This month on Food and Horror – the conclusion to Octavia Cade’s series
Octavia Cade is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s The Mussel Eater. Food & Horror is a regular monthly column from Octavia, in which she examines the close relationship between the things we eat and the horrific.
CONCLUSION, OR PETIT-FOURS AND CHOCOLATE BRIBES
Food & Horror: Conclusion
The first book I really remember reading is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I got it for Christmas, and by the time lunch was ready I’d already finished it. Edmund, I had to acknowledge, was a little shit. (My language was somewhat better then, but the sentiment was the same.) But he was a little shit with Turkish delight, and that made all the difference.
Clearly there was something to be said for evil.
I also got chocolates for Christmas that year – from my grandmother, she always gave her grandkids chocolate for Christmas. A mixed box, and in that box was, you guessed it, Turkish delight. Low class Turkish delight, I have to say; it wasn’t those pretty sugar-dusted cubes of rose and lemon and mint. It was virulently red, gummy stuff coated in chocolate, and I adored it. Mostly because – and this is a habit that persists to this day, I’m sorry to say – I could suck off all the chocolate and fish the gummy centre out of my mouth, admire that toxic colour.
As far as little me was concerned, this was what Edmund had been bribed with. And frankly, when the alternative was going with Lucy to have sardines on toast with a whiny little goat-creature who sobbed like an infant (I was actually embarrassed for him), well, Edmund kind of got the better deal on that one.
It didn’t surprise me that the Turkish delight was magic. I knew my Hansel and Gretel, and I knew what sugar tasted like, as opposed to, say, silverbeet. Of course it was magic! All lollies were.
Bad magic, though. That was a little more difficult.
Bad magic, in exchange for Turkish delight?
Um… maybe? Sorry Aslan, but I was ready and willing to be bought.
That’s what I remember most about Narnia. It was my literary introduction to bribery.
I’d like to point out at this time that these columns only get written because I reward myself with a sweet for every 100 words.
Well. Sometimes it’s more. It’s amazing I’m not diabetic.
Mum had a book of birthday cakes. It had trains and ducks and castles, koala bears and rabbits. Every year, my sister and I would pore over this book, trying to decide which one we wanted.
More often than not, I picked the gingerbread house. That thing was fantastic. It sat on a lawn of dyed coconut, with butterscotch windows and wafer doors, a liquorice path and little candy flowers. But the best part of it, the part that brought me back to this cake over and over again, was the roof. It was covered in brightly coated bits of chocolate, shingled with them. I coveted that roof. The accompanying birthday party was always something of a trial, because there’d be other kids eating my birthday roof, pulling it to pieces and stuffing themselves, destroying the gingerbread house. My parents, more successful in instilling manners than lack of greed, stood happily by, completely unaware that there was murder in my heart.
Looking back now, I’m not sure whether I identified more with the witch than the children. Hansel and Gretel was never my favourite fairy tale. I didn’t care about those kids in the slightest. It was always the house – that hideous, glorious, angler fish of a house.
And what a thing, to have the power of building that.
The older I get, the more interested I am in that witch. I still don’t give a fuck about the children.
Eat them, don’t eat them, who the hell cares. But the witch… the more I think about her, the more I begin to wonder.
If you can make a house out of gingerbread, out of candy and comfits, why are you bothering with children? Nasty things. Unclean. God only knows where they’ve been. And there’s all the innards to deal with. Imagine, you’re making sausages from Gretel’s lower intestine, stuffing away, and all the little bits of gore are dripping over your lovely polished toffee floor.
How do you even clean that? Hot water and detergent, I suppose, but wouldn’t it melt? Or would you just magic it back into undefiled scrumptiousness?
Maybe it’s the witch who’s diabetic.
She’s certainly limited in her abilities. This is not a criticism: her confectionary skills are incomparable, but if she were that devoted to meat the gingerbread house would be made of flesh, surely? I mean, if you’re going to live in something edible, best make it something you’re actually interested in eating.
It’s like some twisted religious teasing out… either the witch can’t produce a house of meat, staircases of bone and veal, a counterpane of kidney, or she just doesn’t want to.
I like to think it’s a story of desire. The witch lives by herself. No internet. Probably the only company she gets is that of they who come for dinner. And alright, so that company probably spends its time whining about starvation and stepmothers but it’s better than nothing.
What’s better than everything is how these visitors conspire in their own demise. It’s greed that turns children into degustation, and if being able to tempt that greed into self-destruction isn’t power to rival the construction of the house in the first place, I don’t know what is.
The White Witch could have given Edmund a mug of tea and some digestive biscuits. The gingerbread witch could have built her house of parsnips. The children were lost and hungry, and parsnips would have been enough.
I hate parsnips. They’re foul.
They’re still better than starving.
