Of Bread and Butter, Tea and Feasts

Stir in two spoonfuls of English tea leaves into the boiling hot water and watch the swirling water meet the crimson-brown of the tea leaves as they release their color and aroma into it. Strain the prepared liquid into the china teacup and stir in two teaspoonfuls of cream – three, if thou art feeling generous – and two sugar cubes, please.

Stir, and thou shalt see the creamy white mingle with the hot water as they become one while sugar crystals dissolve within the union only to be tasted when thou raises the delicate china to thy lips. It will be a storm of sensation as thy lips feel the searing heat of the tea, thy tongue tastes the creamy sweetness and thy nose is assaulted by the strong aroma.

When one talks of literature and tea parties together, the first book that comes to mind is undoubtedly — Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. From the Mad Hatter’s tea party, a parody of the Victorian dinning etiquettes, to Alice drinking or eating anything labeled “DRINK ME”, a reflection of the rampant adultery of food at the time, Carroll’s Alice books are full of food references, each carrying a deeper meaning. However, in this piece, though I shall pay a visit to Alice for a cup of tea, it shan’t be by falling through the rabbit hole, but instead through the manner of stepping through the looking glass to visit an old friend who is older, and definitely, more mature.

This maturity is also reflected in the various food references that Carroll makes in the less popular sequel to Alice’s adventure i.e., Through the Looking Glass.

To begin from the first chapter itself, which carries various references to food that convey the changes in our protagonist’s life, we find Alice holding the disgraced Kitty (black kitten) up and, threatening to punish it. Her punishment and the very manner of her assuming authority is a reflection of her own life where she is punished by her Governess. The first punishment that strikes her is to “go without dinner” and what more, since the punishments are being saved up for the end of the year – it would mean going without fifty dinners!

Another thing that is of concern is her reaction to her imagined punishment, “I shouldn’t mind that much! I’d far rather go without them than eat them!”

The above incident indicates a lot to the reader. The idea of punishment has entered the mental arena of young Alice, which indicates that she now knows the distinction between what is an acceptable activity and what is not, and what will, or will not, lead to disgrace or punishment by the authority above her. Hence, she applies the same to the authority below her, which is the animals, since no one in the social power structure— as is the belief—is below a seven-year-old besides animals, a statement made by Carroll which he overturns by making her queen later in the book.

Now, according to Victorian convention for the upper and the upper middle class, dinner was one of the only times of the day when children could socialise with their parents. They had to adhere to the strict behavioral code of conduct and propriety during the meal and, for the rest of the day they were mostly accompanied or taught by their governess or their nannies. Therefore, Alice’s indifference to dinner, on one hand, could indicate her class, for only a spoiled child who had enough food to waste could dismiss it, especially in an age where food was scarce due to population explosion. But on the other hand, it might also indicate her indifference towards, and dismissal of, her family or her parents, for, due to conventions and mostly Victorian attitudes towards children and childhood, she has hardly had any contact with them, and sees them as unimportant, thereby dismissing their presence, which is anyway bestowed on her only during dinner time.

Talking about indifference, we move to the next instance, wherein Alice is thirsty and tired after a run for maintaining the status quo, and is offered a biscuit that is very dry which ends up almost choking her. Quite clearly, even as Alice keeps repeating that she doesn’t want the biscuit, this reflects the larger scene in life— one is hardly given what one wants or in this case even needs, in life.

Alice, in order to appear “civil” accepts the biscuit and, it could be an indication from Lewis’s side (quite fond of parodying Victorian mores), that following the strict civil code of conduct might leave one very dry and uninteresting, but also, could end up choking literally, in this case, their desires and wants, as one is unable to express them – which is what happens in Alice’s case.

Choking leads us to death, which in turn leads us to Alice’s meeting with the Looking Glass Insects who, as mentioned above, also display Lewis’s dislike for conventions and rules. Hence, their inversion or parodying, as happens in this case. The insects look like their names— butterfly is bread-and-butter-fly, “Its wings are thin slices of bread and butter, its body is a crust and its head is a lump of sugar”. It lives on “weak tea with cream” and dies without them. Alice reflects, “that must happen very often” and the gnat replies, “It always happens”.

Carroll through the simple metaphor of food conveys a number of things, and the first amongst these is death. Our protagonist is now old enough to face the reality of life, in the form of facing death and the harsh truth that “it always happens”. The bread-and-butter fly becomes a metaphor for the lower classes, who crawl at the feet of the affluent classes (as the fly does with Alice) looking for their sustenance, and die without it.

Victorian England was also, an age of malnutrition. Death therefore, was common due to population explosion and, while the affluent had as much as they wanted, the poor had to live an impoverished life.

Weak tea indicates that very kind that the poor would take, as enough leaves for a strong one could not be afforded. Bread-and-butter was considered the meal of the poorest of the poor, as they could not afford meat, only bread. The White Queen constantly murmurs “bread and butter, bread and butter” and, the Red Queen’s statement on her remains, “She never was really well brought up…poor thing!”

