Food & Horror


This month on Food and Horror: Octavia Cade on the second part Ritual Meals.

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 9

Last month I talked about meals as rituals, as ceremonies and practices by which order was reinforced in the particular, subjective universe of the characters. Horror frequently uses ritual meals to up-end or subvert this form of control, and meals can be used as destabilising as well as stabilising forces.

What I want to look at this month is a sort of subset of that ritualism: food in service of memory, meals that fix histories in place. This is a specific form of maintaining an ordered, organised universe, but there are enough interesting examples to merit a short post of its own.

It’s not surprising that food can be a valuable link to memory. Food is, after all, a highly sensual experience. Taste, texture, and most importantly smell are vivid things. Most of us at one time or another have been reminded of past events by scent; it’s an especially evocative form of remembrance. (No coincidence, I think, that it’s one of the strongest smelling herbs, rosemary, that’s particularly linked with memory.)
The connection between smell and memory is particularly well illustrated in the opening paragraphs of “The Lily and the Horn” by Catherynne M. Valente. In this story, the Lily of her House tells of how scents are catalysts for the memories of childhood:

The smell of the hay like candied earth, with its bitter ribbons of ergot laced through—that is the smell of my youth, almost gone now, but still knotted to the ends of my hair, the line of my shoulders. When I polish the silver candelabras, I still feel half a child, sitting splay-legged on the floor, playing with my mother’s scorpions, until the happy evening drew down.

Hay and earth, the heavy, acrid smell of silver polish, are distinct scents, powerful enough to resurrect the small memories of a busy adult woman. And this is relatable and understandable. It remains relatable and understandable when the narration of scents narrows down to the culinary, for the Lily is preparing a feast for her husband’s house. “Smells as rich as brocade hang in the kitchens”, she notes, and this is a richness that comes out in the language that Valente uses – lush, vivid descriptions, highly sensual, meant to set readers mouths’ to watering, their own memories prompted by the similarity of experience. (Oh for the day the media of our choice will be imprinted with scents to match the stories we consume!)

Try it and see. Read the following passage from the story and imagine the scents coming off it, the sweet tang of fennel and garlic, the pepper, the ginger, the bread:

I baked the bread to be as sweet as the pudding. The vital thing, as any wife can tell you, is spice. Each dish must taste vibrant, strong, vicious with flavor. Under my eaves they will dine on curried doves, black pepper and peacock marrow soup, blancmange drunk with clove and fiery sumac, sealmeat and fennel pies swimming in garlic and apricots, roast suckling lion in a sauce of brandy, ginger, and pink chilis, and pomegranate cakes soaked in claret.

The familiarity of some of the ingredients is a bridge for others. I know I’ve never tasted suckling lion, for instance, but brandy and ginger? I’m all over that. I know what that tastes like – granted, more with pear than with pussycat – but that related knowledge is enough to evoke a sensory memory of its own, one that can be cut and pasted into my experience of the text. Yet even without the scent of memory, the appearance of richness, of luxury, remains.

This is a meal that fairly reeks of festivity, of celebration.

It is also a meal that reeks of war.

All this preparation, all the cleaning and polishing and cooking, the choosing of wines, is in “The Lily and the Horn” an act of war, for all these scrumptious things are replete with poison.

Recall the presence of ritual and of food as a potentially stabilising element. The preparation for a feast, the scrubbing and baking and all the rest of it are the established formulae of behavior with which all of us are familiar, within the bounds of our various cultures. These are the kind of rituals that help to establish and promote friendly relations, or temporal markings – for example the midwinter feast, or the appearance of a specific constellation. But by subverting all these positive associations Valente is able to create a form of ritualistic horror, whereby reader expectations are undermined.

As the Lily comments:

This is how I serve my husband, my children, my king, my house: with soup and wine and doves drowned in orange spices. With wine so dark and strong any breath of oleander would vanish in it. With the quills of sunless fish and liqueurs of wasps and serpents hung up from my rafters like bunches of lavender in the fall.

The particular genius of this story is not in the fact of a feast that destabilizes expectation for readers. It’s in the idea that the same feast simultaneously stabilizes the world of the characters. For poison in this world is a limiting factor of war. This is a world where oleander takes the place of the Geneva Conventions: it’s a targeted tactic designed to spare civilian lives.

Instead of giant, hideous battles in which entire populations are mutilated, disabled, or killed, the ritual tradition of poison feasts, of a toxic duel over the dinner table, limits the collateral damage of war. This is a deliberately civilizing ritual:

There can be no end to conflict between earthly powers, but the use of humble arms to settle disputes of rich men makes rich men frivolous in their exercise of war. Without danger to their own persons, no Lord fears to declare battle over the least slight—and why should he? He risks only a little coin and face while we risk all but benefit nothing in victory. There exists in this sphere no single person who does not admit to this injustice.

It’s also, implicitly, a stabilising one. A poisonous little war limited to individuals leaves enough civilians alive to bring in the harvest, to populate the country and raise their children in peace. It limits the death toll; it ameliorates the dreadful cost of war and allows the vast majority to live on in peace, confident that they won’t be killed for frivolous reasons and on the whims of others. It’s a form of human rights declaration writ in contamination and venom, essentially.

