Making a meal of it

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Cedric Cullingford lets his taste buds loose on children's fiction

Where would we be without fat turkeys or the enormous helpings of Christmas pudding so often salivated over by writers like Dickens? And what would food mean shorn of all its symbolic as well as physical value?

Food has always had an important part to play in fiction. At one level this is a matter of social observation - the way that people eat as well as what they eat. At another, food has a significance that can transform the eater. Just think of all the deadly apples from Eve's to Snow White's.

In children's books, food continues the tradition of social ritual and symbolic play, but in a rather unexpected way. We observe an important shift in attitudes towards food that marks out the difference between what children used to read and what they read now.

Pooh Bear's obsession with honey is as well known as Alice eating mushrooms. Eating and drinking, and meal times, are an important theme in popular children's fiction. Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven books are full of descriptions of food.

"Meetings weren't proper meetings, somehow, unless there was plenty to eat and drink while they talk" (The Secret Seven Win Through).

Thereafter, the book is full of descriptions or lists of food. We hear of boiled sweets, chocolate, jam tarts, oatmeal biscuits, lemonade, ginger buns, currant buns, potted crab paste, ginger biscuits, strawberry jam, peppermints, orangeade, honey, "thumping good teas, icecreams and all"...for Scamper.

In Enid Blyton, food is the constant gratification and the ultimate reward for doing well. It is, in fact, the one contact the children have with adults.

Mealtimes (from which the children sometimes long to escape) are the signs of time passing, the regular intervals to remind us that there are parents whose main function is to make sure they are eating. It is at mealtimes that adults are observed.

Enid Blyton relishes food. More modern writers take a rather different approach. While mealtimes are still the critical meeting points with parents, the attitudes towards food (and parents) is not so much relish as disgust.

When food is mentioned, as in Ann M Martin's Babysitters Club, it tends to be in these terms, joining the reader in a conspiracy of distaste: "The Friday lunch at Stoneybrook Middle School is always the same; mince, cold lumpy mashed potatoes, a dinky cup of coleslaw, milk, and an icecream. I truly hate it, except for the icecream" (Kristy's Great Idea).

Other reactions in this pleasure of disgust are more extreme.

"How they could eat with boys was beyond us. The boys are always doing awful things like mashing up peas and ravioli in their milk cartons to see what colours they can make" (ibid).

Instead of an innocent acceptance of the pleasures of eating - especially secretly in midnight feasts - contemporary authors take a far more critical line. Food becomes not just something provided by adults, but symbolic of hidden motives.

"When Mum came home a little while later, she had a pizza with her. But Sam and Charlie looked sceptical...'I wonder what she wants,' murmured Sam. 'Yeah,' said Charlie. 'Mum only gets pizza when she has to ask us a favour'."

Some might argue that the shift from relish to disgust with food reflects reactions to times of austerity or plenty. But the contrast in tone goes deeper than that. The relish that once surrounded the innocent rewards of icecream - "Here's a 10- note; buy as much as you can" - is instead directed towards the more extreme forms of human behaviour.

"The teenagers were making out on the escalator. His mouth covered nearly her whole face. Anymore and she might have been swallowed. She pulled her face out of his mouth ... and blew a bubble. Unbelievable. She could chew gum at the same time" ( Point Romance).

Gratification is no longer just in the pleasure of eating but the enjoyment of finding something to loathe: the sharing of a point of view, even if it is negative rather than positive.

Roald Dahl includes bubble gum as one of his many hates. His books - full of chocolate factories and giant peaches - are also obsessed with food in one form or another. There are descriptions of food decaying in beards and of worms in spaghetti. But there is one sort of food that Dahl loves to think of eating.

"A REAL WITCH gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream" (Witches).

Or: "I'm off to find a yummy child for lunch. Keep listening and you'll hear the bones go crunch" (The Enormous Crocodile).

This is a long way from Christmas pudding but it seems to give him the same sort of pleasure as dismissing James's parents by having them eaten by a rhinoceros.

Both Enid Blyton's seemingly straight pleasure in food and Dahl's anarchic satisfaction in eating appeal to children. One is symbolic of escape from an uncomfortable world.

The other turns the uncomfortable world upside down. What then does the giant Christmas pudding, covered with custard and cream and brandy and brandy butter then symbolise? How innocent seems the world of Pooh Bear's honey!

Cedric Cullingford is Professor of Education at Huddersfield University.

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