Gazing forward, not looking back: comfort food without nostalgia in the novels of Polly Horvath.
--M. F. K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me (ix)
Nostalgia and comfort food are intertwined subjects that recur consistently in children's literature and in food-centred literary analyses of it. We have taken up the topic of nostalgia in our own work on Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, and Neil Gaiman, and in our 2009 collection of essays Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature, the majority of the essays reflect at some point on how authors look back nostalgically to childhood favourites in their representations of food in children's books. In the first scholarly book devoted to food and children's literature, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children's Literature, Carolyn Daniel discusses Enid Blyton's "fictional food fantasies" as expressions of comfort and nostalgia (72). Likewise, in her recent book Consuming Agency in Fairy Tales, Childlore and Folkliterature, Susan Honeyman offers a well-theorized discussion of the nostalgic nature of the gastro-utopia, which she connects with comfort food specifically (131).
In this paper we want to explore the concept and uses of comfort food beyond its function as an expression of the nostalgic view of childhood that so many children's authors embrace. Admittedly, nostalgia is a key trope in understanding the relationship between food and children, a focus that is as true in the scholarship we note above as it is in the best-known image of food and one child in particular: Proust's treasured madeleine in Swann's Way, the first volume of his novel Remembrance of Things Past. But while nostalgia is an emotion that is reflected strongly in the texts adults write for children, it is not necessarily an emotion that appeals to child readers in the same way. Children's author Polly Horvath offers a distinctive take in her books on how comfort food can function for children. Our interest in Horvath's body of work stems from her persistent use of comfort food, although what makes her novels particularly intriguing is that she explores the complexities of comfort food as psychological remedy: she avoids the simplistic equation of food as emotional comfort that serves as a solution for emotional distress and frequently as a plot resolution in children's books. We look beyond literary and cultural discourses and borrow analytical tools from the social sciences in order to explore the way in which society produces comfort food whose significance lies in the child's pleasure in consumption in the present moment, rather than the adult's retrospective pleasure. The combination of these approaches illuminates how the characters in Horvath's award-winning novels Everything on a Waffle and The Canning Season find comfort in the food in their lives and are oriented toward the future, rather than the past.
The impulse to turn to food for comfort is a well-recognized and widespread social phenomenon. Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman define comfort food as "a specific food consumed under a specific situation to obtain psychological comfort" (66). A whole genre of scholarship has emerged in response to the psychology, sociology, and marketing of comfort food to mass audiences. Journals such as Physiology and Behavior, American Demographics, The Journal of Consumer Research, and Food and Foodways include literature reviews of experiments on human subjects that test hypotheses of what constitutes comfort food for various social groups. (1) Corporations take advantage of such studies to discern the best ways to market their food to specific audience niches. Both academic scholarship and corporate research note the importance of food as a means to comfort children, and such studies suggest the long-term influence of childhood food items on adult ideas of comfort.
Because of their potential for application to a literary analysis of Horvath's work, "Comfort Foods: An Exploratory Journey into the Social and Emotional Significance of Food" by Julie L. Locher and her colleagues and Deborah Lupton's monograph Food, the Body and the Self are of particular interest to us. Locher's collaborative group studied undergraduates' choices of comfort food items, the occasions that triggered their choices, and the emotional states that their choices signified or created, concluding that comfort food is a "symbolic object" that relieves stress and depression because it evokes feelings of nostalgia for a past period of happiness and social connection: "It is much more than merely nourishment for the body; it also nourishes the mind and soul" (289). Focusing on new adults' nostalgia for their childhood experience, Lupton's study suggests how people construct nostalgic feelings about food. Memory, she argues, is stored within the body itself, creating strong links to emotion and food: "Given that food is an element of the material world which embodies and organizes our relationship with the past in socially significant ways, the relationship between food preferences and memory may be regarded as symbiotic" (32). In her chapter "Food, the Family and Childhood," she explores the ways in which food operates positively and negatively in terms of the mother's roles as provider (offering coveted food items) and as disciplinarian (insisting on the consumption of proper food), as well as the conflicts inherent in special meals such as holiday dinners, which are supposed to be nostalgic moments of comfort, joy, and contentment but are frequently full of family strife and discord. Food, in other words, can be both a nostalgic, joyful, and idealized experience and a marker of feelings of pain, coercion, capitulation, and conformity to familial and social authority.
The influence of this complex emotional nexus on a sensitive child's imagination is famously demonstrated in the "Overture" to Proust's Swann's Way. Proust notes that his mother offered the madeleine soaked in hot tea to comfort her young son at a point when he was cold and depressed. The moment the tea-saturated crumb of the madeleine hit his tongue became a sublime gustatory experience: the child Proust ceased "to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal" and felt instead an "all-powerful joy" (18). The experience was transitory, however: the subsequent mouthfuls did not have the power of the first, yet he kept trying to recapture that moment. The central importance of this moment for Proust's novel is explained by Serge Doubrovsky and Carol Bove, who argue that the madeleine provides "an initial experience." It is "the essential experience ... which produces the book.... On the thematic level, it returns to obsess, to haunt the narrator's life.... Structurally, it can be said that the madeleine episode serves as a model for the whole of the Recherche" (108-09). Proust attempts to recapture nostalgically an ideal childhood moment that embodies, according to James P. Gilroy, "the realm of beauty and truth" when "one can enter into contact with true being" (98). For Proust, the madeleine provides such a sublime moment, never to be captured again in its intensity but always sought. Proust's initiatory memory of a madeleine in hot tea, a childhood comfort food, has come to emblematize the power of nostalgic desire in the literary canon.
