Write What You Eat

Posted by Sophie Boka, GD Creative Non-Fiction Reader for 6.2 

While writing on Maryse Condé’s novel Victoire: les saveurs et les mots, it’s hard not to recall the tried-and-true cliché, “you are what you eat,” observing how the phrase extends from the literal bites we impale with our forks to our various forms of literary self-expression. The French title of Condé’s novel literally translates into the English “Victoire: the flavors and the words,” signaling how connected our taste is to language, each, arguably, serving to construct bits of the identity that defines who we are: the “you” who is what you eat. Whether through a poem, essay, or graphic novel, food appears peppered within every genre, yet, quite often, it goes unnoticed, without adequate attention given to its delicious literary functions. Eager to uncover food’s power within our own publication, with eyes, perhaps, bigger than my stomach, I decided to take a look at a few pieces published in past issues of Gandy to see just how intertwined the food that enters our mouths can be with the words that leave them.

To start, let’s hop back in time to issue 3.1 and Savannah Skinner’s poem “On the Places We Have Lived, with Children Not Quite Born.” Skinner’s poem delicately traces a family home, one of fathers and daughters and mothers, one of time and of tension. The poem notes how the family’s house has “no refrigerator,” suggesting that, in this house, fresh food cannot be preserved for future consumption (7). Since there is no refrigerator to promise a future, a sort of ‘after-life’ for the food, the absence of the refrigerator instead returns readers to the notion of a “before-life” mentioned earlier on in the poem (3). The poem’s use of food-related imagery is later used to distinguish its characters from one another. Lines from the second stanza read, “My father chewing/ jars of pig knuckles, brined & coaxed/ sardines between his blunt teeth:/ five sisters learning to honeycomb” (10-13). Here, the father is associated with large quantities of somewhat grotesque, savory foods dense with preservatives. This heavy imagery starkly contrasts the sweetness of the honeycomb associated with the five sisters. Yet, like brine, honey, too, is a preservative. Thus, here, the poem seems to employ its food-related imagery to suggest the difference in approach that the father and daughters have to some type of basic preservation.

Fast forward a few issues to issue 4.2 and Rachel Britton’s poem “Snow Child” to observe how another poem employs tasty, or in this case not so tasty, food-related imagery. Britton’s poem appears to use its food-related imagery to evoke feelings of discomfort. Food is something that we can usually find great comfort in, however, the “decaf tea in a styrofoam cup,” “half-eaten red gelatin,” and “plastic scrambled eggs” that the poem describes seem anything but inviting (2, 6, 11). Each of these items are not quite what they’re supposed to be. The tea is ‘de’ and therefore removed, too, transitory in its cheap, disposable cup. The gelatin is not totally eaten, cast aside; therefore, not all of its nutrients have been consumed. The eggs are described as plastic, tasteless and inedible. Despite food’s usual association with comfort, its portrayal within the poem instead adds to the tone of discomfort and detachment that is built throughout, epitomized by two final lines which read, “outside, leaves are falling/ and i can’t see them” (14-15), declaring this dissociative state.

To observe use of a different food-related literary function, we come to Chloe Forsell’s 5.1 piece “Water and Light,” which details the delicacy of a mother-daughter relationship, marking its development over the course of several years. Here, food first sneaks its way into the text through Forsell’s use of a food-related descriptor: “peanut-butter-sticky.” This descriptor is first mentioned at the beginning of the narrative as the narrator tries on her mother’s rings, which do not fit her “peanut-butter-sticky fingers.” Dissatisfied, the narrator then puts the ring into her mouth and swallows it into her “peanut-butter-sticky stomach.” Since this food-related descriptor is applied to different parts of the speaker’s body, it seems that the speaker feels this “peanut-butter-sticky” quality all over. And just what might this “peanut-butter-sticky” quality tell readers? First, the descriptor offers the reader a specific color, that of peanut butter, a light brown. Adjectivally, it thus serves to initiate the commentary on race to be developed later on in the piece. Too, the descriptor suggests to the reader a familiar consistency, one that is thick and hard to remove. This consistency is echoed tonally throughout the rest of the piece as the narrator discusses the tension she feels with her mother. Readers can also associate this descriptor with an eating behavior: to get sticky food on one’s body, something generally more associated with children. Thus, the descriptor connotes an immaturity on the part of the narrator, which is confirmed toward the end of the narrative as the story notes, “You pull out home videos from when your hands were still peanut-butter-sticky,” implying that the narrator has moved past their peanut-butter-sticky days–they have aged.

No matter who you are or where you come from, what we each have in common is food. We each have a unique relationship to the humanity dense life source that produces and sustains our daily lives. “Dis moi ce que tu manges, je dirai qui tu es,” proclaimed the 18th century French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: tell me what you eat, I will tell you who you are. Sound familiar? The idea is universal. Think of your favorite foods, your eating behaviors, your food-centered traditions. All of the intricacies of you wrapped up within them. Food has the power to indicate time, feeling, age, place–you name it. So, next time you find yourself engaging with a piece of literature, whether reading or writing (or submitting!), be sure to take the time to stop and appreciate the unique qualities that various food-related literary functions can bring to a piece and just how these functions can really bring the flavors of a piece together.

* Note from the author: Maryse Condé’s novel Victoire: les saveurs et les mots is available in English translation under the title Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Want more?

If you’re intrigued by how a beloved children’s book author employs food in both his works and his life, then check out Dan Pashman’s “What if Willy Wonka Was Your Dad? Roald Dahl’s Magical Parenting Through Food”

Don’t believe Shakespeare may have something to do with one’s “sexier” employment of the eggplant emoji? You should definitely read Anne Bramley’s “50 Shades of Shakespeare: How the Bard Used Food as Racy Code.”

Finally, if you’re looking for more of an overview of food’s use in the Western literary canon, see Catherine Conroy’s article for the Irish Times: “What Literature Makes of the Food We Eat.”

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