When an author describes glistening plates of tender beef en daube or a beautifully arranged fruit bowl, we instinctively pay closer attention.
References to food and other mundane needs are sparse in most texts. Since readers understand the act of eating, and texts can only hold oh-so-many words, why waste your words as an author when you have other priorities?
Outside the realm of ideas, we accept food as a necessity and assign it no further importance beyond maintaining our bodily health. But in consuming food in bite-sized doses of literary excellence, we have the space in our minds (and stomachs) to consider more possibilities instead of greedily stuffing our faces with purple prose.
I’ll stop tantalizing you with this introductory appetizer and discuss three of my favorite works that use food, or the lack thereof, to further their respective goals.
“A Room of One’s Own” – Virginia Woolf
This whole essay expands on the historical disempowerment of women and their subsequent invisibility in the Western literary canon. Woolf posits that a woman must have “money and a room of her own” in order to pursue writing, and illustrates her argument through exploring the various “unsolved problems” of women writers that traditionally men rarely face.
In part one is where we lay our scene: Woolf considers the inferiority of resources and funding for women’s colleges, especially in comparison to exclusively male institutions (at the time). Her female protagonist, whom she dubbed a common “Mary,” has the fortune of lunching at one such school, “Oxbridge.”
Perhaps humorously (though very relevant for this article), Woolf notes that while a conventional novelist convinces readers of a memorable meal while “seldom spar[ing] a word for what was eaten… as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever,” she intends to defy convention. Woolf then presents us with towering descriptions of soles with “brown spots like the spots on the flank of a doe,” partridges with “a retinue of sauces,” “sprouts, foliated as rosebuds,” and “wineglasses [that had] flushed yellow and had flushed crimson.”
Such richness of the food in description and quality captures our senses and imagination; as readers, we eat the food alongside Mary in a metaphorical sense. In turn, this profusion of figurative language opens us to deeper contemplation; beyond relating “retinue” with connotations of grandeur and “doe” and “rosebuds” with nature, we also consume words to appreciate their beauty and their role in forging these mental connections. Indeed, Woolf shows how the meal produces the “rich yellow flame of rational discourse” and a general feeling that “we are all going to heaven.” The meal leads into fruitful conversation that continues “agreeably, freely, amusingly” until Mary is startled by a tailless cat.
Mary, inspired from eating such hearty fare, decides to peruse a book of Tennyson poems to reflect on pre- and post-WWI societal norms. As she walks back to the women’s college, Fernham, her (and by extension, our) mind spirals with excerpts of the poems she read, rarefied thoughts on the beauty of nature, the glory of poets like Tennyson and Rossetti, and then —
“Here was my soup.” With this simple phrase, gone are the lofty adjectives, which Woolf left behind at the description of Oxbridge. Mary returns to the underfunded women’s college for dinner, and as she dines she cannot help but notice the “plain gravy soup,” the “homely trinity” of beef with greens and potatoes, and custard with prunes “stringy as a miner’s heart.” Though for Mary there was no reason to complain when coal-miners receive far less, Woolf makes no more comparisons to royalty or transcendence, only relating the mundanity of “daily food” to the suffering of the average workman.
After Mary finishes, Woolf writes, “That was all. The meal was over.” And Mary’s night is, in effect over, as are her ruminations.
With the contrast of the Fernham dinner to the luncheon at Oxbridge, our understanding of food and its importance informs how we interpret this passage. We need to see the concrete Oxbridge luncheon, in order to understand what Fernham lacks in comparison: funding, and how this affects their institutional offerings. In the absence of rich language describing Fernham, we experience the visceral sense of loss, of the sensory imagery of the luncheon and Mary’s resulting poetic reflections.
Yes, Mary’s dinner was better than nothing, but when we recall the lavishness of the luncheon, we wonder at “what effect poverty has on the mind” and “what effect wealth has on the mind.” If good physical food also serves as higher quality “brain food” for thoughts and ideas, then the accompanying axiom is food of lower quality leads to a less consistent production of these reflections. Everyone needs to eat, and at such drastic price points, we see how such disparities in resources also lead to educational disparities that increase over time.
As Woolf notes, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” (Perhaps we can view the adage “you are what you eat” with this context in mind.)
And the cycle continues when alumni return to donate to respective college’s endowment, as the original differences in education and success trickle downward into the daily lives of the students, with limited funding dictating the quality of a meal, the quality of thought, the quality of education, and so on. (Chew on that, Stanford students, the next time you grab a bite to eat.)
