Unruly Appetites: Food in Fiction, from Pomegranate to Avocado
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
the role of food in myth and literature – and the ways we use it to tell our own stories.
The pages of literature are stuffed with food: banquets are hosted, larders raided and meals go tellingly untouched. Persephone eats six pomegranate seeds and is confined to Hades for half each year; Jesus miraculously fills five thousand bellies with only five loaves and two fish; Oliver Twist’s request for more gruel changes the course of his young life; and, in Nora Ephron's Heartburn, Rachel Samstat hurls an avenging key lime pie at her philandering husband.
Underestimate food at your peril, books tell us – for in feeding the human body, we reveal
the human soul. When words fail us, we look to our plates to read what is written there, in the frothy pavlova, the uneaten stew, the scraped-clean peanut butter jar. In her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake Aimee Bender builds on this idea, endowing her protagonist with an unusual gift: her taste buds can discern the emotions of whoever cooks the food she eats.
It isn’t just what we consume that’s significant, but also how, where and with whom. The
meals we share with others, or choose to eat alone. The sustenance we need, yet sometimes deny our bodies. The power of flavour to evoke memories, and open minds to other cultures. In his memoir Kitchen Confidential, culinary enfant terrible Anthony Bourdain extols the virtues of intrepid eating: 'the local stew, the humble taqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head ... I want to try everything once.’
In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, set in a working-class suburb of postwar Naples,
there’s rarely a morsel to spare. So when Lenù’s friend Lila marries into relative wealth, Lenù marvels at the plenitude: ‘such abundance was never seen at my parents’ house: how good the smell of the fresh bread was, and the taste of the fillings, especially the prosciutto, bright red edged with white.’
In more affluent times, food presents a contrasting problem. In Lara Williams’ Supper Club, the friendless undergraduate Roberta is frightened by the force of her own appetite: ‘The act of cooking imposed a kind of dignity on hunger, which had become terrifying. I couldn’t remember how I had managed hunger, the animal wildness of it, before.’ Finding a new sense of purpose, she creates elaborate meals to complement her studies: waffles and grits for her Southern Gothic seminar, steak tartare for New French Extreme.
Later, when she moves in with a friend, Stevie, she’s excited about having someone to cook for – an audience elevates solitary gluttony to performance art. But Stevie’s vexed when she can't zip up her jeans. Neither woman feels at liberty to eat with abandon, Roberta admitting: ‘I worked hard at keeping my weight within pleasing parameters. It seemed so crass, so unacceptable, to be a woman who liked and was interested in food, and who dared to look like she did.’
Guilt-free eating is similarly unimaginable for the women in Mona Awad’s novel 13 Ways of
Looking at a Fat Girl, most of whom are engaged in a lifelong battle to curb their unruly appetites and flesh. Consumed by her longing for thinness, and the yawning hunger she must ignore to achieve it, Lizzie resents her ‘itsy-bitsy’ colleague, whom she suspects of getting kicks out of ‘eating copiously in front of me while I eat nothing, and pointing out how I’m eating nothing while she’s eating copiously’.
At the opening of Livia Franchini’s novel Shelf Life, Ruth is dumped by her fiancée. The sole remaining trace of their ten-year relationship is a shopping list – a device she uses to tell their story, grocery by grocery. Yet food is dangerous territory for Ruth, who tries to impose order on life’s unpredictability with a strict regime – behaviour clearly learned from her mother. In a disturbing scene with gothic, Miss Havisham echoes, Ruth takes a rotisserie chicken round for lunch, according to their tradition. Following a practised ritual, mother and daughter dissect it together like 'a wedding cake', dabbing the coleslaw dry and parcelling up the meat and vegetables in napkins which they stuff inside the carcass. At the end of the meal, neither woman has eaten a thing.
Jesse, in Darcey Steinke's cult feminist classic Suicide Blonde, lives in fear of her mother's fate. A beauty, her mother married a minister in a bid for security, but inadvertently chained herself to a life of self-denial and self-diminishment. After years of threats the minister finally abandoned her to weight gain and bitterness. Jesse – who used to 'wake at night and pull a pillow to my stomach, worrying about getting fat' – is at twenty-nine resolutely skinny, defined by the physical beauty she has been taught to value so highly. In relationships with men she can't help replicating the patterns of appeasement she witnessed in her mother.
In Sophie Mackintosh’s dystopian novel Blue Ticket, the narrator flouts the law and the lot she drew at puberty by daring to get pregnant. Her attitude to food undergoes a dramatic shift; what was once a source of guilt becomes an essential source of nutrients: ‘my appetite was enormous. I felt no shame about it, for once.’ Later, on the run from a totalitarian state, it’s about survival. She and her fellow fugitives are constantly ravenous, as their limited supplies (oranges, sliced bread) cannot hope to sate their raging pregnant appetites.
