Warm Cake: Having It, Eating It, Reading It

[As it appears in Issue 08 of Oh Reader]

How can food be read as an occasion to transgress norms and make sense of hunger?

French philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil, like so many women before and after her, had a weird relationship with food. On three occasions throughout her brief and extraordinary life, she went on hunger strike. Her final hunger strike killed her. She was 34 years old. In solidarity with the residents of German-occupied France, Weil vowed to only consume the amount of food available to them. According to some accounts, she may have actually eaten less. Weil was also diagnosed with tuberculosis prior to starting her strike. The coroner's report reads: "The deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat whilst the balance of her mind was disturbed.”

Some years prior, Weil wrote in her essay Waiting for God, “The great sorrow of human life is knowing that to look and to eat are two different operations.” She imagines the sorrow experienced by a child who eats the cake they had been looking at, only to realize that there is no more cake. In heaven, she deduces, looking and eating will be the same operation. But on Earth, for us mortals, “If [Eve] lost our humanity by eating a fruit, the reverse attitude—looking at a fruit without eating it—must be what saves.”

Whether Weil’s relationship to food evidenced a radical commitment to politics or an eating disorder is not for me to say, nor is it the point. Weil’s writing illuminates the quasi-virtuous pleasure that makes reading “food” so complicated. When I say reading food, I mean reading writing that is about food—in recipes, in cookbooks, in the food columns of chic magazines—but also literature that simply uses food as side pieces or metaphors or symbols or settings. Necessary for survival, food is an inescapable truth. Even its lack—hunger—demands attention, groaning and aching to be attended to. The very necessity of eating can make the gratuitous pursuit of pleasure through it seem tangential, like an appendage at best and a transgression at worst. In this context, reading about food for pleasure can seem futile—arrogant, even. What does a hungry person care to read about food, after all, when still the body starves? Weil would say that the hungry person would care a lot and, in fact, that they are better off for their unrequited desire. The non-fact of the imaginary is what allows the food to remain material. The potentiality becomes the way in which the material food is preserved, in the sense that it is not consumed and therefore destroyed. This presents quite a problem: what is saved by the act of non-eating, of resisting hunger for the sake of preserving food?

I don’t think Weil ever got to explicitly say so, though we may assume that she meant we are saved from losing our humanity. Only, Eve didn’t lose our humanity by eating the fruit. She confirmed it. What was lost was quite distinct from humanity, which is rather often constituted by its imperfections (to err is human, after all). When Eve ate the fruit, we “lost” access to the Tree of Knowledge, to the Garden of Eden, to what was perfect and sure. It was lost by our attempt to consume it. Simone Weil wanted to look at food and be filled.

Whatever her motive, Weil was not alone in this desire. At some point, many women learn that their body and its hunger is something to panic about. “I feel like I’m getting fat,” a friend says to me on the phone, “but I’m not sure if it’s just my body dysmorphia.” Fad diets, Instagram filters, and New York Fashion Week all seem to confirm this panic. Our desirability lies in our ability to take up the least space. Panic often results in a desperate grasp at whatever we can hold, to control whatever we can. And what people-who-are-not-men can control is a rather small subset of things, when you really think about it. We make less money than men. Our labor is regarded as frivolous—if it’s outside the house, it’s to prove something; if it’s in the house, cooking, cleaning, raising children, et cetera, it is unpaid. Curating our appearance in the name of desirability becomes quite manageable—something we can control.

Though “food writing” is a term that often eludes definition, I’ll use it to mean writing that is about food or deals directly with food in some way—think of Bon Appetit and NYT Cooking. The first “food writing” in the 1930s was targeted at, and written by, women, and it was largely a mode of marketing domesticity to women. The New York Times’ Ligaya Mishan characterizes it well when she describes the “stand-alone food sections” of newspapers in the 70s as “popular but not respected.” Not only are femininity and its discontents inseparable from the origins of contemporary food writing; they are the root. This idea problematizes my pleasure, wherein it threatens to transform pleasure into a consequence of marketing.

And why is it such a pleasure for me to read the words warm cake, anyway? Or hot bread, or cold beer, or “Southern oysters … languid and soft-tasting to the tongue … more like the Southern ladies than the brisk New Englanders … delicate and listless”? M.F.K. Fisher’s writing, sexy and playful, punctuates that question by illustrating the ways in which good writing about food transcends the page, despite its obvious limitation: words will always be words and never food. In particular, Fisher’s collection The Art of Eating asks us to contend with the complicated power that is wielded in feminized spaces, where the bounds of pleasure present the conditions for its expansion. Feminist writer and activist adrienne maree brown’s work illuminates how boundaries can create containers through which the realization of a thing can be made authentic, by virtue of its realization being a choice.

To have a boundary is to be bound by something—values, politics, feelings. What I’m bound to, and what binds me, is also what holds me. Writing is an interesting medium for talking about food, because its boundary as the storyteller necessarily detaches it from sensation. Food, written, becomes a memory or memorial; it can never be what the words describe. Fisher uses the subject of food to traverse death, life, joy, sex. As Clifton Fadiman writes in the collection’s introduction: “Her subject is hunger. But only ostensibly so.” Fisher’s food writing is the kind that confuses the horizon of pleasure, so that reading about food appears as a way of consuming it, and talking about food becomes a way of talking about something else. In Consider the Oyster, Fisher describes the “cadaverous old man” who shared with her a “rabble-rousing recipe” for Oysters à la Bazeine: “He felt toward gastronomy as some men feel toward beautiful terrible women.” In paralleling the consequent effects of gastronomy and “beautiful terrible women,” Fisher reclaims authority over the feminized space, wherein women, beautiful and terrible, are no longer the depository for desire but rather are the arbiters of it. The use of the woman to reinscribe her authority though a parallel to gastronomy as evoking a particular feeling from a man, presumably one of frustration and desire, offers insight as to how the pleasure of reading food in M.F.K. Fisher presents an occasion for challenging “normative” femininity through its re-expression. If normative femininity is predicated on sacrifice, hunger and devaluation, Fisher’s is rather about wielding power and eating well.

Is reading food a way to fill a void? Or is it a way to subsume a void—to construct a palace where we were told there was nothing? The space between words and the objects that they describe is where reading happens. It is in this space that we orient ourselves toward the stories the words tell about ourselves. Perhaps this is why I was so taken aback by Simone Weil and the impossible demands that she made of her desires, as though if I could make sense of her hunger I could make sense of mine, too. In reading food, this space between words and what they describe is where we are filled, or not, leaving us to contend with questions about how to manage our hunger and fill the parts that remain empty. Through considering the different ways food is read in texts by Simone Weil and M.F.K. Fisher, food illustrates the manifold aesthetic and affective narratives of “feminized” pleasure, which is to say that it is not made feminine by virtue of gender, but becomes gendered through its being socially constructed as such. It is this pleasure that provides the occasion for transgression, to have warm cake and eat it, too.