It wasn’t enough to make them act as required. Anyone can make someone do something. That’s a very basic application of force, and of control. Far more sophisticated, and far more difficult, is to make someone want to do as you tell them. Make them want to trust you, make them want to betray their family. Make them want, want, want, because making them do is only controlling their bodies.
Making them want controls everything. That’s real power. Real horror, too, as it’s so good at removing agency, at turning personality into puppet.
If there’s been an overall theme to these columns over the last year, other than the obvious, then I think that theme is power. It can hardly help being so.
Food is all about necessity. We can survive without any number of things, but if we don’t eat we die. There’s no getting around it, no ideology or adaptation that can change our biological make-up. And because it is a necessity, it’s ripe for exploitation. Starvation, famine… these are things that can be politically motivated. These are things that can be tactics. Even absent of malicious intent, the control and distribution of food is a powerful act. And because it is a powerful act, even a political one at times, there is the inevitability of power relationships – and the potential of imbalance, of not having control. Of being the one who is controlled.
And then there’s horror, whose primary goal, I’ve argued, is the destabilisation of the expected.
Whether the expected is the conventions of genre or the beliefs and ideologies of those affected, the subversion of principle and the undermining of faith, it too is about power. With understanding comes the possibility of control, and when that understanding is taken away the potential for control shifts. Refuse to believe in vampires, and you’re more vulnerable to them when they appear. Believe in vampires and arm yourself with cross and garlic, faith in a higher power, then when those things don’t work, against all expectation, you’re vulnerable again, no more than prey. Sharks don’t exist in these waters, they don’t behave like that… until they do. That monster looks like a helpless young girl, smaller and weaker than her date, until the mask lifts and she’s a Starving Daughter.
One can be on either side of the food power relationship. Such is a matter of luck, really – being born into a family with enough economic resources to eat every day, being born in a country with a social safety net. There is potential there for exploitation, but not the certainty of it. Horror, on the other hand… because it’s overarching purpose is destabilisation, nearly every protagonist will find themselves, at some point, on the less pleasant side of the power relationship. And when that horror is centred on food – on the experience of eating food, preparing food, or even being food – the combined potential for power relationships increases dramatically.
And the thing is, we know this almost instinctively. Not because we’re born with an understanding of power relationships in themselves – prey instinct aside, the desire for fight or flight wired into our adrenal system – but because we’re taught, from very early on, that food and horror go hand in hand, and the point that pins them together, the crucial connection, is in the wielding of power and the consequent subjection to it.
That’s why, in this series, I’ve come back again and again to fairy tales, to children’s stories. To Turkish delight and the gingerbread house, because these – and the stories like them – are the ones that say “Wake up. This is what can be used against you. This is how. Don’t forget.” Because it’s tempting to forget. There aren’t any witches, and no-one’s actually going to try and lure me into house made of candy, more’s the pity. But there are other things. There’s never leaving your drink unwatched in a bar. Factory farms, food deserts. Crocodile attacks, anorexia. Animal cruelty and cannibalism.
There’s the person who dies every four seconds from hunger. Four seconds, and here I am eating a chocolate coconut ball every 100 words.
And all this is a lot to lay on kids. It’s a lot to lay on anyone. So we start them out slow with the gingerbread house, because there’s power there, and (the wretched, twisted sympathies of yours truly aside) it’s being misused.
And power being misused tastes great. It smells fucking wonderful. And it’s fun, like sucking off all the chocolate to see the pink beneath.
It’d be a lot easier if it weren’t fun. A lot less horrifying. But the Hansel and Gretels, the Juniper Trees… they’re preparation for how shitty necessity can be. They’re there to remind us that certainty is a myth; that nothing can be relied upon.
And that’s pretty bleak – but it’s not everything. Because horror doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
There’s a reason that so many horror films are leavened with humour: it’s the contrast that makes the scary thing even scarier. The return to normality gets held out as a prize – the possibility of escape, the waking after nightmares. It’s the making safe again, the food-horror ameliorated by ritual, soothed by memory and tradition and the act of connection, for food is a connective tissue in the cultural lives of most of us. Not just the formal occasions, the festival banquets, but the dinner table conversation, the family tradition of chocolate at Christmas. Birthday cakes. Baking bread. Breaking bread.
If the fairy tales don’t give us that – and they don’t, sometimes, being frequently more concerned with threat – then it’s the other stories we make up, the modern subversions that re-imagine the power and the horror of food through the lens of gender or colour or country, through poverty, through monstrosity, that illuminate how power shapes what we eat, and how we eat it.
Because as long as we eat, the need to navigate that power remains.
This is the conclusion of my Food and Horror series! It’s been going a solid year now, 13 columns which is a good number for horror I think. I’d like to thank Ana and Thea for hosting me for so long, and for being so supportive of my frequently creepy, frequently meandering thoughts.
It’s Halloween next week. Eat something scary.