Topic: February 2005
I'd read Jeanette Winterson's The Passion some years ago (early 90s maybe?) and didn't know it to be a work of magical realism. I'd read it not long after I'd devoured Katharine Dunn's Geek Love, another work of 'strange fiction' with which I was moved to compare JW's book. After many, many years of reading fantasy and sci fi and horror, this new realm of 'strange fiction' (new to me, anyway) was a perfect match. It seemed to weave together my love for those genres but in a way more akin to the literature I enjoyed in college: Kafka, tall tales, Gogol. So The Passion was a nice treat.
I'd completely forgotten how much Napoleon enjoyed chicken until picking up the book once again. No wonder this book appealed to me when I first read it! At that time, I had been working as a cookbook editor and food writer in Chicago, and had discovered then how much I enjoyed reading both cookbooks (yes, recipes and all) and epicurean commentary. MFK Fisher and Raymond Sokolov and Betty Fussell and Laurie Colwin and James Beard and the Other Kafka (Barbara Kafka, for Gourmet) were all wonderful prose writers I'd already welcomed to my reading repertoire. I would go on from there to become fascinated with the culture of food politics, idolizing folks like Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters for their sustainable sensibilities, a subject I would pursue for a few years as a writer, publisher (American Harvest) and researcher before my life changed with the birth of my first daughter.
The term 'food politics' is exactly what it says: Food in America means power, money, class division, morality, culture, identity. How we grow, buy, package, prepare and serve our food serves as a kind of marker highlighting our worldviews. There is a huge difference, for instance, between a red meat eater who buys the cheaper cuts for consuming everyday but Friday, versus a red meat eater who buys the most luxurious cuts by mail order from prime American rangeland, versus a red meat eater who buys only organically grown cuts from cattle grown without steroids or hormones.
What does this have to do with JW's The Passion? These two lines, which occur right away in the book, separated by a single sentence:
"It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock? Odd to be so governed by an appetite."We are what we eat, let's face it. I'm not saying Napoleon was a chicken, though. What I'm saying is that, from JW's narrator Henri's point of view, Napoleon (who he loved like the patriotic countryman he was), Napoleon did everything in his power to give the world the illusion he was large. Consuming enormous quantities of chicken (defenseless creatures made even more helpless by the removal of their beaks and claws while they yet lived on in crowded cages in Boneparte's storehouse) fed Napoleon's megalomania. Henri says it so splendidly himself on the next page:
"[Napoleon] wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird."
What else might one expect coming from a tyrant? This is one of the reasons I so enjoyed JW's novel: she has a brilliant way of bringing every mundane thing into the spotlight of the extraordinary.