Eating Our Words How food illuminates our collective consciousness

Food: one of our true essentials.  Our bodies are comprised of the building blocks we consume. and this includes our brains: physically, mentally, and emotionally, we are what we eat.

Teatime & Children’s Books
Our immersion in the symbolic significance of food begins in childhood, or at least in children’s literature. Teatime: a comforting ritual in the surroundings of home and the presence of family. The warmth of tea, clinking of saucers, texture of bread and butter and softness of cake is familiar and appealing. Maybe that’s why teatime is so often used as a conduit from the real to the fantastical.

The most famous example is that of Alice In Wonderland.  Alice learns the rules and background of the strange new world she’s entered during tea with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. The fantastical characters and  world is offset by teatime, familiar to both Wonderland and “real world” characters. But in Wonderland, teatime is a distortion.
The same phenomenon manifests in the opening of the Narnia chronicles, when Lucy meets the fawn. After the first few moments of confoundment, the fawn invites Lucy to his cave for tea, where Lucy – like Alice – becomes familiarized with the world she’s stepped into.

Lucy and the faun

Lucy and her siblings go to the house of a speaking beaver in an attempt to topple the evil White Witch. Despite the urgency of the situation, it’s not until the group has eaten a meal together that the beaver finally explains Narnia’s crisis. The meal serves to meld the group and provide foundation before they start sharing secrets  This can only happen afte they’ve “broken bread.”

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch

One of the children, who’s been to Narnia before, sneaks off to warn the White Witch. He’s already eaten and drunk of the Witch’s food: through doing so, he imbibed her enchantment, and is no longer loyal to his siblings.

Food as Framework for Important Events

The painting ‘Age of Innocence,’ by Joshua Reynolds, inspired Wharton’s book title.

The last meal described in ‘The Age of Innocence’ is probably the most bizarre description  ever of a dinner party.  Newland and Ellen are forever parted during the dinner Wharton describes as “a tribal rally.”  It’s New York’s way of murder “without effusion of blood.”   In discussing Newland’s small talk: “a laughter of inner devils reverberated through all his efforts to discuss the Martha Washington ball.”

And in a careful and brilliant choice of words during Newland and Ellen’s final moments, Newland thinks “with a sudden hunger of being for a moment alone with her.”

Dinner is a ritual of its own; a meal reflects crystallization, fluctuation, and metamorphase of relationships. A major dinner heralds a major shift; in this case, the banishment of Ellen.

The Forging & Dissolution of Bonds
We’re intuitively familiar with the connection between food and socializing. Let’s take the awkwardness when one sits to coffee with another but only one orders. One person, in drinking, is investing more of himself in their common bond. Another example is business lunches, where contracts are forged more easily over food.
Similarly, the refusal to eat or drink in someone’s home is often considered rude. Eating signals your entry into the host’s house, sealing your connection to their home and lives. This is reflected in Hemingway’s writing, where characters often make a point of eating foods of countries in which they’re present. The physical act of consumption symbolizes internalization of a culture and mentality.

The famous ‘Red Wedding’

Meals in ‘Game of Thrones are an effective promise in a dangerous world: your host will do you no harm.  Those who don’t abide by this are cursed.  In one legend Old Nan tells Bran, a cook murders a  visiting king’s son and serves the king his son in a pie.  The gods punish the cook by turning him into a white rat who eats his young.

It wasn’t for murder the gods cursed the Rat Cook, or for serving the King’s son in a pie… he killed a guest beneath his roof… that’s something the gods can’t forgive.Bran Stark

The theme resonates when Arya serves Walder Frey his own sons in a pie.  The act revenges Frey’s butchering of Arya’s mother and brother when they were guests beneath his roof.  Catelyn Stark, Arya’s mother, had enough faith in the precept to relax after eating shifty Walder Frey’s bread.  She didn’t imagine he would do them harm after they became his guests: such acts provoke an everlasting curse.

Such is the power of food.


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