Scenes of the Apple

Scenes of the Apple234 Pages
Academic Anthology Edited by Tamar Heller & Patricia Moran


Scenes of the Apple covers a wealth of material, from well-known novels, to seldom seen 19th Century food advertisements, to discussions of cannibalism. Subtitled as Food and the Female Body in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing, the archetypal nature of the book is made more clear with the cover illustration, showing Eve plucking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, aptly illustrating that power structures and concepts of sin have always revolved around women’s consumption of food. This volume is useful not only for social historians or literary theorists, but shows how the groundwork of the previous two centuries has influenced our present day perceptions of mass communication. Academics and lecturers, such as Jean Kilbourne (creator of the Slim Hopes documentary), have shown that women’s conception of ideal body types is often re-defined with airbrushes which distort reality, or exploited with advertising like that used on the Virginia Slims cigarette billboards. In Scenes of the Apple, editors Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran successfully show how the obsession with women’s food consumption has an intricate history that needs to be understood before we can wholly realize how to approach it in today’s world. They have divided their anthology of critical essays into three main categories: Nineteenth Century Cultural Politics, Twentieth Century Texts, and Food & Cooking in Patriarchal and Familial Structures.

The first category deals with appetite and consumption in Nineteenth-Century cultural politics. The Victorian world typically divided itself into two different spheres of influence. The public sphere was the domain of men, whereas women were consigned to the private or domestic sphere. Women were expected to become domestic goddesses and uphold a fine code of morals. They were expected to sublimate their own sexuality and appetite for food, yet provide wholesome meals for their children and maintain a slim idealized beauty to fulfill the sexual appetites of their husbands. This power relationship with food was all invasive, and often times contradictory, and this domestic ideology shaped the way that women looked at food and their bodies. The three essays in this first section show the underlying motives and contradictions in Victorian women’s relationship with food. Adrienne Munich shows how the huge and “un-lady-like” appetite of Queen Victoria contradicted expectations for other women, and was held as symbolic for the plentitude of England’s empire. In the second essay, Pamela Gilbert shows how deeply the Victorian’s obsession with food went, making ingestion a favorite metaphor for the act of reading, so that even when pursuing intellectual or leisure reading, women thought of this activity in food-centered terminology. Science and history texts, for instance, were thought of as “healthy food” and women’s domestic romances as “overly sweet” junk food. Lastly, Linda Schlossberg shows how suffragettes waged the battle for voting rights by using hunger strikes, and how men, indifferent to women’s need for political sustenance, would quiet them by force-feeding them. This battle is captured clearly in suffragette literature.

The second section moves into Twentieth-Century texts. The first two essays deal with hierarchical restrictions on women’s appetites, and particularly how race plays a factor within these restrictions. Debra Beilke’s essay discusses Ellen Glasgow’s The Romantic Comedians and its portrayal of the dichotomy between “well-bred” Southern ladies forced to control their appetites, and the lower classes (including African Americans) whose loosening of dietary restrictions was seen as an indicator of class status. The second essay in this section deals with Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, and the portrayals of self-starvation and compulsive eating that act as shadowy reminders of the time of slavery. Last, in the final two essays of this section, the authors show how women authors have broken through the paradigm of negative female consumption. Chris Foss explores the idea of “good cannibalism” in Hélène Cixous’s The Book of Promethea and Suzanne Keen analyzes Jeanette Winterson’s fiction to show how scenes of women eating have a positive connotation and serve as metaphors for sacred communion and sexual ecstasy.

The essays in the third section analyze how food and food preparation are related to colonial or patriarchal hegemony. Sue Thomas looks at Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, and examines how in Zimbabwe eating disorders affect women caught between warring notions of femininity espoused by Western Society and the Shona heritage of their ancestors. Janice Jaffe studies Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a novel that focuses around recipes and the struggle of different generations of women to uphold the matrilineal bond while recognizing the changing role of the domestic sphere within women’s lives. Finally, in the last essay of the section, Patricia Moran makes an extended analysis of Elizabeth Erlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, in which she considers how important kitchen culture is to not just women, but to society as a whole — eventually positing the notion that women must open up the domestic sphere to men in order to share the public sphere that men have dominated for so long.

Together, these critical essays delve into a diverse range of writing, including novels, essays, and culinary memoirs. Scenes from the Apple successfully incorporates the varied facets of women’s literature from many ethnic, regional, and generational points of view. Through talking about how women perceive food, this book shows how body image, power structures, and desire can be universally understood as a complex relationship that is constantly being revised. By understanding and recognizing the importance of these food-centered images, we gain a profound appreciation of what women’s experience of the past truly was, and how thoughts and feelings that were often marginalized, found expression.