The Representation of Food in Toni Morrison

Categories: Food

The theme of food and the different representations that they carry are imbued into Toni Morrison's work. In an interview Morrison explains the constructions of blackness and white, and states, "there is a lot of juice to be extracted from plumy reminiscences of 'individual' and 'freedom' if the tree upon which such fruit hangs is a black population forced to polar opposites"(Parker 622). Her use of imagery surrounding the issues of black oppression with the use of food speaks to the greater connotation that food represents to the African American community.

Audre Lorde remarks on the ubiquity of oppression when she stated that for African American women writers "oppression is as American as apple pie"(Parker). Toni Morrison's work explores American cultural and values using apple pie ideology to translates how these values are interpreted by the African American community. The sweet pies and sweet foods within the literature hold a special meaning. Sugar represents a indulgent appeal that offers limited satisfaction, empty calories and little sustenance.

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It is also a commodity that the African American community feels very connected, to given their history and labor with sugar in the fields of plantations when they were enslaved. Sugar also denotes privilege, cheap thrills and capitalism (Parker). Through the use of sugar, pies, drinks and natural fruit Morrison delves into the appetites of the characters and demonstrates how their relationship to food, drink and hunger are negotiated and how that translates into the interpretation of their personalities.

In her essay entitled, "The Sweet Life in Toni Morrison's Fiction," Elizabeth House states that, Morrison uses food imagery to suggest conflicts between two sets of values.

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Applying this thesis to Morrison's representation of food in The Bluest Eye, the first set of ideologies, are those that subscribe to the competition driven by idyllic white values such as blue eyes, movie star appearances and ice cream. Pecola, PollyBreedlove and Maureen Peal seek after these values respectively. The opponents to these values are Claudia, and Frieda Mrs.

Macteer. It follows a natural progression that the little girls emulate their mother's hunger ideologies. An example occurs when Pecola's attempt to satiate her hunger for a white existence comes into conflict with the reality is the incident in the candy store with Mr. Yacobowski. Their strife is deeper rooted than black vs. white, young vs. old; it speaks to the insatiable hunger within Pecola to become white. Pecola craves a piece of candy with an illustration of a white little girl.

Pecola subconsciously assumes that if you ingest a piece of white iconography then naturally you would exude some of the same characteristics. Mr. Yacbowski's poor treatment of Pecola and his attempts to deny her the very thing she craves is a deeply imbedded cultural response to horde the secrets of a sought after ideal. Not only does he not want her to attain what she wants, his reluctance to give it to her demonstrates his belief that she is not entitled to the sweets, or "the sweet life" for that matter.

His annoyance with her exceeds her presence as a consumer in his store; his aggravation with her existence and her need and desire to consume is another reminder of her existence at all (Parker 619). Morrison's coupling of the blow to Pecola's ego with the sweetness of the candy ultimately pairs rejection of the self with the rewards of food. Another instance of Pecola's need to ingest the very ideal she hopes to attain, is in her unquenchable thirst for milk while staying at the MacTeer's.

It is unclear whether the white Shirley temple on the glass makes her thirstier for the milk, or the milk makes her thirstier for the glass, but her insistence on consuming the white ideal is evident. Mrs. MacTeer looks upon her thirst unfavorably. She rejects the competitive success that symbolizes a thirst; notably both Claudia and Frieda share an aversion to milk (Morrison 16). Pauline remembers her childhood with allusions to fruit, "So when Cholly come up and tickled my foot, it was like them berries, that lemonade…"(Morrison 115).

The simplicity and happiness of the memories are aligned with simple sweetness that has not yet been cultivated into a complex sugar. As Pauline matures and her life becomes more complex, she naturally turns to the more complex sugars found in candy. While sitting at the movies studying idealized white representations, Pauline eats candy, and so once again whiteness is associated with sweetness. While debasing her sense of self she is nurturing her hunger, and so this morphing of binging and purging of one's sense of self is perpetuated.

