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  • Nita Bajoria

Food Glorious Food

Margaret Atwood Books

Food traditionally represents comfort, security, bonding and family. Not only do Food and eating have tangible representation but it is a symbolic and metaphorical level. Representation of food, eating, and hunger in fiction is intertwined with the issues of body, power, otherness, gender, class, ethnic orientation, religion and experience.

Margaret Atwood displays a profound preoccupation with eating in her writing. In her novels eating is used as a metaphor for power and a subtle means of analysing the relationship between man and woman. The powerful are characterised by their eating and the powerless by their non-eating. She has written: “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality and language. We eat before we talk”

In her book Life before Man, Elizabeth’s powerlessness is marked by the notable void of food. The penultimate line of the novel is “There’s nothing in the house for dinner”. However when Nate asks Lesje to lunch, she orders “the cheapest thing on the menu, a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk.” Whereas Lesje feels self-conscious eating, Nate voraciously devours his sandwich “He bites into a piece of turkey, chews; gravy traces his chin.” His choice of meat compared to Lesje’s choice of cheese subtly suggests his predatory nature.

Margaret’s novel The Edible Woman published in 1969 is about a young woman called Marian who works as a market researcher. Food is highlighted throughout the novel. It opens as Marian devours a bowl of cereal before work, she drinks tall glasses of bloody tomato juice and there is a surfeit of eggs. Food is sometimes dismissed as banal or extraneous detail in fiction, but in women’s writing, it is not often a neutral terrain. Across many of Atwood’s novels, food and eating are consistently loaded, symbolic of power and servitude, of possibilities and identities. From pats of butter stolen by Offred so that she can moisturize her legs in The Handmaid’s Tale through to the fast food in The Heart Goes Last. In The Edible Woman, Marian bakes Peter a pink sponge cake in the shape of a woman, telling him this is what he desires, a woman he can consume, and imploring him to eat it.

“This is what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork.” He leaves, disturbed, and suddenly ravenous, she eats most of it in one sitting: “She stabbed the cake doll, and neatly lopped off the lifeless head from the body.”

In her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead is a society in which women are denied any form of power. One of the main ways the system of oppression is enforced is through food. Offred, the main character finds that food is a central and important feature of life. To take revenge she deprives Mrs Waterford, her owner of Oranges. Later in the story, Offred doesn’t realize her period is late until she is suddenly treated like a princess by Rita, who cooks her a whole sit-down lunch, including a dessert of stewed apples with cinnamon. She even points out that she had to trade cheese to get the said cinnamon.

In Alias Grace, images of food operate on a more symbolic level. The novel is a retelling of the sensational double murder where a sixteen-year-old girl Grace was convicted as an accomplice to the crime and was imprisoned for almost thirty years. Dr Jordan, the American physician uses various methods to investigate her involvement in the crime. Since the murder took place in a cellar, Dr Jordan brings edibles to the sessions. Grace, too, seems to remember the cellar of the victim quite clearly.

“The cellar stairs were too steep for comfort, and the cellar below was divided into two parts by a half-wall, the dairy on one side, which was where they kept the butter and the cheese, and on the other side the place where they stored the wine and beer in barrels, and the apples, and the carrots and cabbages and beets and potatoes in boxes of sand in the winter, and the empty wine barrels as well.”

Atwood’s speculative fiction, “Oryx and Crake” anticipates food shortages affecting the elites and Margaret suggests ways human beings will combat the problem by creating new foods such as “soy-sausage dogs and coconut-style layer cake”, “SoyOBoyburgers”, “ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbins”, and pharmaceutical organ-bank pigoons. The idea of genetically modified plants and animals served up as medical and victual fodder for near-future humanity may be bizarre in appearance, but not in genesis: they flow seamlessly as a logical future of the industrialized agri-businesses of contemporary America. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are a part of our current news cycle, from the “frankenfish” salmon currently awaiting expected approval by the FDA to the transgenic canola which has escaped the confines of the farm to grow wild in the fields of North Dakota. In fact, two of the creatures Atwood features in Oryx and Crake are already with us: the neon green rabbits and the goat that produces spider silk in her milk.

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