Food For Thought A full-course menu on the sustenance, and suspicion, of what and how we eat

A student once observed when I taught L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) in a children’s literature class that he was surprised at how much the novel concerned itself with eating. The fact that Dorothy was human and needed to eat, unlike her companions the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, was made much of in the story and there are several scenes where either Dorothy is eating, she is worried about eating, or her non-human friends are trying to find food for her. The reader is also reminded that the Cowardly Lion and Toto need to eat as well, and sometimes the Lion would disappear, in search of food, killing some prey offstage. In the novel, when the Wizard finally gives the Lion his courage it is in the form of food, something that he must ingest. The student pointed out that this preoccupation with food is absent in the famous 1939 film. I do not remember if the student made this observation before or after the 2008 publication of an academic study about food in children’s literature, but either way, he deserves credit for detecting something obvious but that frequently goes unnoticed. There is a great deal about food in most children’s literature, from fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” to classic children’s work like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899), and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) to more recent children’s books like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), and O. T. Nelson’s The Girl Who Owned a City (1975).

If my own experience as a child reader is typical, emphasizing the need for food in children’s literature, or, as in the case of The Planet of Junior Brown, the abuse of food, or the communal aspect of eating, somehow unlatches a secret, emotional spring of insecurity. I recall as a child how reassuring, how comforting it was to read about child characters eating and how unnerving it was when child characters were in search of food, were starving, or were denied food by some adult in authority. (I cried as a child reading the part in Oliver Twist when, in the workhouse, he was refused more food.) For me, as a child, access to food was all about a child’s relationship to survival and, more important, to autonomy.

As human beings, we may struggle to know what food is, but even more profoundly we struggle to know what food means.

That there is much ado about food and the act of eating in much British and American children’s literature mirrors something deep in the recesses of our psyches. Eating is so deeply wired in us, not as a physical act merely, but as a psychic, emotional welter of reactions, a set of triggers in the mind that involves approval and disdain, a sense of blessing and wonder and an equal sense of taboo and transgression. Former Green Bay Packer great Jerry Kramer once described drinking an ice-cold Coke on a hot day after a brutal workout under coach Vince Lombardi as something akin to going to heaven, and I thought I knew exactly what he meant about food as a reward and indulgence. Elijah Muhammad, the late leader, Messenger, to be precise, of the Nation of Islam, wrote a book about a proper diet for black folks called How to Eat to Live that was rather widely read in the late 1960s by young, burnt-out civil rights workers like my sister, who decided that they were going to travel inward and radically change their ways of eating. The book prohibits the eating of pork, not as a religious sanction, but because the pig was a monstrous genetic distortion. The book also forbade eating pancakes. The reason given in the book had to do with pancakes being a half-cooked food that does horrible things in the belly. But I think the actual reason was because pancakes are featured so prominently in the famous and infamous, (the story is truly both), “Little Black Sambo,” a children’s book that most blacks have either never liked or have been embarrassed by the fact that they may have liked it. For a long time, my sister and I, and many other young blacks of our generation—who were definitely not Muslim—did not eat either pork or pancakes because of this book. And I thought I knew exactly what Elijah Muhammad meant about food as a discipline and eating as an act of morality and identity politics. (I am fairly certain that blacks in the late 1960s began to call the police “pigs,” in part, because of the influence of the NOI’s denunciation of the pig as an unnatural animal, a biological abomination.) As human beings, we may struggle to know what food is, but even more profoundly we struggle to know what food means.

Our second issue of The Common Reader is about food, what it is and what it means. We have a pro-and-con exchange on the safety of genetically modified food, an essay on seeds in Africa, and an essay on how the old family farm is romanticized in India. There is a humorous account of how the quarrel between two Internet personalities awakened China to the debate about genetically modified food. We also have three essays on obesity: one is an impassioned and informed plea about the dangers of obesity in modern America; the second is an account of how we in the West have looked at obesity through the centuries and the role obesity plays in our culture; the third is something of a warning about the anti-obesity movement in reminding us that, in some respects, we may be re-enacting the Puritans again in our search for the sin of fatness and the devils who make unhealthy food. I have often been suspicious of the bourgeois preoccupation these days in preserving one’s body for as long as one can. I rather admire the idea of using up your body in much the way someone exhausts a pension. Maybe that is why I admire athletes because that is exactly what they do, in such a dramatic and public way: use up their bodies. Alas, the problem with the bourgeois these days is that they wish to eliminate tragedy from human existence. To do that, of course, would eliminate the profundity of human existence, to reduce existence to one long slouch to nowhere. The paradox of human existence is that in order to preserve ourselves, inevitably, we must use ourselves up. Maybe all this fretting over food is really all about that, in the end: what does life mean and why are we here.

We also have a relevant book review related to our theme of food and our usual cartoon.

By the way, please feel free to comment on what you read.