When Pauline cracks a tooth on the candy, it is the first indication of the danger within her hunger. Parker states that, "Her broken tooth points to the destructive nature of the disease system of values which has conditioned her into a sense of worthlessness"(Parker 619). The conscious decay of her race is overpowered by the physicality of the rotted tooth, and so the private battle of self becomes a public one displayed within her physical decay. Instead of trying to suppress her conflict she now wears it as a badge. It is at her job, that Pauline is able to create her position within the white world.

She takes great pride in her work and proudly accepts the identity as "the ideal servant. " Her delicious blueberry cobbler completes the picture of the white ideal, the Fisher's comment on her cobbler, saying "I would rather sell her blueberry cobbler than real estate," thus making her baking talents a sought after commodity. The Fisher's allusions to Pauline's labors as something in which you can buy and sell perpetuates the constructs that surrounded slavery, and make Pauline into nothing more than a business matter. When Pecola tries to share in the sweetness, she ultimately ruins it by dropping and destroying the pie.

When the pie burns Pecola it is illustrative of the implausibility of her ever being part of the sweet white world that she dreams of. Pauline is horrified and hurt that her ideal has been tampered with, she screams at Pecola, as if she "were spitting out pieces of a rotten apple," while speaking in sugary tones to the white child. Parker explains that the apple image suggests the disintegration of Pauline's natural self (185). While it reconfirms her emotional decay it also emphasizes the sweetness of white and the acidity of black.

Pauline's promise to create another pie is place of the ruined one, echoes her need to perpetuate the "apple pie ideology" that she subscribes to. Maureen Peal becomes the embodiment of the sweetness that Pecola hungers for when the girls rename her Meringue Pie. Claudia and Frieda's distortion of her name is their assault on the sweet. Maureen is insincere and mean, and so their association of these characteristics with something sweet, signifies their refusal to subscribe to the white ideologies that she perpetuates. Furthermore, it aligns white and sweet as something undesirable, directly in conflict with Pecola's notions.

Assigned the name that Morrison gives her, Peal pairs her with fruit and suggests that her beauty is only skin deep (Parker 619). Meringue Pie offers to buy Pecola ice cream; this offer is a tactical move to tempt Pecola's appetite for the white ideal. She does not offer to buy ice cream for Claudia or Frieda, perhaps because she knows that they would not be wooed by such an attempt and do not contain any hunger for what she is selling. Later when the girls get money and can afford to buy ice cream they refuse and instead choose to purchase and consume something salty like chips instead of anything sweet.

Maureen's popularity is measured by her propensity to always be surrounded by children during lunchtime. Her food is pretty, colorful and neatly presented. She even buys milk, thus completing the illustration of the white ideal that projects her into popularity. Her comfort surrounding food is juxtaposed with Pecola's demeaning and unfortunate relationship with it. Again, in Sula, the reader sees how food becomes an indicator of values. Nel defines her self-worth from an incident in her childhood where her mother turned custard, and decides that nothing will ever turn her into jelly.

Her hatred of custard signifies her refusal to submit to the allure that sweetness and milk idealizes. Her refusal to be associated with soft foods speaks to a rigidity that she incorporates into her sense of self. As little girls, Sula and Nel would go to the ice cream parlor where men would look at them as pig meat. Their physicality nourishing the appetites of men, makes them a possibility of satiating hunger. Although, as seen with the few depictions of men and hunger, their hunger is never satisfied. The properties of male hunger are clearly seen in the depiction of Plum.

Plum returns home after fighting in a WWII as a drug addict who only eats junk food which does not sustain his appetite; the empty calories only entice his hunger more. His room is an array of snack food all loaded with sugar. Morrison best describes it as, "there in the corner was a half-eaten store-bought cherry pie. Balled-up candy wrappers and empty pop bottles peeped from under the dresser"(46). The lack of nourishment that he is disallowing himself foreshadows his ultimate demise. The contrast between the natural sweetness his name conjures and the artificial sweetness of his diet illustrates the conflict within him.

