "Plums," is Germany, a lotus-eater's land of plenty where required of the group is "Above all eating"(35), such as, for lunch, "Fresh potatoes, German goulash, cheese, sauerkraut, fish [...] and always three different types of bread [....] Tons of butter. Pots of jam"(33). Stuffing herself and Sissie with food proves futile for a lonely German woman who makes lesbian overtures that Sissie rebuffs. Finally, Sissie returns to an Africa that "felt like fresh honey on the tongue: a mixture of complete sweetness and smoky roughage"(133). In sharp contrast to such goodness is Oates's "American Independence," indicting materialistic America's abuse of resources:
Our skin is waffle-pocked our fingers plump as breakfast sausage [........................] we proclaim American independence pancake batter clinging to our jowls [........................] let everything be transformed to [...] human flesh, human waste.'" (9-10, 31-32, 38-39)
Poverty is North American Gwendolyn Brooks's concern in "Kitchenette Building," reflecting how hard it is to hold onto a dream amidst squalor: "could a dream send up through onion fumes / Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes / And yesterday's garbage ripening in the hall" (4-6). Argentinian Liliana Heker's story "The Stolen Party" captures the hurt of a lower-class child invited to the birthday party of her mother's employer's daughter, a source of pride and self-satisfaction that she is asked to help serve the hot-dogs and pass the cake like a queen deciding who gets the bigger pieces, until she discovers when favors are distributed to the guests (instead she gets a tip) that she was invited only as a servant.
Food imagery also can convey one's sense of life, personal or universal. East Indian Kamala Das's "Daily Wages" captures living each day to the full, as "I buy my soul's food / Cook and eat it / [...] And leave no grain for tomorrow" (1-2, 12). For North American Helen Chasin's "The Word Plum," in which a word has a "taut skin/pierced, bitten, provoked into/ juice, and tart flesh" (6-8), pleasure is in the mind, not just the body. Argentinian Teresa Torres uses food in "Poem" to remember the dark underside to happiness, as "A moment of shadows / has settled in the serving dish on the table, / until even the bread is bitter" (4-6). British Elizabeth Daryush in "Still-Life" shows the optimism youth and wealth entail through her picture of an appealing breakfast table with its "melon, peaches, figs, small hot / rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast, / butter in ice" (5-7). British Anne Stevenson in "Himalayan Balsam" captures a sense of love for life despite awareness that it entails death when "shaping bread or scraping potatoes for supper, / I have stood in the kitchen, transfixed by what I'd call love" (17-18). Minrose Gwin finds North American Katherine Anne Porter's stories permeated with food used to convey her sense of a natural mystery in human life; the plentiful eating and drinking "seems to become the physical, external manifestation of human complexity and indefinability" (51). But Stevenson in "Giving Rabbit to My Cat Bonnie" considers us all animals: "I'll make a wine sauce with mushrooms, but will / you want this precious broken heart? This perfect liver?" (29-30). North American Erica Jong's "Cheese," "Spelunking through the blue caves of the Roquefort / under a golden Gouda moon" (1-2) and mixing Mary with cheese, is skeptical of religious promise that has lost meaning in the modern world "where milk and cream / are merely memories" (22-23).
Danish Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast," however, teaches a religious lesson about love as well as an aesthetic one. In nineteenth-century Jutland, Martine and Philippa, Lutheran minister's daughters trained to deny pleasures, take in French refugee Babette, as maid and cook of their simple foods such as "split cod and ale-and-bread soup" (38), unaware that she is a premier chef forced to flee by the Commune revolt. Years later, after the life-denying sect their late father founded has disintegrated into discord, Babette offers to make a French feast for a celebration, spending on it the ten thousand francs won in a lottery. The generous gift of an exquisite meal--including turtle soup, "Blinis Demidoff," "Cailles en Sarcophage" (55, 57), and fine wines--which the puritanical guests initially fear, proves redemptive once ingested. The guests are transformed as if by taking Communion; the meal proves akin to an experience of grace by enabling them to realize the goodness of life through their God-given senses and restores charitable love to the group. For Babette, moreover, it has sounded the cri de coeur of the dedicated artist: "'Give me leave to do my utmost!'" (65). Ironically, however, as Ann Gossman observes, Babette "does not really know the effects of her dinner" and only one worldly guest, a general from the aristocracy she fought against at the barricades, appreciates her artistry (324).
Some writers, as already indicated, characteristically think in terms of food imagery so that not just one work but any one of their works is likely to show food patterns. Selections from the best writing of Mansfield and Woolf and North American Denise Levertov can illustrate for short story, novel, and poetry.
