Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in Cautionary Tales of Consumpion

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in Cautionary Tales of Consumpion

Article excerpt

It is probably in tastes in food that one would find the strongest and most indelible mark of infant learning, the lessons which longest withstand the distancing or collapse of the native world and most durably maintain nostalgia for it.

-Pierre Bourdieu (79)

If, with the wolf at the door, there is not very much to eat, the child should know it, but not oppressively. Rather, he should be encouraged to savor every possible bite with one eye on its agreeable nourishment and the other on its fleeting but valuable esthetic meaning.

-M. F. K. Fisher (165)

Food is the most personally powerful object of barter. Atalanta lost the race for a few gold apples. Paris gave the coveted apple to Venus, unleashing a chain of events that would wreak havoc on Troy. Food is also the currency of childhood, our first initiation into the string-pulling power of parenthood. Judeo-Christian myth has it that innocence was bartered for an apple and paid in full. Apparently because of Adam's and Eve's sinful bites, parents have to keep that "bun in the oven," "earn the daily bread," and "bring home the bacon." Baby is just supposed to learn how to chew and swallow. Myth reflects that the most vital, and thus powerful, means of manipulating human bodies is through food. And we start pulling strings from day one.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss writes in From Honey to Ashes, "the world of mythology is round, and therefore does not refer back to any necessary starting point" (foreword, n. pag.). I intend to navigate a playful genealogy of food lures (especially gingerbread) in light of this nonlinearity, however, with much skipping about in order to demonstrate range of relevance.11 hope to show that gingerbread represents just one of many food lures that are symbolically pervasive in folktales, fairy tales, and cautionary tales, one for which a material history is known, and one that can serve as analogous to all symbols of temptation in industrializing and consumerist cultures, which create a cultural climate that is protectionist, pacifying/passifying, and infantilizing toward children.

Food lures convey cultural expectations and challenges, providing fictive opportunities for self-expression or disempowerment. Their power to manipulate becomes subtler in industrial and postmodern tales where child characters are even less accountable for controlling their consumption. Whereas premodern stories indicate that blame, thus agency, resides with the kids lured (as clarified by their responsibility to resist temptation), consumerist revisions of such mythologies involve relocating agency in the lure itself-what matters is not that the tempted subject succumbs to temptation, but that the object of his or her desires can be blamed. Consumers are increasingly depicted as willing victims of a manipulation wherein deeper structure is concealed, agency being reimagined as externally located (impossibly) in ephemeral confections.

Revisitations of "Hansel and Gretel" from this angle concretely rehistoricize our understanding and help trace a pattern to this tendency. It is not a consumerist cautionary tale about curbing one's sweet tooth but originally a premodern story about controlling basic hunger. The mother (a "step" in later versions) who plans to abandon her children is actually proposing what historians tell us was not unreasonable prioritizing in times of famine: to preserve food for working adults by unburdening themselves of helpless dependents. This is a lesson to be learned from another Grimms tale, "The Children Living in a Time of Famine," in which a mother "fell into such deep poverty with her two daughters that they didn't even have a crust of bread left to put in their mouths. Finally they were so famished that the mother was beside herself with despair and said to the older child: ? will have to kill you so that I'll have something to eat'" (Tatar 379). This tale seems to beg sympathy from children for their helpless parents, and to ask for selfless sacrifice in thankful return. …

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