The strawberry crush that is Plum's bottle is actually blood-tainted water that evokes the imagery of the blood he lost while at war (Parker 620). The obscure distinction between an artificially produced beverage and the natural elements of his blood indicates the frivolity of African American men shedding blood for a country that ultimately oppressed them. The blood-tainted water does not even get appropriate placement on a table; rather it lurks under the confines of a bureau, as an indication of shame. After the destruction of Nel's marriage at the hands of Sula, Nel devotes all of her love and attention toward her children.

The abundance of love becomes overly sweet and artificial. Morrison describes it as, "A love that, like a pan of syrup kept too long on the stove, had cooked out, leaving only its odor and a hard, sweet sludge, impossible to scrape off (Morrison 165). Her children or devotion to work does not satisfy Nel's hunger. Sula is not satisfied with her sexual conquests, and so Parker assumes that their hunger is for one another, and their denial of their hunger leads to the demise of their friendship. Their hunger is mirrored by the general hunger that affects the town.

The winter that Sula dies, the town suffers from famine (Parker 621). The infinite depths of Sula's hunger transcend her death and become a transferable hunger that is propelled onto the community. In Sula Morrison illustrates the dangers of trying to satisfy a hunger with the wrong nourishment. If Sula and Nel could put their pride aside and come to terms with what they really hungered for, instead of trying unfulfilling substitutions they would not have to suffer. In these terms, Morrison presents hunger, as a manageable sensation to which there is anecdote.

In Jazz Morrison explores the dangers and depths of the human appetite in relation to both food and sex. The affair between Dorcas and Joe is the result of Joe's repulsion to Violet's cooking, Once upon a time, he bragged about her cooking. Couldn't wait to get back to the house and devour it. But he was fifty now, and appetites change"(Morrison 69). His change of appetite, assumes a double meaning, and the pair of sex and food, intimate that the two offer the same kind of nourishment. It appears that Joe's appetite did not change, but specifically what he was hungry for.

The change in appetite is specifically in search of "young love" and therefore a craving of sweetness. When Joe goes to Alice Manfred's to sell cosmetics, the women somehow sense his hunger, and coax him into eating, Dorcas is ordered to bring him a plate. Their love affair begins and Joe makes many allusions to how sweet Dorcas is. She sometimes compared to an apple and the lack of complexity of the sugar in the fruit is a metaphor for her youth, the primal nature of Joe's passion for her. Joe's allusions to Dorcas being the forbidden apple from the garden of Eden, addresses his fear of ingesting her, and foreshadows their ultimate demise.

At other times she is aligned with the sweetness of the candy, in these instances she is not compared to candy, thus maintaining her own identity, she literally becomes the candy, Joe's candy, "Dorcas satisfies Joe's childlike passion for sugar. He refers to her as his private candy box (Morrison 121). Joe passes out peppermint sticks on the street, even though the people he gives them too would prefer chocolate or something else, the abundance of sweetness in his life makes him want to share it with others, although by their disappointment is obvious that their cravings vary from his.

Joe spends a lot of money on the candy, almost as much as on the room her rents out for him and Dorcas, and so it becomes unclear if the candy itself is more significant than the representation he finds in Dorcas, or if Dorcas is more important than the candy. The fact that the two entities cost almost the same to procure problematizes the co-existence of the two factors. Despite the different relationships that Dorcas shares with food, she is inevitably portrayed as a recipe gone wrong, her features are described as ingredients, and somehow they do not result in a palatable dish.

In her essay, "Following the Traces of Female Desire in Toni Morrison's Jazz" Elizabeth Cannon correlates the hunger of female desire to jazz music. The hunger and yearning elements that compose jazz music are aligned with and promulgate female desire. It is the music that entices the women to try and satisfy their own hunger. Without the inspiration from the music, Violet and Dorcas would have no vehicle in which to satiate their desire. Possibly no one understands the hunger within jazz more than Alice Manfred.