The term "nostalgia" originates from two Greek roots: nostos, meaning "home," and algia, meaning "longing" (Boym 511). Susan Stewart identifies two kinds of nostalgia: the first emphasizes nostos, the actual return to the mythical place, the second algia, which is "enamored of distance, not of the referent itself" (145). The second type governs most adult nostalgia for childhood experience that can be seen in children's literature. James R. Kincaid argues that adult nostalgia for childhood is inescapable, as he suggests in Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting:
Lately ... we seem ... to have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can go back to a rudimentary child, a child whose simplicity is absolute. We are drawn to this Romantic child by a deep escapist nostalgia.... Right now we are busy re-creating Lewis Carroll's "child of the pure unclouded brow," the healing child within. This child rechurns our cultural curds, innocence and purity, into a modern snack food we can adjust and use to nourish, excuse, and explain ourselves. This is the child whose identity we steal and can then "find" and use to create the happy time we deserved all along. (70)
Kincaid argues here that adults' nostalgic desire for the Romantic child ultimately distances them from the "intricate" child that has actually been produced culturally (69-70). In a compelling but mixed food metaphor, he gives the Romantic child the role of manufacturer of the nostalgia that adults want to consume, with the child becoming the artisan who transforms innocence and purity. The Romantic child's agency is illusory, however, because adults then paradoxically consume the child again, a circular process that only reproduces further nostalgic distance between adult desire and the genuine "intricate" child. While Kincaid speaks here of social discourse in general, his comments apply well to children's literature as a specific form of cultural "snack food." In particular, children's literature that represents children in forms that nostalgic adults desire may become a kind of cultural comfort food that adults enjoy consuming and want to feed to children.
Many children's literature texts reproduce this nostalgia by representing adults comforting children with food. The presence of comfort food often fits a three-part narrative pattern: 1) the child figure experiences emotional distress; 2) food is offered by a well-meaning adult or is found by the child; 3) the child eats the food and feels better, resolving the initial distress. Children's books that follow this pattern are numerous and well known. In Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Max's mother provides a hot dinner and a dessert to signify her forgiveness of her misbehaving son; the aroma calls Max back from his journey and he looks clearly relieved as he enters his room again, implying that he will accept the food and resume emotional well-being. Although Neil Gaiman's Coraline has not accepted her parents' food choices in the past, after she defeats the other mother she consumes her father's pizza happily as a sign of family reunion. In Allen Say's Tea with Milk, Masako relieves her homesickness for America by choosing to drink black tea with milk, western style, rather than consuming the green tea common in her new home in Japan. In E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Wilbur soothes the emotional dislocation of his short escape from his pen by accepting the bucket of slops that Homer Zuckerman and Lurvy offer to entice him back. Both J. R. R. Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins and A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh often find themselves hungry at the moments when they are endangered or discomforted, and feel better when they get to eat. When Hagrid first meets Harry, in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, he welcomes the neglected eleven-year-old into the wizarding world by fixing a hot meal of sausages followed by a birthday cake, which the abusive Dursleys do not get to share. Although all of these texts suggest complex--even dark--understandings of children and childhood, they nevertheless use food as comfort for their young protagonists. These authors, whose works range from sentimental to sardonic, are all ruled, consciously or not, by adult-based nostalgic views of the role of comfort food, views that are ultimately inflected by cultural ideals of the Romantic child.
In contrast to these nostalgia-based approaches to comfort food, Polly Horvath's novels Everything on a Waffle and The Canning Season do not construct food from a nostalgic adult's perspective, looking backward, but rather from a child's point of view, looking forward. In other words, these novels demonstrate, in scenes depicting her protagonists learning from adult mentors how to make and enjoy food, the creation of the moment that will evoke nostalgia later. Horvath's characters are consistently preoccupied with food, but simple consumption never solves any of their emotional problems, nor does food operate in easily comforting ways in her novels. Her child protagonists find themselves cut loose from their parents, inhabiting worlds where conventional family structures are suspended and replaced by alternative ones. The adults looking after the children reject conventional lives and extemporize their own life paths, both bewildering and enchanting the child protagonists in the process. Notably, Horvath's adults usually make food from scratch rather than merely provide what food scholar Michael Pollan terms "edible food-like substances"--that is, industrial processed foods (In Defense 1). Horvath uses the cooking and social consumption of food as a means by which her child protagonists and guardian adults navigate this extemporized world, so that food functions to stabilize relationships and allows the young characters to create a sense of control over their lives. Yet, because of her emphasis on food preparation, Horvath never reduces food to a simple, comfortable solution. In these two novels, the children form emotional bonds as they cook with the adults who stand in for their missing parents. These are emotional ties that provide grounding in the confusing worlds of Horvath's novels, in which adults appear to be making everything up as they go.