For Mansfield, who uses image and symbol as her usual means for projecting states of mind and for developing themes through inferences, one appetite readily substitutes for another, as in her most important, autobiographical "Prelude," in which Linda Burnell's antipathy for the children her sexually aggressive husband Stanley has forced on her begins to be explained by her lack of appetite for food, whereas he eats his meat--"tip-top meat [...] not too lean and not too fat" (59)--with gusto. Men may be destroyers and devourers. A duck is killed for dinner by the handyman Pat and later, browned to perfection, carved by Stanley enthusiastically. When daughter Kezia, perhaps only five but beginning to discover her female identity, at the outset is having tea at a neighbor's, she is teased about food by the bullying son of the house, also named Stanley. The story muses over whether Kezia will develop as a Linda, at odds with her physical being, or become like her nurturing grandmother, Linda's mother, Mrs. Fairfield. Whereas Linda sees nature, as in the garden of her new home, as something to escape from, Mrs. Fairfield sees richness to be domesticated for nourishment: "I wondered as we passed the orchard what the fruit trees were like and whether we should be able to make much jam this autumn. [...] I should like to see those pantry shelves thoroughly well stocked with our own jam" (92) .
The silly, shallow sophisticates of "Bliss," so crude in tastes and perceptions are characterized through food, but so, too, is the naive and overly-aesthetic protagonist Bertha. She prepares fruit for her guests in a blue dish with a "sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk," especially admiring among the different fruits' colors and textures the "white grapes covered with a silver bloom. These last she had bought to tone in with the new dining-room carpet" (144), as if bodily nourishment could be reduced to beautiful patterns. Her dinner guests include Eddie, gushing about a new poem that begins with "an incredibly beautiful line: 'Why must it always be tomato soup?'" (155), and monkeylike Mrs. Norman Knight, wearing yellow silk that looks as if it were scraped out of banana skins and amber earrings like nuts (148), who contemplates decorating in "a fried-fish scheme, with the backs of the chairs shaped like frying pans and lovely chip potatoes embroidered all over the curtains" (153). Bertha's adulterous husband Harry likes "to talk about food and to glory in his 'shameless passion for the white flesh of the lobster' and 'the green of pistachio ices'" (151), though Bertha discovers that he indulges his lustful appetites not with his wife, dressed in white and green, but with another woman.
Disillusionment, a characteristic Mansfield subject, also creates the situation in "Sun and Moon" projected through food imagery. Especially entrancing to young Sun and sister Moon as preparation for a party is the ice pudding, a pink house with a nut for a door handle. The aftermath of the party appalls Sun: "The lovely food that the man had trimmed was all thrown about and there were bones and bits and fruit peels and shells everywhere. [...] And the little pink house [...] was half melted away" (191). Whereas Moon just picks out the nut handle to eat, Sun, who is older, wails in anguish at what happens to beauty. The nut reappears when the impoverished, aging protagonist of "Miss Brill" experiences hurt and despair at comments on her appearance that destroy her self-deception of desirability and importance. She punishes herself for her spiritual self-indulgence by foregoing the slice of honeycake that is her usual Sunday treat, so looked forward to because "Sometimes there was an almond in her slice [....] If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present" (302).
For Woolf, as I have shown extensively in "Food for Thought," food imagery increases in her body of novels through her growing concern for the perceiving consciousness and her goal of achieving compression. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway's party, the central event, is a singularly positive social event in contrast to the reported dinner parties in Harley Street, where the destructive will to power in Dr. Bradshaw, the novel's villain, has crushed his wife and intimidates his guests. Manipulative Lady Bruton's lunch, with which she pays Hugh Whitbread (as malleable as his suggestive name) for using his influence to place her letter to the Times, is a reminder that London society furnishes no free meals, despite the
profound illusion in the first place about the food--how it is not paid for; and then that the table spreads itself voluntarily with glass and silver, little mats, saucers of red fruit; films of brown cream mask turbot; in casseroles severed chickens swim; [...] and with the wine and the coffee (not paid for) rise jocund visions before musing eyes[.] (104)
Elizabeth Dalloway's tea with Doris Kilman of the unpleasantly "gooseberry-coloured eyes" (125) is the book's most uncomfortable meal. Woolf, like Mansfield, uses one appetite to represent another. The food imagery revealing Kilman's grasping appetite, her frustrated compulsive eating, establishes her as a possessive lesbian. Her preying on Elizabeth is purposefully contrasted to Clarissa's youthful, potentially lesbian, relationship with Sally Seton that was distinguished for its lack of power plays--and of scenes of eating--for, as Clarissa reflects, "the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally" was "not like one's feeling for a man" (34). But Kilman wants to devour the sweetness of Elizabeth as she does a cake: "She had wanted that cake--the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her" (130). When Elizabeth leaves, Kilman swallows "the last inches of the chocolate eclair" that is her substitute gratification, but in agony: "If she could grasp her, if she could clasp her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die" (132)--ironically echoing Clarissa's empathy with Othello (and his words) as she went to meet her love, Sally, at Bourton (35). Sweets also play a role in the story of Septimus Smith, Clarissa's double, recurring ironically when his wife Rezia, who loves "ices, chocolates, sweet things" (87), is given "sweet stuff" (150) to drink to sedate her after Septimus's suicide.