On page 59, she describes her disgust at the appetite of music, stating, "The part she hated most was its appetite. Its longing for the bash, the slit; a kind of careless hunger for a fight or a red ruby stickpin for a tie. " Alice's refusal to integrate music into any aspect of her life is a denial of her own hunger and a purging of her desire. Alice felt a thirst for seven months after her husband left, her thirst was for blood, and although she tried to quench this thirst, she was unsuccessful, and so all her desires are to be left unsatisfied because a fulfilled appetite.

When she says, "You don't know what loss is"(Morrison 87) to Violet, it is unclear whether she is lamenting the loss of her husband or the loss of desire. Violet's hunger is portrayed as a violent hunger, and thus her hunger and her identity become inseparable. In the instance where Violet tries to kidnap the baby from the carriage, she is giving into her desire to taste and possess the sweetness that she is incapable of producing. Very much like Pauline Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, Violet tries to obtain the sugar and spice that she craves through interactions with little girls with fair complexions. Ms.

Parker explains this connection to sugar as being derived from the idealization of femininity that states "little girls are composed of "sugar and spice and all that is nice""(Parker 614). Transferring this theme of little girls as the sweetness that grown women crave, the child that Violet tries to kidnap is described as "honey-sweet, butter faced"(19). Handling the child, provides Violet with a fulfillment and nourishment that "settles itself in her stomach and a kind of skipping, running light traveled her veins"(19). This spiritual and physical interaction gives her enough so that her stomach literally becomes full.

The fact that the child she tries to steal is a baby girl becomes a connection to her miscarriage. When Violet dreams of what the little girl would have been like had it survived, she imagines blowing on her food to cool it off before feeding it to her. If Violet had not miscarried the baby she believed to be a girl, would Joe have sought the sweetness in Dorcas? One can infer that Joe's search of sweetness is a result of the lack of sugar at home. Joe and Violet's propensity to satiate their hunger for sugar through interaction with other people speaks to their inability to gratify their own hunger.

At the conclusion of the novel, Joe and Violet are able to come to terms with their hunger and attempt to repair their relationship through food. The images of ripe pears still on the vine, illustrates their return to simpler values in natural fruits and an opposition to the values associated with complex sugars. The imagery of the ripe fruit residing on the vine, instead of being plucked and consumed, combat Joe's earlier beliefs that ripe fruit cannot exist in its own right without the disruption of human desire.

In Paradise, the discourse that surrounds food is aligned with the women from the Covenant. The death of Mavis' children is a result of her food shopping for dinner for her husband. She imagines that she was in the store buying hot dogs for "five minutes tops"(22) although the likelihood of her children suffocating in such a short amount of time seems implausible. Her denial illustrates her warped sense of consumerism and her hazardous need to nourish her husband. Her husband's hunger is the catalyst for her children's demise and so his hunger is directly opposition ith the well being of her children. Mavis went to a supermarket instead of a convenience store because the meat at the market is fresher, but her refusal to choose the more convenient store problematizes her ability to provide nourishment without incurring inconvenience or negligence. She places a greater importance on her husband's hunger and this prioritization illustrates the depths of his hunger and the lengths that she will go to, to satisfy it. Mavis arrives at her mother's house as an outlaw, and even with the impending threat of the law, she is ravenously hungry.

Birdie does not have enough food for two, this paucity of food articulates her literal and emotional inability to nourish her daughter. Mavis seems oblivious to her mother's stingy hospitality and once she is done with her portion begins to eat off of her mother's plate. When she has the last few tablespoons of peas she wonders if there is any desert. The need for sugar to complete the meal depicts the insatiability of Mavis' appetite as a free woman. She makes her hunger evident, when she asks her mother about fried potatoes on her plate, "You going to eat those, Ma? "(31).

The mother surrenders her food and ultimately her approval of her daughter when she pushes her plate towards Mavis. Mavis' reflection on the liver as a miracle demonstrates the awe in which she views her mother's food with. The mother as her original nurturer will always provide the best food, because all of her food is an extension of the original nourishment, breast milk. Deprived of her own emotional bonding through nourishment, Mavis desires to replicate this maternal sustenance with her own mother. When Mavis escapes her husband's hunger, she goes to a diner where she consumes two honey dips and coffee.

