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The food curriculum - Literature

"Literature is the thought of thinking souls. Thomas Carlyle

I chose the picture above as my pictorial hook for two reasons. The first is that it seems to me that it expresses admirably the wonder that stories have for children especially, but ultimately everyone, even the least educated - after all what else is gossip but a story? In books anything is possible. The second reason I chose it is the fish - a very loose connection with food, and I am, after all, supposed to be talking about food.

So first of all what do we mean by literature? I looked at various definitions - all very similar but chose this one from Wikipedia because it was broader than many of the others which were very concentrated on the 'art form' aspect.

"Literature is any collection of written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose, fiction, drama, poetry, and including both print and digital writing" Wikipedia

And what is curriculum?

"Curriculum is the expectations for what will be taught and what students will do in a program of study." University of Delaware

At least until late high school or university level I think that probably the aim of the literature curriculum is fundamentally to teach us to recognize good writing from bad through introducing us to good writing, past and present. The literature curriculum doesn't generally ask us to write literature ourselves, rather it's interpreting literature written by others. If you want to be able to write well, then you need to read books - good and bad, so that you can see the difference - and here the teacher is your guide. It's a marginally elitist view I suppose to say that one piece of writing is better than another, but I guess in a way education in itself is elitist, in that it is trying to give us the ability to choose between good and bad in all things. It's a spectrum though and beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

"In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others." André Maurois

And I have to say that I am sometimes somewhat astonished at what books are chosen as worthy of study in high schools - universities too perhaps.

So food in literature. Food is fundamental to life, but when it comes to literature it is mostly just incidental, and so I'm not sure that you can build an entire curriculum around food in literature. At university you could organise a semester around food in literature, or of course you could write a thesis on the subject - some already have. Books have been written.

But let's go back to the beginning, and literature begins with nursery rhymes. Before we can even speak, or make almost coherent sounds, mothers sing or relate nursery rhymes which teach us the rhythms of language and of poetry, as well as telling us short little stories - encapsulated visions of an incident in life, and of other worlds. And several of them are related to food - like Sing a Song of Sixpence, in which not only do birds magically appear from a pie, but the queen, no less, eats bread and honey. Little Miss Muffet eats curds and whey; Old Mother Hubbard's cupboard is bare and so her dog has no bone, and Jack Spratt and his wife have the perfect relationship because he eats the lean meat and his wife eats the fat. There are others, and people have written learned treatises about them from every possible angle. You could introduce exercises into the school curriculum by inviting your students to write their own food related nursery rhyme. For pre-school though it's just about words, rhythm and how visual language can be. An introduction to imagination and wonder.

The pre school literature curriculum continues in the public library where there are hundreds of beautiful books to look at and to listen to if your mother or father has time. And in the first years of primary school the tradition of being read a story continues. If the child chooses the book then it may not always be a 'good one', chosen by some parents too alas. But there are so many that they are bound to find gold amongst the dross. At this time in life literature is an introduction to words - more and more of them, arranged in rhythmic and atmospheric ways. And every now and then food creeps in. Off the top of my head - two absolute classics - Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, with whom we learn all about the life-cycle of the butterfly, the days of the week and how to count to five. I am sure there are many, many more.

I wonder do primary school teachers continue to read stories to their classes all the way to year 6? I definitely remember my year 6 teacher reading us stories whilst we did things like knitting or drawing, or just listened. It was a perfect end to a day of school. I suspect this does not happen in the higher echelons of primary school these days. But we should certainly continue to do it at home - as did I - for as long as they wanted to listen which was around the age of ten I think by which time I was reading things like The Hobbit. Being read to does not mean you don't read yourself, in fact I suspect it encourages you to get more stories by reading them yourself. Reading can be addictive - like food.

There are so many books to choose from at this stage of life that I'm sure you could build a sequence of activities around the idea of food in stories as well as getting the children to write their own. Plus all those words associated with food - the foods themselves, and everything that describes them or is associated with the farming, selling, cooking and eating of food. Not a whole curriculum, year after year though. It would be an incidental thing like food itself - always there, significant, but not seeming to be so.

High school is somewhat more academic and students start to learn how writers make their points, what are those points, those ideas, those feelings that the writer wants to convey. They learn about character and place, and ultimately literary theory. I should say theories because there are a plethora of them. There's a wonderfully satiric book called The Pooh Perplex that uses twelve different literary theories fashionable at the time (the 60s) as a way to write about Winnie-the-Pooh. Food probably played a part in at least one of the essays.

Just off the top of my head these are some of the ways that food (as other things of course) could be used in literature.