Yet unfettered consumption is also a seduction, with certain foods claiming aphrodisiac powers: oysters, asparagus, chocolate. Stephanie Danler’s New York restaurant novel Sweetbitter chronicles the sensory awakening of a naive waiter, in which food and sex are inextricably linked. In ‘Goblin Market’, Christina Rossetti’s allegorical morality poem, self-disciplined Lizzie resists while her sister Laura succumbs to the temptation of enchanted fruits: ‘She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more / Fruits which that unknown orchard bore; / She suck’d until her lips were sore;’. The eroticism is palpable. Post-Call Me by Your Name, is eating a peach ever simply eating a peach? Just ask Eve: fruit tastes best when forbidden.
To borrow from Supper Club, ‘There’s nothing more terrifying than a woman who eats and fucks with abandon.’ Nigella Lawson, who has no truck with low-fat cooking, has built a career on this epicurean philosophy: ‘Women who spend all their lives on a diet probably have miserable sex life: if your body is the enemy, how can you relax and take pleasure?’ A.A. Gill concurred: ‘I would rather grow another chin than forego a single spoon of clotted cream or foie gras… A sexless bore is a woman who knows the calories in everything and the taste of nothing.’
For when we try to control our relationship with food, it starts to control us. In M.F.K. Fisher’s novel, The Theoretical Foot, a group of boho-WASPy Americans in Switzerland indulge in pleasures of the flesh – wine-soaked lunches, idle flirtations – yet one holds herself apart, disgusted by the hedonism. But discipline has its limits, and in secret she cracks: ‘She tiptoed to the bread box, took out a handful of rather leathery toast sticks, and carried them to the cupboard where she stood ravenously dipping them into the thick, rich, yellow sauce and eating them in big untidy bites.’
Context is everything: we eat differently in solitude. In Supper Club, Roberta says: ‘I liked the option to eat feverishly alone. But the thought of gathering people together and cooking for them felt plump with potential. A clan of my own that I could feed and nurture. An image of us, wild and hungry – and still expanding.’ In her women-only supper club, gorging – and gaining weight – becomes a political act. Fat is a feminist issue, after all.
People have been weaponising food for centuries, with hunger strikes recorded as early as pre-Christian times in both Ireland and India (countries that have also suffered devastating famines). Given the male predilection for exerting control over women's bodies, it is both apt and unsurprising that the suffragettes remain history’s most high-profile hunger strikers.
So charged, so incendiary is the subject of food and the female body that when Yeong-hye stops eating meat in Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, her decision provokes confusion in her husband, frustration in her family and violent rage in her father, who tries to force-feed her pork. This ‘completely unremarkable’ wife’s seemingly innocuous choice sends shockwaves through her family, causing relationships to unravel and landing her in a psychiatric institution.
Margaret Atwood’s first novel The Edible Woman depicts the breakdown of a woman’s relationship with food following her engagement to a man who stifles her. After empathising with a steak he's eating – seeing him devour it as he does her – Marian becomes unable to stomach meat, and soon rejects other foods. Finally, in a gloriously subversive feminist statement, Marian bakes a woman-shaped pink cake for him to feed off instead – liberating herself from the engagement, and her horror of food. Like sex and relationships, eating can be parasitic. It can provoke sudden disgust, especially in the case of meat. In Peach, Emma Glass's surreal novella imagining a rape's aftermath, Peach's aggressor exudes the stench of sausage meat, which lingers grotesquely on his victim's flesh.
Food is essential to survival, but its cultural significance penetrates far deeper, spilling into almost every aspect of human experience. Memory is anchored to the senses, and food is a powerful nostalgic tool. Like Proust and his madeleines, everyone has special flavours that evoke a time, place or person, whisking us back to a vividly recalled moment. For Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, avocados are a powerful reminder of her grandmother – whereas now, of course, they're an emblem of millennial hipsterdom. How meaning evolves.
In his book My Last Supper, Jay Rayner explores the dichotomy of the death-row meal (what's the big deal, if you’re about to die anyway?) and the relationship between eating and storytelling. Identity, food and narrative have always been interlinked – and this isn't diminishing in a society obsessed with self-branding and curated image. Aren't many of us – with our artfully hashtagged Instagram posts and dietary tribalism – actively feeding this culture? Just as fiction reflects life, with all its hunger, greed, desire and deprivation, so too we construct our own narratives – in the words of Jay Rayner – ‘one plateful at a time’.
All photos featured © Olivia Thompson.