She is nervous to ask for milk or sugar so she attempts to drink black coffee but after three sips is unable to drink anymore. Her need for sugar is evident in her pastry selection and coffee without any tint of lightness or sugar is too much of a reminder of the sweetless life that she left. The donuts and coffee are meant to compliment each other, and while one remains sweet and light, the other cannot mutate to the same flavor. The sugary pastry is juxtaposed with the dark and bitter coffee, much like Mrs. Breedlove's sugary blueberry cobbler collides with Pecola's black presence.

Mavis picks up girls on the side of the road; one of her reasons for doing so is that they share food. Her solicitation of help to satisfy her hunger represents a dichotomy from her treatment of her husband's hunger. When trying to assuage his hunger she asked for no help. Her bringing the powerless twins with her to the store exemplifies this lack of assistance. Perhaps the twins death is a punishment for Mavis' inability to gage the depth of a man's hunger or the punishment of denying her own hunger, if she had brought her older children with her would a tragedy still have occurred?

Her need for aid in fulfilling her own hunger becomes problematic as well. Dusty, the first girl is self-involved, despite her lack of interest in Mavis' life; the egocentricity is more evident in her choice of snack, 2 Mallomars. This sugary treat is composed of white gooey marshmallows covered in chocolate. The white center echoes her narcissism, weak character and her allegiance to the white ideal. The chocolate coating acts as a deception as to the true contents of the treat. Bennie, the last girl that she picks up steals her raincoat and boots when they stop at restaurant that serves "down home" cooking.

Mavis insists on stopping at greasy diners, while Bennie directs them toward healthy restaurants. The conflict between types of nourishment, one submitting to unhealthy foods, while the other chooses wholesome food, points to the implausibility of a lasting or satisfying friendship for either woman. In addition, the selection of items that Bennie chooses to steal is significant since she leaves the five-dollar bill in tact. Her choice of theft is careful and deliberate; she strips Mavis of protective items. Is the theft a response to Mavis' insistence on greasy food, or Bennie's disgust at Mavis' deficient self- nurturing?

It is unclear what the impetus behind taking these specific items was. One can only imagine that they hold some significance and bare relevancy to the disparity in Bennie and Mavis' palettes. Her hunger is reflected in the image of the sun, "she knew she was hungry because the sun, watermelon red, looked edible"(37). The gas tank does not simply use gas; it drinks it as if the car itself has a mortal hunger, when its thirst is not quenched it dies as if in an act of defiance at not being nourished. This car's refusal to operate without consumption is the catalyst for Mavis' recognition of her own hunger as an oppressive force.

After being stuck on the side of the road, a victim of the parched car, she decides to take control and not let her hunger destroy her, "Suddenly she sat up, wide awake, and decided not to starve"(37). It is only when she assumes the responsibility for her hunger that she finds salvation at the convent. Acres of corn, vegetable gardens, coffee, fresh mashed potatoes, chickens, nuts and melons. Immediately upon entering the convent and the huge cafeteria-style kitchen, Connie puts her to work and asks her to shell pecans.

Connie's insistence on Mavis working with the food is an attempt to help assimilate Mavis into a rewarding relationship with food that offers as much pleasure in the act of procuring the food as in eating it. When Mavis asks if all the pecans are intended for pies and Connie responds that they are more than just for pies, "Make more than pie"(44), her negotiation of the pecans are more complex and valuable than a culmination of a sugar based commodity. This refusal to submit to the "Apple pie ideology" is what makes the convent a haven from the competitive and false values that imbue Ruby.

The abundance of food and Connie's hospitality is a discrepancy to Mavis' mother's frugality and lack of food. If Mavis is hoping to find nourishment, it is evident upon her first assessment of the convent, that she has finally found what will satisfy her hunger. The freshness and nutritious medley of natural foods is a departure from Mavis' unhealthy and greasy roadside stops or the processed meat that she feeds her husband. The convent foods lack sugar and provide hearty and healthy sustenance, which equates into a more simple and traditional lifestyle.

