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College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Introduction: “Food and the Dark Side” by Christopher J. Wickham

Food and the Dark Side

Christopher J. Wickham

The University of Texas at San Antonio


 Opening Remarks at  The 6th Conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film, and the Other Arts at The University of Texas at San Antonio, February 25-27, 2010.


My colleague, Dr. Santiago Daydi-Tolson, has done me the honor at the last two San Antonio conferences on food in the arts and in literature of asking me to say a few words at the opening of the event. For this I am very grateful and humbled. For these remarks, it occurred to me that while the presence of food in the popular consciousness is overwhelmingly positively charged with its links to nourishment, sustenance, pleasure, entertainment, recreation, relaxation, festivity, and sharing, there is nevertheless a substantial and significant wealth of reference in our cultural constructs to what we might call food and the Dark Side.

             I am thinking here of those encounters that we have with food in our cultural tradition(s) that are in some way negatively, even fatally, charged. It is food, after all, that is instrumental in bringing about the fall of Man in the Garden. The apple of the tree of knowledge is perhaps the first “food for thought” and starts us on the slippery slope. A is for apple, after all. And so it goes on through Biblical references, where even the joyous "killing the fatted calf" on the return of the Prodigal Son is tainted by the brother's jealousy and might leave a lingering unpleasant aftertaste. The "Last Supper" also is "last" and characterized by the association with betrayal and its consequences. Though the believer must argue that the negativity associated with that act and that meal is necessary for resurrection and salvation. Nevertheless, the dark functions to legitimize the light.

             I was struck during a recent TV screening of The Sound of Music by the placement of the song lyric "tea, a drink with jam and bread" repeated over and over as the family choir sings at its final concert before fleeing Nazi Austria. The betrayal has already happened, the Nazi authorities are waiting to pounce; the evocation of a Last Supper atmosphere for the nun Maria and her protégés is complete--with textual tea substituting for wine.

            In the imagery of fairy tales so much verges on the dark side that it is hardly surprising that food, when it occurs, bears its share of the umbrageous workload. Thus we think of the gingerbread houses that are home to witches seeking to cook children in ovens; the beanstalks that are the way to fe-fi-fo-fum singing giants; the poisoned apples; and the fol-de-rol trolls who will eat you for supper; the innocent trail of breadcrumbs that is intended as a safety precaution but is eaten by birds and the faith placed in the crumbs is betrayed.

            In many of these fairy-tale cases, food becomes part of the instrumentarium of behavior modification, designed to induce straying children to stay on the path of rectitude, as understood by parents and society at large. Along the same lines, threats associated with eating are alarmingly common in child-rearing. The juxtaposition of food and negativity in such admonitions as: "Eat up. There are children starving in India/China/Haiti" (take your pick) is far from rare. "Clear your plate or it will rain tomorrow"--for some reason that one was more effective where I grew up than in South Texas.

            Then there are the poisons and potions that inevitably – however well intentioned – go awry. More interesting than the poisons are the potions, typically love potions, that bring about supernatural alliances and misalliances. Whether medieval (as in Tristan and Isolde), renaissance (as in A Midsummernight's Dream), or Victorian (as in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorceror) the fascination with this variant on imbibing for a trip into the euphoric, amorous, unknown has a Faustian element to it. You are messing with forces that you can't control to achieve some earthly end and there is a price to pay. For Tristan and Isolde the price is terminal, and Wagner saw his opportunity to make a meal out of Isolde's Liebestod. But the Faustian connection is more than incidental. In Goethe's Faust, Part I, Mephistopheles leads Faust to the Hexenküche / Witches Kitchen (a more palpable linking of food and the dark side in two words I cannot imagine), and solicits a youth potion which will rejuvenate the middle-aged professor and make him attractive to the teenaged Margarete (Gretchen). The consequences of Faust's transformation are dire, first Gretchen's mother perishes (because of a sleeping potion concocted at Mephistopheles' behest – was it really, in fact, poison??), then her brother, then Gretchen's child; and Gretchen herself ends in prison, from where, we learn from the disembodied voice of a deus ex machina "Sie ist gerettet/She is saved."

            Benign potions, medicines, are transformed into tools of ultimate dispatch when marriage partners incrementally lace medication or comfort foods with toxic discomfort and when Harry Lime dilutes penicillin making it fatal to ailing children in The Third Man. And this is our entertainment.

            Whether the Hubble-Bubble brew prepared by MacBeth’s witches is intended for human consumption I don’t think we ever find out. However, in Günter Grass’s parody of that scene in The Tin Drum little Oskar is indeed made to taste what his playground pals cook up. But before we leave the Scottish Play let’s not forget Banquo’s empty seat at the dinner table and the eerie connection that the playwright establishes between celebration and murder, between food and fatality. The Duke of Clarence, drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine in Richard III, is only a splash away.

            Food and the Dark Side . . . the list could go on endlessly and barely even scratch the surface of cinematic exploitation of this trope. Anything evoking cannibalism or vampirism would deserve mention. The juxtaposition of the elemental positive of nourishing food and drink with the fatal and final has proven to be a staple conflict of cultural production.

            In humor too, it is present. Dark humor, black humor, makes good use of this tension, for instance, in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, in which Terry Jones's Mr. Creosote is literally so full he could burst. Or, more gently, in this rhyme that my father enjoyed reciting


                                        Our cat, she has a cunning wheeze

                                        To lure mice to their death.

                                        She goes and eats a piece of cheese

                                        And waits with baited breath.


Or in the bonmot “It’s the early bird that catches the worm, but the second mouse that gets the cheese.” Or in the rather morbid menu item in many a restaurant: Death by Chocolate. A brilliant wit is at play when, in John Donne’s poem, the flea drinks the blood of two lovers and thereby unites their spirits and their flesh; but it ends up crushed on her fingernail. Another case for the "Food and Liebestod" file.

            Just as we can buy Angel Food at the grocery store, so we can also purchase Devil’s Food. Our artists and creative minds are well aware of the potency of this tension. After all, “Give us this day our daily bread” is only a sentence or two away from “Deliver us from evil” in the prayer. Bread and evil are a powerful mix when brought into contact with each other.

            The papers at this conference will illuminate much more than this. And, like you, I look forward to savoring the ideas and the exchange that they will engender. As a faculty member and Associate Dean here at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I, too, would like to welcome you most warmly to this 6th San Antonio conference on Food Representation in Literature, Film, and the other Arts. Enjoy the campus; enjoy the city; enjoy the food.