Though “poor” here is meant for pity, and not “well-brought up” as in the Victorian times was a clear cut offensive statement about one’s class, the White Queen seems to fit in the said category due to a lot of reasons: her untidy, unruly dressing style, her food choice and of course, the Red Queen’s remark.

“Bread and butter” in this case, might hold another significance i.e., to earn one’s bread and butter is to earn one’s living and hence, the White Queen’s obsession with murmuring “Bread and butter” reflects the consumerist society that Victorian England became, especially in the case of someone with power.

Another instance of this is the poem recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, in which the Walrus and the carpenter lead the young oysters away and eat them. Consumerism, Industrialisation and, development led to Urbanization during the Nineteenth Century. The movement of the Oysters from their sea bed i.e., their home, to wherever they are led by the Walrus and the Carpenter reflects the movement of the rural population to urban areas led by the dreams and fantasy that the urban developers led them to believe in.

This fantasy on a larger level also indicates the larger fantasy and dream Alice herself is buying into, much like we as readers do when we buy fiction. The very act of buying a fiction novel is consumerism as stories and ideas themselves have a cost, as many scenes in the book indicate when each word costs a certain sum.

The movement of the Oysters with the Carpenter and the Walrus shows us the fantasy that most of the rural folks bought into. The Urban Classes leached them of their hard work and consumed their very beings in return for meager wages, and this is pointed to in the literal consumption of the oysters by the Carpenter and the Walrus.

The discussion that Alice has with the twins post the recital of the poem is also very interesting. She cannot tell who she likes better— the Walrus because he was guilty (yet he ate more as Tweedledee mentions) or, the Carpenter who ate as much as possible, if not as much as the Walrus (as Tweedledum mentions). This is not just a reflection of blurred lines between good and bad, but is also a likeness of the Upper consumer class who are the ones consuming most of the hard work of the poor. Consuming here also stands for exploitation, which in the Oysters’ case comes in the form of the betrayal of the Oysters’ trust.

Before concluding, it is essential for me to address the final scene of Alice’s feast, which many critics see as a reflection of the tea party from the previous book, but in my opinion, though there are similar elements, a lot has changed, and the most prominent of them is that Alice is the hostess, the queen so to speak, instead of the uninvited guest as in the previous party.

Her reaction “Where is the servant who is supposed to answer the door” shows her growth as a person who realizes the power structures and, the delegation of responsibilities. Her subjects and her fellow queens drink to welcome her. They place her in a position of honour and respect, unlike the previous book’s tea party. Alice’s contemplation about how she wouldn’t know whom to invite indicates an ingrained Victorian etiquette that taught young girls everything from guest list designing, to the making of the dishes.

One can read biography into her introduction to the leg of mutton as Brinda Bose mentions – “King James I ‘knighted’ a loin or mutton at the table of Carroll’s ancestor”. One can also read Alice’s discovery of her own power and strength into the instance when she asks the pudding to be brought back, hence going against a figure of authority – in this case, the Red Queen, who many critics have said represents the governess – by realizing that she too, has power. The cutting of a slice from the introduced pudding on one hand might indicate personification of an inanimate object post-which it becomes difficult to start, and on the other hand it might show the anguish of the consumed object, representative of the poor or even animals who are eaten. Finally, it points to how Alice learns the manner of using her power and how far she can go with it, because there will come a time when the oppressed or the dominated will speak up – in this case, the pudding, which does speak up.

The way Alice judges her guest’s eating and drinking manners, “just like pigs in a trough” shows the parodying of the toast etiquette by Carrol and, an ingrained etiquette code in young Alice who knows the right from the wrong.

The ending of the feast when all hell breaks loose and Alice herself pulls the tablecloth and shouts “I can’t take this anymore!” in the eyes of a Victorian audience would, even today, be a nightmare for any host, indicating a failure. When she screams, one may ask whether “this” is a reference to the madness of her party or the parodying of the Victorian etiquette or, even the Victorian etiquette itself? But Carroll leaves this riddle unanswered like many others littered across his books. But I would have to say that this is a rare case of fantasy hiding behind reality as Alice wakes up, instead of reality hiding behind fantasy, which is the usual case. But I guess, when fantasy starts reflecting a darker and, a more twisted version of reality, it is reality that we return to, so as to create an alternate version.

Through the Looking Glass is replete with such food references that hold a deeper and a darker political-societal meaning, but the word constraint wouldn’t allow you another morsel today.

This doesn’t mean you have to go hungry! You could return to the book and try spotting some of these instances for yourself – that is, of course, until I prepare for you another one of my dishes.

Until then, don’t forget to enjoy whatever you consume.

Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.

Written by Devika
Updates monthly

Column icon by Kanishka
Featured image by Sanna Jain


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