How to make Russian Fudge — a step-by-step guide for cooks with no sweet thermometer and no Edmonds Cookbook (which is only of limited help anyway).
Googling has so far not helped me out on this one, so while Mum was staying at our place this week I had an extended lesson in how to make it set every time, and now I feel obliged to put this up on the internet, because I can’t find anybody else who has adequately described what a ‘soft ball’ is, nor explain all the secrets to getting it right, though this description is a very good start. It really is all in the beating. Some of us noobs need a little more help, so for my own future reference as much as anything, I have taken some (relevant!) progress pictures. I’ve since made five successful batches without help, so I think I’ve got it now.
FROM THE EDMONDS COOKERY BOOK
3 cups sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup condensed milk
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp golden syrup
Put sugar and milk into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Add condensed milk, butter, salt and golden syrup. Stir until butter has melted. Bring to the boil and continue boiling to the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Beat until thick. Pour into a buttered tin. Mark into squares. Cut when cold. Vanilla essence or chopped buts may be added to fudge before beating if desired.
EXTRA NOTES ON HOW TO MAKE RUSSIAN FUDGE
This is from a New Zealand cookbook (though I’m to assume it comes originally from Russia?) so be sure to use Australian/NZ/British sized measuring cups, which are larger than American. I don’t know if this works if you use American sizes — I guess it’s all relative, but what I had been doing is using the Pyrex jug to measure the liquids (American) and a local measurements for the dry ingredients. Don’t do that.
It takes a longish time to dissolve the sugar and milk properly over a gentle heat. When bubbles start to rise, that generally means it’s dissolved enough. This part can be made faster by using castor sugar, in which case it dissolves pretty much instantly, and you can start adding the rest of the ingredients.
BOILING IT UP
The colour in this photo isn’t true to life (too yellow) but this is basically what the mixture will look like once you’ve got it to the ‘soft ball’ stage.
WHAT ON DOG’S GREEN EARTH IS A ‘SOFT BALL’?
To check whether the mixture is at the ‘soft ball’ stage, drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water.
This is what a ‘soft ball’ looks like when dribbled off a spatula into a glass of cold water. Next, tip out the water and scoop out the fudge mixture. It should look like this once you’ve rolled it between your fingers:
It’s hard to describe the feel of a soft ball in pictures, but you should be able to hold it briefly between your fingers like this:
A MOTHER OF A BEATING
The secret to good fudge lies partly in the length of time beating, but then again, at other times I have made this fudge successfully without much beating at all.
A stick mixer won’t do the job.
Then again, if you’re a pioneer, you’ll get by with a wooden spoon and a sweaty brow. As for me, I have to use an electric hand beater, and it usually takes longer than I think it should, on a medium speed.
This is what it looks like before any beating, and just cooled enough for it to stop bubbling. I’ve transferred the mixture into a plastic bowl so I don’t damage the non-stick saucepan with the beaters.
It takes about as long to whip fudge as to whip cream. Something I’ve never measured. The process is similar. Soon you’ll start to see it ripple a little bit.
Continue to beat. A few minutes later, the ripples will be more pronounced and the texture will have changed to something lighter in colour and heavier:
What you really want to see is the Russian fudge starting to set around the edges:
As you can see from the electric beaters, the Russian fudge has set into stalactites.
You know you’ve beaten enough when the mixture really starts to feel heavy on the beaters. (A good reason to use the medium setting on the beater — it’s easier to feel the texture changing.)
Here is the mixture poured into the pan ready for setting. As you can see, the mixture keeps its shape. The folds and peaks remain, unless I smooth them down with a wooden spoon. Be sure to grease the pan really well so that you can tip the whole thing out as a block later ready for cutting into squares, maybe on a chopping board.
Mark it into lots of small squares with a knife once it’s cooled a bit. Then put it in the fridge. When it comes time to cut it, use a hot, wet knife to avoid making so many tiny crumbs.
I cut up the fudge and put it into Glad bags, ready for the freezer. I’ve never frozen fudge before, but apparently it’s fine, as long as you seal the container properly. My husband came into the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’
‘Freezing fudge,’ I replied.
After a short pause he said, ‘You can say it, you know.’
And in case you think I planned on eating all of these batches of fudge myself, I gave a large portion to my husband, with strict instructions to share it around at work. According to his Indian workmates, this fudge is almost exactly the same as barfi. I’ve seen better phonetic correspondences. (Here’s Breaking Barfi, a Breaking Bad parody. Hell, why not.)
There can’t have been much work on at the office either, because it was agreed that Russian fudge is actually Scottish.
If you’ve already read Angela Carter’s short stories, in which she rewrites famous tales as feminist ones, you may well hear her scoffing silently in your head as you read these tales, mostly by Charles Perrault, who added his own paternalistic, misogynist morals as paragraphs at the ends. And if you’ve never read these tales by Perrault — and you may not have, because many different versions have been written since — it’s worth a look. This tale is quite different from any I read as a child. This is probably because modern tellers of this tale have simplified it.
This 1982 collection of fairytales translated into English from French by Angela Carter is illustrated by Michael Foreman, who has had a prolific career since then. You may have seen his work in the books of Michael Morpurgo for instance. He’s been working from the 1960s through to now. It seems he can produce up to about 8 or 9 books per year — a phenomenal work rate, especially considering his painterly style.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PERRAULT’S TALE AND MODERN VERSIONS OF SLEEPING BEAUTY
In Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty from the 1700s, there is not one but two wicked women — the version I remember from the childhood stories is one of the Ladybird Well-Loved Tales.
