Food & Horror Guest Author


This month on Food and Horror – Octavia Cade on THE ART OF COOKING: HAUTE CUISINE AND HANNIBAL LECTER

Octavia Cade is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s The Mussel Eater. Food & Horror is a regular monthly column from Octavia, in which she examines the close relationship between the things we eat and the horrific.

Food and Horror


Food & Horror: Episode 12

Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter - Photo Générique

Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter – Photo Générique

“I learned very early a scalpel cuts better points than a pencil sharpener” – Hannibal Lecter (“Aperitif”).

Last month I talked about the horrific effects of industrialisation, of mechanism, on food. Potential dehumanisation moving in lockstep with factory ideals, the removal of food production and preparation from daily life. This month I focus on the mirror-opposite, for if the capacity for science is one of the hallmarks of humanity (however its application may disenfranchise the individual) then the capacity for art is equally characteristic.

It’s not accurate to say that no other animal produces art – individual apes have been known to paint, for instance, as have elephants.

More accurate is to say that no other species uses art as we do, for purpose.

No-one has ever claimed that such a purpose is wholly positive, or removed from the horrific. Art is as capable of weaponry as science.

Sometimes they even overlap.

“The mirrors in your mind can reflect the best of yourself, not the worst of someone else” – Hannibal Lecter (“Amuse-Bouche”).

Art is a mirror in which much may reflect. What is primarily reflects, however, is spectrum – and I’m not talking about a particular shade of chalk, or the differing colours of a mosaic. It’s a matter of potentiality more than anything else. Two people can look at the same painting, the same sculpture, and see different things. They have different emotional responses; different perceptions and understandings come from different personal contexts.

The best response, of one person, can arguably be more awful than the worst response of another.

What inspires one person may even sicken another.

It is all, fundamentally, a question of taste.

What art does, when it is provocative enough, is to ask if that taste may be broadened.

“This copycat …. had intimate knowledge of Garret Jacob Hobbs’ murders, motives, patterns – enough to recreate them and arguably elevate them to art” – Will Graham (“Potage”).

But any piece of art has two actors: the audience, and also the artist. The recent television series Hannibal has done particularly well in illustrating this dichotomy. Hannibal’s art is, of course, of the culinary variety, and his frequent dinner parties allow him to show off his skill in butchery and baking to a wildly appreciative audience.

Increasingly, this audience is Will Graham, who – initially, at least – doesn’t understand the nature of the art he’s being exposed to. Murder, at the Lecter dinner table, is part of an aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic that’s very concerned with mimicry and camouflage; the ability to go undetected by those unfortunate enough to have an inferior palate, or one not educated to the epicurean habits of the host. (Is that loin of pork really pork? Or does it look – and taste – just similar enough to fool its ignorant consumers?) Hannibal is, by all accounts, an excellent chef. He’s able to make all the classic dishes, only substituting in different meats and adjusting the seasoning to taste.

Art, in Hannibal, is all about the possible, and being able to pass.

“Table has been set. Family dinner. I wasn’t invited” – Will Graham (“Oeuf”).

Both food and art are similar in that they have, or are given, meaning on multiple levels. They form connections, relationships between people and/or objects. For people who habitually feel disconnected from the outside world – either in their relationships with their family, for instance, or by non-neurotypical interactions with the world around them – food and art can be used as proxies, or to fill the missing gap.

Being forcibly prevented from taking part in food rituals, such as the family dinner, is dehumanising. It severs connections, places the individual outside the circle of typical behaviour; sets them beyond the bounds of culture.

When, on the other hand, creativity (and the potential for connection) is expressed by the preparation of food, there is a potential for self-expression that, like all art, is a fundamentally humanising influence – and herein lies the fundamental dichotomy at the centre of the show.

It is in how outsiders use food and art to form connections that is one of Hannibal’s primary concerns.

“Office hours are for patients. My kitchen is always open for friends” – Hannibal Lecter (“Coquilles”).

The thing about kitchens is that they’re seen as a place of gathering, of coming together, and while that’s unmistakeably true, it’s also, under some circumstances, not.

