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An exploration into alternative methods of ingesting food by Jennie Moran, August 2020.

Eating without a mouth

  • Image: Tallaghts, by Joseph Carr.

    Image: Tallaghts, by Joseph Carr.

The door of the body

This facial feature is the front door of the body. We open it to accept deliveries of nutritious sustenance, shut it when satisfied. In the hall, there is another security check - the tongue. This is a device for screening the safety of the offering. Any perceptible threats to household such as rottenness, rancidity, sourness will be perceived and rejected here. The mouth tells the body what to expect and how to feel about it, like a sort of opinionated butler. The nose of course lends a hand here but is a little prone to exaggeration and sometimes bigs up the immanent arrival. Is there a cake/scone/loaf of bread that can live up the fuss the nose makes? It reels on and on in emotional histrionics about buttery, crusty perfect stuff that will bring joy and gift us the-childhood-we-never-had and cancel any future unpleasantness. Our eyes make slightly more rational qualitative assessments for us, “choose that spinach, it is nice and green and will do us good, the nerves are asking for riboflavin today”. Touch plays a part too. We pick stuff up to check its weight, test firmness, pressing, squeezing, tearing. Some food is audible. Fermenting food sequels like a mouse. Something sizzling on a pan is usually a happy noise for the inner workings of the gut.

The mind of the body

Let’s consider the mind and how it helps us to process food. There are the pragmatic synaptic naggings associated with the body’s ceaseless requirements of course. But these are not thoughts. What about food as language? Words, knowledge, memories, tools, culture. This is how we really eat. Think about the act of writing food down. The oldest written recipes date back to 1750 BC so this practice of recording and preserving food knowledge is a well established. There is an inherent generosity, a wish to share information with others, but also a desire to leave a trace, like a cave drawing.

We were here in this place at this time. We survived. This is what we ate and this is how we prepared it.

In Luncheonette these is an archive of recipes given to us by students and staff. I treasure them because they are a particularly poetic way for the college to remember the people who pass through it. The fact that these recipes feature regularly on our menu means that people can see (and taste) their contribution to the heritage of the place through this ever-growing edible artifact.

There exists a particularly important/difficult collection of recipes gathered at the Ravensbrück camp in 1945 by a Hungarian Jewish woman named Edith Peer. These women who survived on roughly one third of the necessary calorific intake, ‘cooked with words’1, remembering their homes, reliving feasts, reciting family recipes, scribbling them down on stolen paper, conjuring nourishment and comfort for one another. This collection is a tremendous expression of dignity and resistance. I wonder if it was ever intended as a practical tool or what it is to cook from these pages.

Food as language

Committing food to paper is our way of describing ourselves and our culture, a desire rooted in self- identity. This is a set of customs which we understand to be distinct; a snapshot of the poetic layer which sits on top of mere survival. There is pride here. It is the accumulated knowledge of countless generations, from the very first propagators of seeds to the culinary art of fine dining. There is urgency around sharing it because it is a celebration of human connection. It is how we nurture those around us, show tenderness, love, offer indulgence, heal others.

Sometimes food is used in place of language to communicate the impossible. In works of fiction it is usually brought in to soften the edges of a situation, show humanity or even just to give us a break from what is happening. I am reminded of a scene in Olga Tokarczuk’s wonderful ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’. It is a gentle moment between two characters dealing with a sereis of murders on their remote mountain plateau. Mrs Duszejko has presented herself at the door of her

semi-estranged neighbour, Oddball. He is utterly bewildered by her but we can gauge his tenderness towards her by the level of detail in the preparation of the warm frothed milk coffee with the stenciled cocoa artwork he prepares while she sits wordlessly watching him, reluctantly accepting his kindness.

Food as character

I like thinking about different foods as characters in books, brought in to develop the plot. Let’s consider the afore-mentioned milk: white, pure, wholesome, but nonetheless a bodily fluid. Will you ever forget the last few pages of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with the nod of understanding between Rose of Shannon and her mother before clearing the room and bringing a starving man to her breast to drink the milk meant for her stillborn baby? This liquid is here to demonstrate to us the essence of all humanity. It is the single tiny drop of hope that we cling to at the end of the book, horrific and staggeringly beautiful.

Meat, tends to be recalcitrant troublemaker, there to show everyone up. Roald Dahl’s short story, Lamb to the Slaughter features a frozen leg of lamb used as a murder weapon on unwanted husband and subsequently fed as supper to the team of investigating police. There is a fabulously unappealing meat scene in the Lestrygonians chapter of Ulysses when Bloom is forced to leave the dining room of the Burton Hotel, repulsed by the sight of the slobbering clientele and their ‘pungent meatjuices’ and ‘halfmasticated gristle’. The verbs used are swilling, wolfing, shoveling. Not flattering.

Fish, I feel bring something altogether different. We in Ireland might be naturally disposed to imbuing certain species with profound wisdom but there is, to be fair, something much more elegant about fish (the adopting of the plural form here tells me that I seem to be referring to them as sea creatures, and not food). There is a section in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, a poetic thriller/anthropological exploration about the daughter of a Greenlandic hunter woman, with descriptions of hunting for seals, sea scorpions, Greenland Halibut, Narwhals, birds. The hunting is slow and thoughtful. The prey is to be strategically outsmarted and there is respect shown. The animals are killed by pressing on their hearts. We see the scale of resilience of these women and their deep connection to place.

We can’t ignore eggs - another divisive character. They can have a steadying, fortifying effect, say served for breakfast on the morning of a great adventure, or hard boiled for feral children’s’ expeditions. They have another side however, because of the confusion surrounding their origins. There is a moment in Like Water for Chocolate when Tita, charged with making a Chabela Wedding Cake for the feast of her sister and Perdo, the man she loves, is beating 170 eggs into the batter one by one. In the second last egg, she hears a baby chic and panics. Mama Elena cracks the egg open to reveal no such thing and scolds her. She continues to make the cake, her heart broken, thinning the mix with her tears. When this cake is served at the wedding meal, there is an explosion of emotions in everyone who eats it, the grief of Tita contained in every bite. (BTW I firmly believe in this transference of sentiment through food and have imaginings about the Environmental Health Officer coming in to Luncheonette to take a reading of the emotion levels of our chefs.)

Fun but dangerous

We could go on forever, eating words/ linguisticating food. We are yet to broach chocolate (mysterious?), corn (vital, ancient), mushrooms (something is NOT right here). I will conclude with fruit, fun but dangerous. It lets us know to expect desire, pleasure, temptation. There is a good chance it will bring out an unforeseen bold side of someone. Here, to end is a poem called This is just to say by William Carlos Williams which handles fruit excellently and is a most justified use of the hash tag #sorrynotsorry:

I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox

and which

you were probably saving for breakfast

Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold

1. Rochelle G. Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 54.

----------- Jennie

Moran, August 2020

Find out more about Jennie Moran and her reading life here.

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