Number one - just incidentally - as we go about our lives we encounter food in many ways, and every now and then it crops up in a book - a family sits down to a meal, but it's merely a place setter, a housewife goes shopping ... It doesn't tell us anything about anything, it's just words to fill up the page.

Number two the food helps us to understand something about the character, the place or the time - Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey springs to mind, or Mrs. Elton and the strawberry picnic in Jane Austen's Emma.

Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking -- strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. -- "The best fruit in England -- every body's favourite -- always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. -- Delightful to gather for one's self -- the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time -- never tired -- every sort good -- hautboy infinitely superior -- no comparison -- the others hardly eatable -- hautboys very scarce -- Chili preferred -- white wood finest flavour of all -- price of strawberries in London -- abundance about Bristol -- Maple Grove -- cultivation -- beds when to be renewed -- gardeners thinking exactly different -- no general rule -- gardeners never to be put out of their way -- delicious fruit -- only too rich to be eaten much of -- inferior to cherries -- currants more refreshing -- only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping -- glaring sun -- tired to death -- could bear it no longer -- must go and sit in the shade."

Number three - memorable meals - which may mean a vast number of different things, but they always include wonderful descriptions of the food on offer, and the one I currently remember the most is the bouillabaisse in A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - a meal planned and anticipated for a very long time, difficult to achieve, and finally enjoyed with the result that:

"with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille — where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life."

too long to quote the whole thing, but read the book. It's wonderful.

Number four - the symbolism of food - this could be general - nurture, comfort, home - and religion looms large as an associated part of the curriculum here. Or specific - apples being the most obvious - from Eve to iPhones.

I guess this is where the student is introduced to the concepts of metaphor, simile, imagery, symbolism and so on where words mean more than they at first appear to. Literary theory too - which is a whole can of worms. Concepts which are explored much more at the university level, and where, somewhat ironically one gets to study, if one wishes, bad literature - in the sense of poorly written. Theses and university courses have been written on things like Mills and Boone novels for example. I wonder if one could write a thesis on the place of food in Mills and Boone?

I realise that I am skimming here and also not being coherent, but I will end with some reflections on what food related books are today considered as literature by some and not by others and whether the distinctions are valid.

In modern literature - a term I use here in the widest possible sense - when it comes to books there are a few genres that really are all about food, or at least the food is the hook.

There are those novels that focus in some way - often romantic - on food, such as Lessons in Chemistry; Chocolat; Eat, Drink, Pray; The Kitchen God's Wife; Like Water for Chocolate - and so on ad infinitum. And like all literature, all books, some are good, some are not. Mostly they focus on somebody who cooks or dines, and is generally seeking some kind of enlightenment. It's a hugely popular best-selling genre. Put soemthing related to food in the title and it will sell. What can I say?

Then there are memoirs and essays on food - Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential; Julia Child's My Life in France; Nigel Slater's Toast; Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci is a recent one. These are all non-fiction but nevertheless they are stories; they are literature and all worthy of study somewhere in a school curriculum or a university, where an elective could be on the food memoir.

The big questions though are whether cookbooks, foodie blogs, foodie magazines and other forms of journalism can be considered as literature, and are they worthy of study? Of course they are say I. Personally I think you can class anything that has been written for consumption as literature - even the bad stuff teaches you something if only never to read anything by that author again. Reading bad stuff occasionally makes you realise how good the good stuff is. And some of these things are indeed very readable even literary. And if you think that books such as, let's say, Chocolat - are escapist fantasies with no connection to real life at all, you still have to ask what it is about it that has so enraptured so many readers? It must be appealing to something in human nature which can lead to all sorts of questions about why people need to read it.

I have rambled somewhat aimlessly. Literature should be my subject - it's what I studied. Perhaps that's the problem. I know what a huge subject it is. I also know that food can play an enormous part in a novel - you only have to think of Proust and how all those lyrical volumes came from dunking a madeleine in a cup of tea. I also know, however, that it would be difficult to build an entire curriculum around food. Electives on particular aspects of food are definitely possible though - and there are many more aspects than I have mentioned here. Food is essential, food is life in a sense, but it's not the be all and end all of literature.

"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become." C. S. Lewis

That last thought 'the deserts of our lives' is somewhat bleak, but the rest of it is true - and can also be applied to food itself. I think the picture at the top of the page expresses it beautifully - and Pooh saving his honey in the rain as well. Comfort in the storm.

Last thought - Thomas Carlyle at the top of the page said "Literature is the thought of thinking souls". But doesn't everybody think? Don't we all have souls? Are we all capable of writing literature? Maybe.


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