With To the Lighthouse (1927), the elegant-sounding boeuf en daube (stew in a casserole) served to family and guests at the Ramsays' summer home shows Woolf's skill at converting naturalistic detail to symbolic effect. Woolf chose the menu with scrupulous care to embody central themes. As Mrs. Ramsay lifts the cover, "an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish . [...] 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" (100). It does so because the stew in itself is a unity and harmony created out of diverse elements, appropriate to the figurative communion scene at which it is eaten that for a while becomes a ritual of oneness. The well-fed diners, temporarily united into a whole that holds at bay the encroaching threat of nothingness of the universe, "had their common cause against the fluidity out there" (97). The gourmet boeuf en daube (like the table's centerpiece) also illustrates the aesthetic--which is Woolf's own--that artist character Lily Briscoe will painfully work out for herself before the book ends: art properly is a heightening of the ordinary, a transfiguration that yet honors the commonplace.
Beauty derived from sensory perception can serve as harmonizer and unifier. The table centerpiece shaped by Ramsay daughter Rose out of ordinary objects such as a shell and fruit is a work of art that attracts both Mrs. Ramsay and her guest Augustus Carmichael, who is resistant to her charms. Admiring this suggestive horn of plenty, they become as one:
Rose's arrangement of the grapes and pears, of the horny pink-lined shell, of the bananas, made [... Mrs. Ramsay] think of a trophy fetched from the bottom of the sea, of Neptune's banquet [...] and to her pleasure (for it brought them into sympathy momentarily) she saw that Augustus too feasted his eyes on the same plate of fruit. [...] That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them. (97)
Fulfilled through her eyes, savoring the tranquility of aesthetic experience, she refuses a guest's offer of fruit:
she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadow of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene [....] (109)
But a hand took a pear "and spoilt the whole thing" (109) because such beauty must be transitory. To the Lighthouse consistently has a philosophy of mutability to impart.
The pear image (which actually turns up throughout Woolf's fiction) has already made an appearance as Lily's earlier perception of Mr. Ramsay's objectivist philosophy--"she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, a scrubbed kitchen table"--which is the opposite to Mrs. Ramsay's nourishing board. Upside down, "It lodged now in the fork of a pear tree" (23). Ludicrously imposed on natural reality, his adaptation to life and his epistemology work with abstractions and scorn physical perceptions. He "did not even notice his own daughter's beauty, or whether there was pudding on his plate or roast beef" (70); thus he cannot reach a humanly meaningful reality, getting beyond Q to R, to put it in Woolf's terms.
North American Denise Levertov likewise writes of the need to appreciate the world available to gratify our senses in "O Taste and See," which urges our "living in the orchard and being/ hungry, and plucking the fruit" (14-16), for The Lord means "anything [...] that lives / to the imagination's tongue," like
grief, mercy, language tangerine, weather, to breathe them, bite, savor, chew, swallow, transform into ourselves. (6-11)
A sense of pride and fulfillment in being female is the realization of her "Stepping Westward," the speaker knowing "There is no savor / more sweet, more salt" (17-18) than to be a woman and herself. Her burdens
begin to be remembered as gifts, goods, a basket of bread that hurts my shoulders but closes me in fragrance. I can eat as I go. (26-32)
The multi-stanzaic "Matins" captures a woman's sense of reaching after "the authentic" (st. VI), from daybreak when "the real" is "the new-laid / egg whose speckled shell / the poet fondles and must break" for nourishment (st. III) , through breakfast time, when her sense is that providing nourishment is a sacred rite and sustains imagination: "Stir the holy grains, set / the bowls on the table and call the child to eat / While we eat we think, as we think an undercurrent of dream runs through us" (st. V). "Marvelous truth," Levertov calls on to "dwell / in our crowded hearts / our steaming bathrooms, kitchens full of things to be done, the / ordinary streets" (st. VII).
With kitchens and cooks we began, and so often they and their associations turn up to concretize life seen from a female perspective. When Australian Judith Wright's "To Another Housewife," for example, pleads for an end to accepting violence in life, its message comes couched in terms not of battles but of vegetarianism and of the "many cuts of choice and prime / our housewife hands have dressed" (16-17). Urging her compatriots to write from a female stance, Serrano has contended that "deep inside, all women have the same story to tell" (Ospina 12). As Serrano has said, "some-where within us there are issues that touch us all" as women (qtd. in Ospina 12). The responsibility of being food preparers and providers may be such an issue and/or story. Certainly no one explanation will account for the multifarious uses twentieth-century women have found for food imagery, metaphorical and literal, in fiction and poetry, but gender issues demonstrably often provide subjects even as gendered situations often provide sources for imagery, among them especially cooking and all it entails. Reinforced by archetypal awareness, women's domestic experience has inspired their imaginations to transmute the basic necessity to eat into a matter of art. Thus much is to be learned by observing the food imagery they create.