The outstanding organizational feature of Everything on a Waffle is its protagonist's use of a recipe to conclude each chapter, thus overtly building food into the structure of the novel. (2) The story concerns how Primrose Squarp copes during the year after her parents are lost at sea, throughout which she builds a collection of recipes that serves as a chronicle of her altered life, while the authorities of the small British Columbian coastal town of Coal Harbour figure out what to do with her now that she is apparently orphaned. Primrose holds on to the conviction that her parents are still alive, despite the efforts of many adults to get her to accept their deaths. Some--including her Uncle Jack, her eventual guardian, and Miss Bowzer, the cook and owner of the Girl on the Red Swing restaurant--support her emotionally by not letting the supposed deaths of her parents dominate their relationships with her. Both of them allow or encourage Primrose to explore her nascent interest in food, which ultimately develops into a means for her to cope with her temporary orphanhood. In this way, Horvath makes food central to the novel as a metonymic means by which Primrose can manage her world and the people in it emotionally. Throughout the year, she associates particular recipes with specific people and her feelings about them, so that each chapter-ending recipe comes to stand for the focal relationship of that chapter: for characters to whom she responds warmly, she uses recipes that reveal her delight in food, whereas for characters who do not offer her emotional sustenance, she uses recipes to compensate for that emotional distance, so that even out of less pleasant interactions she can distill a recipe that gives her pleasure or comfort, that tastes good, and that is worthy of a place in her collection.
Significantly, the first two recipes that Primrose cites, for carrots with an apricot glaze and for boiled asparagus, are from her missing mother. Both exist in textual form rather than as material food, the carrots as a written recipe on the memo pad that fell out of Primrose's mother's raincoat when she left her daughter to seek her husband in the storm. The memo pad thus serves as a connection to Primrose's last moments with her mother. Primrose reads the recipe over and over while the town council decides her fate. Rather than voice her own desires to adults who would likely ignore them, Primrose cocoons herself inside her mother's words and the sweet memory they represent. She writes the asparagus recipe from memory: "I knew just how my mother made it because I had seen her make it a thousand times" (15). Because the nostalgia here lies in the written recipe rather than in consumed food, Wansink and Sangerman's definition of comfort food does not really apply, even though Primrose is clearly a child in desperate need of comfort.
Despite Primrose's shift from readerly passivity to writerly agency in writing down the asparagus recipe, the recipes cannot provide the comfort she desires because they represent a missing relationship and are only textual representations of food. The memo pad, however, becomes an important, transformational object. Through her use of it, Primrose moves from a nostalgic gaze back to an anticipatory look forward, signifying her conviction that her missing parents are actually alive. The recipe collection becomes a gift to the future rather than a memento mori: "I sat quietly finishing my iced tea and writing down the asparagus recipe in my mother's memo pad. I decided to use the pad to collect any recipes of my mother's I remembered or any new ones I came across that she might like" (18-19). On the surface, the opening chapters of the book suggest that orphaned Primrose is understandably nostalgic for her life with her presumably dead parents and that, like nostalgic adults, she seeks comfort in food memories. But Horvath allows Primrose only a few moments of nostalgia, based in her memories of her parents, before turning her character toward the future. Horvath gives comfort a new temporal orientation, to the present or the future rather than the past.
At the beginning of the novel, Primrose says she feels as if she is drifting through her life in "a funny, detached, dreamlike state.... I am not in the body of life. I hover on the extremities. I float" (12). Disconnected from her former life, she begins to use food as a way to reimagine her place in the world, both in textual recipe form and in actual cooking. Such a quest for belonging and for meaningful relationships is ultimately a search for comfort, which she finds through the complex interchange of food consumption, preparation, and preservation in the form of her recipes. Her strategy represents a perfect example of the point made by Lochner and her colleagues, that "[flood and eating represent some of the ways that people use their bodies to respond to social structure through the social creation of personal meaning" (289). As a child, Primrose gets to make few decisions about her own fate, yet her recipe collection offers her an opportunity to assert her own desires in a way that demonstrates rhetorician Lynn Z. Bloom's observation that "[flood writing, like cooking, offers control over at least a small slice of an otherwise refractory world" (346). (3) Through pursuing her recipe collection and cooking, Primrose makes connections with adults, particularly her Uncle Jack and Miss Bowzer, that give her agency so that she can have a say in her own life.
Her first and most important bond develops with Miss Bowzer, who runs the Girl on the Red Swing restaurant. Primrose first encounters her when fleeing taunting classmates; Miss Bowzer literally reaches out and pulls Primrose "into a warm kitchen and safety," where she serves her "a couple of waffles and a glass of iced tea" (16). Miss Bowzer dispenses commonsensical advice and rough sympathy along with the food. While the emotional relief that Primrose feels from the comfort food is temporary, the true significance of this moment is the embryonic emotional bond that she forms with Miss Bowzer that will mature in their future cooking lessons. It is during this visit that Primrose conceives the idea of collecting recipes in her mother's memo pad. Later, when her realtor uncle is trying to sell a house whose owner insists on burning cinnamon to "make the house smell warm and inviting" (39), Uncle Jack promises that, if Primrose learns to make cinnamon rolls for him to put in the house instead, he will take her with him on his real estate tours. Primrose seizes on this promise as a way to spend more time with her uncle. When her first several attempts at making the rolls fail, Uncle Jack suggests she find someone to help her, and Primrose returns to Miss Bowzer, who instructs her on how yeast works and helps her learn to make the rolls successfully.
