12 Aug 2018

Lorna Piatti-Farnell: what disgusting food teaches children

From Sunday Morning, 11:09 am on 12 August 2018

Children’s literature - from fairy tales to Harry Potter - has used food and disgust to teach children about cultural acceptability, pop culture professor Lorna Piatti-Farnell says. 

Alice au pays des merveilles
Alice in wonderland
réal : Kathryn Beaumont
Bill Thompson
Sterling Holloway
COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Walt Disney Productions

Alice in Wonderland was full of magical food and strange happenings concerning eating and drinking. Photo: © Walt Disney Productions

From Auckland’s University of Technology, Dr Piatti-Farnell has written  a chapter for The Routledge Companion to Literature and Food entitled "Ravenous Fantasies and Revolting Dinners: Food and Horror in Children's Literature".

She argues children's literature is  a good way to explore the boundaries of acceptability, in cultural terms, for lots of things - food included. 

Lorna Piatti-Farnell

 Lorna Piatti-Farnell Photo: Supplied

“It became very obvious to me quite quickly that whenever we have children’s stories, food just simply appears to be there,” she tells Sunday Morning’s Wallace Chapman.  

“Whether it’s to do with magic, whether it’s to do with the changing body, whether it’s about how we use food in children's literature symbolically to talk about family relations, difficult family relations in particular.

"There’s always a lot of magic - you know, portals being opened thanks to the food, or a lot of weird experiences that happen to children.

“I love the Alice in Wonderland stories and I always have - you know, that whole thing ‘eat me’, ‘drink me’, and weird stuff always happens when there’s an invitation like that.” 

She says if we go back and look at ‘old school’ fairy tales like the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen there’s always a lot of food there too. 

“And whenever there is, bad stuff always happens.” 

She says disgust tends to show up as a strong theme in children’s literature like this because it’s so relatable to them. 

“To authors … in the younger children’s literature we get this idea of the boundaries: something that is a little bit out of the ordinary, and where do we stop, or where is it appealing or why do we have so much. 

“If you think about it a child’s world is very tactile - textures, tastes - and everything is new to an extent, everything is being learnt for the first time.

Alice au pays des merveilles
Alice in wonderland
réal : Kathryn Beaumont
Bill Thompson
Sterling Holloway
COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL © Walt Disney Productions / DR

Food in children's literature often has strange or unexpected consequences.  Photo: Walt Disney

“They need to learn how to react to certain textures and certain smells and certain tastes.

“It’s about teaching the child through food - something that they really understand - how to behave and how not to behave. And that’s why children’s literature is so important.” 

“So, of course disgust is the perfect way to make that happen.” 

She says Roald Dahl’s writing offers some good examples. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’s all about pushing those boundaries and seeing how when we’re eating, the body’s never really safe. 

“You could have a sweet, it makes you turn blue, or too much chocolate and you’ll be punished.” 

Charlie et la chocolaterie
Charlie and the  chocolate factory
Real. : Tim Burton

Roald Dahl used food imagery to great effect.  Photo: WARNER BROS.

He also used food as a way to describe character. 

 “You can bet your money that if there was a character that needed to be portrayed as a really bad character with really shaky morals they would have horrible food habits. 

“Think of something like The Twits, Mr Twit had food stuck in his beard and there’s a lot of yuck factor … Dahl really used that in that fashion.”

She says J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, like many others, also used food to make the fictional world stand out. 

“She’s trying to portray this world that’s so different, it’s a magical world, so how do we convey this, how do we convey it as completely different? Let’s do it with food. 

“Foods that would be regarded as disgusting or would be regarded as unacceptable in the muggle world - the normal human world - they find a perfect place in the magical world because it’s a completely different world.”

Rowling was used food metaphorically as well, and in a way that shows how the boundaries being explored change as children get older. 

“[As the series went on] it started being more about experiencing your body - you take a potion and it does weird things to you - and you can see the metaphor of that for a young teenager, you know, like bodies changing, mentalities changing." 

A general view shows a potions classroom during a preview of the Warner Bros Harry Potter studio tour "The Making of Harry Potter" in north London on March 26, 2012.

Along with sweets that come alive and magical dinners in the grand hall, potions are a big part of the Harry Potter universe.  Photo: AFP PHOTO/CARL COURT

She says disgust and social acceptability is very tied into culture however, so the lessons from children’s literature can vary depending on the culture. 

“There is nothing universal about cultural regulation - specifically with food and even more specifically with disgust. 

“They change from nation to nation, from social group to social group.

“It’s not necessarily just about taste but with a lot of children’s literature, from Japan for example we’ve got a lot of disgust about the situation in which it’s being eaten.”