Soane Morgan visits the convent occasionally to exchange baskets with Connie, although the exchange is more than just that. The basket that they exchange back and forth for years is symbolic of the hunger that each woman has for the other's lifestyle, representing a trading and sharing of what each woman is missing. Connie fills the basket with things that Soane can only get through the covenant, and in return Soane fills the basket with hints of the world that Connie has been excluded from. Soane relies on Connie for a potion, the purpose of the potion is never revealed although the two share a secret reciprocal nourishing relationship.

Connie's thirst through out the novel becomes emblematic of her deep desire to satisfy what appears to be the unquenchable. She regularly drinks the wine from the cellar and gives into her thirst by sleeping near the very thing that promises to satisfy her yet never does. As Connie continues to try to fill the space of her thirst, and finds an empty bottle. The empty bottle is a metaphor for her ultimate lapse into sobriety, which translates into giving the demons back their voice that the thirst quiets down. Connie's demise and urrender to her thirst is illustrated in the decay of the food that once marked the prosperity of the convent. Tomato vines hung limp over fallen fruit, black and smashed in the dirt. Mustards were pale yellow with rot and inattention. A whole spill of melons caved in on themselves…A few chickens were stuck to the low wire fencing protecting the garden…"(251). Without the help of humans, the hunger that drives the growth of vines and nature becomes rotten and therefore needs the incentive of human hunger to inspire growth. What would be the point in growing if no one was going to enjoy the bounty?

And so nature's adamant refusal to grow in spite of itself is the catalyst for Connie's re-awakening and realization of hunger. Connie rarely refers to her hunger, but when she does she speaks about the voracity of it and how she had to be saved from it, as if her hunger itself was hungry and could consume even her. After consuming a man it still is not satiated and so it turns on the person that maintains the hunger, "My flesh is so hungry for itself it ate him. When he fell away the woman rescue me from my body again. Twice she saves it"(263).

The desire for the hunger to consume the hungry is an effort to appropriate the body and soul away from any intervention that might suppress it. In whatever ways Toni Morrison utilizes food and hunger imagery in her work, the effect that is has on the characters and reader are profound. In characters like Pecola, Mrs. , Breedlove, Maureen Peal the representations of sugar and white milk illustrate the competitive-success that they perpetuate even through food. For Claudia, Frieda, Mrs. MacTeer and Connie the dislike for sugar, milk and variety of healthy foods equates to strong ideologies that are not wrapped up in struggle or confusion.

The hunger that Joe, Dorcas, Violet, Alice, Sula and Nel feel is a sad hunger that has an emphasis on the other instead of the self. Through their appetite they are trying to reclaim an absence of love that food and drink never provides successfully. Whatever the impetus for their hunger or thirst, these characters hung or lack there of, is significant to them as people and metaphorically mirrors the appetite of the reader and the way in which we digest Toni Morrison's work. Works Cited Cannon, Elizabeth. "Following the Traces of Female Desire in Toni Morrison's Jazz. " African American Review, v31, i2, Summer 1997. 35-247. House, Elizabeth B. "The 'Sweet Life' in Toni Morrison's Fiction. " American Literature, v56, i2, May 1984. 181-202. Mink, JoAnna Stephens. "The Significance of Sibling Relationships in Literature. " Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993. O'Reilly, Andrea. "In Search of My Mother's Garden, I found My Own: Mother-Love, Healing, and Identity in Toni Morrison's Jazz. " African American Review, v 30, i3, Autumn 1996. 367-379. Parker, Emma. "Apple Pie Ideology and the Politics of Appetite in the Novels of Toni Morrison. " Contemporary Literature, Winter 1998 v 39 i4. 614-627.

Updated: Feb 19, 2021
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The Representation of Food in Toni Morrison essay
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