For Primrose, food is a means to counter her sense of "floating" through the world. The apprenticeship relationship that Miss Bowzer and Primrose develop mirrors what literature and food scholar Barbara Frey Waxman claims is a common pattern noted by real-life chefs who were "fortunate enough to find mentors to encourage their endeavors and discover work and a place in life that [made] them feel" what Ruth Reichl termed "grounded, fully there" (Waxman 380; Reichl 233). Although often frantically busy cooking for her restaurant, Miss Bowzer nonetheless always finds time to help Primrose with her cooking emergencies, and recipes from their cooking sessions account for nine of the fifteen recipes in the book. Miss Bowzer appears on the surface to be a curmudgeonly adult, but she responds generously to the issues and challenges that Primrose brings to her, experimenting and inventing recipes for dishes such as Pear Soup when she does not have one to hand. Through her cooking, Miss Bowzer represents most clearly the point made by Lochner and her colleagues, cited above, about food preparation and consumption being a means by which people create "personal meaning." For her, the eponymous waffle is the foundation of her life philosophy:
[A]t the Girl on the Red Swing they served everything on a waffle. Not just the kind of food that went with waffles--not just ham and eggs on a waffle or strawberries on a waffle. No, at the Girl on the Red Swing if you ordered a steak it came on a waffle, if you ordered fish and chips it came on a waffle, if you ordered waffles they came on a waffle. Miss Bowzer said that it gave the restaurant class. Also, she liked to give the customer a little something extra. (16)
Miss Bowser uses waffles as the basis of her cooking to attract townspeople to her restaurant; she also teaches Primrose that food is a fundamental way to negotiate social relations and to demonstrate generosity with each meal prepared. Her restaurant itself is a key social site in the town, a place where the townspeople gather to mingle: even disagreeing and disagreeable parties come together at Girl on the Red Swing.
Horvath exploits the central social function of the restaurant at the end of the novel, when Girl on a Red Swing serves as the setting for its comic resolution with meals that celebrate first Primrose's and then her parents' return to Coal Harbour. Miss Bowzer's restaurant takes on what food scholar Alan Davidson designates "an important role in [the] social life" of the town, which he notes is a common function of cafes (123). Following the genre expectations of comedy, the restaurant restores order to Primrose's disordered life, providing a setting for an enlarged, inclusive, and compassionate community that now includes the new residents Uncle Jack, her foster parents Evie and Bert, as well as Primrose, her parents (newly returned from the island on which they were marooned), and Miss Bowzer. In a plot resolution like some of Shakespeare's comedies, Horvath excludes the arrogant Miss Honeycut, the school counselor and the primary antagonist of the novel, from the final formulation of Primrose's community. Spiritually stunted and intolerant of others, Miss Honeycut (as her name implies) lacks the necessary graciousness for inclusion and refuses to participate in the final meal of the novel, even though Primrose has invited her to join their fellowship. This dinner also provides the most emblematic moment of the power of food to resolve differences. By developing air-dried beef on radicchio--on a waffle--Miss Bowzer defers to Uncle Jack's desire that she offer a more upscale menu to attract tourists while she simultaneously insists on the foundational waffle that "gives the customer something extra" (16). The combination of their differing food philosophies represents the final successful negotiation of the social space, embodying both Uncle Jack's recognition as a developer that the community needs to adapt to a changing world and Miss Bowzer's perseverance in upholding old-fashioned community values.
The celebratory ending feast in which the Squarps and their friends indulge is a traditional narrative closure, seen also in The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and many other children's novels. But Horvath supplements this conventional use of food and meals by incorporating recipes in Primrose's collection from unsympathetic as well as sympathetic characters, so that they all occupy a textual place within her community. Primrose renovates them imaginatively during the novel by finding recipes for food items that are more palatable than the characters themselves. The lemon sugar cookies from Miss Honeycut, the tea biscuits from Miss Perfidy, and the caramel apple from Mrs. Cantina, all metaphorically sweeten Primrose's relationships with these characters at the ends of chapters that chronicle some of her difficulties with them. Notably, all the recipes from these unpleasant women are comfort foods, with a clear emphasis on sweetness. While Primrose does not actually consume these foods within the narrative, she preserves them textually to create comfort for herself in the present and the future. The recipes of these characters become part of the architecture of the novel, reflecting the coping strategies by which Primrose finds ways to re-enter the world and learn to get along with people in it. Like those recipes Primrose associates with the people she loves, these form part of her future memories, incipient "souvenirs" of her childhood, as Stewart would call them (145).
The action of Everything on a Waffle is set in a single year of Primrose's life, whereas The Canning Season tells a tale, set over many years, of two girls. The larger temporal frame allows Horvath to show how an intense practicum in food production and preparation affects the emotional growth of two adolescent girls plunked down unexpectedly on a rural farm in the woods of coastal Maine and in the care of two elderly aunts. Like Primrose, Ratchet Clark and Harper Madison are both "floating" as emotionally disconnected girls, isolated from any kind of nurturing social or familial community at the beginning of the novel. They gain agency through their developing knowledge of food. These girls put down far deeper roots than Primrose does, learning not just to cook but to farm and to gather the raw materials of meals. Penpen and Tilly Menuto are elderly women unused to the needs of growing girls; at the beginning of the novel, meals frequently are haphazard affairs in terms of timing and occasionally even in terms of ingredients. The girls gradually take on the chores of food production and preparation in part simply to ensure that they get fed well and regularly. For Ratchet and Harper, then, cooking is not a hobby but a basic requirement. Because the time frame of the novel is so much longer, The Canning Season is, as Roberta Seelinger Trites would argue, a true Bildungsroman rather than an Entwicklungsroman, as Everything on a Waffle is; that is, it portrays the characters' development into adult maturity rather than showing only one stage of that adolescent growth (Trites 10), thus allowing Horvath to develop her characters with fully realized adult agency at the end. We see Ratchet and Harper move from apprentice cooks and farmers to full independence by the end of the story, at a point where they can provide their own comfort. Yet, as in Everything on a Waffle, comfort in this novel does not derive from the girls' nostalgia for their individual pasts (which are notably uncomforting). Rather, their development of food skills creates the platform for their stable adult community based on sympathetic bonds between people.
