Food for Thought: 10 Symbolic Dishes from Classic Novels

Food makes everything better. Using it as a motif, or repetitive symbol, in literature makes reading all the more delicious. Who would not wish to take a bite out of  Madame Bovary’s ultra-chav wedding’s Savoy cake, or know for themselves exactly how bad that gruel was in Oliver Twist. Check these ten famous literature munchies and see why they make great food…for thought!

by Michelle Ossa

10. Cucumber Sandwiches- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest opens in a glamorous West London bachelor’s pad belonging to the dandy Algernon Moncrieff.  “Algy” asks his butler to prepare cucumber sandwiches for his aristocratic aunt, Lady Bracknell. Algy’s best friend Ernest asks, “Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?” The issue concludes with Algy’s mindless eating of all of his aunt’s sandwiches prior to her arrival, only to claim to her later that there were no cucumbers in the market “even for ready money.”

So why are cucumber sandwiches considered extravagant? Although cucumbers originated in India over 4,000 years ago it was not until Queen Victoria’s appointment as Empress of India in 1877 that the influence of the national products, such as the cucumber, fully entered the British culture. Once the sandwiches hit the royal table for the first time, the upper and middle classes caught wind of it and made them their signature afternoon tea snack. Following the very Victorian tradition of imitating everything that the Queen did, these once-dubbed “beautiful” people solidified the connection between the cucumber sandwich and “poshness.”

9. Eggs- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

In Frank McCourt’s 1987 Nobel prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, the egg symbolizes hope, wishes, and indulgence. This guileless motif is juxtaposed to the dire living conditions of the Irish Catholic McCourt family. Young Frank tells us in chapter IX that he has plans for “that egg” that he would get the Sunday after his father gets the first paycheck from his new job.  The plan: To “tap it around the top, gently crack the shell, lift with a spoon, a dab of butter down into the yolk, salt, take my time, a dip of the spoon, scoop, more salt, more butter, [and] into the mouth”. Yummo! Eggs are described with particular candor, as they represent a luxury that the McCourts, with their never-ending financial woes, could hardly afford.

Sadly, no one gets any eggs. Malachy, Frank’s father, ends up squandering all of his paychecks, leaving his family to fall deeper into their cavernous money hole. But lady luck helps Frank once he leaves Ireland and reaches America: he gets to work at a restaurant, and hunger is no longer an issue for him! After hunger is satiated in the novel, food becomes a motif for American excesses, complete with dreams of a jumbo shrimp chasing Mrs. Angela McCourt down the street. The novel is not about food, but you get the idea.

8. “The” Savoy Cake- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

A true representative of Flaubert’s style Madame Bovary is a bona fide example of Romanticism. Fast forward to chapter 4 (part 1) and witness the deeply bucolic wedding of Charles and Emme Bovary. The entire chapter is an epicurean dream featuring “four sirloins, six chicken fricassees, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel”. Yet, nothing beats the towering Savoy Cake proudly displayed at table.

A monster of excess and tackiness, the cake foreshadows Emme’s future state of mind: the hunger for extravagance that will doom her life until the end. Flaubert describes it as a “dungeon” that was “surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and … oranges”. There is more, my friends: “…on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate … real roses for balls at the top”. It will not be the last time in the novel that Flaubert chuckles at the tastes of his country folk.

The historical Savoy cake was created in the court of the Prussian empire. It is traced back to court chef Felix Urbain-Dubois, who introduced Russian cuisine to France in 1869. It seems that the Russian court was pretty eccentric, for this sort of dessert was everyday business. The recipe calls for 4lbs of castor sugar, orange sugar, egg yolks, and a pinch of salt. Add regular flour, potato flour, frothy egg whites and you got yourself a batter. The cake is to be baked in three separate parts for over 1 hour using molds greased with kidney fat. This means that the Savoy cake is not only heavy in flavor, but also in texture, weight and, surely, calories: perfect elements for a sumptuous wedding cake.

7. Macaroons- A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen’s most controversial play, A Doll’s House unveils the deep issues of a 19th century woman who, unbeknownst to her, begrudgingly accepts to embody the epitome of the virtuous Victorian wife. As early as the first scene, it is obvious that Nora’s biggest issue is her domineering husband, Torvald, who is annoying in a passive-aggressive way. He constantly questions Nora on whether she is secretly grazing macaroons: “Hasn’t Miss Sweet Tooth been breaking rules in town today?” and he scolds her for doing so. However, Nora does not control her love for macaroons. Sometimes it seems as if she eats them on purpose.