(1) For these two dramatists, see Vivian Patraka's "Foodtalk in the Plays of Caryl Churchill and Joan Schenkar"(The Theatre Annual 40 [1985)]: 137-57).
(2) Thus, for example, Ronald W. Tobin, in "Booking the Cooks: Literature and Gastronomy in Moliere" (Literary Imagination 5.1 : 125-36), includes Greek and Roman, and German medieval drama, and more recent works by Grass, Neruda, Novo, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Flaubert, Proust; also Horace, Boileau, Rabelais. He does also mention Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast" and Isabel Allende's Aphrodite. James W. Brown's discussion in Fictional Meals and Their Function in the French Novel 1789-1848 (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984) includes Rabelais, Rousseau, Flaubert, Huysmans, Zola, and Proust, but also detailed analysis of George Sand. Don Anderson's "Christina Stead's Unforgettable Dinner-Parties" recalls the archetypal eating of the Mass, Plato's Symposium, and Saul Bellow, besides Stead. Mervyn Nicholson's "Eat--or Be Eaten" (Mosiac 24 [Fall 1991]: 191-210) discusses Goethe, Patrick White, Castaneda, Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, Aldous Huxley, Keats, Blake, Bunyan, Thoreau, Melville, Milton, Strindberg, H.G. Wells, Horace, and Ovid, but also Atwood and Ursula Le Guin.
(3) All citations of verse refer to line numbers unless otherwise noted.
(4) "Beyond Hysteria: 'Haute Cuisine' and 'Cooking Lesson': Writing as Production." Splintering Darkness. Ed. Lucia G. Cunningham. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review P, 1990. 87-110.
(5) North American Nancy Pickard has explicitly carried on Rich's work with The Twenty-Seven Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders (New York: Delacorte, 1993) and The Secret Ingredient Murders (New York: Delacorte, 2001). Her countrywoman, humorist Pat Dennis, provides an affectionate semi-spoof of Minnesotan culture plus eighteen easy recipes in her Hotdish [Minnesotan for Casserole] to Die For: A Collection of Culinary Mystery Short Stories (Minneapolis: Penury, 2000) based on grotesque possibilities, as in "Death by Idaho." A husband intending to murder his wife instead is killed by her with a gun consisting of a potato-stuffed, capped plastic pipe filled with hair spray which she ignites, so that the potato shatters his temple and he falls into the stove, cracking his head. A potato casserole is her specialty.
(6) For more detailed description of McGee, see my review in Woolf Studies Annual 10 (2004): 342-45.
Adcock, Fleur, ed. The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women's Poetry. London: Faber, 1991.
--. "The Voyage Out." Gilbert and Gubar 2123.
Aidoo, Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy: Or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint. Essex: Longman, 1977.
Al-Shaykh, Hanan. "A Girl Called Apple." Trans. Miriam Cooke. HarperCollins World Reader: The Modern World. Ed. Mary Anne Caws and Christopher Prendergast. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. 1719-1722.
Anderson, Don." Christina Stead's Unforgettable Dinner-Parties." Southerly 39 (1979): 28-45.
Arkin, Marian, and Barbara Shollar, eds. Longman Anthology of World Literature by Women. New York: Longman, 1989.
Atwood, Margaret, comp. The Canlit Foodbook. Toronto: Totem, 1987.
Bankier Joanna, et al., eds. The Other Voice: Twentieth-Century Women's Poetry in Translation. New York: Norton, 1976.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974.
Bender, Eileen. "The Woman Who Came to Dinner: Dining and Divining a Feminist Aesthetic." Women's Studies 12 (1986): 315-33.
Bevan, David, ed. Literary Gastronomy. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.
Blodgett, Harriet. "The Feminist Artistry of Paradise of the Blind." World Literature Today and World Literature Today Magazine (Summer/Autumn 2001): 31-39.
--. "Food for Thought in Virginia Woolf's Novels." Woolf Studies Annual 3 (1997): 45-60.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. "Kitchenette Building." Adcock, Faber 140.
Castellanos, Rosario. "Cooking Lesson." Another Way to Be: Selected Works of Rosario Castellanos. Trans. and ed. Myralyn F. Allgood. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 104-112.
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HARRIET BLODGETT, Professor of English at California State University, Stanislaus, is author of Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen's Novels (1975), Centuries of Female Days: Englishwomen's Private Diaries (1988, 1991), and numerous essays, and also the editor of "Capacious Hold-All": An Anthology of Englishwomen's Diary Writings (1991).…