Broccoli, gross! More candy, please: Willy Wonka, children's literature, and how we learn to love food

Children’s books revel in the romance of food. From Willy Wonka to Raggedy Ann, it's how we discover pleasure

Published August 31, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity"

. . . this bottle was NOT marked “poison,” so Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice, (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast,) she very soon finished it off.

When you’re really down, focus on the food.

. . . back behind and to the left of the milk cans. Working dough. Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past.

In the First Kitchen

Lollipop trees and gingerbread houses. Bottles of cherry-tarts mingled with custard, roast turkey, toffee, and other goodies. Spoonfuls of sugar. Ice cream mountains. Landscapes of lusciousness like those from the medieval land of Cockayne. Tunnels in peaches. Rivers of chocolate. A world of cookies.

Children’s books revel in the romance of food—and why not? When the baby is weaned from her first desire, the loss of the breast—with (if all goes well) its apparently ceaseless satisfactions—promotes further aspirations: the endless pleasures of Cockayne, the walls of sugar, the wells of delight, the spouts of syrup. Even before I read about such goodies in the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories—the Deep Deep Woods with its lollipop plants and Cookie Land with its sugar-frosted family and raisin-stuffed cake chickens—my father used to charm me with comparable tales. He was a man who loved the soda fountain at Schrafft’s and often took me there to indulge in Broadway sodas (chocolate syrup, coffee ice cream, vanilla soda, a hint of mint) and big flat cookies that looked almost like the smiley heads of the Raggedies. “Imagine, Sandra,” he’d say, “a land with ice cream mountains and chocolate rivers and candy bushes. . . .”

Does food in fiction begin with cosiness—which is to say, infantile pleasure—as it does in so many children’s books, and, equally often, in parents’ dreams of what such children’s tales should be? Certainly the syrupy stories of Raggedy Ann and Andy tantalize sweet-toothed little ones with seemingly endless imaginings of what you can do with sugar. Despite their legendary clean white stuffing, the rag doll pals imbibe one ice cream soda after another and happily share them around with animals, fairies, elves and even cookie people. Raggedy Ann herself has a candy heart that flavors her dealings with just about everybody she meets, except a few nasty goblins (whom she ultimately converts to niceness). And though Andy is secondary to Ann, in a reversal of the old story of Eve-after-Adam, he too is stuffed with kindness. When, in their adventure in the Deep Deep Woods, she uses a “wishing pebble” to endow everybody with their just desserts, he joins her by wielding a “wishing stick.” Wherever their shiny shoe-button eyes and perpetual smiles turn, the benevolent pair bestow the kind of sugary joy that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein associates with the abundance of the ever-giving “good breast.”

Yet even the cosiness of Cookie Land—one of Johnny Gruelle’s most compelling culinary fantasies—is tainted by dread. In a realm founded on flour and sugar, appetite is a first principle of society; thus those who long to eat may themselves have to fear being eaten. The Raggedies are haunted by the threats of Hookie-the-Goblin, who insists he wants to make them into noodle soup, despite their very rational assertion that cloth dolls can’t be boiled into noodles. Even more imperiled are the kindly cookie people. When Raggedy Ann first encounters the chocolate Cookie Man, he breaks in half, as any vulnerably brittle cookie might, and she is obliged to glue him together with molasses. Such shattering shadows all his family all the time: his Lemon Cookie son ends up with a vanilla leg after his original limb cracks apart; his daughter, little Strawberry, is stolen by the voracious Hookie, and indeed, the entire Cookie family, along with their cookie cows, chickens and ducks and their delicious cookie house, are always threatened by the mouth of the goblin—and by other hungry mouths that might come along.

Cookie Land is at the mercy of Cookie Monsters! “I can see that all of you are eating cookies right now, and it makes cold shivery crumbs run up and down my back,” declares the Cookie Man to the Raggedies at their first meeting, and indeed, right after he falls down and splits in two, Ann’s friend Little Weakie suggests that it would be “a good plan to break him into small pieces and put him in our pockets to nibble on when we leave here!” At the same time, even nasty Hookie, Cookie’s opposite, is himself endangered by food. When the hungry goblin threatens her and her friends, Raggedy Ann points out that “you are sitting in the candy and can’t get up!” Sugary syrupy stuff has literally glued him to the ground, immobilizing him. Sweet foods captivate and capture; sweet teeth threaten to nibble, rend, chew, and swallow.

