Feasting with Asterix

April 6, 2005

By Rebecca Lucas

Not long ago I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for no reason other than that the title popped up in conversation. It took me a little while to warm to it, but from a certain event onward I was hooked: it is where Mess officer Milo serves the four squadrons at Pianosa fresh eggs fried in fresh butter[1]. I fried an egg in butter and ate while re-reading about eggs and soldiers. It might seem an unlikely book to set off reflections upon a habit so long established, but the synthesis of reading and eating has always been a part of my literary pleasure.

224644391_319d0df438_nThe first time I bit into a pickle was when I was five, soon after finishing a children’s classic by Eric Carle. The Very Hungry Caterpillar arrives at a penultimate narrative moment: its picture-book double spread of tidbits lined up with a perfect hole punched (eaten) through each. “On Saturday,” the hungry caterpillar “ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.”[2] Only the pickle was then an unknown to me. I needed to know the taste of everything tasted by the very hungry caterpillar. With no personal sensuous experience of ‘pickle’ the word and illustration were a frustration. The story seemed incomplete. Later, the Gallic banquets in Asterix comics were complemented by something meaty. I wanted to hold a chicken drumstick or lamb cutlet in my greasy fist and gnaw on it. Reading became an invitation, in this case, to eat what the Gauls were eating, to be there with Obelisk as we gorged on roasted boar.

These enacted readings connected real and imagined worlds. The connection was not confined to passages featuring food. I ate my way into a narrative in order to explore its entire sensuous landscape. There is a chapter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe called ‘Turkish Delight’ where C. S. Lewis writes that “Edmund… thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat.”[3] My lasting impression of the Narnia Chronicles concerns ordinary children (though rather proper and British) in an extraordinary forested world of talking animals, but this impression is, at the same time, linked to the sensation of stuffing my face full of Frye’s Turkish Delight. The few children’s books left on my shelf are those replete with descriptions of food and memories of eating. I first identified with characters through the meals we shared.

94477072_8e131ddb6b_mCountless times I scoffed a bar of chocolate at the exact moment that Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory “tore off the wrapper and took an enormous bite. Then he took another… and another… and oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid in one’s mouth!”[4] But no matter how hard I worked to convince myself, the Yarra River, brown as it is, would not flow for me as melted chocolate. I could make-believe that my Milo had been scooped from Wonka’s river, but I never expected to drink from it directly. And when Enid Blyton wrote of a purse that delivers a dish each time it is opened, although I tasted the delicacies which appeared, I knew nothing would appear from my imitation purse with pink beads and silver clasp.

It did not really matter that such daydreams stayed unfulfilled. Wishing for what was fantastical generated only a slight disappointment. Did I have a tacit understanding that the impossibility of magic purses somehow keeps fiction safe? The synthesis of reading and eating does not act to make another world disappear into this one. Bites, chews, flavours and swallows are real. The fictional world is imagined real through the bites. Of course, the tasting has not always agreed with the reading. I once read of how a ‘pot’ of jam packed in a school boarder’s ‘tuck-box’ was enjoyed straight from the jar. But forcing down dark spoonfuls of straight jam was so horribly sweet. The writing seemed to be affected by this incongruity. As a twelve year-old, I could not feel the same excitement over an orange shown by a novel’s nineteenth century children. Their fruits were held like fat edible jewels. Nevertheless, I am able to marvel at the preciousness of an orange.

Although literary descriptions of food and eating stimulated my mouth as well as my imagination, lusciousness was not a condition for the content of the writing. I left a rough chunk of bread to go stale, so it could be chewed and washed down with a big gulp of black tea like the swagman in The Shiralee.[5] Eating bread and dripping (bacon fat left in the pan) sat me at a table in the Depression. The pleasures of combining reading and eating do not entail gluttony (although it is definitely an option). Nothing decrees that one must eat to read. Language is always the essential ingredient. Over time I have become less impelled to consume the various foods represented on the page. And I like to think that my early tendency for blending appetites of the mind and body has well cultivated a mature appreciation of literature.

It was at least ten years ago that a well-read friend declared to me that Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was a masterpiece, but I have only now picked it up. Following on from my reading of Catch-22, Gravity’s Rainbow is, as it happens, another lengthy wartime book. By contrast, a few pages in and I’m finding it reads too intellectually; it is constructed a little too self-consciously. However, just a bit further along and a paragraph suprises my senses: it is so exquisite an inventory of Pirate’s Banana Breakfast that I am already heady with the delicious scent of this literature. There were, writes Pynchon:

tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead… banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees.

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 134–136.

[2] Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (London: Puffin, 1969).

[3] C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Middlesex: Puffin, 1977), p. 37.

[4]  Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London: Puffin, 2005), p. 62.

[5]  Niland, D’Arcy, The Shiralee (1955).

[6] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 10–11.

Photo credit: by Bobcat Rock, Flicker Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: by KosabeFlickr Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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