The Folklore of Food
Thursday, December 22, 2016
In her gorgeous essay "In Praise of the Cooks," Midori Snyder combines a memoir of her father (a fine French cook) with an exploration of the alchemy of the kitchen:
"The very best of cooks are sorcerers, wizards, shamans and tricksters," she writes. "They must be, for they are capable of powerful acts of transformation. All manner of life, mammal, aquatic, vegetable, seeds and nuts pass through their hands and are transformed by spells -- some secret, some written in books annotated with splashes of grease and broth. For years after my father's death, I was convinced I could take his stained, handwritten recipes, dip them in hot water, and there would be enough residue of the dish on those pages to create consommé. Master cooks are alchemists, turning the lead of a gnarled root vegetable into the whipped froth of a purée, hazelnuts into digestive liqueur, a secret combination of spices and chilies into a mole paste that burns and soothes at the same time. From a bin brimming with hundreds of choices they can sense the ripe cantaloupe, the juicy peach and the blueberries that have lingered long enough on the bush to become sweet. I am in awe of their skill, their secret knowledge, the inexplicable way I can follow my father's recipe and not have it taste anything like his, missing that one secret ingredient, those whispered spells that transformed his dish into something sublime."
Ari Berk focuses on lore of milk, bread, and honey in his delicious essay "On Simple Things":
"I am living in Devon, England at the moment," he begins, "in a medieval barn on the edge of the Dartmoor. In the small of hours of the night, in such a house, the mind rambles backwards and forwards in time, imagining the daily routines, the days and nights, the bread and butter, of the people that have lived here and used this place over the last six hundred years. A barn is a building of necessary things, of basics, life's staples about which much custom, curiosity and belief have formed; a place where a bowl of milk or a bit of bread is justly left for the little gods who watch over the farm and its immediate vicinity, but nowhere much farther than that. In the lore of offerings and sacrifice, the high rites of the gods and common custom of house fairies share a wide frontier. In studying such beliefs, we may discern that the humblest of offerings is indeed a sacred thing.
"So here is the lore of The Basics, three foods that remain effective indicators of the land's condition. If these are unspoiled, and readily available, all with the land and the people living on it is well. Here are three foods ancient and primal: one given, one found, one formed. Milk, honey and bread."
(I highly recommend reading Midori and Ari's pieces in full.)
My friend Thomas Hine, who ran the Westcountry Folklore blog (until we lost him in 2012), passed on this bit of local lore, recorded in 1888:
"A belief was long current in Devon and Cornwall, and perhaps still lingers both there and in other remote parts of the country, that at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the cattle in their stalls fall down on their knees in adoration of the infant Saviour, in the same manner as the legend reports them to have done in the stable at Bethlehem. Bees were also said to sing in their hives at the same time, and bread baked on Christmas Eve, it was averred, never became mouldy. All nature was thus supposed to unite in celebrating the birth of Christ, and partake in the general joy which the anniversary of the Nativity inspired."
And mythologist William G. Doty notes the following in his review of Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food by Tamra Andrews:
"Swearing by onions? And leeks? Well, these were one of the earliest types of plants cultivated. Symbolism includes the (to some) offensive scents, as well as the pearl-in-the-oyster concept of enfolding major significances down theah. In fact, for the Druids and ancient Egyptians, each layer of the root represented a layer of the known-worlds, and one swore oaths with one's right hand on one, considered as a token of eternity. Today I'm most fond of slowly simmered leeks with anchovy dressing.
"Garlic had its problems because of its strong aromas: in Zoroastrian myth, the god of light, Ahura Mazda, smelled delightful, but his evil counterpart, Ahriman smelled like a garlic bulb, 'putrid and rotten.' Poor onion relatives, they have often been thought of negatively in mythological terms, considered polluting in more than one culture. Certainly apotropaic (averting evil), as I recall from my childhood in New Mexico, where during winter months, children sometimes appeared in classrooms with a large clove strung on a string around the neck.
"Ginger, on the other hand, was considered the herb of paradise, and was cultivated in the Far East since antiquity as something that brought one close to the deities, and used to flavor meats, oils, tea, and wine. It was linked with the solar fire, as was cinnamon, and it was one of the key ingredients of magical practices, including love-lore."
Apples, in world-wide mythic traditions, are a symbol of immortality, of knowledge, and of love in its various guises: spiritual, sexual, and romantic. They were used in Norse fertility spells (being sacred to the goddess Frigga), and in British hedgerow magic for seeking of knowledge or making love charms. The folk custom of "bobbing for apples" on Samhain/All Hallow's Eve is believed to have derived from a Druidic ritual for divination. Grain represents youth, springtime, and rebirth; and wine (called "the blood of the grape") has been a symbol of ecstasy and communion going back at least to the rites of Dionysus. In Japan, the god Inari is credited with the creation of rice, appearing there as an old man with two rice bundles sometime around 800 BC. In China, rice was placed in the mouths of the dead and sacrificed to the ancestors. Leftover rice could not be discarded, for it was sacred to the Chinese god of thunder.