The perils of both food and appetite are emphasized in quite a few other ostensibly cosy children’s books. Maurice Sendak’s classic In the Night Kitchen begins when little Mickey overhears the pounding of bakers far below him in an indeterminately mythic kitchen and falls down and out of his clothes to land naked in the middle of their dough. Just before they can bake him in a “Mickey oven” he manages to reshape the sweet stuff surrounding him into an airplane and fly up into the Milky Way, with a cup for a jaunty cap. Yet the powerful bakers continue to chant their need: “Milk, milk, for the morning cake!” And as they do, the child falls back to earth and, divested of his getaway mechanism, plunges, naked again, into a giant milk bottle, singing “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk and God bless me!” Thus nurtured, he saves himself—as the Raggedies so often save themselves—through sharing. “Then he swam to the top, pouring milk from his cup into batter below,” so that cooks can keep on making the morning cake—which by implication becomes the morning itself. And Mickey too becomes his materially embodied self, shouting “Cock a doodle doo” as he stands, now, on the outside of the milk bottle, with his gender-defining little penis as clearly outlined as the rest of his boy body. Whole and separate from the once engulfing milk, he returns to bed, clothes and civilization.

Just as Melanie Klein’s good, all-giving breast is always potentially a bad, denying or absent breast, so the good milk-giving mother might at any time turn into a devouring mother. By extension, even the most delicious food might become dangerous. Mickey didn’t drown in the milk bottle (he could swim!), the Raggedies escaped the soup kettle, and the cookie people never did crumble. But: there’s always a but. In such culinary tales as Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona, Judi Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and perhaps most of all Roald Dahl’s masterpiece Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, nurturing food turns nasty almost, as it were, of its own accord. A version of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Strega Nona recounts the havoc wrought by greedy Big Anthony, who seeks to exploit the magic pasta pot from which Strega Nona, a good-hearted witch, feeds herself and him just enough every day. Nona knows the secret formula that stops the pot from overflowing; Big Anthony fails to blow the three kisses that seal the turn-off. When the pot floods the whole town with pasta, the citizens are ready to string Anthony up—until Nona comes home, halts the cooking and punishes her assistant by condemning him to eat all the pasta that has clogged the streets. What was marvelous becomes unsavory and sickening. Big Anthony, after all, had never signed up for a marathon eating contest. The book’s concluding illustration shows him unhappily glutted and bloated, with the feminized stomach of late pregnancy.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is, at least on the surface, morally neutral. In a bedtime story told by the speaker’s grandpa, three hundred apparently lucky people live in the little town of Chewandswallow, where, as in the medieval land of Cockayne, the sky rains food upon them all day long. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided by incoming weather with clocklike regularity, although there is little choice of menu. Sometimes the meals are appropriate (one breakfast features orange juice, fried eggs, toast and milk), and sometimes not (one dinner consists merely of overcooked broccoli). Slowly, however, the heavens grow fierce, sending down “a storm of pancakes and a downpour of maple syrup that nearly flooded the town,” an “awful salt and pepper wind accompanied by an even worse tomato tornado,” and “giant meatballs” that knock down houses and stores. Finally, the townsfolk determine to leave, and sail away on bread boats with swiss cheese sails, to live happily ever after in a world of supermarkets and refrigerators. Grandpa’s lesson? Not so much that the modern industrialized world is preferable to the land of Cockayne, but that what at first appears to be celestial plenty can prove to be a purgatorial trial. And the implicit lesson of the plot? An elaboration of the disgust that so many children feel when they are helplessly subjected to menus over which they have no control and forced to eat unpleasant tornadoes of tomatoes and disgusting heaps of overcooked broccoli.