In this much simplified story from Ladybird there is no second ‘chapter’. The prince arrives, Beauty and Prince get married and they ‘live happily ever after’. In order to beef out the story a bit we have a succession of princes who try to get through the thick brambles that grow around the castle, but none of them is able to get through until the lucky dude who arrives at exactly the right time, at the 100 year point.
Both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White have been bowdlerised for modern children in a similar way, to the point where you might even get them a bit mixed up if you’re out somewhere and your kid asks you to recount a fairytale from memory. In modern adaptations of both stories Beauty is awakened by a passing Prince, she marries him and they live happily ever after. It’s all good.
There is no happily ever after in the earlier version of Sleeping Beauty; nor is it a tale easily conflated with Snow White.
Illustrators vary in how they portray the fairies. In the Ladybird version above, the fairies all look like youthful Miss America finalists from the 1970s, with their long, blonde hair contrasting with the part witchy/part nunnery black costume of the old, evil fairy. Think a bit harder about what this says about women’s worth in general: Women are only ‘good’ if they are sexually alluring. An old woman dressed in a cross between a witch’s costume and a habit is as far away from sexual as you could possibly get. Therefore, we are to assume, she is no good. It’s therefore a slight feminist improvement that the most recent adaptations of Sleeping Beauty tend to feature ‘Tinkerbell’ type fairies rather than this Ladybird woman from the 1970s.
Perrault’s version of Sleeping Beauty isn’t even the worst one. It seems he sanitised it his own self.
Still older versions of the same tale type, among them “Sun, Moon, and Talia“, replace the prince with an already married king. In these versions, he rapes the princess while she lies sleeping and she gives birth to twins before waking up when one of the babies sucks the splinter out of her finger. The cannibalistic queen in this case is the king’s wife. Compare “The Brown Bear of the Green Glen“.
Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” describes the enchanted castle in Gothic terms: blood-chilling and full of death. A frequent element of gothic novels is the heroine who falls into a death-like state. The links between death and sleep appear in many gothic works, not just in this very well-known tale. They tend to feature entrapment and towers.
CHARACTERS IN SLEEPING BEAUTY
In Perrault’s version we have not one but two evil women: first the evil fairy, next the evil mother-in-law. The girl never sees her own parents again, for although they’ve made all their staff and attendants fall asleep so she will be well looked after when she awakes, the bereaved parents leave their castle forever and go somewhere far away. There are two distinct parts to Perrault’s version, translated by Angela Carter in 1982. Honestly, it’s not ‘going-to-sleep’ book, as the title may seem to imply. This is a young adult tale, designed to warn young women not to rush into marriage. Now, it baffles me how Charles Perrault drew this particular moral from the tale, considering the girl in question had already been asleep and dreaming of this prince for 100 years!
Sleeping Beauty’s transgression is that she attempts to spin when it’s actually beneath her social class to do so. Spinning kept peasant women alive but will kill her.
STORY STRUCTURE OF SLEEPING BEAUTY IN THE WOODS
Whose story is this? While the title tells us the tale is about ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the girl is only a plot tool of a character. She has zero agency. At first I thought this was a story about the girl, but when I try to fill out the story structure it becomes obvious that actually the main character in this story is her evil mother in law. The whole thing about the evil fairy, that’s what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin: an event to get the story going. In the end, we don’t even think about what happened to that evil fairy.
The mother of the prince — I assume — feels usurped by the beautiful new daughter in law and is envious of the time her beloved son now spends with her.
She wishes her daughter-in-law gone and her son back.
Sleeping Beauty, whose very beauty and privilege of birth mean she has lost her own boy forever.
She will first eat her two grandchildren and then she will eat her daughter-in-law. (She is part ogre.) But her plans change once she realises the son’s wife and children are not dead at all, that they have been hidden in the cellar by a sympathetic servant man. Now she plans to kill Beauty in the most heinous way herself. She orders a huge vat to be brought into the courtyard, filled with horrible creatures. She’ll have the daughter-in-law and her children thrown into it.
This part is much truncated and rather unsatisfying in Perrault’s version. All we know is that the king comes back early from faraway. He gallops into the courtyard and presumably there is some sort of showdown that the reader doesn’t get to read about. The evil queen rather impetuously, I feel, throws her own self into the vat of vipers instead.
The self-revelations of Perrault’s tale are actually ‘reader revelations’ and they come by way of the ‘Moral’ tacked onto the end of each transliteration. Don’t rush into marriage or you’ll end up with a mother-in-law who wants to eat you, is what Perrault gets from the story.
“The king could not help grieving a little; after all, she was his mother. But his beautiful wife and children soon made him happy again.”
SLEEPING BEAUTY AND CANNIBALISM
Strangely enough, the cannibalistic nana has been left out of modern versions for kids. But look around at other fairytales and you’ll find that kid-munching mummies aren’t all that rare. These tales date from much earlier eras in which famines were common, and mothers did occasionally eat their own children:
George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
But Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child. The child eating mothers of yesteryear are therefore mostly a myth, but have captured the public imagination and been incorporated into oft-shared tales, much like an urban legend of today. (Urban legends often have their origins in bits taken from real-life heinous crimes which have been sensationalised by the media.)
SLEEPING BEAUTY AND MODERN FILM
Writing of Sunset Boulevard, John Truby describes Norma’s house in what is a separate kingdom of Hollywood (a fairytale world):
This fairy-tale world, with its haunted house, its thorns, and its Sleeping Beauty, is also the home of a vampire. […] Sunset Boulevard does not end with the death of the hero. The opponent literally descends into madness. Her ability to distinguish fantasy from reality now gone, she is both her character—“Down below, they’re waiting for the Princess”—and an actress performing in another Hollywood movie. As the newsreel cameras roll, Norma walks down the grand staircase of the “palace” into a deep sleep from which no prince will awaken her.
