If food is fundamental to life and a substance upon which civilisations and cultures have built themselves, then food is also fundamental to the imagination. Perhaps the deepest emotional exposure we have of imagination is that which we experience in childhood. Just as food studies is becoming important in the field of general literature, so too is it becoming important in the field of children’s literature.
Whether in memoir, fiction or poetry, writers continually hark back to childhood experiences of food, even when the intended audience is adults rather than children, as with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Food experiences form part of the daily texture of every child’s life from birth onwards, as any adult who cares for children is highly aware; thus it is hardly surprising that food is a constantly recurring motif in literature written for children.
This paper sets out to explore the representation of this “constantly recurring motif” in children’s literature with an emphasis on those aspects of the field which might be loosely termed “popular” – folktales, the work of such classic children’s writers as Kenneth Grahame and Enid Blyton, the school story, and comics, for example. In the process I endeavour to explore the place of food in these genres from the perspectives of psychology, sociology and popular culture.
A common setting related to food in children’s literature is teatime. Usually employed to dramatise states of harmony or disharmony, teatime is used to great effect in such works as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866), in which Alice learns to come to terms with the world around her via her experiences at the Mad Hatter’s distinctly uncivilised tea party.
Food and order images are also used liberally in such tales as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), where food denotes cosiness and plenty. In addition to reflecting social order and civilisation, food is often representative of the limitations imposed upon a child’s world, blending well with the idea of excess as a key element of childhood fantasy. For example, Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (1963) uses food as a vehicle to express strong childhood emotions, and, like many other children’s texts, uses rituals of eating as a metaphor for the power struggle inherent to family dynamics.
According to Holly Blackford, the entire question of food in the early life of the child is perhaps a far more complex issue than we might realise. Foundations of power are constructed and expressed by food consumption and production, she maintains.