Childhood disgust at unwanted food features more frankly and prominently in Henrik Drescher’s over-the-top fantasy The Boy Who Ate Around. Served a yucky-looking dinner of “lizard guts and bullfrog heads” (“actually string beans and cheese soufflé”), little Mo is too polite to throw up his first bite of the meal but instead decides to “eat around it.” As he metamorphoses into “a ferocious green warthog monster,” he begins by gobbling up his mom and dad: “they were munchy” and, after all, they were responsible for the beans and the soufflé. Then, as his appetite intensifies, he becomes an ever huger monster, eating the table and chairs, the cars, the house, his best friend, his school, the president, the first lady, and finally the whole world in an infantile blast of hunger that leaves him, finally, bloated, flatulent, “tired and lonesome”—since he himself is all that’s left. In the end, therefore, he disgorges the everything on which he has feasted and returns to the family table, from which, happily, the offending dinner has been removed. Instead, his resurrected parents and best friend join him in relishing banana splits, modest desserts considering the truly omnivorous feast that has preceded them.

Superficially celestial plenty—the opposite of green beans and cheese souffle— is at the center of Roald Dahl’s unnervingly riveting, yet often yummy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a work as classic as In the Night Kitchen and, almost, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Also at the center of this ambiguous book is the industrialized world of shops and factories that is so often at the periphery of popular children’s stories. Where the Raggedies wander through forests and magic townships, as so many little heroines and heroes do, Charlie attains his dream of visiting Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory only to enter what the grownup reader must recognize as a sort of sugary variation on Blake’s dark satanic mills. Skinny and impoverished, the starving boy, his two sets of skeletal grandparents and his meek parents live on the meager rations of potatoes and cabbages that are all Charlie’s father can provide with the wage he earns as a screwer-on of toothpaste caps in a factory that ludicrously shadows Wonka’s luxurious establishment. When he loses even that job, the Bucket family are nearly reduced to the total emptiness their name signifies. Charlie’s lucky find of a golden ticket to candy heaven is their only hope for survival.

I wish my father had lived long enough to read Dahl’s book, but alas it was published just a year after he died, too early, in his late fifties. He would certainly have recognized some of its features as akin to those of the dreamy tales he related to me: the chocolate palace of the Indian prince, the fields of green sugar bisected by a great chocolate river and a roaring chocolate waterfall, the chambers of magic chewing gum, the Viking boat that is a colossal hollowed-out boiled pink sweet. What he might not have liked, or wanted to notice, was the parodic lottery in which, through a massive worldwide capitalistic distribution system, the five golden tickets to chocolate heaven are doled out to just a lucky few in a yearning population of hungry children. And what he might have chuckled at, but at bottom disliked, was the way chocolate heaven turns into chocolate purgatory, as four of the fortunate five meet punishments that fit their personal crimes. First, Augustus Gloop, a stereotypical greedy fat boy, drowns in the river of his desire; then Veruca Salt, the nuttily spoiled daughter of a peanut manufacturer, is nibbled nearly to death by squirrels and thrown, with her parents, into a garbage machine; next, Violet Beauregarde, an obsessive gum chewer, is herself turned into a stick of gum; and finally Mike Teavee, a compulsive televiewer, ends up as a tiny version of himself on a TV screen. Note the allegorical names: gloop, salt, beauregarde (self-regard), mike, and TV. Only Charlie Bucket, himself allegorically empty of any vile desire but filled only with natural hunger and the strength to “buck it,” inherits the huffing, puffing, all-powerful factory of chocolate, with its huge pipes and chimneys, its floods of commercial sugar and dangerously sweet secret rooms, some with whips (cream, strawberry—and other, more pernicious whips) and some with beans (chocolate, coffee—and has beans).

As a left-leaning political liberal—a reader of The Nation and a supporter of Henry Wallace—my father would surely have been troubled by the enslavement of Willy Wonka’s factory workers, the Oompa Loompas. A tiny people originally described as African pygmies and revised (after critical protests) into rosy-skinned little folks from an indeterminate “Loompaland” that continues to sound suspiciously African, the Oompa Loompas are the human property of Wonka, the factory owner, who has dismissed his original workers to replace them with the labor of these slaves. Cheerful yet censorious, the Oompa Loompas on the page and onscreen sing moralizing songs that justify the culinary trials intended for wrongdoing children. Perhaps their most exemplary chant (accompanied by the beating of “a number of very small drums”) outlines the exemplary fate of greedy Augustus Gloop:

He’ll be quite changed from what he’s been,
When he goes through the fudge machine:
Slowly, the wheels go round and round,
The cogs begin to grind and pound;
A hundred knives to slice, slice, slice;
We add some sugar, cream, and spice;
We boil him for a minute more,
Until we’re absolutely sure
That all the greed and all the gall
Is boiled away for once and all . . .
[Then] who could hate or bear a grudge
Against a luscious bit of fudge? 