Notes From: John Truby. The Anatomy of Story.
Maleficent promised to be excellent, as a dive into the backstory of that evil fairy. But the 2014 film did not get good critical reviews. When will filmmakers understand that when you change the best known version of a well-loved tale too much you’re going to run into strife? The other problem for filmmakers though: Which version do you take as the ‘true’ version of the tale? Fairytales change so much, it’s not surprising they make huge alterations themselves in the name of original art.
In 2011, Australia produced a film called Sleeping Beauty — a rather disturbing look into a certain kind of sex work. (The girl is drugged unconscious and used by men with a certain kind of fetish.)
The ‘Forced Sleep Trope’ is used in many different modern stories, in which a character is forced to fall asleep by means of a spell or magic potion. This can get very dark in stories about date rape and so on.
The following Japanese version of Sleeping Beauty, directed by Kihachirō Kawamoto, married Bunraku sensibility with Czech puppetry. This adaptation was co-produced with the Jiří Trnka Studio in Prague. It’s in Japanese without subtitles, but the puppetry alone will give you a creepy vibe.
Picnics — literal picnics — play an important role in Western children’s literature. When discussing children’s literature, ‘picnic’ has a different, related meaning.
Perhaps the stand-out example of picnicking in children’s literature is The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This utopian setting has been rendered even more memorable because of the beautiful illustrations by various artists over the generations.
The Wind In The Willows includes a great picnic scene and is used on the cover of various editions.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PICNICS
This artwork by Arthur Sarnoff captures the feel of a mid-century village picnic, with the women organising everything and the men carrying the heavy things. Looking at that steeple in the background, I’m reminded of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, in which Call (a cowboy born in the early 1800s) isn’t quite sure what picnics are, exactly, but thinks they have something to do with church.
Hansel and Gretel is one of the best-known fairytales. Almost everybody knows the basic story but, more than that, this tale is the ur-story for many seemingly unrelated modern ones. For example, whenever a character meets a character in a ‘forest’ (whether the forest is symbolic or not), the audience is put in mind of wicked cannibalistic witches.
Let’s face it: The tale itself is basically terrifying. Anthony Browne, with his postmodern approach to its retelling, does not shy away from the terror.
‘Sweetened’ Versions of Hansel and Gretel
The truth is, my daughter does not like the Anthony Browne version of Hansel and Gretel. For her it is too scary. She doesn’t like the dark version illustrated by Lorenzo Mattoti, either, preferring the cheap Ladybird edition with its brighter colours. This might explain why many illustrators of Hansel and Gretel — and there have been many — are not interested in what the story is really about, because the original is just too horrible.
The sweetening of this tale started with the Grimm brothers, who needed to make money to support their collection hobby, so they rewrote some of the horrible tales into versions they considered appropriate for middle class children.
The Grimm Brothers Made It Worse, As Usual
By that I mean, they made it horribly patriarchal. And we’ve been using their version ever since, sweetening it up a little, but the basic patriarchal message is the same:
The Grimm brothers rewrote and refined their version of the tale before it was published in 1857. It bears little resemblance to the original oral tale told to Wilhelm in 1810. While the mother figure is clearly demonized in this story, the father’s involvement in abandoning his children is carefully downplayed.
— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
The main differences in the oral version:
The opponent was originally a mother, not a stepmother. The Grimm brothers obviously thought that having your blood mother turn on you was too scary. They did retain the shortened form of ‘mother’ in some passages though.
The mother/stepmother grows harsher.
The father grows more introspective and milder.
Wilhelm made the tale more dramatic, more literary, and more sentimental. For example, the children’s escape from the sinister woods across a large body of water, one at a time, on the back of a duck. In the original they simply run home.
Anthony Browne’s Hansel and Gretel
Anthony Browne is one writer/illustrator who does understand what this tale is really about, though he does go with something more like the Grimm modification rather than the original, oral tale.
This is no sweetened version. The fact that this is a modern setting, with a TV and a step-mother who smokes cigarettes, and that they live in a brownstone detached house mean that the child reader can no longer pretend abandonment and famine happen only in ‘fairytale land’.
Here’s the thing Browne underscores the most:
The mother and the witch are the same person.
In Hansel and Gretel, the mother figure is split … and clearly has cannibalistic desires.
— from Carolyn Daniel’s book Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Daniels further explains the double/duplicitous/split nature of the (step)mother/witch with the help of some 20th C psychoanalysis:
The witch locks Hansel up in a cage and wakes Gretel up by yelling: “Get up you lazybones! I want you to fetch some water and cook your brother something nice. He’s sitting outside in a pen, and we’ve got to fatten him up. Then, when he’s fat enough, I’m going to eat him.”
This is a portrait of a powerful cannibalistic woman, the bad mother, who is directly juxtaposed with the good mother figure. Two facets of the mother figure are represented in this fairy tale: the evil, threatening, cannibalistic one embodied by the witch/stepmother and the comforting, feeding persona initially presented by the old woman to lure the children. The link between the stepmother and the witch is made explicitly — they both wake the children with the phrase “Get up, you lazybones” and they are both dead by the end of the story: the stepmother is the facet of the bad mother/breast who denies the children nourishment and abandons them; the witch is the mother/breast who threatens to retaliate. The duplicitousness of the bad mother is also emphasized: in her manifestation as the stepmother she pretends to be as pleased when the children find their way home; as the witch she pretends to be a kind, generous, good mother in order to lure the children into her house.
