Jane Austen and Food

Jane Austen and Food

 

Lizzy-Jane

 

Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships.

— Lizzy from Lizzy & Jane

 

 

I had tremendous fun researching the relationship between writers and food for my latest novel, Lizzy & Jane. And in all that yummy reading, I discovered that Jane Austen was not a foodie. She doesn’t sit characters down and regale us with savory, succulent, over-the-top descriptions of food and then allow her characters to recount every bite. And the few times they do – we like them the less for it. Yes, Mr. Elton, I’m talking to you – and you too, Mrs. Bennet.

But, while Jane Austen wasn’t a foodie, she did use food in all her stories. Food revealed motivation, clarified relationships or shined a bright light – good and bad – on some of her players. We see poor, ailing Mary Musgrove in Persuasion downing cold meats upon our first introduction; we gasp

Making dinner at my house.
Making dinner at my house.

as Jane Fairfax in Emma refuses some arrowroot “of very superior quality”; we cringe as Mrs. Jennings in Sense & Sensibility hopes that Marianne can be “tempted to eat by every delicacy in the house.” We also watch Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice count courses and wield food as status and social weapons; we smile as Mr. Knightley (Emma) gives only of his own foods and offers them personally; and we join Elinor (Sense & Sensibility), in a time of great distress, for a quick simple meal to keep up her strength for Marianne.

It’s not the food that grabs our attention – it’s how Austen uses the food. Mary Musgrove was not really ailing – she was a whiner. Jane Fairfax didn’t dislike arrowroot. She was bolding telling Emma, operating as Highbury’s Lady Bountiful, that she “was not at all in want of anything . . .” In other words, Back off, Emma. And Mrs. Jennings? That well-meaning woman really had no clue – so she was throwing the whole kitchen at Marianne in hopes that something could stopper Marianne’s sobs.

I tried to remember these lessons in Lizzy & Jane. And Lizzy, a New York chef, begins the story not fully grasping them.

 

Another memory flashed before my eyes. It was from that same spring; Mom was baking a cake to take to a neighbor who’d had a knee replacement.

“We don’t have enough chocolate.” I shut the cabinet door.

“We’re making an orange cake, not chocolate.”

Yum!
Yum!

“Chocolate is so much better.”

“Then we’re lucky it’s not for you. Mrs. Conner is sad and she hurts and it’s spring. The orange cake will not only show we care, it’ll bring sunshine and spring to her dinner tonight. She needs that.”

“It’s just a cake.”

“It’s never just a cake, Lizzy.”

I remembered the end of that lesson: I rolled my eyes—Mom loathed that—and received dish duty. But it turned out okay; the batter was excellent.

I shoved the movie reel of scenes from my head. They didn’t fit in my world. Food was the object. Arrowroot was arrowroot. Cake was cake. And if it was made with artisan dark chocolate and vanilla harvested by unicorns, all the better. People would crave it, order it, and pay for it. Food wasn’t a metaphor—it was the commodity—and to couch it in other terms was fatuous. The one who prepared it best won.

 

Yummy thank you gift a friend sent. Good friend!
Yummy thank you gift a friend sent. Good friend!

But Lizzy learns – as we all do at Austen’s feet… I hope this tiny culinary adventure has whet your appetite and shown you yet another aspect of Austen’s incomparable brilliance. And the next time you pick up your favorite Austen novel, pick out a food reference or two and be sure to savor all they reveal.

Happy, Yummy, Reading!

 

15 Responses to Jane Austen and Food

  1. Can you just send some of that chocolate cake my way, please? LOL!

    Food is always a wonderful plot device, although usually it is the sitting around the table with lots of conversation aspect rather than the food itself. Very interesting to think about. I’ll definitely pay more attention next time I re-read an Austen novel. Or any novel for that matter.

    Thanks Katherine!

  2. For some reason, (maybe because I’m a big fan of eating) I almost always take note of food references in novels. That was one of the really fun things about your book, “Lizzy and Jane” – food was actually one of the ways they related to each other and got in the way of and also forwarded the relationships. Fun analysis Katherine!

  3. This was quite interesting, Katherine.
    When I was still teaching, it was customary for me to divide the class into groups who searched for certain plot devices within Pride and Prejudice and in Persuasion. Food was one of them, as well as visiting, writing letters and notes, dancing, etc. The groups would record the quotes from the novel, which fit their assigned plot device. It always blew them away how often each of the devices were used. They anticipated 5 or less quotes for the assignment and ended up turning in multiple pages for the grade. Then we discussed how the device advance the plot. It was quite eye opening for them (plus, it secured they read the chapters closely – a teacher’s trick. LOL!)

    • There are so many plot devices and symbols I miss. I know the point of some is to slip by your consciousness and carry you emotionally without awareness — but what a wonderful exercise. I need to remember your “assignment” as I read. Thanks!

  4. I love that thought process, and I with Lizzy’a mom. Whilst chocolate is popular and necessary, it’s not always the best answer! I’m a foodie, pastry chef was my dream job. I have to admit that Mr. Collins reference to the boiled potatoes always cracks me up in the movie. In the book he’s just fishing for information and the screenwriter made it a joke at his expense. The only food reference I can remember in Emma is Miss Bates and Mr. Knightley’s apples and then of course the gruel. I’m going to have to go back and read it again. Oh the torture…LOL O:-)

  5. Thank you for a fresh look at ‘food’ in Jane Austen’s novels. I don’t think I paid much attention to those references before, but I shall now!

  6. Food! On D&L we have an emoticon that says “Chocolate fixes everything!” And believe me, we always have a steady supply of the dark which comes in handy when I read angst ridden stories by my favorite authors. I’ll be looking forward to reading your story. Thanks for the insight to JA. ~Jen Red~

  7. Good morning. What a delightful post. I don’t think I’ll ever read a food scene again without subtly applying your spot on analysis. Now I think I shall down my first cup of coffee and a carrot muffin. What could that possibly say about me? Hmmm.

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