“Fasting” – Rumi (translated into English by Coleman Barks)
While Woolf links excellent food with excellence of thought directly, 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi distinguishes between material and spiritual food in the poem “Fasting.” Among his many ecstatic poems (and quite a few involve food, as in this lovely line, God “hides the apples of meaning among branches of letters, leaves of words”), I find this work particularly compelling for the layered relationships between food, music, and the theme of tawhid (union with the Beloved).
On a literal level, Rumi discusses the joys of fasting, of the “hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.” Unlike “A Room of One’s Own” in which a higher quality meal leads to greater quality of thought, Rumi presents us with the opposite, that a productive mind comes from an empty stomach.
He notes that only when “the brain and belly are burning clean / with fasting” can a “new song [come] out of the fire.” As we are no longer weighed down with sluggishness from digesting food (seriously, the role of the parasympathetic nervous system is “rest and digest”), “the fog clears” and we can break away from the tediousness of a daily routine.
Rumi suggests that with the absence of physical food in our bodies, we unearth our ability to undertake more rarefied, creative pursuits. By being empty of material food, we search for fulfillment through other means beyond material consumption, so we can “cry like reed instruments cry” and “write secrets with the reed pen.” We become spiritually nourished through focusing on our self-control and disengagement with the world. Otherwise, we are “stuffed” lutes that can produce “no music,” too occupied with our plates to search for wisdom and enlightenment.
However, an interesting complication arises in how Rumi uses “tasteful” language to illustrate the transcendence that fasting brings. While he emphasizes the benefits of abstaining from food, and indirectly material consumption, he still relates the spiritual benefits of fasting with the convention of delicious food as physically fulfilling.
In the first line, Rumi draws on our understanding of “sweetness” to signify how fasting can bring its just desserts, even with the pangs of hunger. Though a faster would refrain from indulgence in sweets, Rumi relates the positive connotation of “sweetness” with the faster’s maintenance of self-control. The faster’s commitment becomes its own kind of spiritual fulfillment, akin to physical fulfillment through consuming a tasty treat.
Later in the poem, he describes the faster’s other reward as “a table [that] descends to your tents, / Jesus’ table … / spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages.” Though fasting is literally denying food from oneself, Rumi metaphorically connects the ultimate benefit of fasting as bringing one closer to heaven – and breaking bread with Jesus. The prize for abstaining from food in the material world is later consuming the food of heaven with the divine itself.
Rumi also uses traditional conceptions of the quality of food to give us an evocative metaphor on how earthly consumption compares to that of the divine. Cabbages (presumably and personally) rank fairly low on the universal scale for taste and enjoyment. By ending the poem with emphasis on how this spiritual food far outranks “the broth of cabbages,” he relates all the food of earth with the sensation of a watery, potentially nauseating soup. Whatever the state of culinary excellence in the material world, they cannot compare with the delights of Jesus’ table — and fasting is the only way to receive an invitation.
But beyond the comparison of fine dining with mystical enlightenment, I also find that Rumi makes us more mindful of the simple moments in between our utensils reaching downward to our plates and upward to our mouths. After all, how often do we really stop to think about what we eat and why we eat such particular foods? Here, Rumi associates the self-control of fasting with a clear mind unweighted by the products of the world, and this conscious choice helps a faster to undertake the writing of a new song.
As fasting is not the only means for enlightenment, there is also beauty in just appreciating the pure sensation of a spoonful of food or the seconds between mouthfuls. In doing so, you are not just indulging in the taste, but also acknowledging its value: the energy this food provides. Such mindful bites could set the tone for the next task in your routine, lifting you from the daily grind into the proper headspace for grander thoughts. (And if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you could contemplate how the food you choose to eat reflects your current state in life, mentally and physically.)
“Babette’s Feast” – Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
But beyond Woolf and Rumi, this article would be incomplete without paying homage to the life-affirming short story “Babette’s Feast,” which has since formed its own “cuisine” of food-centric literature. (And what a perfect way to wrap up our literary meal so you too can wax poetic, like Mary after her Oxbridge luncheon.)
In this work, Dinesen explores the role of the great artist and portrays culinary art as a means for reaching transcendence. Unlike the previous selections, “Babette’s Feast” devotes itself fully to the relationship between great food and the human spirit, suggesting that there is no distinction between fulfilling a physical and spiritual appetite.
The story begins in a remote coastal Danish village, where elderly sisters Martine and Philippa have renounced worldly goods for their strict Lutheran faith. When they take in French refugee and former elite chef Babette, their lives slowly improve, starting with their taste buds.
Babette takes over their household economy and honors their ascetic lifestyle, and her small, but significant, changes she makes to their “plain fare” become irreplaceable. The sisters live sparingly so they can give soup-pails to the poor, and ask Babette to save money by only cooking bland, simple food like split cod and ale-and-bread-soup. Babette quietly acquiesces, but spends her time haggling in the fish and vegetable markets, “beat[ing] down the prices of Berlevaag’s flintiest tradesmen” in her quest for the freshest of ingredients as a true chef.
