By: Maggie Mayer
Food is an integral part of daily life. It has the power to comfort, to connect others, and celebrate a shared heritage. Even more simply, food is a necessity to live: so it is understandable that food has become a constant image and metaphor within dystopian and utopian genres. There are many interpretations of what delicacies would be available in a perfect society and what scraps or modified food could be scrounged up within a dystopia. Food might come in the form of a decadent meal that never runs out, as in The Land of Cockaygne, or a more utilitarian meal of yeast culture vats in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel series. These descriptions seem like they have contrasting meanings, but these meals are more similar than they appear, and they play a large role in bolstering the overarching theme of a story.
Utopias are often thought of as an ideal world where one can acquire anything they desire, and food is no exception. The medieval poem The Land of Cockaygne depicts “rivers great and fine / Of oil and milk, honey and wine” and a house made of pies, flour-cakes, and puddings that kings and princes would dine on (Claeys and Sargent 88-89). The entire poem sets up this decadent world where it is impossible to want for anything and the meals are all of 5-star quality. The ideal life, right? This is not always the case, as the gluttonous portrayal of food within the poem is used to show the corruption within the church and acts as a commentary on negative parts of human nature. Monks are seen getting drunk and going against their vows of chastity. Even in such holy places, corruption and the worst parts of human nature can be brought out. This is seen again within utopias such as Julian Barnes’ novel The History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, which looks at a man who dies and goes to heaven, where he can do whatever he wants and especially eat whatever he wants. The first morning in heaven he eats “pink grapefruit, three slices of grilled streaky bacon, two fried eggs with the yolk looking milky because the fat had been properly spooned over it in the cooking, and the outer edges of the white trailing off into filigree gold braid” (Barnes 310). He orders breakfast for lunch, and breakfast for dinner, until eventually he grows tired of what he has been eating for the past millennia. Barnes presents this as a commentary on how humans crave change and, even in the ultimate utopia of heaven, would never fully be satisfied.
These ornate descriptions of food and critiques of our society do not stop with utopias. What a character eats can often reveal some information about that person, as well as their setting. George Orwell portrays food as a way to clue the reader in to how drab the society within 1984 is and reveals how Winston Smith, the protagonist, is a simple man. They eatboiled cabbage, “regulation lunch-a meal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of Victory coffee and one tablet of saccharine” (Orwell 64). This is a stark contrast to the contraband food that Winston Smith receives from Julia such as real sugar, bread, jam, milk and coffee. All simple, homey foods, but they act as signifiers of the past and taste like manna from heaven when a person cannot legally have them. There is also the SecretBurger from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Year of the Flood. Much like soylent green being secretly made of people in the fantasy/mystery film Soylent Green(1973), the SecretBurger is made of unknown meat that is mashed together. The novel explores what it is like for the government and large companies to expect members of society to take their word on what they are consuming and trust their business practices.
A large part of many food representations in literature relates to the notion that controlling food can be a way to control the masses. Keeping people in a compliant state through the use of spiked food makes it so that they will not act out against the dominating class. This is accomplished through the upper-class hoarding all of the higher quality goods and forcing the lower class to eat unidentifiable slop. In both dystopias and utopias, rationing food and forcing the different levels in a caste system to eat differently work to control the people within the fictional worlds. Such control is effective because food is necessary for survival. This control is evident in The Handmaid’s Tale when every single thing the handmaids eat is controlled and, once again, food acts as a signifier of control. Gilead had taken over; “Every piece of fruit had a thought process behind it — when she gets oranges, the implication is, ‘Okay, they conquered Florida.’ If they had artichokes, it meant they conquered California. The evolution of Gilead was always in mind” (Drabble 1). Control and class stratification are common themes throughout many dystopian and utopian narratives, and food choices and descriptions reflect not only the state of the society, but the characters themselves. Through the descriptions of meals, the reader can better empathize with characters, understand what they are going through, and fully understand how oppressive these societies can be.
Anonymous. “The Cockaigne.” The Utopia Reader, edited by Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent. New York: New York UP, 2017. 87-92. Print.
Barnes, Julian. “Chapter 10 The Dream.” A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters:. London: Vintage, 2016. 310-20. Print.
Drabble, Margaret. “Margaret Drabble: Utopian Meals.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 20 Dec. 2003. Web.
Lazar, Mona. “Food in Two Dystopian Worlds. A Comparison: Orwell’s 1984 & Huxley’s Brave New World.” DAZIBAO – Par 1060 En Voor 1060 !N.p., 09 Feb. 2017. Web. 21 Mar. 2019.
Orwell, George. “1984.” George Orwell – 1984 – Part 1, Chapter 5. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2019.