Written by Kylie Warkentin
There are few things as universal to the human experience as the pleasure of sharing a meal with a loved one. The kinetic affair of its creation, the care in overseeing its bake time, the pleasure in seeing it mix, sizzle, rise—and then tumble down into the sweet mouth of someone we love.
But I think there’s more to food and its relationship to our bonds with one another than just this.
We sit down at meals and laugh over the day’s misfortunes, and we sit in silence at a dinner table and cut into the lukewarm tilapia lying nakedly on a plate. We tear salad leaves with dull knives and forks to hide wet teeth, and we sit and rest and belch after dinner, feeling the unsavory bits mix and mingle as they digest. The use of food to mediate our relationships with one another spans the spectrum of sugar and spice, sweet and savory. Meat. Tofu. Pomegranates. Cake. What simmers between us when we bite, chew, swallow? Who’s eating who?
I. Love is an Act of Creation
When we think of love, it’s the overwhelming sort that tends to nosedive into our brains first. Passionate, thrumming, all-encompassing—we feel that love keenly. But I’ll bet the first thought of food conjures up the comforting variety before any other. Soft, warm—it’s something we reach across and towards at a table surrounded by close friends and loved ones. This food is inviting, bridging the quick smiles and ungraceful snorts with a love that creates for others.
“I love you, I want us both to eat well.”
Christopher Citro, “Our Beautiful Life When It’s Filled with Shrieks”
Behind the scenes photo of Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting on the set of Romeo and Juliet, dir. Franco Zeffirelli (1968).
I think most Canadians would not generally describe Belleville, Ontario as a warm or inviting place—in fact, all love to Bellevillians, but every single Canadian to whom I’ve mentioned where my family is from has replied with some form of, “Oh, God—really?” But my father alleges that Belleville has a shop that sells simply the best butter tarts. Butter tarts are, to steal a delightful phrase from Wikipedia, a “highly regarded[,] quintessential” Canadian sweet pastry, filled with corn syrup, brown sugar, and the titular butter. One evening, as I was trying to illegally stream Barbie in Swan Lake, my dad insisted that I try and replicate those butter tarts. He told me (in so many words) that he and his group chat of Canadian college bodies were passive aggressively engaged in a superiority contest regarding whose family member(s) could bake the best butter tarts. I was my dad’s chosen champion. After extracting a promise for silence—quid pro quo, etc.—I agreed. I was provided no recipe, and so was thrilled to discover in the subsequent research that Canadians take butter tart recipes personally—as the numerous heated discussions over the best ratio of corn syrup to brown sugar or inclusion of raisins in recipe comments sections demonstrated. Humbled (but not cowed!), I went to work. I patiently broke up cold butter into flour and sugar, strenuously attempted to roll out the pastry dough to an acceptable thickness, and gravely consulted with my dad on the addition of raisins. It was irritating, loaded work. But they were delicious, and I won the not-contest—even though someone’s large thumbs made the submission photos irritatingly blurred.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, dir. by Park Chan-wook (2005)
You’re alone, married, and alone. Suffocatingly beautiful dresses suffocating in their beauty, lonely nights spent listening to the same phone calls delivered to you every night – No, darling, extra work in the office, I’m afraid. Don’t wait up. Go to bed. I’ll be back late. Your exasperated sighs fill the apartment like a balloon, lifting you up, up, up away from the rock that’s weighing down your finger, your hand, your body. You’re not dumb, I’m afraid, and neither is your neighbor. Your commonality is your unfaithful spouses—who are, in fact, cheating on you both with each other. Terrible, terrible, irony so terrible it carves its hole in your stomach and has you reciting lines. But your new friend—
In The Mood For Love, dir. by Wong Kar-Wai (2000)
“When you cook for someone, this is a deliberate act of nurturing. This very simple thing is the currency of genuine intimacy.”
Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight (2016)
II. I Love You So Much I Want To Eat You
Have you ever seen something so cute you have the strongest desire to snatch it up and hug it so close to your chest that it bursts into tiny pieces dancing merrily around your o-shaped mouth? I think I first saw an old lady lean over a young child and exclaim, “You’re so cute! I could just gobble you up!” in a children’s cartoon. Gobble you up!, cackles the witch in the dark corner of my room, one palm unfurled and offering gingerbread. I used to think it was grotesque, but we call it love all the same. Who’s that on the plate here?