Even among people disdainful of earthly pleasures, Babette inserts beauty into the everyday through her continual dedication to cooking. Though she no longer creates luxurious menus, her dishes improve the lives of even the lowest of the village. Her charity soup-pails “acquir[e] a new, mysterious power to stimulate and strengthen their poor and sick” and she gains local renown and acceptance. Once good taste is learned, it can never be forgotten.
After fourteen years of humble service, Babette wins the lottery and requests to use her winnings for cooking a lavish meal in honor of their sect’s founder. Though torn between supporting Babette and following their strict faith, the sisters agree, and Babette serves a scrumptious seven-course meal (menu below) to the congregation.
Babette’s feast demonstrates how earthly pleasure can become intertwined with the spirit’s transcendence. As shown by the favorable response from Babette’s improved ale-and-bread soup, eating is such a fundamental need that people can appreciate excellent food without pinpointing the exact reasons (fresh ingredients and additional herbs).
The congregation’s sudden rise from austere living to a seven-course French meal allows them to profoundly savor the experience, which by the last course elevates their spirits into religious ecstasy. The congregation does not realize that they drink Veuve Cliquot 1860 (they reckon the drink a sort of lemonade), but it still “seemed to lift them off the ground, into a higher and purer sphere.” Food speaks so directly to the senses that they gradually lose their reservations and can enjoy the symphony of flavors. “It was, [the congregation] realized, when man has not only altogether forgotten but has firmly renounced all ideas of food and drink that he eats and drinks in the right spirit.”
Since the villagers are inexperienced in fine dining, Dinesen skillfully conveys taste to the reader through descriptions of their enjoyment and the unexpected visit of General Loewenhielm, the only guest who can voice the specifics of each dish. The General, a visiting nephew of one of the congregation members, had previously eaten at Babette’s former restaurant and was no stranger to fine Parisian dining. Only the General can point out the “Blinis Demidoff,” the Veuve Cliquot 1860, and even Babette’s signature dish, the “Cailles en Sarcophage.”
By the last course, the General rises to make a toast to God’s grace while intoxicated with “the noblest wine of the world,” symbolizing Babette’s brilliance in fully uniting man’s physical and spiritual nature through food. He praises the meal as a “love affair … in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety.”
In doing so, the General uses his greater worldliness to finally persuade the congregation that material pleasures — art — can also offer spiritual enlightenment. For the congregation, their sensory pleasure has shown them “infinite grace” so they could see “the universe as it really is.” Old hurts and petty squabbling fade away; the fantastic meal has alchemized into lofty thoughts and actions.
Babette’s culinary art has worked a near-miracle, but she is also an artist of the mundane, similar to how food is both a culinary art and a fundamental need. After all the guests have returned home, Babette reveals she spent all 10,000 francs on the meal, her last grand demonstration of her talents. Though the sisters are dismayed at Babette’s sacrifice, she explains “a great artist, Mesdames, is never poor.” With these words, we harken back to Babette’s subtle changes in the improved ale-and-bread soup with its recuperative powers, how she has fluidly adjusted her artistic output to match her new audience of the poor and sickly.
Babette has no more funds to create meals like those from her former restaurant, but she will continue practicing her art for the village. The splendor of her talents still shine through humble fare, even if the consumers will only experience flickers of the greatness she had wrought in her final feast. Sensing Babette’s bittersweet acceptance of her fate, Philippa offers hope by linking Babette’s earthly gift with spiritual rewards, exclaiming, “this is not the end. In Paradise you will be the great artist that God meant you to be … Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”
I hope these three literary bites – “A Room of One’s Own,” “Fasting,” and “Babette’s Feast” – have given you much food for thought. While each selection has its own distinct flavor, as a trio they beautifully weave a physical need with a literary theme, and in doing so shape our understanding of food, human nature, and the everyday life moments between each bite.
“Babette’s Feast” Menu
(Note: The critically-acclaimed film of the same name offers an excellent interpretation of the short story along with a visual depiction of the menu. Several restaurants have also recreated it.)
“Potage à la Tortue” (turtle soup) served with Amontillado sherry
“Blinis Demidoff” (buckwheat pancakes with caviar and sour cream) served with Veuve Cliquot Champagne
“Cailles en Sarcophage” (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce) served with Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir
“Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée” (rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries) served with Champagne
Assorted cheeses and fruits served with Sauternes
Coffee with vieux marc Grande Champagne cognac