So, what exactly was Nora eating? A macaroon cookie is made of flour, coconut, vanilla, and sugar. Their history goes back to the reign of Henri II, husband of Catherine of Medici right at the height of the Renaissance period in 1533. Back then, these treats resembled the modern day biscotti; hard and easy to preserve, but still quite a rich snack for steady consumption. At 140 calories for two little ones, macaroons may have endangered Nora’s reign as “doll” if she really ate as many as the play indicates. According to it, Nora would eat them at any time, for she presumably carried them around all day, hidden from Torvald. This concealment and secret indulgence make macaroons a motif that clearly reflects the quiet yet fiery rebellion that lurks within Nora. They also represent Nora’s many other secrets and confessions, her frustration, and her angst… all the things which she has hidden from Torvald all through their marriage under the guise of domestic happiness.

6. Gruel- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist describes the shocking reaction caused by Oliver’s famous line “Please, Sir, I want some more” when asking for a second helping of the workhouse gruel. The dish personifies the extremes of poverty. Gruel is the lifeline of the poor: a weak, tasteless, ugly, gritty lifeline. Such is the reality of which Dickens wanted to make the world aware.

The members of the workhouse’s board “contracted …with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays.” A mix of hot water, salt, and sop from grains, gruel can be made of millet, rice, or flour. The thinner the gruel, the more watery it would be, hence, the half a roll mentioned in the workhouse contract comes in handy.

While Oliver Twist creates awareness for the poor in England during the earlier part of the 19th century, the conditions of the workhouse may not have been as radical as the novel describes. According to the 1835 dietary charts from the Abingdon workhouse, the English Poor Laws suggested six different meal combination samples to feed the growing number of men, women and children entering the workhouse force. In 1834, as cited by the historical Workhouse.org, all of Brighton’s workhouses, over 300 of them, were serving three meals per day with no limitation in quantity. This is not to say that the workhouse was a good place to be. Jack London’s 1903 book People of the Abyss describes all the miseries in the London’s East End slum district, including suicide attempts made by people who would have rather died than be sent to the workhouse.

5. The Woman Cake- The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

woman cake

Think 1969.  Margaret Atwood, a leading Canadian figure in the woman’s equality proto-movement gave the world Edible Woman right at the formation of the women’s rights movement. In chapter 30 of the novel, main character Marian has a feminist freak-out because she does not want to get married (she is engaged) nor does she desire to have children. Her role models were all unhappy married women, and her job prospects were awful. As a result, the woman mentally imploded. First, she began to refuse food, as she compared eating with what women go through when our personas are eaten away by marriage. Then, she started getting difficult with her dial-tone boyfriend, Peter. Finally, she decided to to bake a cake molded like a woman; a symbol of herself about to get consumed by society.

The cake is described as a sponge cake, completely home- made from scratch, frosted with pink, and brown icing, and one white section. The face was made of candies and bits. She divided the cake into two to make the upper and bottom, and made a head, arms, and legs. She tried bits and pieces of the cake, but the plan was to make Peter eat it. The idea behind the crazy experiment was to envision what her life will be after marriage: Peter will end up consuming her just like the cake, and she will no longer be herself anymore. This proto-feminine novel hashes out all kinds of women issues to include hysteria, dissatisfaction, sex, man-hatin’, slacker mothers, eating disorders, and food. LOTS of it. Everywhere.

4. Bread/Gingerbread/baking oven –Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm

Published in 1821, this German fairytale is about a brother and sister who are thrown out of their home because there is no food to feed them. Lost in the forest, the children use breadcrumbs mark their way around the forest for them to be able to return. However, the birds eat the crumbs, leaving them scared and vulnerable in the forest.  Shortly after, the children are lured by the delicious smell of baking bread and end up entering a candy-covered gingerbread house, where a sweet old lady who offers them all the goodies that they could not get at home first treats them like guests. In reality, she was feeding them well in order to eat them, for the old lady was no sweet little thing: she was a witch!

Bread means sustenance. In the story, it also symbolizes the universal need for it; the birds ate it, and now the smell of bread is luring them to yet another place. The oven, which produces the smell of bread that lures them in, also serves as the ultimate symbol of justice. The children are able to throw the witch in the burning oven and run away from her.  Overall it is safe to say that carbohydrates, period, are the motif in the story. Candy, gingerbread, sugar, all of that jazz is at the center of the action and embodies the main idea: if it looks too good to be true, it surely is.