Bruno Bettelheim [who was a total asshole, by the way — I can’t write about him without slipping that in there] considers “Hansel and Gretel” to be a tale about a child’s inappropriate oral aggression, that “gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and thus destructive desires.” But it is noteworthy that in this tale the children are orally nonaggressive. They do break off pieces of the house and “nibble” them but then they are about to “perish of hunger and exhaustion” (Grimms.) It is the witch who is aggressive and cannibalistic, but Bettelheim does not discuss this.
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Hansel and Gretel and Child Development
I’m no Freudian, but here’s some quoted psychoanalysis if you like.
It is interesting to consider the ending of the tale in terms of psychoanalytic notions of child development. The children’s task is to escape the clutches of the devouring mother and to proceed from the oral phase to the oedipal stage and a meaningful relationship with their father. They live in her house for a month while she feeds Hansel on “the very best food” and waits for him to get fatter. Hansel, then, partakes of the good breast while Gretel, who “got nothing but grab shells” to eat, is denied it. They are clearly in the oral, pre-oedipal phase. By threatening to eat Hansel, the witch/bad mother clearly intends to incorporate and psychically obliterate him. Gretel kills the witch/bad mother by pushing her into the oven so that she is “miserably burned to death”. The threat of incorporation she poses is thus neutralized.
Since the children have now successfully separated from the witch/mother, they are able to reenter her house/domain “since they no longer had anything to fear.” There are children find “chests filled with pearls and jewels all over the place” and they fill pockets and apron with this treasure before leaving the house for good. Tracy Willard contends that while the good mother is not reclaimed literally or explicitly in this tale, she is symbolically reclaimed through the treasure the children find in her house. I suggest that this tale illustrates the process whereby children reconcile themselves to the duality of the mother; her presence and absence, her giving and withholding of food, and the gratification and frustration that result. The children in the tale not only kill off the bad mother but they also leave behind the oral phase. When they arrive at the house in the forest, all they are interested in is food (gratification from a maternal source), but when they leave the house/maternal domain they take treasure (economic wealth associated with the father) with them which enriches their lives, so that they can enter the paternal oedipal domain, and live with their father in “utmost joy”.
Willard […] sees the children’s home (or mother’s body) as a place that becomes hostile to them, expelling them into the forest and denying them food. They try to return but are rejected and thrust out to fend for themselves. The children find a house in the woods that appears to offer them what they desire (a return to the mother’s body) but it turns out to be a trap. Thus “the dangers of returning home are clearly outlined.” The children, Willard argues, must deal with the image of the split mother so that they can attain “a fully integrated image of the mother”. They do this by committing matricide, an act which Kristeva argues is the clearest path to autonomy. By killing the witch/bad mother, the children are free to return to their father, but they take with them the “best parts” of the split mother figure, symbolically represented by the jewels. […] The symbolism of food and the theme of eating (including cannabilism) in the story have profound psychic resonances with infantile anxieties relating to the mother which is arguably why the story continues to be popular.
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
The Role Of The Father and ‘Mothers In Fridges’?
But what of the role of the father in this tale? The Grimm brothers’ version celebrates the oedipal complex and reinforces patriarchal hegemony. As Zipes argues, this story twice demonizes the omnipotent mother figure but it also, significantly, was rewritten by the Grimms in order to rationalize the abandonment of the children by their father and to bolster phallocentric discourses.Hansel and Gretel must, Zipes argues, “seek solace and security in a father, who becomes their ultimate authority figure” while the mother is conveniently killed off. This situation marries with Jessica Benjamin’s theorization of object relations whereby the child identifies with the mother and maternal power and turns to the father for help in order to overcome the perceived negative aspects of the mother. However, once his help/authority has been accepted the father figure remains in control, continues to dictate the child’s life, and can be “benevolent or sadistic”. Patriarchal hegemony and phallocentric logic are thus reinforced in the Grimms’ narrative and the outcome is rendered natural or rational.
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
SYMBOLISM IN “HANSEL AND GRETEL”
The Red Shoes
What do you associate red shoes with? Perhaps you associate them with the film version of The Wizard of Oz, in which the bad witch is squished under the house, her ruby slippers poking out?
The Red Shoes is a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, so not of the Grimm variety, but ‘fairytale’ enough for readers to get the possible meaning in the picture above, in which red shoes sit next to the mirrored wardrobe door.
A peasant girl named Karen is adopted by a rich old lady after her mother’s death and grows up vain and spoiled. Before her adoption, Karen had a rough pair of red shoes; now she has her adoptive mother buy her a pair of red shoes fit for a princess. After Karen repeatedly wears them to church, they begin to move by themselves, but she is able to get them off. One day, when her adoptive mother becomes ill, Karen goes to a party in her red shoes. A mysterious soldier appears and makes strange remarks about what beautiful dancing shoes Karen has. Soon after, Karen’s shoes begin to move by themselves again, but this time they can’t come off. The shoes continue to dance, night and day, rain or shine, through fields and meadows, and through brambles and briers that tear at Karen’s limbs. She can’t even attend her adoptive mother’s funeral. An angel appears to her, bearing a sword, and condemns her to dance even after she dies, as a warning to vain children everywhere. Karen begs for mercy but the red shoes take her away before she hears the angel’s reply. Karen finds an executioner and asks him to chop off her feet. He does so but the shoes continue to dance, even with Karen’s amputated feet inside them. The executioner gives her a pair of wooden feet and crutches, and teaches her the criminals’ psalm. Thinking that she has suffered enough for the red shoes, Karen decides to go to church so people can see her. Yet her amputated feet, still in the red shoes, dance before her, barring the way. The following Sunday she tries again, thinking she is at least as good as the others in church, but again the dancing red shoes bar the way. Karen gets a job as a maid in the parsonage, but when Sunday comes she dares not go to church. Instead she sits alone at home and prays to God for help. The angel reappears, now bearing a spray of roses, and gives Karen the mercy she asked for: her heart becomes so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy that it bursts. Her soul flies on sunshine to Heaven, where no one mentions the red shoes.
