Once upon a time, most of the main characters in fairy tales were destitute and starving. As vivid as our childhood memories may be of fairy food, strawberries in snow, and houses made of gingerbread, as often as not, the main role of food in fairy tales is actually to be missing. If they are not royalty, the characters in these tales are scraping by on a diet of dry bread and gruel. Hansel and Gretel’s parents are so impoverished they decide to abandon their children in the woods with just a crust of bread. Hunger is what sets fairy-tale plots in motion.
Scholars will be quick to point out that this echoes the real-world situation of the societies where these stories arose; Maria Tatar, a scholar of fairytales and editor of a 2012 collection of Grimm’s tales, explains that “the tales had their origins in a culture where famine was common and life was nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet somehow the threat in these stories can affect us emotionally now, even if we have never experienced extreme physical want. The sense of lack that drives the action in fairy tales speaks to any sense of lack we feel that sends us searching for meaning and fullness in life.
As fairy-tale plots progress and hungry characters venture into the woods, food begins to play a number of different roles—an important one of these is as a form of temptation. Think of the climax of “Snow White.” It is obvious to connect the snake’s temptation of Eve with fruit in the Garden of Eden and Snow White’s wicked stepmother tempting her with the rosy-red half of a poisoned apple. But the parallel is not perfect. Snow White is not seduced by a fruit that comes with the offer of something forbidden, like the knowledge of good and evil. The poison apple follows on the heels of a poison comb, and a lace for her bodice (which the stepmother ties tightly enough to suffocate her). Snow White is not seeking the forbidden or giving in to temptation, but rather guilelessly accepting pretty things, over-trusting a stranger. Unlike literary characters who give in to the temptation of eating something excessive or forbidden and are punished for being covetous of what they don’t need, the characters in fairy tales are starving and tempted to take bread, herbs, root vegetables, or ramps. (It turns out that Rapunzel’s mother is as ramp-crazed as we are; versions of the tale have her craving ramps, wild radish-like root vegetables (rampion), plums, and parsley.) They are not giving in to the obscene, but they are unable to control their basic hunger; they seek to fill their emptiness by taking from strangers without first assessing the danger of their decision.
On the other hand, good-hearted fairy godmother-like figures sometimes bestow upon the hungry hero or heroine a magical object that can, if asked with the right magical phrase, lay out enough meat, porridge, or bread to fill the hero’s belly and the bellies of others he or she meets along their way. Often the object is a tablecloth, a pot, or even an animal, like a goat or bull. In “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes,” sweet and industrious Two-Eyes receives a magical goat that gives her as much food as she needs. With meals ensured, she is able to combat the malice of her jealous sisters. Even when the sisters kill the goat, Two-Eyes takes the entrails—the nourishing but undesirable bits the sisters are too fine to desire—and buries them; in their place grows a tree bearing silver and gold that only she can pick. This wins her the attention of a knight who whisks her away from her terrible family. Control of food resources gives power over your destiny.
Cooking ability also represents a character’s power to control or transform. Stith Thompson, in his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, lists a whole subgenre of fairy tales in which young heroes or heroines who are capable enough in the kitchen are therefore able to trick their captors (usually a witch or an ogre, sometimes an animal like a wolf) into peering closer and closer into a boiling pot or roasting oven until they can be pushed right in. This is how the witch gets her comeuppance in “Hansel and Gretel,” and how the main character in Smørrebukk (Butterball), one of my favorite Norwegian fairy tales, defeats the troll hag who intends to cook him for supper. Even though the heroes of these stories have originally been tricked or forced into captivity, in the kitchen they are able to take back control. The message of these stories is that no matter how young or small you are (or feel), you have the resources within you to transform your situation. This symbolic role of finding your own strength in the kitchen will sound familiar to anyone who has read popular books like Julie and Julia, Like Water for Chocolate, or Eat, Pray, Love; in each of these books, the main character finds an outlet for self-expression and self-realization through cooking and eating, thus transforming her situation. “Cooking…is a metamorphic (and therefore magical) experience that involves a creation of something new out of a set of ingredients,” explains Natalia Andrievskikh in an essay in the journal Studies in Popular Culture.
Not all characters threatened with being eaten manage to cook their captor; some—many, actually—are consumed. Little Red Riding Hood, Tom Thumb, the Seven Kids, the little boy in “The Juniper Tree”: they all get eaten. But in the fairy-tale world, being eaten is not the same as being killed (at least, if you’re the good guy)—rather, it is just one more means of transformation. Whether they were gobbled up whole or chopped to bits, characters pop out of the belly of the beast unscathed. Or, if not quite unscathed, they are at least reborn as a plant or a bird that can sing songs revealing who the villain is (and, once the villain is exposed, the original character springs back to life). Maria Tatar draws a connection between these transformations and universal conceptions of the circle of life. As she writes, “We start with myths of creation, which often feature dismemberment and reconstitution of bodies….Fairy tales give us loss and restitution in powerful ways. Even if you suffer mutilation, there is regeneration and the promise of resurrection.”
There is no ambiguity or need for lit theory in the interpreting the feasts at the end of many fairy tales. When the hero and the princess are wed, or the lost prince returns to his kingdom, or the wandering child returns home, or the heroine finds her fiancé that had been stolen by a witch—when all that ought to be has finally come to pass—that is when fairy-tale characters feast. The symbolism of food and cooking in culture and in fairy tales speak to our ways of exploring and defining ourselves, and the feast—eating together, sharing food in celebration—is triumphant, an assertion of plenty over want, of order over chaos, and of our better natures over our baser natures. For all the treasures and kingdoms fairy-tale heroes might win, the greatest good is the full belly and the sharing of food with others. And then, they can live happily ever after.