The act of cooking can be solitary as well as communal. The parent who cooks dinner for the family might share in the act of eating and clearing up, but the cooking itself is separate: a task performed alone, sometimes even unobserved. There’s a further dichotomy between the act of creation and the act of sharing that creation – and, in Hannibal, that line is a particularly strong one, because Hannibal is not sharing, not really.

His cooking is a performance. His guests, when there are any, are also part of the performance. The showing of the art is open to acquaintances.

It’s in the creation of that art where he searches for a friend.

“There’s no accounting for taste” – Frederick Chilton (“Entrée”).

The difference between art and industrialisation, when it comes to food, is the perception of the resulting dis/connection. Sufficient technology – such as that discussed in last month’s column – can distance the human element from food production and preparation. While this can be convenient, it’s also fairly well recognised as not entirely positive. Food is such a large part of our lives that removal from it, in any way, tends to be ambiguous at best.

Art, on the other hand, would seem to make connections instead of removing them. Given that the ability to produce art tends to have positive associations, linking art with food can only increase the layers of meaning we assign to either.

What happens, however, when the taste-association of, for instance, tongue, provokes different connections in the mind of the artist? Can it be used to disconnect as well as to connect?

“The Chesapeake Ripper wants to perform. Every brutal choice has elegance, grace…” – Will Graham (“Sorbet”).

A dinner party is a form of theatre. One that comes with special effects, even, if you choose to serve Crepes Suzette, or a particularly showy confection of pan-fried kidney.

Throw a swanky enough dinner party and you can even stand before the table to the rapturous applause of your guests, all of whom have angled for invitations. That they’re unaware of exactly what they’re eating is immaterial, because they’re not really independent actors here. They exist as audience only, and the audience not only is not privy to the stage setting and the sausage stuffing, but is actively expected to be indifferent to it.

All of which, at a dinner party hosted by Hannibal Lecter, is invitation enough. He can only be getting off at the thought of his guests eating their fellow citizens and enjoying their beautifully presented carcass, and the primary reason for this is that he fundamentally doesn’t respect his audience very much. Not only are they not interested in seeing the sausage stuffed, they’re simply not good enough to understand the particular creative impulse behind making the sausage in the first place.

But then again, theatre has never been about the interaction of equals.

“For the first time in a long while I see a possibility of friendship” – Hannibal Lecter (“Fromage”).

Friendship – and it must be remembered that possibility is not certainty – is not a particularly theatrical relationship. It doesn’t require an audience.

When, however, one is considering friendship there can be an uncomfortable ambiguity between the states of potential-audience and potential-friend. Hannibal, used as he is to performing for his inferiors, takes particular pleasure in disguising the hand inside the oven glove. He is aware, however, that the shared state of comprehension can’t take place between the performer and the duped. At least it can’t take place on the level that he would deem adequate, for theatre is often capable of provoking empathy and understanding.

There’s a difference between feeding someone and bringing them into the kitchen, into the performance.
One is a question of availability. The other is a question of taste. Of talent, and possibly of palate.

(Could Hannibal Lecter be friends with a vegetarian? One has to wonder if the potential for identification is simply too remote.)

“I don’t want you to wake up and see a totem of your own making” – Hannibal Lecter (“Trou Normand”)

The problem is not that a totem is gauche, a waste of material. A waste of good food. The problem is not the murders that make up the body of the totem either. Hannibal’s objection comes in the waking up, in the intimation that predation is done only when asleep and unaware. An unconscious act, when art should be the conscious application of meaning, the considered presentation of thought and emotion.

It’s the theatre again. I went to a performance of Macbeth once; the play opened in pitch darkness. When the lights came on the stage was set. It was like waking up to a fully formed creation that was ready to be explored. All the effort on my part was in appreciating the effect. It was, in that way, absolutely superficial.

For Hannibal Lecter, the superficial interaction with creation is not enough. Will Graham, Abigail Hobbs, are capable of creating with him, but to move from audience to co-creators he needs them to do it consciously.

“He can’t stop thinking what it is to take a life” – Hannibal Lecter (“Buffet Froid”).