My grandchildren, for whom Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has become a normative, indeed a much loved text, don’t seem horrified by this, or if they are they are pleasantly scared at the prospect of the fat boy’s transformation. But I think my father would have considered the punishment Dantesque (he knew his Purgatorio) and as a political thinker would have been distressed by the Oompa Loompas’ subaltern part in working Willie Wonka’s punitive will.

I’m not sure, though, whether my father would have given much thought to the physiological implications of the doings in the chocolate factory—its function, like that of many factories, as a gigantic set of intestines in which both raw materials (sugar, chocolate, cream) and people (children, Oompa Loompas) are digested and transformed. My father wasn’t a Freudian and he would have been put off by discussions of what one commentator has called Dahl’s “excremental vision” in this book. Yet the floods and waterfalls of rich brown chocolate gushing ever lower and lower into the bowels of the factory, along with the streams of filthy lucre into which they ultimately turn, supplement the orality of longings for sugar with the anality of play in shit. And demonic Wonka, on the surface the master of the moralizing Oompa Loompas, becomes also the embodiment of a Freudian id as he leads the children and their guardians down, down into the underworld that houses all “the most important rooms in my factory” while explaining the monstrosity of his ambition: “These rooms we are going to see are enormous! They’re larger than football fields! . . . down here underneath the ground, I’ve got all the space I want. There’s no limit—so long as I hollow it out.”

Hollowed out, himself, by hunger, Charlie Bucket is ultimately the mouth that Wonka chooses to fill with chocolate, along with the mind into which he will pour his magical trade secrets. At the end of the story, the little boy imports his starving family into the factory so he won’t be alone, but in effect he alone, like Wonka alone and lonely, will be the master of all the sugars he surveys. Like his precursor, James in Dahl’s earlier James and the Giant Peach, he may end as a celebrated hero—but consider the destiny of James! Once the giant peach has crushed this miserable orphan’s wicked aunts, and once he and his friends have survived their travels in and on it by (among other strategies) devouring its luscious fruit, he ends up living alone in its desiccated pit, set up as a shrine in Central Park. Of course, he’s visited by friends and admirers, as no doubt Charlie will be, but still, there he is, a retired traveler, all by himself in an inedible peach stone.

We imagine children’s books as cosy, and so they often are, yet at the same time their cosiness compels because the strongest tales acknowledge the dread that always shadows comfort. To be sure, quite a few kids’ classics are realistic in the usual sense of the word. From Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie and Farmer Boy, novelists represent children eating muffins, drinking goat’s milk, gobbling apple turnovers in settings that are grounded in history and society—landscapes far less unlikely than the exotic places inhabited by Charlie, Mickey and the Raggedies. Yet these books too feature dream meals and dwell on the dangers of hunger, one’s own hunger and the hungers of others. Lurking behind their quotidian scenes, as behind the gastronomic scenes in so many contemporary narratives, are both the satisfactions of primordial desires and the perils of the oven from which Hansel and Gretel escape but into which they shove the wicked witch, the deadly stickiness of candy, the grinding teeth of the machines that pulverize cacao beans—along with nasty little boy has-beens—into fudge, the glug-glug of the milk bottle out of which one might or might not rise into a milky way of one’s own. In this fashion, the ambiguity of our first kitchens prepares us for the complex imaginings of the good, bad and weird flavors of kitchens to come in adulthood.

Excerpted from "The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity" by Sandra M. Gilbert. Copyright © 2014 by Sandra M. Gilbert. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

By Sandra M. Gilbert

MORE FROM Sandra M. Gilbert