— Wikipedia summary
The pink fripperies spilling out of the dresser drawers suggest several things about this step-mother:
She is not a good housewife (when the implication is that a good housewife is also a good mother, and that being a good housekeeper is the job of the woman.
That women who are over-the-top feminine — look at all the feminine accoutrements, signified by the colour pink — are over-the-top vain. The mirror adds to the impression of vanity, and we will subconsciously conjure up Snow White and the magic mirror in that tale.
Note that the step-mother has not one but two mirrors in her bedroom, which is considered excessively vain, but apart from that, there’s the whole ‘witch/mother’ mirroring going on.
Repulsive as it sounds in times of plenty, cannibalism in times of famine isn’t all that unusual.
George Devereaux, citing “Multatuli (1868),” pseudonym of novelist Edward Douwes Dekker, reports that during medieval famines and “even during the great postrevolutionary famine in Russia” the “actual eating of one’s children or the marketing of their flesh” occurred. He concludes that “the eating of children in times of food shortage is far from rare.”
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Maria Tatar argues that although mothers did eat their children, it was generally only due to mental derangement caused by her own starvation. In medical/legal documents it was always a baby who was eaten rather than an older child.
In modern literature, there is a horrific scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the main characters happen across a baby being roasted on a spit. It seems McCarthy, also, understands that babies are more likely to be eaten than older children in times of famine.
Paternal cannibalism is of a different nature and can be seen in The Juniper Tree (sometimes called The Almond Tree). In cases where the father eats his child in a fairytale, Tatar sees it as an expression of ‘biological ownership through incorporation’. The child can (in a strange sort of way) live on via being made into the father’s own body. The father in the Juniper Tree is not cast as good or evil in the same way fairy tale mothers are.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH HANSEL AND GRETEL
Other fairytales that start in a time of famine:
The Knapsack, the Hat, and the Horn
The Sweet Porridge — better known in English speaking countries as The (Magic) Porridge Pot
The Children of Famine — exemplifies the plight of families unable to feed their kids. The mother becomes unhinged and desperate when she is unable to feed her own children.
Little Red Riding Hood also has cannibalistic elements which are sometimes sanitised. This tale is pretty much the only European tale in which a good — a good girl no less — is involved in cannibalism.
I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.
Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?
In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)
To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)
There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.
Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:
The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.
— Five Children and It
Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:
Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton
Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.
While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.
[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.
— Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Enid Blyton and Froebel Training
Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.
Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.
Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.
The Magic Porridge Pot is also known as Sweet Porridge and various similar titles.
There is a motif common in European folktales: A cooking pot that will not cease overflowing. Although this story is obviously a response to famine, I think it’s also a response to a general childhood way of thinking in which you’re not sure when things that start are going to stop. Although there were no flush toilets back in the middle ages, I still remember being wary of flushing toilets when I was a kid, never completely sure if a flushing toilet would overflow, or if a fast-running tap would ever turn off, for instance.
I am more familiar with the English title ‘The (Magic) Porridge Pot’ and you probably are too, but this fairytale was originally called ‘Sweet Porridge’ in German. Apparently it is originally Swedish.
Various Versions Of The Magic Porridge Pot
Several different Ladybird versions of this tale can be found on our shelves. They are interesting to compare because the style of illustration is so different. Most of the big children’s book titles have produced a version of The Magic Porridge Pot. Here’s an Usborne version, with its bright colours and lively black outline work:
Ladybird produced its own version in the same illustrative style:
Not just one, actually! Here we have a more subtle, watercolour style for the distant background but the cartoonish style of the characters is very similar:
Just for contrast, this takes the cake for the ugliest children’s book cover I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they were thinking but what the actual? Is this a Magic Eye type thing? Or the underbelly of a snake?
Here’s an illustration from a more recent version of this story which appeared in a children’s magazine in 2015. The style of the characters reminds me of Japanese manga characters. It could almost be a still from a Hayao Miyazaki anime:
Back to the earlier versions, I’m not sure what that thing is on the mother’s head, is it a towel because she has washed her hair, or a very big bow?
In any case, these characters look like recognisable people. The cartoon characters can be pretty much anyone white, but these two look like they’ve been based on real human models. This one’s similar, though she looks like a more generic beautiful white woman:
Now to my own 1971 Ladybird edition, which I like the most. It is illustrated by Londoner Robert Lumley, born 1920.
This woman looks like a specific person, doesn’t she?
This version is part of the ‘realistically illustrated’ series, all by Robert Lumley, in the decade between 1964 and 1974.
The most hilarious thing about the illustrations in these books is that they look very much ‘posed for’ and staged. “Imagine this pot on the table is overflowing,” says the artist, taking a reference photo. “Now, look surprised!”
“Look a different kind of surprised!”
“Imagine the pot is magical!”
(I’m assuming the emaciated mouse wearing pants and holding a mini plate was not posed for.)
I know I sound critical of this realistic style of illustration in these Lumley Ladybirds, but really they’re my favourite versions. While the illustrations do lack more realistic movements that can be better achieved via a cartoonish style (see the illustrations of Australian Emma Quay, especially Rudie Nudie, for a great example of characters in movement), the illustrations here are very much of a time and place — specifically old world German — which is harder to achieve in a highly cartoonish style.
“Now, you just stand over there in the background. Don’t move…”
The addition of wild animals in the frame make these photorealistic illustrations seem more ‘picturebook-like’. In the picture above, an interested rabbit.
Here we still have some off-kilter perspective — I suspect there was no reference photo for this one, or perhaps the illustrator specialises in portraits — but it absolutely does the job of conveying the quaintness of the town.