But what has this to do with memory? Other than the recollections inspired by smell, what makes this horrifying practice a memory-meal?

The answer lies in the intertwining of food and ritual and history. The Floregilium, where small girls – such as the Lily in her youth – are educated in their toxic trade is a place of learning for more than poisons. They are also taught context; primarily historical context, which is the reason for their trade to begin with. The Lily recalls:

It was there, under the sun and moon of the Floregilium, that I read tales of knights and archers, of the days when we fought with swords, with axes and shields, with armor beaten out of steel and grief. Poison was thought cowardice, a woman’s weapon, without honor. I wept. I was seven. It seemed absurd to me, absurd and wasteful and unhappy, for all those thousands to die so that two men could sort out who had the right to shit on what scrap of grass.

She considers this history “obscenity”, and so it is: the deliberate slaughter of generations can hardly be anything else. It’s this history that permeates every meal that the Lily, and others like her, prepares for the purpose of the private little wars between powers. The entire reason behind the poison feasts is, in fact, documentary evidence. It’s (presumably) records and diaries and casualty lists, a hard record of hard times.

Given that the ritual of poisoned meals was created specifically for the purpose of replacing this documented slaughter, one can judge this new method of warfare as based in memory as well as toxin. Each trained poisoner – the Lilies and the Horns of the title – as she makes use of her beautiful, horrifying trade, practices her talents as a direct response, a trained reaction, to this historical practice. In effect, each time the Lily is basting her suckling lion, she is doing so specifically because of the memories of times past, in an effort to prevent those times from returning. The memory of atrocity is so intertwined with the replacement presentation of meals, with the new murder-food, that the subsequent dinners are essentially impossible without the memory, isolated from the catalytic conflicts of the past. The construction of feasts as a social good – as well as a tool for slaughter – is specifically ritualistic, with expected behavior entirely dependent on the memories of times past for its continued existence. Not unreasonably, after all, the lords and rulers risking their own lives for their own conflicts might well prefer a time when they could remain behind the lines while sending others out to die for them. Social expectation and vocational training, however, have through largely beneficial ritual (beneficial for the majority, at least) firmly established this practice of horrifying meals and the practice appears to be there to stay.

“The Lily and the Horn” is an example of ritual memory-meals on a large – presumably national – scale, but this isn’t the only scale on which memory-meals appear. We’re moving from big to small in this month’s column, and so the next meal we’re going to look at is city-sized, rather than country-sized.

Translatio Corporis” by Kat Howard is based around the idea of a city growing by consuming its inspiration in parts. “There are metaphors that could be made on cities as bodies” the story comments, but this is a story where metaphor takes solid shape. Cities have long been places of shaping and construction, and the embryonic city of this story grows by taking pieces of Lena and reshaping them for its own purposes.

There were doctors, then, and blood work and the thousands of small indignities and embarrassments that come with a body that is not quite doing what it should, that feels like it is missing some essential piece.

Which, it turned out, it was.

“An entire rib?” Lena asked.

The doctor shook her head. “Have you ever been X–rayed before? I’d feel better if I had results to compare these to.”….

Lena pressed her hand against her side, against the absence she knew was recent. She said nothing.

The embryo city starts taking pieces from her when she is nine, and carries on into adult life – pieces of herself disappearing, iron and bone and blood, digested and transformed into another form; into pieces of a city – foundations and fountains and libraries. This isn’t unusual in itself. In fact it’s the kind of consumption we’ve seen in this column before – utterly transformative, when what is consumed allows the consumer to change, to transform, in some fundamental way.

What turns this act of consumption on the city’s part into a memory-meal is that the transformation isn’t random, or undirected. The city takes Lena’s flesh in order that it can recreate her memories. “The air around it is made of time and memory” and the city steals memory, feeds on it, in order to establish the objects of that memory within its own boundaries.

Howard comments, in the story, that the association between architecture and character is a long one, stitched together with flesh. “Did you know they used to grind the bones of saints into the mortar?” Lena’s best friend asks her, speaking of a cathedral that the two of them are visiting. “Something about making the space holy, sanctified. Some of the really old churches have whole bodies of saints buried in the cornerstones. Sometimes they weren’t even dead before they were immured.” This little history doesn’t deal directly with memory, of course, even if memory of the saints survives indirectly through the process of building and of sanctification.

But it’s not the memory of the cathedral that matters to the city. It’s Lena’s memory of the cathedral, and her friend’s by association. Consumption comes with cost, with the payment of price, and what the city offers in return for its appetite for Lena’s body is that Lena’s body is to be used to make a city that Lena will love, a city stuffed full of her favourite things. In achieving this wholesale removal of private history, the city removes Lena’s memories with Lena’s flesh. The cathedral vanishes in front of the women, and their memory of it vanishes with it, the city having eaten it up along with Lena’s rib.

A blink, a scraping of stone, and the two young women stood before a rattling chain–link fence, posted with signs warning caution, red–letter danger. Nothing behind it but a vacant lot. Catherine pinched the screen of her phone, swiped out. “I need to download the update. The map says the Cathedral should be right here.”