Hunger is an initial feature of life for both girls. They arrive with emotional scars that influence their attitudes toward food. Ratchet has a limited gustatory experience, in part because her mother, Henriette, economizes on food rather than restrains her discretionary spending. Henriette does not cook, serving only cheap processed convenience foods, so that Ratchet's diet has consisted primarily of Ovaltine and Cheerios. Henriette tells Ratchet stories of the hospital food she was served when Ratchet was born--chicken and cream sauce, ham bake, and Salisbury steak--but regards it dismissively, whereas hungry little Ratchet actually "salivates" when hearing her mother talk of food she never gets (6). As a result of having been undernourished physically and emotionally by her mother, Ratchet has learned to manage without food for periods of time when necessary. Harper's food anxieties likewise derive from neglect, probably resulting from the lack of care she experienced from her own aunt who has raised her since her mother abandoned her as a baby. In contrast to Ratchet, Harper's attitude toward food is aggressive: Ratchet notices that Harper devours "her own portion and everyone else's at mealtimes, if she [can] get away with it" (97). Ratchet and Harper's experience with their maternal figures resonates with Lupton's complex understanding of childhood food items, because inherent in the memory of those items provided or denied is individual and familial emotional strife. Both girls' maternal figures have failed in the roles of food provider and disciplinarian that Lupton argues are intrinsic to the mothering process. Yet Horvath refuses to employ food to construct the binary "good" mother vs. "bad" mother pattern that Lisa Rowe Fraustino has shown is common in children's books (71). Although Horvath portrays bad mothers, who feed their young charges poorly or not at all, she does not reproduce the balancing good mother trope as ideologically necessary or inevitable. In fact, it is in the absence of the good mother and in the richness of alternative mothering figures that Ratchet and Harper, as well as Primrose, develop. While the girls' eating attitudes are exact opposites, both need to find a healthy attitude to food, something they achieve as they begin to take part in farming and cooking.
During her initiation into her great-aunts' household, Ratchet learns the rhythm of their lives and the work required to put food on the table. On the evening of her first full day there, Ratchet is terribly hungry, having had no lunch, but eating the creamed chicken dinner her aunt Penpen has made is delayed when the old women realize that they have forgotten their barn chores. Initially motivated simply by hunger, and despite being appalled at the amount of work required, Ratchet helps her slow, tottery aunts with the chores: feeding and milking the cow, then separating the cream from the milk. Even when Penpen tells her to go inside and eat her dinner, she refuses and continues to help because "it seemed unfair to eat before [her aunts] did" (27). She thus displays ethical behaviour even when hungry and thereafter finds a place for herself in the household order through taking on the chores on a permanent basis. Her aunts subsist largely on dairy, chicken, vegetables, and fruit that they grow or gather from their farm; their meals are all made from scratch because they have neither access to nor interest in the processed convenience foods on which Ratchet has grown up. Ratchet begins her apprenticeship in taking care of the farm during this summer; by the end of the novel, a grown-up Ratchet has taken over all the functions of her aunts, including the canning of the blueberries that remain the economic underpinnings of the financial success of the estate.
Although Horvath is writing a novel rather than a food memoir, she uses organizational elements for the plot of The Canning Season that are found commonly in such autobiographies. Ratchet's life arc as detailed above matches perfectly the storyline that Waxman notes in her article on food memoirs:
[T]he narratives trace how [food memoirists] come from dysfunctional families, do not fit in with their peers, and turn to food personally and professionally for escape, sensual experience, comfort, and social connection. They are in search of an alternative family, a more accepting niche in the world, and they find both among food professionals. (375)
Although Harper's life story and character are in many ways quite different, she, too, follows the pattern that Waxman describes. Abandoned as a baby with her uncaring aunt Madison, Harper first appears in the novel when Maddy decides to dump her in turn, this time on Tilly and Penpen's doorstep. Somewhat surprisingly, the apparently hardened and indifferent Harper developed a passion for gardening a few years earlier, apprenticing under Mr. Ziang in her local community garden. Badly fed by Maddy during her early years, "Harper's little growing body knew it was missing something, and when she pulled up her first new carrot and chewed experimentally on it, she was hooked. Harper loved vegetables. After that, the garden became her own" (133). Like the food autobiographers Waxman discusses, Harper initially moves away from her dysfunctional family and its equally unhealthy eating habits under the tutelage of a mentor outside her family. Mr. Ziang allows her to redefine her relationship with food and to start asserting her own identity. His mentoring pays off as Harper takes over Penpen's garden after the elderly aunt suffers a heart attack. While Penpen is initially distrustful, Harper proves she knows her way around vegetables. Harper continues to garden under Penpen's supervision and mentorship, an experience that leads to her eventual decision to become
a famous worm expert. Also an expert on organic gardening with pests. She doctored gardens all over New England, had six babies, leaving them at home with her novelist husband while she traveled, her hands always dipping into other people's soil, like coming home, like feeling in the heart of the earth, her heart, everyone's heart. (192)
This passage suggests that Harper (like the food memoirists) finds her "niche in the world" through the soil, which is metaphorically transformed into a heart--she discovers both herself and the world through her loving and creative work. Harper embodies fecundity, producing a more fertile world both through her expert knowledge of worms, whose work improves the fruitfulness of the soil, and through her own reproductive powers as shown in her many children.