Food In Fairytales
Food is a regular component of fairy tales that have medieval oral antecedents. Famine was a frequent and devastating feature of life in Europe in the Middle Ages and deprivation inevitably shapes fantasies and desires. The magic world of fairy tales often promised rich, sweet, and plentiful food.
— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
STARVATION IN THE MEDIEVAL ERA
In medieval times when crops failed the poor were forced to live on: “horsse corne, beanes, peason, otes, tares & lintels.”
— William Harrison’s A Description of England, 1577
horsse-corne = corn grown for horses
peason = an obsolete plural for peas
tares = any of several weedy plants that grow in grain fields
lintels = ‘lentils’ is the modern spelling
During the period 1437 to 1439, for example, “when there was a succession of wet summers and harvests were ruined, the peasantry was reduced to eating such herbs and roots as they could gather from the hedgerows, and thousands died“. The scenario in “The Sweet Porridge” reflects similarly desperate circumstances; the girl’s mother is a widow, so the earning capacity of the husband/father figure has been lost and the girl is presumably searching for something edible in the woods. It is not hard to understand how such persistent hunger and hopeless conditions could lead to a fantasy such as a magic porridge pot. It is not so much what is eaten that is at issue when you are starving but that there should be sufficient of whatever there is to eat. Good, sweet porridge, and plenty of it, could fulfill that desire. “The Sweet Porridge” is thus a story that relies upon habitual and chronic hunger as a driving force.
In fact, even those who lived in castles couldn’t afford to withstand a famine back then, at least in what’s now known as The Great Famine (1315-1317). The human population in Europe was exceeding the ability for land to provide food, except in years with bumper crops. Other impacts of starvation:
Sometimes elderly people would sacrifice eating in order to let the younger ones pull through.
Some churchgoers started to realise that no amount of prayer would provide food and church attendance dropped during times of famine.
The Black Death actually helped fixed the starvation crisis, since the population was greatly reduced. But famine was still a great threat.
Most people would go through 3-4 famines in their lifetimes during the middle ages.
In the Middle Ages, rich people ate what today could best be compared to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions diet, with plenty of meat, poultry and saturated fats, with fermented grains and unpasteurised dairy products. But poor people ate whatever they could get their hands on, with porridge being cheap, along with bread made from barley and rye. Poor people drank ale, similar to beer. Barley was eaten at every meal. The poor drank water and mixed it with honey if they could. This is not so different from what poor people eat today: grain products and lots of fructose.
Compare and Contrast With The Magic Porridge Pot
When it comes to food fantasy in folk tales,Hansel and Gretel is the stand-out example, to the point you can’t now put a witch in a forest without the audience thinking of this famous tale.
Versions of The Magic Porridge Pot story can also be found in other cultures. For example West Kalimantan (Indonesia) has a folktale called Why Rice Grains Are So Small.
Tomie dePaola wrote a tale called Strega Nona, published in 1975, a modern version of The Magic Porridge Pot in which there is an overflowing magic pasta pot. This is probably dePaola’s best known work. It is set in Italy, of course. dePaola created the character of Strega Nona (Grandma Witch) himself, even though she sounds like she’s borrowed from folklore.
Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.
Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?
The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically.
— Voracious Children: Who eats who in children’s literature? by Carolyn Daniel
Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:
All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.
Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:
The Wind In The Willows
Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy
“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.
The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behavior which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.
–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.
I believe picture books featuring oversized items are utilising the same quirk of the brain: massive items are memorable.
When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:
Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:
According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
We are told:
The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.
Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.
So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?
CANNIBALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Angela Carter, in one of her deft and offhand sullies, famously remarked that a fairy tale is a story in which one king goes to visit another king to borrow a cup of sugar.
— Marina Warner
This hunger in fairy tales reveals its keen edge even more clearly against the historical background. Actual orphans and fairy tale foundlings coexisted in the eighteenth-century culture, and food was stodgy and often scanty.
— Marina Warner
A Brief History of Cannibalism, Real and Literary
The prohibition against eating human flesh is one of the first steps in human civilization. Cannibalism was universally accepted in the archaic world, but later started to be viewed as alien. Cannibalism is often connected with the Fall, that is the loss of immortality. In a myth, the so-called cultural hero terminates cannibalism by defeating the cannibal enemy.
In one common myth a supreme deity punishes his children/spouse by cutting them into bits and throwing them down from heaven to earth or hiding them underground. Nutritious plants grow from the mutilated bodies.
An important mythical figure is the Progenitrix, the incarnation of Mother Earth, the origin of everything. In most myths, she teaches humans to sow and to bake bread.
— Maria Nikolajeva
The children’s literature equivalent of the Progenitrix are parents or other adults — usually the mother.
Hence, we must interpret all scenes in children’s fiction where the mother provides food not only and not in the first place as realistic details (as a traditional female role), but as a remnant of the human notion of the Progenitrix, the source of food and thus of procreation.
Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, offers further examples of cannibalism in storytelling, beginning with some very old tales:
The Juniper Tree from the Grimm collections, which is an 1800s take on an ancient tale pattern — Tereus in Philomena and Procne and Ovid’s tale of Philomel. Hera, Demeter, Hades, Hestia, Poseidon (of the Olympians); Jupiter, Zeus, Saturn and Kronos (of the Romans).
Tamara Queen of the Goths in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which played from 1592. The 1500s were a golden era for cannibal stories, especially on the stage.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow Whiteare very similar tales at their core and in both of those you’ll find a cannibalistic grandmother (witch) figure — both are frustrated in their desire to eat offspring, but they both wanted to. You’ll have to go back to the Perrault versions to get the juicy cannibalistic bits — the stories tend to leave out part two of Sleeping Beauty for a young, contemporary audience.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, in which Sophie (and therefore the child reader) is terrified of being eaten by giants. This is straight out of fairytale.