Much of Will Graham’s professional life is spent as the equivalent of a dinner party guest. He’s an audience for serial killers, and though his career involves the psychological equivalent of peeking into the kitchen while the cook’s preparing to dazzle, his primary identification of “audience” remains.

What Lecter tries to do, through creative manipulation (albeit with the help of an empathy disorder and encephalitis) is to get him thinking about the sensory act of taking a life, rather than the legal consequences of it.

Less criminal dissection, more culinary arts. It’s a matter of perception.

“Sometimes all we can do is watch” – Bedelia du Maurier (“Roti”).

The manipulation of organs into art is also a matter of perception. It’s hard to deny that Hannibal Lecter’s food is anything other than aesthetically exquisite, but does that perception of beauty change when informed by knowledge? And what kind of knowledge?

As viewers of the television programme, we know exactly what’s on one of those lovely plates. They remain lovely even so. But our knowledge, our perception, is a remote one. That is the nature of television audiences. Our sensory experience of viewing is necessarily limited. We can see the plate; we can even hear the scrape of knives (from the more ill-manned guests), the sound of chewing.

In-universe audiences are different. The audience that actually sits at the Lecter dinner table has a wider sensory experience. Taste, for instance, but also smell. Imagine being that guest and marvelling over that plate. Imagine finding, afterwards, exactly what was on it.

Does their appreciation of the art differ from that of the more removed (television) audience? Or does the extra sensory input come with more visceral consequence?

“Some places are stained now. Some people too. I know I am” – Abigail Hobbs (“Releves”).

One of the ongoing themes of these columns is that old trope “you are what you eat”. Consumption affects flesh on a very real level. Unwitting consumption of tainted meat – of meat kept apart for reasons of taboo or cultural mores – can also be said to taint, particularly because there’s no way to fully remove the tainted object from flesh. Even vomiting it up doesn’t remove every particle.

I expect those dinner party guests, should they become aware of their consumption, would also become very aware of their stain. The mere consciousness of it is going to keep them vomiting for a long, long time. Even knowing that vomiting is ineffective won’t be enough to stop them.

Informed consumption, on the other hand, is quite different. Karen Armstrong, in her book A Short History of Myth, argues that the act of carnivorism was so confronting to early humans that they created myth to deal with their subsequent philosophical conflict. Myth is not a huge part of Hannibal, but its practical counterpart of ritual is. Ritual excuses conflict, ameliorates it – the ritual of sacrifice, for example. Hannibal sacrifices, but his primary ritual is performed in the kitchen, in the dining room.

Performing the ritual, turning the sacrifice into something beautiful and cultured, removes the taint not only of carnivorism, but of cannibalism.

“If you followed the urges you kept down for so long, cultivated them as the inspirations they are, you would have become someone other than yourself” – Hannibal Lecter (“Savoureux”).

The other side of this is that engaging in cannibalism without the ameliorating presence of ritual becomes indigestible. In Hannibal’s case, literally so. The first season finale has Lecter plant a human ear in Will Graham’s stomach while the latter is unconscious.

He does this because he wants Graham to believe that he murdered the young girl to whom the ear belonged. But – and this is crucial – Graham can only believe this; can only be aware of what he is beginning to digest, if he vomits up the ear.

This detail is Hannibal’s relationship to food and horror in microcosm. There’s the manipulative aspect, the undertones of art: both of theatre, and of creation, for Lecter is sculpting Graham in his image, or trying to, in the hopes that he’ll have a friend to cook for – to cook with – at last. But there is also the element of necessary ritual, of making art out of horror.

Will Graham vomits up that ear because Hannibal Lecter needs him to. But he also vomits it up because he ate it without ritual, without the elaborate preparation that turns food into art and removes the stain of underlying guilt.

Because if Lecter succeeds in creating a friend, in transforming Graham from audience to creative actor, Graham will be working with him in the kitchen. He’ll be learning how to use all that beautiful kitchenware. He’ll be setting that table like a stage. He’ll be turning human flesh into human art, and he’ll never vomit up an ear again.

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