I Don’t Want to Eat My Soup, plate six from Day and Dream, by Max Beckmann (1946)
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters, sometimes very hastily, but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, ‘Dear Jim: I loved your card.’ Then I got a letter back from his mother, and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Maurice Sendak in an interview with Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air”
Said the mother to her son,
I want to bite,
I want to chew,
I will eat you up.
“Hansel and Gretel,” by Anne Sexton (1971)
Often in fairy tales, the solution to a woman’s fertility problems is presented in the form of a choice. And by a witch. Do eat this but don’t eat this, and a son will grow big and strong in your belly. If you do eat this thing that you should not eat, a son will grow big and strong in your belly, but the word might apply more loosely. Son. Grow. Strong. Belly. Chew, chew, choose wisely—hah! This desire that is felt so keenly by the woman is “transformative and transgressive.” Often in this story, the woman devours both onion skins, hungrily watches her stomach grow, and births a monster instead of a little boy. Sometimes, we love and desire a love so much it grows. And grows monstrous.
“Chapter XXXVIII. How Gargantua did eat up six pilgrims in a salad.” in Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, illustrated by Gustave Doré (1854)
It sounds like a riddle, right? What’s the one thing that grows and grows the more you satiate it? The sphinx used to perch on her wall and throw down a riddle or two to see who’s smart and sees and who’s a snack and cannot. I love you so much I want to eat you.
Bakhtin describes the grotesque body as a thing so enmeshed with the fecund world around it that it grows and “outgrows itself, transgressing its own limits.” Think of the top of a pomegranate, puckered, its leafy skin reaching up and outward—here, the outside meets the inside and they both delight in sucking each other in. But now think of a body: your mouth open, gasping, spitting, shouting. Your stomach, growing full, fuller, so full you’re losing sight of the boundaries between the world and your belly. Carnival: you are carnal, you are celebrating your community and its corporeal chaos. You finish picking some meat from your teeth with the fish bone and pat your stomach and belch and reach for more.
Still Life: Fish, by William Merritt Chase (1908)
“Did he find that one last tender
sink his teeth in?”
“If you love me, Henry, you don’t love
in a way I understand.“
“Wishbone,” by Richard Siken (2014)
III. Digestive Processes
Often, a wonderful, lush meal is concluded not with a delectable dessert, light and airy on the tongue, but a rumble and a sharp twist in the stomach. The digestive processes always seem to get you and yours in the end. The carrot you snapped and smashed with your molars meets the slab of meat on your plate that started to bleed past its edges at first bite. You are eating dinner. You are with another. You chew something over to understand it, you devour a book that resonates—plink plink plink—within you. We are creatures who love and consume, but we are more importantly creatures who digest.
“When I fed the pigs and two of them got to scrapping over an old soft onion, I thought: that’s love. Love is eating. Love is a snarling pig snout and long tusks. Love is the colour of blood. Love is what grown folk do to each other because the law frowns on killing.”
Six Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente
Kitchen Scene, Peter Wtewael (1620s)
Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet: “Desire is not simple. In Greek the act of love is a mingling (mignumi) and desire melts the limbs (lusimelēs, cf. Sappho fr. 130 above). Boundaries of body, categories of thought, are confounded…All our desires are contradictory, like the desire for food. I want the person I love to love me. If he is, however, totally devoted to me he does not exist any longer and I cease to love him. And as long as he is not totally devoted to me he does not love me enough. Hunger and repletion. (1977, 364)”
“Dolce.” Hannibal, NBC (2015)
Hegel, describing romantic art in Aesthetics : “[Romantic art] emerges from itself into a relation with something else which, however, is its own, and in which it finds itself again and remains communing and in unity with itself…Therefore the romantic Ideal expresses a relation to another spiritual being which is so bound up with depth of feeling that only in this other does the soul achieve this intimacy with itself. This life in self in another is, as feeling, the spiritual depth of love.” Jacques Derrida said of his work on Hegel that “the very notion of comprehending [is] as a kind of incorporation…understanding is still an assimilation.” I have seen in the Oedipal sense, I have loved in an abundance of senses, and I have eaten. I understand you – I love you—
DIGESTION by Frederic Belaubre
I used to confuse whether or not your fist is the size of your heart or your stomach. I’d hold my palm out, clench it, press my jagged fingernails into the bed of my palm until I could visualize the red of my insides. We try to understand the carnal via the cerebral and lose the boundaries between ourselves in all the resulting twisting and turning. You are eating dinner. You are with another. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost the mediator and gone straight for the jugular.
“We are all mixed up in an eating of flesh—real or symbolic.”