Silence of the Lambs is not a children’s film but includes this cannibalistic element, also linking cannibalism to sex. For Hannibal Lecter, eating people is a sexual experience.
Jack and the Beanstalk, in which the giant in the castle in the sky wants to eat Englishmen, grinding their bones to make bread. Many cannibals have been ostracised from civilised society and live in the forest, but there’s another type of ‘ogre’ who lives in a castle. Jack and the Beanstalk is a good example of that kind.
Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, which is for adults but studied in high schools around the English speaking world. (Is it just a coincidence that lambs keep coming up? Is it because lambs are delicious?) Dahl took a macabre delight in cannibalism and other deviance. (Most of it came out in his short stories for adults, but he gave children a taste.)
A contemporary take on the cannibal fairy tale — and a hugely successful one at that — is the picture book Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? If you’re a picture book author, how do you get away with cannibalism in today’s market? The pig and the goose are an excellent case study: In a Rosie’s Walk style of hero obliviousness, they have no idea that they’ve caused the downfall of the wolf (the wicked witch stand-in), and that he’s about to be consumed by his wolf cronies. In other words, you can cause cannibalism — just make it comical and make it accidental.
While we still see actual cannibals in contemporary stories, we’ve now got another kind of monster who functions in the same way: the pedophile or child abuser. Whatever we say about him, we can also say of the ancient cannibal.
So why all the cannibalism? What are we to make of them, really? What are they saying at a deeper level?
Symbolism and Motifs of Cannibalism
Here’s Nikolajeva’s take:
The meaning of cannibalism is that by eating up your enemy you inherit his powers. There exists a habit of eating up the eldest man in the tribe to inherit his wisdom. Later this changes into ritual meals. To eat a symbolical figure signifies receiving magical power. To eat and be eaten are two interchangeable notions, which is seen in the Christian tradition’s most important sacrament, the Holy Communion. Jesus prescribed that His “body” be eaten, symbolizing a union of those who eat and Him who is being eaten, which together signifies a victory over death and a promise of resurrection.
Food and Christianity
Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.
The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind–offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.
Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother). The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.
In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:
Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
Who has control of the child’s identity?
The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)
Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.
The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.
Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.
In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:
when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.
Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.
When Women Eat Children
Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.
From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the battle stage, right before the self-revelation.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good battle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.
Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.
The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.
— Maria Nikolajeva
I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatise the struggle for survival within the family.
Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.
Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).
The Hierarchy of Cannibals
In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast. (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)
For the word lovers among you:
Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
Infantiphage — someone who eats babies
Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.
In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:
In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterization. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.
Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:
The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’
The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.
— No Go the Bogeyman
Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.
In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:
Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up:”What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.
– From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.
FOOD AS A LINK BACK TO THE HOME
When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.
– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
FOOD AS A TRIAL
Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.
– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.
–The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.
On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:
During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast–and sardines–and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”
Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the kidlit equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.
A shared meal–which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion–is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.
Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.
“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.
In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:
Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.
BAKHTIN’S MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE
In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:
The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).
MEALS AS A MEANS OF CIVILIZATION
Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ANIMALS AND FOOD IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.
Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.
In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman
The dream about the Land of Plenty–Cocayne or Schlarafflenland–has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic conseqeunce of stomach ache.
Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.
HUNGER IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.
Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.
Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):
gruell for breakfast
potatoes for lunch
milk and bread for supper on Monday
milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)
This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.
THE IDEOLOGY OF FAMILY MEALTIMES TOGETHER
The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.
This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.
Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.
In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.
The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.
FOR COMEDIC EFFECT
‘And I like your shoes.’
He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of the people are long dead.’
the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan
Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?
Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.
Several scholars have pointed out the parallel between sexuality in general fiction and food in fiction for children. Glutton and greed are common motifs in traditional children’s literature, inevitably followed by punishment.
– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature
Breakfast eating has changed a lot over time, at least in the West, which in turn has influenced other cultures. These changes have of course been reflected in children’s literature.
“As for me, I was hungry, and contented myself with silently demolishing the tea, ham, and toast…” wrote Anne Bronte in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. But the times were already changing. The health of Britons was already being affected by the industrialization of food. Bronte writes several pages later of the vicar, in uncomplimentary terms:
He had a laudable care for his own bodily health — kept very early hours, regularly took a walk before breakfast, was vastly particular about warm and dry clothing, had never been known to preach a sermon without previously swallowing a raw egg — albeit he was gifted with good lungs and a powerful voice, — and was, generally, extremely particular about what he ate and drank, though by no means abstemious, and having a mode of dietary peculiar to himself, — being a great despiser of tea and such slops, and a patron of malt liquors, bacon and eggs, ham, hung beef, and other strong meats, which agreed well enough with his digestive organs, and therefore were maintained by him to be good and wholesome for everybody, and confidently recommended to the most delicate convalescents or dyspeptics, who, if they failed to derive the promised benefit from his prescriptions, were told it was because they had not persevered, and if they complained of inconvenient results therefrom, were assured it was all fancy.
The Edwardian Era In England (1901–1910)
At nine in the morning, servants would be required to do as following:
9 a.m.: The family breakfast is served. While the servants have had porridge or, if they are lucky, bacon and eggs, their employers will be greeted with an array of silver covered dishes with bacon, eggs, kippers, kedgeree, devilled kidneys, freshly baked rolls and fruit.
— from Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney
The servants themselves had a less lavish breakfast, but they did often get bacon and eggs if they worked at an opulent house. If they stayed in their working class homes they would’ve been stuck with porridge.