Also paralleling the food memoirists' life pattern, Horvath celebrates the creation of alternative families, so that characters become free to move beyond the emotionally unhealthy families into which they were born and to remake themselves in new and healthier ways, and puts food at the centre of that remaking. Tilly and Penpen come from a horrific family: their autocratic father drives their mother to suicide and isolates his daughters as they grow into early adulthood. Once free from his control, the sisters learn to support themselves by making blueberry dessert sauce. When Ratchet and Harper are abandoned on their doorstep, however, the four women form the nucleus of a new and loving family supported by the old estate, now remade as a productive farm. The novel concludes with an epilogue that shows the girls' lives once they are grown, after their elderly mentors have died. Both girls have made food production the work of their adult lives, have married, and borne children. Harper becomes a professional gardener, while Ratchet remains on her great-aunts' farm, canning blueberries, making cheese, and selling honey. Both of their lives fit the pattern so common in food memoirists' lives "of being mentored and changing themselves ... despite having been raised in dysfunctional families [to] survive a troubled youth, overcome fears and a shaky self-image, heal, and find a satisfying place in the world" (Waxman 380). On the financial bedrock of the aunts' estate, the unrelated Ratchet and Harper have become sisters and have created a new and caring family.
The ending of this Bildungsroman shows the grown women having found their place in the world and being at peace with their lives. Notably, they do not look back to the lost world of their childhoods nostalgically: because their families were so dysfunctional, they do not find comfort in the memory of their early I ives before they came to live with filly and Penpen. The conclusion to the novel is thus in many respects and-Proustian. Proust formulates the madeleine scene as a transcendent, nostalgic moment of sublime solitary subjectivity. For Horvath, by contrast, the importance of food is not so much mystery as mastery, so that all the food (and there is so much of it) moves her protagonists out of the self to engage with the world. Comfort does not derive from nostalgia for an unhappy past but from the present creation of comfort for the future. In particular, the cooking and eating of food with family becomes the foundation of happiness. In The Canning Season, Horvath gives her readers a recipe for a successful family, one based in loving relationships that are not dependent on blood ties. It empowers her characters to live their lives forward, not backward in the Proustian sense. While Proust writes his madeleine moment to try to fill in the gap between experience and memory, to assert control by capturing in language a kernel of his identity, all he does, from Stewart's point of view, is reproduce a longing for the past: "For the nostalgic to reach his or her goal of closing the gap ..., lived experience would have to take place, an erasure of the gap between sign and signified, an experience which would cancel out the desire that is nostalgia's reason for existence" (145). Ratchet and Harper, quite differently, construct their lives around lived experience rather than yearn for an inaccessible past: they find control and comfort in the skills they develop, learning to farm and cook for themselves, their family, and ultimately the wider world.
The last view of Ratchet suggests that she has found not just comfort but also joy when, after dinner with Harper's family and her own, she goes "out under the peach-colored sky to tend the bees, floating happily from barn to chicken house to the garden, moving peacefully forward in the soft summer haze" (196). At the end of this novel, Horvath flips the meaning of "float" from the beginning of Everything on a Waffle: the word signified Primrose's emotional disconnection in the first novel, but here it paradoxically signifies Ratchet's grounding in the farm and her work. She is acting, not remembering, as indicated by Horvath's description of Ratchet as "moving peacefully forward"; she experiences the fullness of the present, not the sense of absence and deficiency inherent in nostalgia.
In their use of food to attain agency and autonomy, Horvath's protagonists represent the ideological tradition of what Anne Higonnet calls "the knowing child" (21 0-11). Such a construct stands in opposition to the modern emptiness of the child as theorized by Kincaid, who sees the contemporary child as far more passive and empty than even the Wordsworthian Romantic child of the nineteenth century: "largely we have tried over the last century to remove from innocence any substance whatsoever, to figure its purity as nullity.... So the innocent child becomes increasingly vacant" (Child-Loving 74). This ideological stance toward the child can be applied to the shift in children's (in)capabilities as cooks. Children (girls, at least) were taught to be capable cooks in the nineteenth century: texts such as Elizabeth Stansbury Kirkland's 1877 book The Six Little Cooks show young girls learning advanced skills to provide meals for themselves and their families. Reflecting the later shift in foodways to industrialized packaged convenience food, however, some children's cookbooks published after the Second World War (such as Annie North Bedford's Susie's New Stove: The Little Chef's Cookbook, published as part of the Little Golden Book series) assume and facilitate the child's helplessness in the kitchen. In contrast to Bedford, and nearly half a century later, we see a few chefs from the new "Food Movement" (so dubbed by Michael Pollan in The New York Review of Books) attempting to redefine the child as capable in the kitchen by composing cookbooks that encourage young readers to develop complex kitchen skills and to work with local, fresh, unprocessed ingredients; Alice Waters and her colleagues in Fanny at Chez Panisse and Molly Katzen in Salad People and More Real Recipes provide outstanding examples of this pattern. Like Kincaid, Horvath critiques the popular contemporary view of the child as inherently incapable and empty. One might view Primrose, Ratchet, and Harper's culinary talents and interests simply as Horvath's rejection of the modern in favour of a nostalgic return to an old-fashioned way of living, yet the cultural context that food activists such as Pollan, Waters, and Katzen have created in the past few decades suggests that Horvath's belief in the capable child cook actually reflects an important strand in postmodern foodways: a desire for authentic, nourishing foods made from local ingredients, a greater understanding of food items, and the development of the skills necessary for their preparation. While such food choices may be somewhat influenced by nostalgia in their practitioners, their emphasis on sustainability suggests that the philosophy is ultimately looking forward rather than backward.
