Thursday, December 26, 2013

Food Symbolism

I love talking about books, but I really love talking about food. Isn't it so great to get to know somebody by talking about food with them? Foods you each like, dislike, prepare differently or the same as each other, foods you want to try... food is so great. And it's important. And in many instances, its symbolism is important, too... sometimes moreso than the food itself.

This is nian gao, a cake eaten at Chinese New Year. Sure, it's probably delicious and it's just tradition to eat it (among dozens of other symbolic dishes) every year, much like how my family has steak for Christmas every year out of habit, but it also has symbolic meaning. In Chinese, the name of this cake sounds similar to the word for "high" or "tall," so it symbolizes reaching toward higher goals in the new year.

These are latkes, literally one of my favorite things in the entire world. In Hanukkah tradition, you fry up these little patties of joy in oil to remind you and your family of the miracle of Hanukkah, the oil burning eight times longer than it had any right to, to allow proper consecration of the new temple. (Yes, I pay attention with my future father-in-law tells the Hanukkah story... I'm a sucker for a good story.)

Did you know that the pretzel shape we all know and love was created by French monks in 610 AD to represent the shape of a child's arms folded in prayer?

So there's lots of symbolism in the foods we eat as, you know, real-life people in the real-life world. But - as most things in most books - we can find symbolism running rampant in the food of fiction as well.

There's so much to say about the food in the Hunger Games trilogy, I could write an anthology about it... but someone probably already has. The decadence of the foods in the Capitol (see Catching Fire) and the horror of the vial of emetic offered to Katniss and Peeta at the banquet perfectly epitomizes the opulence and disregard for the districts of the Capitol. The bread Peeta offered Katniss as a kid represented kindness, a second chance, life... whatever you want to read into it. The berries at the end of the first book... I could go on. Forever.

Remember Hansel and Gretel? They left bread crumbs to find their way home (symbolizing comfort, home, family) which are lost when the birds eat them. They find a house made of food, which they believe to represent safety, but really represents danger. Notice the difference, though... regular, whole-grain, peasant bread was the real safety; gingerbread (a luxury they wouldn't normally have access to) is the danger here.

Remember to apply context when looking at the symbolism of food in literature, too. To a character who grew up in New York City but has lived the last few decades of his life in, say, Arizona, visiting NYC and getting a bagel from the deli on the corner is going to be a totally different experience with wildly different emotional ties than a character like a detective from Chicago who needs sustenance during a stakeout, or a starving homeless child in the winter.

Gathering, buying, cooking, serving, eating, dismissing, refusing food are all acts involving food that could be meaningful. A hungry character who turns down a meal could be refusing to allow the person who offered it to them to have any power over them. A character who wronged another character, then offers them homemade cookies might be demonstrating remorse (or trying to poison them, who knows?).

What instances of food symbolism have you noticed in literature?

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