There are numerous mythic taboos concerning food, such as the ancient belief that visitors to the realm of the gods or of the dead must not partake of food or drink if they ever hope to go home again. In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (goddess of the seedgrain and the fruitfulness of earth) is rescued from the underworld where's she been imprisoned by Hades, the Lord of Death — but she has eaten several fateful pomegranate seeds and so must return to dwell with him for a third (or a half) of every year. Similar stories can be found in myths and legends from around the world, such as a Finnish tale from The Kalevala in which Väinämöinen journeys to the land of the dead in search of the words for a magical spell. He is able to return home only because he refuses to drink a tankard of beer. In British fairy stories and ballads, human visitors to the fairy realm are warned they must not touch food or drink -- for those who do are trapped in Faerie forever, or else sent home again only to waste away and die, pining for another taste. Many are the legends of taboo foods eaten with dire consequences, ranging from forbidden fruits sacred to various gods to certain delicacies (such as rowanberries) that belong exclusively to the fairies. The most famous of these tales, of course, is the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Biblical scholars are divided on whether or not this fruit was actually an apple.)
Trickster tales often involve food -- forbidden and otherwise -- for Trickster is a figure of prodigious appetites. In some such stories, Coyote or Anansi or B'rer Rabbit or Loki makes use of his wits and wiles in order to obtain a nice full belly; in others, Trickster is undone by the enormity of his greed and ends the story with his hunger unmitigated.
There are numerous mythological stories (and concurrent spiritual beliefs) involving the ritual "eating of the god" -- ranging from the ritualized consumption of the flesh of Bear, Deer, and other animal gods -- to feasting on the gods that dwell in the first harvest of grain or corn -- to the Christian sacrament of communion, partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ. (See Louise Martin's book Food for Thought for a provocative exploration of this subject.) Some myths are teaching tales intended to inculcate a proper attitude of respect and gratitude for the gift of food taken from the flesh of another living creature. There are many tales of this sort in the Celtic, Aboriginal, and Native American traditions, and also among the Ainu of Japan. "In the Ainu world," notes Gary Snyder (in The Practice of the Wild), "a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."
In addition to ritual feasting, abstaining from food is an important practice in various mythic and spiritual traditions around the world. In vision-quest ceremonies found from North America to Siberia, periods of fasting in the wilderness serve to break down the barriers between the human world and the spirit realm, allowing the quester or shamanic initiate to speak directly to the spirits or Gods. In ancient Ireland, "fasting against" a person was a legal procedure through which the faster could compel the person fasted against to grant a petition or pay a debt; we can still see remnants of this tradition in the hunger strikes of political prisoners today. "Black Fasts" were believed to have the power to cast spells of misfortune, disease, and even death. In a famous English court case of 1538, a woman was convicted of causing a man to break his neck through the power of her fast. Food had power in the old mythic tradition...
And food still has power in sacred tales and practices found all around the world today. Navajo poet Luci Tapahanso, for example, offers the following words of advice rooted in her people's traditional ways: "Think about good things when preparing meals. It is much more than physical nourishment. The way the cook (or cooks) thinks and feels become a part of the meal. Food that is prepared with careful thought, contentment, and good memories tastes so good and nurtures the mind and spirit, as well as the body. Once my mother chased me out of the kitchen because it is disheartening to think of eating something cooked by an angry person."
For books about food myth, lore, history, and customs worldwide, I recommend the Tama Andrews book mentioned above (Nectar and Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food) and The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. Are there any others that you'd like to add? Book suggestions welcome, as are other bits of food lore and your own experience with "the magic of food."
Likewise, what works of mythic fiction or art do you think use food lore & myth particularly well? My own favorites: Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Stars Dispose and The Stars Compel by Michaela Roessner (cooking magic in Renaissance Italy!), The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan, and The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar. If we expand the list to include herbalism and hedgerow medicines, I'll add The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. I'm also charmed by the notable obsession with food to be found in the excellent collection of Italian Folktales edited by Italo Calvino.
The picture at the top of the post is by Swedish painter & designer Carl Larsson (1853-1919), depicting his family's Christmas Eve celebration. The faery and troll sculptures are by my friend Wendy Froud (a splendid cook herself), photographed by her son, Toby. The other images, listed in order, are: a chocolate pot and whisk sketch on a 17th century manuscript, the oldest surviving English cookbook (late 14th century), a 17th century recipe for sugar pie, "Paradise Now" by Jacqueline Morreau, "Goblin Fruit" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) - for his sister Christina's poem Goblin Market, "The Bear and the Bees" (from Aesop's Fables) by Walter Crane (1845-1915), "The Three Bears" by L. Leslie Brooke (1862-1940), "The Corn Muse" by Texas "cowgirl artist" Donna Howell-Sickles, ""Tse-ping" by Native American sculptor Roxanne Swentzell (from the Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), and a 15th century herbal. The recipe manuscripts come from the Wellcome Library's digital collection of 16th-19th century medicinal and culinary recipes. The Luci Taphanso quote above comes from her lovely collection of tales and poems Sáanni Dahataal: The Women Are Singing. This post first appeared in December, 2014.