1929 Rural America
In A Long Way From Chicago, two children visit their hillbilly grandmother each summer. There, they eat pancakes and corn syrup, fried ham and potatoes and onions for breakfast — as much as they like. Then the depression sets in.
1943 Rural America
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is set during WW2 and is heavily based on stories told to her by her own mother. A breakfast scene shows the exact era in which mothers quit cooking breakfasts for their brood:
“Well, look who’s up,” my mother said as she came in the door, a basket of eggs in her hand. She tied on an apron and said, “Scrambled or fried?”
“I already had cereal.”
1975 (Australia vs America)
Exchange Student is about a 14-year-old Sydney girl who spends a year in Ohio, USA. This observation marks the exact era American breakfast traditions started to be adopted here in Australia:
“My brother will never believe the things they have on this menu,” she said. “He’d go wild over all these pancakes and syrup and the blueberry waffles and things. He’s always complaining about being sick of having eggs and bacon for breakfast.”
— Exchange Student by Estelle Grey
From See You Thursday by Jean Ure:
For breakfast there were sausages and tomatoes. Mrs Fenton announced the fact with a brisk: ‘Here we are, then…sausages at twelve o’clock, tomatoes at six.’ Marianne wondered what on earth she was talking about, until slowly it dawned on her that she was describing for Mr Shonfeld’s benefit the postiion of things on the plate. … They never had sausages; not for breakfast. Sausages were supper. She couldn’t eat them at quarter to eight in the morning.
So what did Marianne prefer for breakfast, if not sausages and tomatoes?
To spare Mr Shonfeld’s feelings, she forced herself to eat it. Her mother would only say: ‘What’s the matter with those sausages?’ if she didn’t, and then she would have to say that she didn’t feel like sausages and then Mr Shonfeld might start thinking about bacon and eggs and wondering if it were his fault.
It’s not cereal and toast that Marianne is missing, rather another kind of meat. Later, taking Mr Shonfeld shopping at the supermarket, she recommends eggs, because eggs are nutritious.
What would a modern dietitian think of a breakfast of bacon and eggs? Well, that depends. If you’ve been trained by the government then you’ll be recommending ‘heart healthy whole grains’ for breakfast, along with a small glass of fruit juice and dairy.
But look a bit further and you’ll see a growing number of health professionals — equally well-qualified and equally smart — who are looking at the very latest research in health and nutrition and drawing a very different conclusion. Loren Cordain, Sally Fallon, Dr Mary Enig, Gary Taubes, Mark Sisson, Nora Gedgaudas, Chris Kresser, Chris Masterjohn, Stephanie Ruper and many others are all telling us something quite different about breakfasts:
1. Not everybody needs to eat an early breakfast to maintain good health
2. All meals should include a thumb-sized portion of fat for satiety, with ‘low-fat’ products ideally banished from existence
3. Sugar should be avoided — and not just added sugars, but any processed carbohydrate which breaks down to sugar (glucose) in the body
4. All meals should include vegetables, not just the dinner meal, which is actually in line with the government recommendations (the pyramid and the plate — breakfast doesn’t give you any free pass on the vegetables)
5. Fruit should be eaten in moderation, and if you’re going to juice it, throw away the juice and eat the pulp. There’s nothing you get from fruit that you can’t get from vegetables.
6. Trans fats are terrible for the body.
7. Industrial seed oils (‘vegetable oils’) should be avoided at all costs
8. Animal proteins are superior to plant proteins in every single way
9. Each meal needs to contain some animal protein
10. Fat doesn’t actually make you fat. Nor does it lead to heart disease.
Our great grandparents knew this. (Maybe even your grandparents, depending on your age.) That’s why they ate meat and eggs for breakfast.
Season six of Mad Men is especially interesting because it’s set in that period of American history in which the ad men were charged with the job of persuading the public that margarine is healthier than butter, and that extruded cereals should be taken at breakfast, straight from the supermarket shelves, rather than meat from the local butchery.
Those ad men did a wonderful job on us. Now, even though every bit of good science is telling us to go back to eating the pre-industrial way, our idea of a ‘healthy’ breakfast is so embedded in our culture that it’s almost impossible to think in any other way. It all changed in the 80s.
Take this Whitbread award winning passage from 1988:
Every morning, after walking the dog, I wait for the post. Our postman, despite his vigorous life, does not look healthy. His skin is showing signs of trouble within; a tinge has spread over his cheeks, a sort of threadwork of veinous blood vessels, suggesting cardiovascular irregularities. The surface of his skin is being irrigated by diverted blood; that is my diagnosis. I would guess that the beneficial effects of walking miles every day are nullified by his daily breakfast of sausages, egg and bacon. I have seen him with his fellow postmen gathered for these huge breakfasts at Lil’s Cafe, near the Electric Cinema. There’s hardly a person left in the developed world who doesn’t not know that this sort of diet is fatal, yet Cockneys must have it. All Cockneys are unhealthy as a result.
– Leading The Cheers by Justin Cartwright
It’s no accident that literary breakfasts parallel exactly the food trends of our society. Equally interesting: breakfasts of toast, margarine and cereal also mark the beginning of the diabetes epidemic. Since fat helps to regulate blood sugar, this is no coincidence.
Breakfast Is A Liar, Might Not Be Most Important Meal Of The Day from Jezebel. The Paleo eating community has been saying this all along, by the way. If you’re a paleo person you eat breakfast when you’re hungry, even if it turns into lunch. You also eat vegetables for breakfast. This might seem totally weird until you realise that even the government issue food plate does include a large portion of vegetables, and nowhere does it say you get a free pass for breakfast time.