3. Chocolate – The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

This young adult novel published in 1974 occupies the THIRD position in the American Library Association Top 100 Banned and Challenged Books from 2000-2009. The language is thought to be too mature for young adult literature. Nevertheless, chocolate is the anchor of the novel, mainly regarding our rebellious hero, Jerry Renault. The boy who goes head-on against his school’s head master’s chocolate sale, he comes out as a perfect tragic hero: he is lonely, he is 14, he wants a girlfriend, he wants to make a statement, and he may actually be a bit ahead of his peers in terms of emotional intelligence.

The most important symbolism involving chocolate is the death of Jerry’s mom a few months into the story. Her death has seriously affected him, and, at some poignant moment, he chooses to agree to the selling of last season’s Mother’s Day chocolates as long as the “Mother’s Day” label is ripped off the box. If that is not a statement for grief, what else could it be? The motif of chocolate is not only representative of the macro management of the headmasters, the economic framework of the school, or the sense of team competition. The motif also reaches a deeper meaning that makes chocolate symbolize intense humanity: the need for nurturing, the lack of comfort, the hunger for success, and the need to feel loved in some way or form.

2. Chocolate – Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The Chocolate War redux? Perhaps. A decadent and charming story set in the small French village of Reynauld (a-ha! Coincidence, or is this a variant of the name of the main character of The Chocolate War?) the novel is about the enigmatic single mom Vienne and her daughter, who come from out of town to set up a chocolate shop where the town’s old bakery once stood. The motif of chocolate elicits the long-lost pleasures of the village. It reminds the villagers of life’s delights while enticing them to the unthinkable possibility of “letting themselves go.” The bulk of the story is set during the Easter season, because during this religious period of time we prove our worth as Christians by making sacrifices. Ironically, Easter celebrations involve egg hunts, treats, food, chocolate and sweets everywhere. The rationale behind Harris’s choice of season as setting for her novel is that she wanted to write “about that conflict between indulgence and guilt, with chocolate as its…metaphor.”

Chocolat gives us much more than just a moral lesson. It gives us rich depictions of ways to prepare the ancient bean, whose Mesoamerican origins as a bitter, magical potion contrasts dramatically with the treatment that we give it today. Mirroring the transformative effects of this over 2,000 year-old Aztec beverage, Joan Harris’s chocolate has almost the same supernatural powers among the people of the village. It taunts them, tempts them, piques their curiosity, and even awakens them to innocent mischief. Harris effectively conveys the literary technique of motif with the use of a universal substance that embodies very human emotions: love, hunger, excitement, curiosity, desire, indulgence, and, most importantly, comfort. It is similar to the use of chocolate as a motif in The Chocolate War. Seems like the almighty cocoa bean makes the world a better place, after all.

1. TEA! The Mad Tea Party, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Insipid to the American taste bud, the tealeaf has universally starred on plenty stages from literature to politics (remember Boston Harbor). While the formalities of tea are not as strongly enforced in the U.S, there is no question that its protocol is quite the big deal in terms of etiquette and dynamics. In chapter VII of Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we witness a whimsical afternoon tea party hosted by the infamous Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse; an affair which Alice found both, infuriating and “stupid.” A bona fide Victorian, the up and coming society gal Alice is shocked at the disorganized and silly turn of events,  but she still partakes in it, taking the bread and butter while arguing about the lack of everything going on. In the end, the event is “too much of muchness” for Alice, who walks away from it promising herself never to return there again.

That aside, this literary motif in the novel known popularly as Alice in Wonderland, represents a conduit: a liquid potion that has the power to transform human relations. Tea is quite the Victorian timestamp. In 1840, the English set up tealeaf plantations in new territories of India as a result of Victoria becoming empress of the land. Hence, tea became both easier to acquire and cheaper to purchase. The result was a boom in consumption that rendered “tea time” universally recognized as the quintessential English past-time of choice. Tea also represented a form of transformation in the 19th century: it stood for class status, propriety, socialization, and networking.

To tea or not to tea WAS the daily question back in the day. While this “hot water meets plant” infusion’s role in the world rests entirely on those who drink it, it does hold a special significance in the world of Alice’s multidimensional adventure into Wonderland.