Perry Nodelman observes that "children's literature is a literature of nostalgia" because it focuses on the adult desire for children to be and to remain both innocent and ignorant (192). In Everything on a Waffle and The Canning Season, Polly Horvath offers a contrary way of representing childhood because she refuses to sentimentalize (and thus victimize) her child protagonists for adult convenience. She thus works contrary to the general adult tendency that Nodelman argues is common to children's literature as a genre, with nostalgia serving as "a form of adult desire for a childlike lack of knowledge that adult authors are in one way or another inviting readers to share" (47). Rather than constructing innocently incapable child characters based on nostalgic adult wishes, Horvath empowers her protagonists by depicting their capabilities as they master a series of food-related tasks, so that they can take control of key aspects of their own lives. (4) Primrose, Ratchet, and Harper are all girls who were cut loose from the moorings of their early lives and who solve problems of place and identity through learning to grow, make, and/or cook food. In so doing, they take the path described by food memoirists who conceive of food as a psychological aid leading the individual out of dysfunction toward self-realization and fulfillment. In Polly Horvath, we discover an author who pursues an alternative vision of childhood, nostalgia, food, and well-being. She proposes a childhood experience that is not based in adult nostalgia for a delimited and simplified remembrance of childhood past; as part of her vision, she offers characters who are realistically focused on their pragmatic present, dealing with the world in front of them at the moment. Horvath uses her adult characters, at the opposite end of the lifespan from her young protagonists, to focus the girls on adulthood, on what is coming in their lives rather than what has been. Ultimately, Horvath gives us another way to talk about both childhood and food.
Bedford, Annie North. Susie's New Stove: The Little Chef's Cookbook. Illus. Corinne Malvern. New York: Simon, 1950. Print. A Little Golden Book.
Birch, Leann Lipps, et al. "Effects of Instrumental Consumption on Children's Food Preferences." Appetite: Journal for Intake Research 3 (1982): 125-34. Print.
--. "The Influence of Social-Affective Context on the Formation of Children's Food Preferences." Child Development 51 (1980): 856-61. Print.
Bloom, Lynn Z. "Consuming Prose: The Delectable Rhetoric of Food Writing." College English 70.4 (2008): 346-62. Print.
Boym, Svetlana. "Estrangement as a Lifestyle: Shklovsky and Brodsky." Poetics Today 17.4 (1996): 511-30. JSTOR. Web. 21 May 2014.
Daniel, Carolyn. Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children's Literature. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Davidson, Alan, and Tom Jaine. The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
Doubrovsky, Serge, and Carol Bove. "The Place of the Madeleine: Writing and Phantasy in Proust." boundary 2 4.1 (1975): 107-34. JSTOR. Web. 21 May 2014.
Dube, Laurette, et al. "Affect Asymmetry and Comfort Food Consumption." Physiology and Behavior 86 (2005): 559-67. Print.
Ellis, Sarah. Rev. of Everything on a Waffle, by Polly Horvath. Horn Book Magazine 77.3 (2001): 326-27. ProQuest. Web. 21 May 2014.
Evers, Catherine, F. Marijin Stok, and Denise T. D. de Ridder. "Feeding Your Feelings: Emotion Regulation Strategies and Emotional Eating." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36.6 (2010): 792-804. Print.
Fisher, M. F. K. The Castronomical Me. 1943. New York: North Point, 1989. Print.
Fraustino, Lisa Rowe. "The Apple of Her Eye: The Mothering Ideology Fed by BestsellingTracle Picture Books." Keeling and Pollard, Critical Approaches 57-72.
Caiman, Neil. Coraline. New York: HarperTrophy, 2002. Print.
Gilroy, James P. "Food, Cooking, and Eating in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu." Twentieth Century Literature 33.1 (1987): 98-109. Print.
Crahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908. New York: Scribner, 1960. Print.
Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames, 1998. Print.
Honeyman, Susan. Consuming Agency in Fairy Tales, Childlore, and Folkliterature. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Horvath, Polly. The Canning Season. New York: Farrar, 2003. Print.
--. Everything on a Waffle. New York: Farrar, 2001. Print.
Katzen, Molly. Salad People and More Real Recipes. Berkeley: Tricycle, 2005. Print.
Keeling, Kara K., and Scott T. Pollard, eds. Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
--. "The Key Is in the Mouth: Food and Orality in Coraline." Children's Literature 40 (2012): 1-27. Print.
--. "Power, Food, and Eating in Maurice Sendak and Henrik Drescher: Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and The Boy Who Ate Around." Children's Literature in Education 30.2 (1999): 127-43. Print.
Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
--. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. Print.
Kirkland, Elizabeth Stansbury. Six Little Cooks, or, Aunt Jane's Cooking Class. Chicago: Jansen, 1877. Print.
Kunzel, J., et al. "Conditioning Unfamiliar and Familiar Flavors to Specific Positive Emotions." Food Quality and Preference 21 (2010): 1105-07. Print.
Letain, Anne. Rev. of Everything on a Waffle, by Polly Horvath. CM: Canadian Review of Materials 15 Mar. 2002: n. pag. Web. 21 May 2014.
Locher, Julie L., et al. "Comfort Foods: An Exploratory Journey into the Social and Emotional Significance of Food." Food and Foodways 13 (2005): 273-97. Print.
Longone, Jan. "'As Worthless as Savorless Salt'?: Teaching Children to Cook, Clean, and (Often) Conform." Castronomica 3.2 (2003): 104. Print.
Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage, 1996. Print.
Noclelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Print.
Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: Dutton, 1928. Print.
Pollan, Michael. "The Food Movement, Rising." New York Review of Books 20 May 2010: n. pag. Web. 21 May 2014.
--. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Pollard, Scott, and Kara K. Keeling. "In Search of His Father's Garden." Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit: A Children's Classic at 100. Ed. Margaret Mackey. Lanham: The Children's Literature Association; Scarecrow, 2002. 117-30. Print. Children's Literature Association Centennial Studies 1.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Vol. 1: Swann's Way; Within a Budding Grove. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin. New York: Random, 1981. Print.
Reichl, Ruth. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.
Say, Allen. Tea with Milk. Boston: Houghton, 1999. Print. Senclak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper, 1963.
Slothower, Jodie, and Jan Susina. "Delicious Supplements: Literary Cookbooks as Additives to Children's Texts." Keeling and Pollard, Critical Approaches 21-38.
Stewart, Susan. On Longings: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984. Print.
Theophano, Janet. Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. New York: Ralgrave, 2002. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. 1937. Boston: Houghton, 1996. Print.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000. Print.
Wansink, Brian, Matthew M. Cheney, and Nina Chan. "Exploring Comfort Food Preferences across Age and Gender." Physiology and Behavior 79 (2003): 739-17. Print.
Wansink, Brian, and Cynthia Sangerman. "The Taste of Comfort: Food for Thought on How Americans Eat to Feel Better." American Demographics July 2000: 66-67. Print.
Waxman, Barbara Frey. "Food Memoirs: What They Are, Why They Are Popular, and Why They Belong in the Literature Classroom." College English 70.4 (2008): 363-83. Print.
Waters, Alice, with Bob Carrau and Patricia Curtan. Fanny at Chez Panisse. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.
White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. New York: Harper, 1952. Print.
Wood, Stacy. "The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change." Journal of Consumer Research 36 (2010): 950-63. Print
(1) For a sample of the social science research available on comfort food, see Birch et al., "Effects"; Birch et al., "Influence"; Dube et al.; Evers, Stok, and de Ridder; Kunzel et al.; Wansink, Cheney, and Chan; Wood.
(2) The significance of recipes in children's texts, particularly as functions of writing and memory, has been the focus of two articles (Longone; Slowthower and Susina). Both reflect Janet Theophano's central observation about nineteenth-century women's cookbooks in Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. For Theophano, the recipes that women wrote and collected over their lives functioned as a record of their subjectivity and as an alternative historical record to the hegemonic patriarchal world from which they were excluded. Through her recipes, Primrose Squarp creates a space for herself, free of the adults who have come to dominate and run her life.
(3) Even though Bloom is focused on adult food writers such as M. F. K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, and Nigel Slater, we find her insights particularly applicable to Horvath's portrayal of eleven-year-old Primrose, suggesting that food writing has stable characteristics across genres.
(4) Two reviewers, Sarah Ellis and Anne Letain, have compared Primrose Squarp to Pippi Longstocking; Letain adds that Everything on a Waffle belongs to "that long lineage of books written for children featuring spunky female orphans." The comparison certainly emphasizes Horvath's choice to depict Primrose as an empowered child heroine. While Ratchet is not "spunky" in The Canning Season, Harper certainly is, and the consistent trend of the story is toward increasing the girls' agency.
Kara K. Keeling is a professor of English at Christopher Newport University, where she teaches children's and young adult literature. She co-edited, with Scott Pollard, Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature (Routledge, 2009) and co-authored, with Marsha Sprague, Discovering a Voice: Engaging Adolescent Girls with Young Adult Literature (International Reading Association, 2007). She and Scott Pollard are engaged in a book-length study of food and children's literature.
Scott Pollard is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Christopher Newport University, where he teaches world literature and literary theory. He co-edited, with Kara K. Keeling, Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature (Routledge, 2009), and the two are co-authoring a book-length study of food and children's literature. He guest-edited an issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly (Fall 2013) dedicated to disability, and he co-edited, with Margarita Marinova, a translation of Mikhail Bulgakov's Don Kikhot (MLA, 2014).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||'Everything on a Waffle' and 'The Canning Season'|
|Author:||Keeling, Kara K.; Pollard, Scott|
|Publication:||Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
|Previous Article:||The girls who do not eat: food, hunger, and thinness in Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now and Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls.|
|Next Article:||Advertising the self: the culture of personality in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web.|