Sunday, September 30, 2012

Delicious & Fictitious: The Culinary Art of Storytelling

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought I would give my readers (both of you) a brief, lighthearted break from my usual morbid tendencies. Last week, as I was trying and somewhat failing to follow an online recipe for lembas bread -- to celebrate Hobbit Day and Tolkien Week, of course -- it occurred to me that food is not just a basic human need. Sometimes it serves a decorative or social purpose, such as impressing dinner guests. Sometimes it tweaks our chemical balances and comforts us, like a flavored security blanket. And sometimes, it tells a story.

The Nostalgia Factor, AKA the Obvious

It's become a mark of civilization, or at least post-caveman development, that our food serves a purpose beyond immediate consumption. We dress it up with frosting and garnishes, we give it away as a friendly or romantic gift, we buy it and leave it in the back of the fridge and forget to eat it until the expiration date has passed and we have to throw it out.

Most of all, we make memories with it. We celebrate holidays by eating (often too much), sometimes assigning specific foods to specific days. For me, Thanksgiving will always taste like turkey and my mother's homemade bread -- which, for your information, happens to be the best damn bread in the entire universe. We celebrate birthdays with presents and cake, and as Jim Gaffigan says, "Hope it's chocolate for me!" And it brings us together -- we bake cookies with friends, go out on dates to fancy restaurants, and the highlight of every wedding is the reception, even if most wedding cakes do taste terrible. Two of my clearest childhood memories are kneading bread dough with my mom, standing on tip-toe to reach the kitchen counter, and making s'mores for the first time with my dad in the backyard one summer night.

It's no surprise food memories are strong ones. Smell, arguably the second most important element of a meal after taste, is the sense which is most directly connected with emotion; just a whiff of a dish associated with a strong emotion, good or bad, is often more than enough to trigger a vivid memory.

Food as (Sort of) a Family Heirloom?

OR: "This method of choosing a favorite food has been passed down the Armstrong line for generations!" (Kudos to my fellow Fullmetal Alchemist fans who got that.)

Aside from another obvious food fact -- it has specific cultural and religious associations, not the least of which being communion -- there have been studies that show food preferences can be passed down, somewhat, matrilineally. Many infants exhibit preferences for flavors related to the meals their mothers ate while pregnant. On the other hand, food in the form of family trade and business is often (though not always) passed down patrilineally, from father to eldest son. In Japan for example, where this is a traditional practice that remains popular, master sushi chef Jiro Ono, founder and owner of the Michelin 3-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, has been training his eldest son Yoshikazu for decades to take over the restaurant when he retires. This story was featured in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which brings me to my next point...

"I Love Rocky Road": Food Entertainment

Nope, I'm not talking about how mashed potatoes can be your friends (that could be a whole article by itself); this form of food fun is a little less literal, but possibly even more popular. Think of the Food Network. Think of Gordon Ramsey and Ace of Cakes. Think of all the TV shows and channels and documentaries and books and blogs (like Bittersweet, food for thought, and Stickyrice) dedicated to the creation and criticism of all of the most delicious concoctions we can conjure up. Food isn't just edible -- it's entertainment.

And beyond the world of nonfiction, food has surprising narrative potential as well. Just look at all the books -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dandelion Wine, James and the Giant Peach -- and films -- Ratatouille, Chocolat, Julie & Julia -- that feature eatables as a central plot point. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies connect the action of eating with sexual appetites and psychology; Psycho's Norman Bates, for example, can be repeatedly spotted munching on Halloween candy, reflecting both his stunted emotional growth and the horror aspect of the story. Everyone who saw Disney's Lady and the Tramp (and lots of people who haven't) remembers exactly what they ate on their doggie dinner date, and the song from the famous "Be Our Guest" sequence of Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Oliver!, the 1968 musical adaptation of the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, opens with the catchy number "Food, Glorious Food," followed by possibly the most memorable food-related quote of all time: "Please, sir, I want some more!"

Food is often played for a laugh: in 1993, Weird Al released a compilation of his most delectable hits, called The Food Album, and Bill Watterson's masterpiece of a comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, often featured Calvin's seemingly endless supply of alternately disgusted and disgusting reactions to unknown food substances at the dinner table. Food is also just as often suspicious, if not outright dangerous. Almost everyone (including Jefferson Airplane) is familiar with the numerous "eat me" and "drink me" food tags Alice encountered in Wonderland, and of course anyone who has read or watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or the September 26, 2012 episode of The Colbert Report) is familiar with the evil temptations of Turkish delight.

The list goes on and on -- the possibilities, it seems, are endless.

"What About Second Breakfast?": Fictional Food and Reality

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual storytelling aspect of food is how it transfers from page and screen to the (real) third dimension. Countless food products and recipes now exist that reference memorable treats and dishes from popular stories. You can walk into many Muggle-owned snack shops now and buy a bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans (at your own risk), and thanks to the internet, you can pick almost any fictional food or drink you can think of -- be it sniggers, miruvor, or sunlight souffle -- and you're sure to be able to find at least one real-life recipe for it. Or you could make up your own.

I celebrated the release of Alice: Madness Returns with cupcakes.

Most of these can be used for any occasion, whether it's an awesome birthday party, a premier or book release celebration, a holiday dinner, or just some good, random fun. Regardless of situation, the underlying motivation is the same: it allows us to connect on a deeper (read: gustatory) level with our favorite stories and characters. As Crystal Watanabe of Fictional Food said in an interview earlier this year, "When Harry is on the train to Hogwarts and has money to spend on treats for the first time, you can almost taste those pumpkin pasties with him. It's as though you share that moment of joy with them." By bringing a little piece of that other world to life, we get to close our eyes and pretend, if only for one mouth-watering moment, that we're actually there.

It's even better when shared in good company. A friend and I once made a transmutation circle birthday cake for a mutual buddy of ours; not exactly a canon recipe, but any excuse for chocolate cake and an FMA reference is a good one.

Ed Elric would be... unimpressed. But he'd eat it anyway.

Another time, a bunch of us got together one time and attempted to recreate the sea salt ice cream that Kingdom Hearts misled us to believe would be totally delicious.

Teal is SUCH an appetizing color.

The ice cream was pretty horrible, actually. But the memories were sweet enough to make up for it (awww) and last a lot longer than any frozen treat. Especially in July.

Have stories, trivia, or fictional food recipes you'd like to share? Comment away! The more delicious, the merrier! :)