Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Breaking Bread: The Rhetorical Power of Food in Life and Literature #SOL15

Join other slicers in the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge by visiting the Two Writing Teacher's Blog. Thank you, TWT team for your vigilance and contribution to feeding our hearts and souls this holiday season. 

As we recover from our turkey hangover and finish consuming the holiday leftovers, my thoughts turn to food in literature and in personal narratives. 

A couple of weeks ago a student in my Communication 1101 class presented a persuasive speech about the importance of family dinnertime. This is something I've pondered for many years. 

Long ago a student (a sophomore) wrote an essay about the ways dinnertime in his home had changed over the years. He talked about a time when his family ate together and shared stories about one another's day, a time when the family talked about world events, a time when the family discussed and solved personal struggles. For this student, time changed the dinner dynamic as his siblings graduated and left home, as he and his parents became busier, as schedule conflicts precluded them from breaking bread together. In time, the student wrote, each--he and his parents--went their separate ways, grabbing a microwave or fast food meal. 

At the time I vowed that I would make sure my family sat down together at the dinner table and shared a meal at least four times a week. Dinner together became a routine we seldom missed. Often a neighbor kid joined us. 

Many years have passed since that student sat in my room, but his impact on my life, on my belief about the importance of eating together remains as clear and strong now as ever. 

Returning to the value of the family dinner, I coached my student in Comm through her research and speech preparation. Together we looked at ways students could influence their parents and family members to eat together. 

Monday, after listening to a student in speech present his name tag, after hearing this student talk about food and connect it to his grandmother, I shared with the class some thoughts about food and literature. In my remarks, I mentioned that we English teachers often offer cursory discussion about the role of food in literature, and in this context I suggested that student tell stories, write stories about their food memories. 

Following the Thanksgiving holiday, food narrative rings relevant. 

Food related topics make good speeches in both my general speech class and in Comm. In fact, a student in my night class gave her argumentative speech on Brominated Vegetable Oil, which is in Mountain Dew. After my student argued that BVO can cause thyroid problems and is a substance that has been banned in and removed from other products, I stopped drinking Diet Mountain Dew. 

In literature, food functions symbolically. 

My student's name-tag reminded me of Robert Frost's "After Apple Picking" and Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry Picking." I shared a snippet of a memory about picking blackberries with my father in the blaring heat of Missouri summers and soaring humidity. "I hated picking blackberries," I told my class. "Cocooned in long sleeves and pants, my hands gloved, and my head covered with a ht to ward of chiggers, I thought I'd suffocate." 

Then I said, "I miss those times. I wish I had known how important those moments were and how I'd long for them now. Write those stories so that you remember them. Think about using those moments to build your speeches." 

We picked blackberries as necessity. We couldn't afford to buy them in the store. We weren't Joad family poor, but we were close. I gorged myself with blackberries and sported a stained mouth and gray lips that confessed my deed as my words denied eating from the bucket. 

Food, more the absence of it, plays a significant role in The Grapes of Wrath. The Joads gorge themselves with peaches and pay a horrific, painful price for that gluttony. 

The literature in which food functions symbolically is too numerous to name, but in addition to those I'm mentioned, I think about some others: 

  • "Old King Cole": Blackbirds baked in a pie never made much sense to me as a child, but the sinister tone resonates now.
  • The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer's narrator begins his journey breaking bread and toasting his host at the Tabard Inn.
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth:  The bloody dagger scene in which the guests toast Macbeth as his descent into madness worsens epitomizes family dysfunction at the dinner table. 
  • Beowulf: Our first work of English literature offers a reminder that forces beyond our control disrupt the celebratory atmosphere of food fests when Grendel crashes the Hrothgar's party. 
  • Angela's Ashes: Frank McCourt's memoir of poverty in Ireland offers yet another Dickensian reminder that in the land of plenty, many have little.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: One of my favorite lines in literature is "The funeral baked meats did scarcely furnish forth the marriage table." 
  • Like Water for Chocolate: Magical realism at its finest with women redefining the kitchen as a place of female power rather than as a place of confinement. 
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: Is it possible to tell a southern story w/out food as a central trope? 
  • The Importance of Being Earnest: Eventually students have an epiphany about food as a symbol for and replacement for sex. 
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Of course I can't omit the Mad Hatter's Tea Party
For more food moments in literature, take a look at "10 Great Meals in Literature" from THE TELEGRAPH.

In literature, food functions to convey ideas. Food connotes power struggles. It defines class, perhaps most successfully in the works of Charles Dickens. Writers create mimesis and verisimilitude with food scenes. This is the case in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. 

We define and understand human relationships through the fundamental human behaviors of eating and drinking. Both are necessary to our psychological as well as our physical well-being. Our identity is inextricably linked to our food experiences, and through food and our discussions about food in our classes, we can validate the diversity our students bring to the table of learning. 

We can talk through and learn through food. We can reclaim the kitchen in the classroom when we make food an invited guest. 

Let's get cooking! 

Amish Breakfast Casserole I made for my family Thanksgiving morning and for students in Comm 1101 at the end of the trimester a couple of weeks ago. 


  1. My husband and I have lived alone for the past 4 years. I still insist on eating at the dinning table. Only a big sporting event moves us to the living room for dinner. Now I'm off to find the recipe for Amish Breakfast Casserole.

    1. The recipe is on allrecipes.com Enjoy!

  2. What a great way to inspire creative writing - through food! I am in awe of that sophomore's writing, thinking about how dinner changed as siblings moved out of the house. Beautiful reflection, such deep thinking...made all the more beautiful to think how it influenced you through the years. Ahh, the power of writing! (The power of food!)

  3. What a perfect addition to my "Everybody Eats" collection. The new MLA Facebook page has a lot of great food and literature links too. They may be from an Open Culture collection -- I think I saw that on Twitter but this late in the day, my memory gets wobbly