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February 19, 2018
When Everyday Foods Get Witchy

Whether it’s magic beans, gingerbread houses, or poison apples, food in folklore and fairy tales is never just about food.

Never accept candy from strangers. We all know that by now, right? It’s the plot device for too many tales of temptation, from Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house to the addictive confections of the White Witch.

“It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating,” said the Queen presently. “What would you like to eat?” “Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty,” said Edmund. The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with a green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. —C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

With only mass-produced snack cakes and candy bars to choose from as a child of Middle America, I had no idea how Turkish Delight tasted, but C.S. Lewis cast the same spell over me that he did to Edmund in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: I craved these sweets with the curious name. (The Ottoman Turkish variation rāhat ul-hulküm translates loosely as “comfort of the throat.”) When I finally saw piles of lokum for the first time in a bazaar by the Bosphorus—jellies fragrant with rosewater and bergamot, dusted with confectioner’s sugar—the comforting Persian treat seemed perfectly suited for a fairy tale

Stories where food has supernatural powers are universal. Magic beans, poisoned apples, bewitching sweets, never-ending banquets: They serve as a vehicle for transformation, symbolize the comforts of home, and represent the bonding power of personal relationships, social networks, or communal values. Food is also a powerful early symbol of life force, which is often at the root of these magical tales.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell makes this clear in Hero With a Thousand Faces: “Grace, food substance, energy: these pour into the living world, and wherever they fail, life decomposes into death,” he writes. Without food, we can’t survive. Without magical foods, the hero may not survive the journey.

This concept not only applies to the original folk tales, often rooted even deeper in ancient mythologies, but also to the present: See, for example, Roald Dahl’s chocolate bar with a golden ticket; J.K. Rowling’s earwax and booger Every Flavour jellybeans; Hayao Miyazaki’s kaiseki in a steamy bathhouse for tenants of the spirit realm; and Guillermo del Toro’s demonic feast in the sinister underworld lair of Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Oxford Companion to Food describes the delicate meals favored by the supernatural of the British Isles: Fairies drink the milk of red deer and goats and devour huge amounts of weeds, which are “made to look like sumptuous fare, a trick which would be convenient for human cooks but which involves the use of glamour in the original sense of the word.” When a mortal consumes these enchanted morsels, chances are his or her fate will take an unexpected turn.

But sometimes magic foods can also promise fulfillment to very real hunger. According to Maria Tatar in The Annotated Brothers Grimm: “For many fairy tale heroes, a full belly figures at the top of any list of desires.” That’s why Hansel and Gretel don’t think too hard when they stumble on a house made of cake and sparkling sugar after being abandoned deep in a scary forest populated by a witch bent on luring children into her oven. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm themselves knew about hunger firsthand; after their father’s death plunged the family into poverty, and before researching their collection of folklore, the brothers ate only one meal a day, shared between the younger family members in their custody.

In The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, historian Robert Darnton traces the evolution of old wives’ tales into the more sophisticated fairy tales of Charles Perrault—Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella—and notes that many stories about magical food developed at a time when the population toiled endlessly and yet was still famished: “Great masses of people lived in a state of chronic malnutrition,” he writes, “subsisting mainly on porridge made of bread and water with some occasional, homegrown vegetables thrown in.” Is it any wonder that Snow White is tempted by a ripe and juicy red apple?

And isn’t home cooking really a form of alchemy? Changing gnarled roots and raw bones into nourishing broths, employing chemical powders or wild molds to make cakes and bread rise. Both those who cook and those who cast spells use a mortar and pestle. Baba Yaga, the supernatural crone from Slavic folklore, was known to ride the night skies on one and occasionally gobble up little children. She also lived in a hut raised on chicken legs, making it a creepy mobile home of sorts. (As an aside, I’ve noted a disturbing narrative pattern in these tales in which women are portrayed as wicked cannibals. Yes, there are good witches, but they don’t seem as compelled to feed you. Or eat you.)

Baba Yaga’s story illustrates another function of folktales, which was to serve as an oral warning about shit beyond our control, like strangers with unfamiliar customs, or weird food from other lands. Perhaps my least favorite tales are the cautionary ones where food that is familiar—prepared by your mother before a journey, raised on your own farm or village—is projected as safe. Foods that are forbidden or appear under mysterious circumstances: dangerous. And in the case of a young girl named Alice, also a gateway drug—Drink Me, Eat Me—to strange worlds.  

… It was all very well to say “Drink me,” but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. “No, I’ll look first,” she said, “and see whether it’s marked ‘poison’ or not”; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules…. However, 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. —Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

A disturbing extension of archaic tales that discouraged curiosity about dishes perceived as exotic, ethnic, or alien is the culinary xenophobia that persists today. But on the other hand, the power of myth and dreams, the presence of fairy and fantastic tales, from childhood onward, subtly shapes our appetites. They might make us desire something more than our bland bowl of daily porridge. Without a taste for reading folklore and fantasy, I might never have eaten Turkish Delight in Istanbul or a kaiseki feast at a ryokan on a snowy night in Kanazawa. Or, for that matter, warrigal greens gathered by an Aborigine in the outback; samaki wa kupaka prepared by a Swahili bride on the East Africa coast; or smoked sheep’s skull in the highlands of Iceland. (Where they still believe in elves, by the way.)

So if a cannibalistic crone invites you into her gingerbread house, maybe give it a pass, but if a kindly stranger on your path offers to trade magic beans, whether they lead to a land of giants or Hogwarts, don’t lose your sense of wonder about tempting new worlds. Say yes to the beans.

Shane Mitchell

Shane Mitchell is author of Far Afield. She is the James Beard M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award winner for 2018. Follow her on Instagram @shanefarafield.