I live in Saskatchewan and enjoy hiking in the prairies while musing that bison, deer, and cattle (and any other grass munching creatures) live directly on top of what they love most: their food. I try to imagine how it might feel to constantly be surrounded by what I love to eat. For me, I’d be living in a chocolate house with a popcorn path and a red wine pond out front.
The fate of our ancestors, including the ancient storytellers who whipped up the fairy tales we know to this day, was connected to the amount and kind of food they could conjure. Food in fairy tales generally serves one of the following: wish-fulfillment, fortune, misfortune, test, or challenge.
In the short, simple fairy tale “Sweet Porridge” an old woman of the forest gives a poor young girl a magic cooking pot. One day when the girl goes out her mother commands, “Little pot, cook.” When she has had her full she realizes she can’t recall the command to make it stop. “So it went on cooking and the porridge rose over the edge, and still it cooked on . . . just as if it wanted to satisfy the hunger of the whole world.” Eventually, the girl comes home, stops the pot, and “anyone who wished to return to the town had to eat his way back.” The townsfolk can now graze their way through life the same as any cow in the field or horse in the pasture. A wish fulfilled.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” features a poor mother and son whose cow no longer gives milk. Jack is sent out to sell the beast but returns near dusk with a handful of beans instead of the cash they need to start a new life. While his mother laments his foolishness, she tosses the beans out the window and sends Jack to bed without any supper. A beanstalk grows overnight, so tall it disappears into the clouds.
This could have been the end of a tale of wish-fulfillment, with Jack and his mother eating beans to their hearts’ content. But Jack’s curiosity drives him to climb, higher and higher, until he discovers the mansion of a wealthy, man-eating ogre in the sky. He charms the ogre’s wife into feeding him, then outwits the hungry master of the house, steals his goose that lays the golden eggs, and beats it back to the ground in time to chop down the beanstalk. In the end, Jack and his mother are rich enough to fulfill the dreams of the whole world.
Beware insatiable hunger. Long ago, a woman gazed upon the glorious garden of a powerful witch. There, among the flowers and vines, grew a leafy green plant for which she began to hunger. “The desire grew day by day, and just because she knew she couldn’t possibly get any, she pined away and became quite pale and wretched.”
Her husband, alarmed, thought to himself, “Come! rather than let your wife die you shall fetch her some rampion, no matter the cost.” He climbs over the garden wall, gathers the leaves, and takes them to his wife. He does this several times, until he is caught by the witch. The price for raiding the garden to satiate his wife—as all those familiar with the story “Rapunzel” know—is their first-born child.
Though surrounded by what she most desires to eat, the wife in this tale has no right to the plant she longs for. The fulfillment of her passion only leads to the birth of a new one, one that will, in turn, be blighted.
Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” is as diminutive as a seed in the pod. At its heart: a test of a girl’s sensitivity, the testament to her worth.
The story begins with a prince’s exhaustive search for a suitable wife. Shortly after his return home, gravely disappointed, a storm erupts. Then there is a knock at the door, and when the king answers he finds a girl on the doorstep, soaked from head to toe. They offer her the shelter she seeks, but when she tells them she is a princess, the queen-mother hopes to discover the truth.
A bed is prepared for the girl on which three peas will rest beneath twenty mattresses topped by twenty feather beds. “The next morning she was asked how she had slept. ‘Oh, very badly indeed!’ she replied. ‘I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue. It has hurt me so much!’”
Nothing is required of the princess for her to pass the test; she remains as raw, as unchanged, as the three peas.
Fairy tale challenges involving food are another story. No one describes this better than Midori Snyder in her beautiful essay “In Praise of the Cook.”
For me, the Russian wood-witch Baba Yaga is the most powerful of the ambiguous and transformative cooks in the fairy tale tradition. She straddles the threshold between life and death, between the promise of change and the imminent threat of destruction, between learning to cook a meal or become the meal. This is no sugar-coated, one-dimensional Gingerbread House witch. Baba Yaga is a potent mix of domestic and fantastic—potential helper to the hero or heroine in the guise of a ferocious grandmother with iron teeth and wicked claws. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by a fence of human bones and lit by lanterns made from the skulls of her previous meals. Yet we know we are in the presence of a powerful cook for her house rests on chicken legs (that key ingredient of any good soup) that lift and carry the house to different locations, reinforcing her ambiguity—the domestic combined with the dangerous, the tame with the wild, the oddity in a cannibal’s household of using chicken legs for transport and human beings for dinner. When not in use for culinary practices, Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, flailing the pestle like an oar. And her choice of weapon (beyond those great teeth and long nails) is the oven. Woe to the girl who stumbles into her path unable to cook, to separate wheat from chaff or poppy seeds from grit. But as Vasilissa the Wise proves by her encounter with Baba Yaga, this difficult cook can be appeased, cajoled by good manners and decent meals into providing the necessary ingredients for a long and healthy wedded life.
Fairy tales are the boiled-down bones of literature. They speak directly and succinctly to our needs, kindle our desires, and, best of all, nourish our spirits. Bon appetit!