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You Are What You Read

By: Santiago Eastman Herrera

Photo Credits: Unsplash


Reading “Canadian Literary Fare” has got me thinking about how food works in literature. In this interesting collection of Food Studies essays, Nathalie Cooke and Shelley Boyd explore the symbolism behind certain foods as they appear in Canadian literature. I mean—when was the last time you stopped to wonder why your favorite characters eat to begin with?

For as long as humans have told stories, food has been tied to ideas of domesticity, homesteading, and social connection (or the lack thereof), but Canadian literature in particular often circles food as an object of identity and immigration. Coming from the US, it’s interesting to see Canadian-specific cuisine like butter tarts (originally from pioneers in Ontario), Nanaimo bars (specific to Vancouver Island), Poutine (a Quebec specialty), and maple syrup (via a process settlers learned from the natives when they first landed). Granted, there’s no such thing as a “Canadian diner” the way there are American diners (unless we count La Belle Province), but that’s in part due to how Canada handles its multiculturism.

Here, I’ve noticed fusion is less of a trend. At least in Montreal, cultures tend to keep their cuisine separate and line whole blocks with various ethnic restaurants. Unlike Canada, the US tends toward assimilation. (The great “melting pot” has created things like Asian fusion restaurants and Taco Bell, which is certainly not Mexican.) Culturally American food does exist and is separate: hot dogs, burgers, pecan pie, New Orleans beignets—when people think of America, the golden arches of McDonald’s are usually close by. But what about in literature?

Unlike in real life, characters in a novel don’t need to eat. If we read about a person enjoying food on the page, it’s because the author made a conscious decision to say something. In an aptly named article in the New Yorker (“What’s the Point of Food in Fiction?”), Adam Gopnik breaks down four main reasons to have food immortalized in ink:

1)    To serve food to characters who aren’t expected to taste it

2)    To show what kind of person a character is

3)    As a way of social bonding, i.e. to “eat” with the characters

4)    To offer food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader

From a historical standpoint, certain foods have been used to show gender in literature: milk, eggs, and produce as a stand-in for the feminine (also shown by the Greek gods Demeter, Persephone, and Hera). Meat, tied to hunting and killing, tends to be more masculine (and tied to gods like Zeus and Apollo). Fruit, like that of the forbidden kind from the Garden of Eden, has bent more feminine, while phallic-shaped tubers are obviously more masculine. Authors could—and regularly did—play with the symbolism, often inverting who is served what as a way to demonstrate something about a character (Heisley, “Gender Symbolism in Food”). If you don’t believe me, the stereotypes are still around today: only effeminate men drink cocktails, and only lesbians enjoy steak apparently.

This adding gender to food hasn’t always been true for all cultures and all moments of history, however. Going back to “Canadian Literary Fare,” the book points at a short story by Rabindranath Maharaj that follows a Muslim man who recently immigrated to Fredericton, New Brunswick. In the story, the man works through feelings of alienation and isolation as he buys and cooks beef for the first time in a misguided attempt to assimilate into Canadian culture. The attempt fails miserably, with the main character becoming a human drainpipe straight into the toilet, but the story ends with him accepting his new home in a different (and more hopeful) way. In the story, the moral dilemma around the beef shows food as a cultural signifier.

In another example, Cooke and Boyd analyze a poem by Fred Wah in which a mixed-race son refuses to eat ginger beef, a dish central to his father’s Chinese background. The son doesn’t realize the effect not eating the ginger beef had on his father until he grows older and now it’s his children that have a problem with it. The food here has taken on a symbol of racial qualification. It could be seen as a way to celebrate our culture in a new and foreign land, or for children of immigrants to still partake in their family’s culture. Seen from the opposite way, the food that characters reject (or meals that are inedible to them like in Maharaj’s story) immediately give an othering sense to that culture’s food. By not eating the ginger beef, the half-Canadian son tells his immigrant father that he rejects the family’s traditions.

As is suggested in the third reason, food in literature can be the centerpiece for important social rituals. In The Odyssey, Homer’s characters partake in 42 separate meals, whether through ritual sacrifice or large feasts that Odysseus shares with the people around him (Whitt, “An Appetite for Metaphor”). In the Bible, Jesus breaks bread with his disciples and elevates it as a symbol of his body to nourish his followers. In many collectivist cultures, the family unit all dines together, sharing food from the same bowls as an act of community. If a stranger gets invited into this space, they’ve thus been accepted as a guest. (And, at least for Hispanics, if they help cook? They’re officially considered part of the family.)

The act of cooking is a whole other ball game. Cooking can show signs of acceptance and tolerance just as easily as signs of power. (The domestic wife, for example, gets to choose whether or not to feed her dependent husband and children.) Food can show the way one culture has dominated the other, such as how the British have curry spots everywhere, or Anglo Canada displaying pop-up poutine shops. It can even change roles within the same story. For example, in “Alice in Wonderland,” food acts as a negative agent (the potion and cake that make Alice grow and shrink) or a positive one (like the Mad Hatter’s tea party).

I could go on all day. The point is that the food presented in your favorite stories is a major insight into something the author wanted to showcase about their characters or their premise. In real life, food is as important to a culture as language, and it’s no different in literature. Regardless if it’s Alice Munro giving us a step-by-step guide on making maple mouse (which sounds nasty in my opinion) or noir detectives never ingesting anything but cigarettes and whiskey, there’s something to find out about everyone.


Works Cited

Cooke, Nathalie, and Shelley Boyd. Canadian Literary Fare. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023.

Gopnik, Adam. “What’s the Point of Food in Fiction?” The New Yorker, 2 Apr. 2007,

Heisley, Deborah D. “Gender Symbolism and Usage Expectations in Food.” GCB - Gender and Consumer Behavior Volume, 1991.

Whitt, Jennifer Burcham. An Appetite for Metaphor: Food Imagery and Cultural Identity in Indian Fiction. Master's Thesis. East Carolina University, January 2011. The Scholarship. April 03, 2024.


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