Vengeance by the Plate – Scott D. Vander Ploeg, Ph.D.
My dissertation director expressed dismay when I mentioned I was writing a paper for a literary conference on the subject of how certain novelists portray food, how being at the table is an important moment in the stories and conveys thematic elements that help open up the texts for interpretation. It happened that the conference was being held at a college, and that one of the rooms we were using was a kind of kitchen television studio. I read the paper from a prep counter next to a double sink, pots and pans hanging on the wall behind me.
Yes, food is integral in literature. Literary study isn’t only about manuscripts and copy-texts. It does not always have to quote from the most recent fad in criticism. It is a tent big enough to include food issues, since food is essential to humanity. I give three instances before moving to a case in which food is used, without poisoning, to exact a degree of revenge. I add that this kind of thing probably happens often. I experienced it myself in the days before my spouse asked me to leave the house, during a separation that led to divorce. Though I doubt she realized it, those dinners we cooked tasted like disappointment, anger, grievance.
Most commonly, food is presented by authors in positive contexts: when a celebration takes place, when there is social bonding like at a wedding, when love is baked into the cake. A favorite example is when, in Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Tom Jones sits to dine with a randy Mrs. Waters. Their munching and slurping are emphatically sexual. The 1963 movie version, starring Albert Finney and Joyce Redman, fully indulges in revealing the characters’ lusty intentions.
Note that the Wedding-Guest who is forced to listen to the tale in Samuel Tayor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner tries to evade the story by pointing out that the celebratory food is now ready and he must attend. It is a question of whether the wedding is complete and successful if he isn’t there to help enact the ritual:
The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'
A darker vision of food is presented in another cinematographic rendering, the third portion of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. While the off-set correlative action involves the slaughter of Faramir’s troops, as well as Faramir himself, his father—Denethor II, the Steward of Gondor (John Noble)—rips and tears through his dinner while a chastened Pippin (Billy Boyd) sings a mournful song. The eating of flesh and the killing of men are juxtaposed as the film cuts from the battle scene to the painful-to-watch dinner.
In his novel The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen presents an excruciating dinner scene that has been dubbed “the dinner of revenge.” Enid Lambert is angry at her husband, Alfred, because he left her on a ten-day trip without kissing her goodbye. That may seem a slight infraction to some, but to Enid it signaled an eroding and increasingly unhappy marriage. The couple was at odds over an investment scheme that he did not want to engage in. He leaves home in a snit and does not even say goodbye to her. Alfred has some weird habits, and these are exacerbated when he devolves into dementia. Their three children bear witness to the dysfunctional relationships, reasonably finding their own lives tainted as a result.
Food and dinners are at the start of The Corrections, when Chipper (Chip), the middle child, has forgotten his parents will be visiting and he must go to a market and shoplift a fillet of salmon. He hides it under a sweater tucked into his pants, where it soon oozes down into his underwear, melting fishy liquids and forming a fleshy diaper. Later in the novel, his sister, Denise, becomes a renowned chef and opens a high-end gastropub in New York City.
Enid serves up her disappointment in the family, a revenge that begins in warmth but—like the Shakespearean adage—is best served cold, which of course it becomes as the children stare at it in horror: a slab of questionable-quality beef liver, a portion of rutabaga, and a pile of runny beet greens. The episode is one that Enid remembers from thirty years earlier as she and her Alzheimer’s-compromised husband attempt to find solace in travel, aboard a cruise ship bound for the North Atlantic.
The rule was that the kids had to eat all the food on their plates, or sit there at the table till they did.
“I was not, I'm unhappy to say, unfamiliar in childhood with miserable hours like these, but I will report with admiration that no novelist whose work I've come across has captured their flavor as fully as Jonathan Franzen,” says Robert John Keefe in his blogish commentary re-reading the novel. He adds that it was difficult for him to continue when he came to that section of the novel, presumably having had his own experience of not being allowed to leave the table until “cleaning his plate,” i.e., eating all of the food that had been served to him, which is precisely Chip’s dilemma in the novel. Here is a portion of Franzen’s description:
Brown grease-soaked flakes of flour were impastoed on the ferrous lobes of liver like corrosion…A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister. Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish. Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver. When the liver was lifted, a faint suction could be heard. The sodden lower crust was unspeakable (255)…The dogshit-yellow field of rutabaga; the liver warped by frying and so unable to lie flush with the plate; the ball of woody beet leaves collapsed and contorted but still entire, like a wetly compressed bird in an eggshell, or an ancient corpse folded over in a bog: the spatial relations among these foods no longer seemed to Chipper haphazard but were approaching permanence, finality (261).
“Chipper” is anything but at the prospect of ingesting this awfulness. Franzen’s detailed descriptions are precise and nauseating. Enid prepares the dinner knowing full well that both her son and husband hate the taste of liver. Alfred forces his down, grimacing the whole time. The elder child, Gary—more of a pragmatist—appears to eat his portion without complaint, though the text indicates that he is known to hide his servings and discard them in the bushes outside the back door. The youngest child, Denise, was only four months along in utero.
Chip engages in heroic delay tactics, stretching the dinnertime till hours later. He then falls asleep and his mournful father relents and gathers him up to take him to bed, where Chip appears to enter a kind of catatonic hallucinatory state. Alfred notes that Chip had tried to satisfy the rules as there were small bites taken from all three noxious substances.
The Corrections is a masterful literary depiction of dysfunctionality of the American family from the mid-twentieth century. Each of the children grow up wrestling with the dissatisfactions and grievances from their childhoods. They find that they must correct the errors of the past. The parents are mean to each other. The dinner of revenge is emblematic of what passes as domestic tranquility but is instead manifested anger. The unhappiness is baked into the dinner.
Food sharing is an extension of the concept of hospitality. Ovid’s Metamorphoses consists of ancient stories of gods who show up at the doorstep asking for hospitality, often more than just food—but almost always, an offer of food is the minimum that’s expected. Those who are generous in providing aid to the stranger are granted signal gifts that celebrate the hosts. Those who turn them away are blighted, cursed.
In positive situations, the idea of breaking bread with another is an expression of social bonding and paves the way for further communications and communal happiness. When the meal-taking is frustrated in some way, the social amenities are compromised and aggression becomes probable.
I’m reminded of a favorite article from Discover Magazine, “Homer’s Bones” by John Fleishman. It describes archeological findings that tend to support the essential truth of the Homeric epics The Illiad and The Odyssey. The excavators believed they had uncovered ancient Pylos and found that it served as a feasting center that served meat, and lots of it. More than Nestor’s home, it functioned as a locus for political alliances, and when the city-state leaders convened there, the feast was a large part of how they came to an agreement, how they cemented the peace. Had Enid Lambert been in control of the barbeque pits and kitchens, they would all have gone to war with each other instead.
Fleischman, John. “Homer’s Bones.” Discover Magazine, 30 June 2002, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/homers-bones.
Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Keefe, Robert John. “Re-reading The Corrections: A Journal (6)” Portico, 17 July 2003, http://www.portifex.com/ReadingMatter/corrections6.htm.
Before early retirement, Scott Vander Ploeg, Ph. D., professed English at Madisonville Community College. He recorded NPR essays and wrote a newspaper column. Former Executive Director of the Kentucky Philological Association, he is an amateur thespian, a jazz drummer, and a Sifu in Tai Chi. His stories and essays have been published in Potato Soup Journal, INNSAEI Journal, Dear Booze, and Closed Eye Open. He is often found on forest preserve hiking trails in coastal Florida and the woods and wetlands of northern Illinois.