Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Harry Potter and the Fabulous Food

Lately, whenever I read a book, I have a tendency to pay very close attention to any and every mention of food...then philosophize about it. Since food is such an important part of my life, I can't help but assume that it's just as important symbolically and socially and aesthetically in everyone else's lives - especially when "everyone else" means the authors of books I read.

I also happen to be a big Harry Potter geek. Not to the same degree as some people out there - I don't spend my days on HP message boards - but I am firmly in the segment of the adult population that believes JK Rowling is an amazing storyteller and that HP books are so complex and fascinating that they're worthy of high-level analysis.

So, I was very excited this morning to run across this page cataloging food mentions in the Harry Potter books, and this essay (old though it may be) on food and drink in Harry Potter.

Between communal meals at Hogwarts, trips to the pub in Hogsmeade, meals at the Weasleys, the lunch cart on the Hogswart Express and - of course - the impressive role of potions in magic, JK Rowling has devoted many lines to items her characters ingest and has imbued those items with layers of significance. I know this, instinctively, just from a cursory reading of the books.

Unfortunately, while the catalog and essay I've linked above are interesting to read, both serve more as lists of foods that appear in the books, and the contexts in which they appear. And both ignore potions altogether, though I'd certainly classify them as "drinks"...since that's how they're administered.

I can't be too critical, of course, because I certainly don't have the energy to comb through all six HP books, identifying the foods and analyzing their thematic purposes. But I wish somebody would. Here's a start: it seems to me that food and drink in the Harry Potter books serve at least one of five primary purposes:

1. To create a social situation, allowing something else to happen (information to be shared, characters to develop, relationships to broaden, etc.). Highly functional, highly logical. Mealtimes, social times in the pub, tea at Hagrid's -these settings are more about the socialization involved than the food itself, but they point to one important role food plays in our lives. It brings us together.

2. To help readers forge a connection with wizards. Food plays too large a role in all cultures to be ignored entirely, and in creating these situations, Rowling places her wizards in a familiar human situation. Even little kids reading the books can identify with her characters when they sit down to a special dinner. Food helps us connect.

3. To set a scene. Many of the traditionally human foods included in the book are heavy, old school and undeniably British. I believe Rowling does this on purpose to help set the scene. Even before the movies, readers of the books could imagine Hogwarts' looming grey building, it's fog, it's overbearing traditionalism. The food served at the school helps build this imagery.

4. To show the lighter side of the wizarding world. The lunch cart on the Hogwarts Express is full of the types of candy that little kids covet - chocolate frogs that really jump, jelly beans in mysterious and sometimes gross flavors, all kinds of treats that sound both delicious and slightly off. These ridiculous concoctions are funny to read, and I imagine that for the younger readers of the books, they offer something to daydream about. This type of food makes the reader laugh, and adds a little much-needed levity, reminding us that the wizarding world isn't all scary prophecies and dark lords.

And finally, probably most importantly...

5. To be functionally magic. Potions are an important part of magic (at the very least, we know they are because Snape teaches the class). And they are a type of food - created using a recipe, administered by drinking. Of course, because I am such a big believer in the underlying importance of food in human lives, I see the key role of potions in the wizarding world as further proof that food is so much more than mere sustenance.

Maybe one day I'll get it together and reread all the HP books with an eye on the food. In the meantime, though, I'll just be on the lookout for someone else to do that work for me.

1 comment:

Nakiya @ Taste of Baltimore said...

I loved this! I never really thought about food in HP that way. I'll do the opposite of you - when I reread the books, I'll pay attention to it this time :)


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