As you keep stirring the thick creamy sauce, complete with the golden trio of cheeses – Gouda, Cheddar and Blue – thick foam will rise as a heavenly aroma rich with the scent of aged cheese mixed harmoniously with butter and cream transports you to your happy place. Serve it with crisp farmer’s bread and you have a meal.
There won’t be any more of that, unfortunately. This piece of writing does not talk about the number of times you should whip your cream for the perfect creme brûlée or how to make a baklava. If that is the kind of thing that piques your interest, I highly recommend Nigella Lawson’s recent cookbook on Desserts.
However, if you are curious instead about the implication of a character taking two sips of their drink and not one, the power structure that the number of people sitting around a dining table alludes to, or the significance of each meal that an author describes or chooses not to, I invite you to read on. So if you want to know why at the end of each successful mystery-solving Holmes sits down for a good meal, or the theory behind the importance of each feast that Rowling ever wrote of in her legendary Harry Potter series, then I congratulate you for being in the right place.
To begin with, one of the most underrated tropes in the field of literature is food. All food-related activity (eating, cooking or dining) has often been dismissed as having merely a decorative or nominal function in writing. Much of this can be attributed to patriarchy circumscribing cooking or indeed, anything concerning food, within the realm of the domestic, hence terming it ‘weak’ or ‘simple’ and thus meant mostly for women (the “make me a sandwich” meme?) Recently, however, its significance has started coming to light. The credit goes to the consumerist denizens of the 21st-century society and media – the power of 434.5 hours of cookery shows a week!
That aside, food gains relevance in a piece of writing depending on the manner in which a writer chooses to use it. Whether it is as a theme, a literary device or even an analogy, writers have time and again used food-related imagery, meals, dining experiences and situations to give a subtle or maybe not-so-subtle hint towards issues such as depression, power, sexuality, adultery, feminism or the economy.
In JK Rowling’s third book in the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the Christmas feast becomes the symbol of a death that Rowling will enact in the sixth book.
“I dare not, Headmaster! If I join the table, we shall be thirteen! Nothing could be more unlucky! Never forget that when thirteen dine together, the first to rise will be the first to die!”
—Sybill Trelawney (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
On Christmas Day, 1993, Sybill Trelawney, professor of Divination at Hogwarts, joined several of her pupils and fellow teachers for Christmas dinner in the castle’s Great Hall. She was fearful upon noticing that twelve people were dining in the hall, believing that were she to sit down, the first of the thirteen seated to rise would be the first to die. However, if Peter Pettigrew, transfigured into Scabbers, is counted as a person, there were thirteen people before Trelawney arrived. Since Dumbledore was the one to rise from his seat to greet Professor Trelawney, and assuming Derek and two other unnamed students did not die before Dumbledore’s death in 1997, Professor Trelawney’s prediction was correct.
Another time the ‘Death and Dining’ trope was built on was in the case of Sirius Black, when in 1995 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), he rose from a table seating thirteen people in the Order. Black became the first among them to die.
The above instances show a cleverly-used technique of combining the common act of dining with the sinister theme of death, while also exemplifying Rowling’s vision in terms of the prophecies hidden across her books – a device which intensifies and enlivens our acts of reading and thinking.
Rowling in an interview with Telegraph mentioned how her books were mostly about “death” (Telegraph, 2006). This, in particular, holds significance because she was able to hide a symbol of the same even in the dining scenes.
Though I do not wish to make the overarching statement that food in Rowling’s series mostly has darker undertones, it remains true that some of the most sinister themes are definitely portrayed via the trope of food.
A leitmotif across the series is the Dursleys’ cruelty towards Harry, until it is resolved in the later books. The interesting observation to make here is that the most common medium this cruelty is enacted through is, well, food. Rowling makes the reader empathize with Harry and builds his history with the Dursleys into an object of pity through several instances related to the same.
The thin, lanky boy who is denied candy while his fat cousin gets it at the drop of a hat does generate a “poor Harry” image that makes him more likeable for the readers. The first book (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) carries a lot of instances emphasizing this.
During the visit to the zoo –
“The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance and then, because the smiling lady in the van had asked Harry what he wanted before they could hurry him away, they bought him a cheap lemon ice pop. It wasn’t bad, either, Harry thought.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
In creating polar opposites in the forms of Harry and Dudley, wherein Harry is satisfied by the bare minimum, while Dudley is not satisfied by even the best, the reader is naturally led into sympathizing with the protagonist.
These occasions of cruelty are themselves contrasted by Rowling with the feasts at Hogwarts. One common reason for Hogwarts or even the Burrow being “home” is because these are places where Harry always gets the warm, drowsy feeling of having a full stomach.
“He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, fries, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup, and for some strange reason, peppermint humbugs.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
Finally, the very first instance in the series (and Harry’s life itself) when he finally gets what he deserves is showcased by the moment of his receiving his first birthday cake from Hagrid, which comes with his ticket to Hogwarts.
“From an inside pocket of his black overcoat he pulled a slightly squashed box. Harry opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a large, sticky chocolate cake with Happy Birthday Harry written on it in green icing.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
The “birthday” cake symbolizes not only a new year in Harry’s life but a new beginning and renewed hope. It showcases love and warmth (something Harry is not privy to), for this is his first complete meal, something he can have for himself without having to share, and of course, it is the symbol of Hogwarts and magic itself, coming as it does from the Gatekeeper of the castle and at the stroke of midnight just as he turns eleven – just when he had lost all hope.
Having given one of the million occurrences when there was more to tea leaves than what just remains on the bottom of the cup or the hidden surprise in the bite-sized chocolate, I would like to casually conclude with a food analogy by quoting the age-old phrase that incites dread or (more hopefully) happiness in the consumer of food or a piece of writing – “There is more where that came from.”
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.
Written by Devika
Column icon by Kanishka
Featured image by Sanna Jain