Lena winced, pressing her palm against a sudden ache in her side. “You are the only person I know who can get lost with a GPS in your hand.”

Some other where, strange air ran over a gargoyle’s wings, and a cathedral settled into place, a new sacred relic contained within it.

The focused, ritualistic stripping of Lena’s body is thus done carefully and for purpose. The embryo city waits, ready to cannibalize not only Lena but the original city in which she finds herself. The embryo city gobbles up, eating for growth and memory, sprinkling recollection and emotional resonance all over its new landscape.

While this consumption might be occurring on a city scale, there’s an individualism in it that’s present in the relationship between the two entities. This focus on personality, on single people, is present in the smallest scale of the memory-meals, the ones that occur between small numbers of people. It can be argued that “Translatio Corporis” also has limited actors and that is true, but the effects of the memory-meals there are spread over an entire city, while true miniaturism of this type of meal is at least local in its effects, with few consequences for anyone outside the circle of the immediate actors.

A good example here is “The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov. In this, a man and his daughter are left to deal with the death of their husband and father, respectively. In this culture, the dead undergo ritual transformation. It isn’t cremation, or slow burial, or being left out in the open air to be a meal for other creatures, though meals do come into it. Instead, the dead are transformed into cakes.

If that sounds ridiculous, a summary to provoke laughter… well, it isn’t. For one, the raw grief of the two remaining family members, worsened as it is by a pre-existing conflict, is painful to read. And for another, the destruction and reformation of the body of the dead man is unsparing in its detail. If food frequently has a transformative effect in horror, we see the transformation of the ingredients less often. Mostly they are taken as read, literally, or it is the act of killing that transforms an animal from living creature into meat. Rarely are the dead so closely manipulated.

The transformation from a dead body into a cake suitable for the Baking Chamber is many-stepped and complex. It is undergone as ritual, with the attendants in masks made of butcher berries and mint nourished by drowning men, with clothes the colour of blood and leather aprons made from the skin of changelings. (Transformative, indeed.) Making this meal is a formal duty, and deeply ritualistic.

The horror lies in the dissection of a loved one. Bad enough to see an adored family member in their coffin, with the lid about to be closed over. Worse to see them floating in the purification vat. Worse to shave the body, to carefully flay it and note how the dead tissue clings together even then, until the knife makes the separation final. Worse to take the muscles once the flaying is over…

After you place your husband’s skin in a special aventurine bowl, you take to the muscle—that glorious muscle you’ve seen shift and contract in great swings of his dancing axe while you sing your curses and charms alongside him in battle. Even the exposed redness of him is rich with memories, and you do everything in your power not to choke as you strip him of his strength.

Nothing is wasted. Every piece of the body is used. The bones are crushed to flour. The organs are creamed to a soft thick smoothness. The gods demand no less, for the only mercy shown in this disposal is that the Baking Chamber doesn’t produce its cake for mortal consumption.

When I say that nothing is wasted, I’m not just speaking of the recycling of flesh. This is a column on memory-meals, and memory too is part of the ritual of baking. It is part of the ritual in two ways, and the first of these is implicit. It is hard to destroy the shape of a known body without recollection, and “The Language of Knives” doesn’t flinch from this consequence.

You struggle at first but then work the knife without effort. As you lift the softly stretching tissue, you see the countless scars that punctuated his life—the numerous cuts that crisscross his hands and shoulders, from when he challenged the sword dancers in Aeno; the coin-shaped scars where arrowheads pierced his chest during their voyage through the Sear of Spires in the misty North; the burn marks across his left hip from the leg hairs of the fire titan, Hragurie.

Yet perhaps it is a consequence that is intended, for in this story at least the breach between father and daughter scabs over somewhat as they prepare their dead for baking. It’s not an easy reconciliation, and perhaps not a permanent one, but memories make grief and their recollection comes with tears and sharing – or at least it does here. Other families might not be so generous.

Explicitly, however, the ritual also requires the formal inclusion of memory. For the story of the dead man must be written down, must be committed to the gods’ keeping along with the cake as a sort of savory accompaniment. Without this written recitation of memory, the meal is incomplete. “You have written in the language of meat and bones and satisfied the gods’ hunger. You hope they will nod with approval as their tongues roll around the cooked flesh and swallow your sentences and your tether to life.”

The scale here is miniscule, really. Three people and one of them dead, gods that only appear as a devouring Mouth. And the context, the consequences, are also small. The little family is broken, perhaps irredeemably, because the memory-fuelled reconciliation of father and daughter is only a presage to a longer separation, as he sends her away to find the happiness she’ll never have if she stays with him. It’s a domestic tale, essentially, if a sad and gruesome one – a tale where all the characters end up quietly alone, the connections between them thin and fading and of no moment to anyone else except, perhaps, the reader.

So these are memory-meals, one of the rituals of food and horror if not the only one – perhaps not even the most important, but interesting all the same. Tune in next month for an exploration of blind hunger, and how it horrifies as it devours.

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