Gazing forward, not looking back: comfort food without nostalgia in the novels of Polly Horvath

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Date: Summer 2014
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,191 words

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[O]ur three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.

--M. F. K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me (ix)

Nostalgia and comfort food are intertwined subjects that recur consistently in children's literature and in food-centred literary analyses of it. We have taken up the topic of nostalgia in our own work on Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, and Neil Gaiman, and in our 2009 collection of essays Critical Approaches to Food in Children's Literature, the majority of the essays reflect at some point on how authors look back nostalgically to childhood favourites in their representations of food in children's books. In the first scholarly book devoted to food and children's literature, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children's Literature, Carolyn Daniel discusses Enid Blyton's "fictional food fantasies" as expressions of comfort and nostalgia (72). Likewise, in her recent book Consuming Agency in Fairy Tales, Childlore and Folkliterature, Susan Honeyman offers a well-theorized discussion of the nostalgic nature of the gastro-utopia, which she connects with comfort food specifically (131).

In this paper we want to explore the concept and uses of comfort food beyond its function as an expression of the nostalgic view of childhood that so many children's authors embrace. Admittedly, nostalgia is a key trope in understanding the relationship between food and children, a focus that is as true in the scholarship we note above as it is in the best-known image of food and one child in particular: Proust's treasured madeleine in Swann's Way, the first volume of his novel Remembrance of Things Past. But while nostalgia is an emotion that is reflected strongly in the texts adults write for children, it is not necessarily an emotion that appeals to child readers in the same way. Children's author Polly Horvath offers a distinctive take in her books on how comfort food can function for children. Our interest in Horvath's body of work stems from her persistent use of comfort food, although what makes her novels particularly intriguing is that she explores the complexities of comfort food as psychological remedy: she avoids the simplistic equation of food as emotional comfort that serves as a solution for emotional distress and frequently as a plot resolution in children's books. We look beyond literary and cultural discourses and borrow analytical tools from the social sciences in order to explore the way in which society produces comfort food whose significance lies in the child's pleasure in consumption in the present moment, rather than the adult's retrospective pleasure. The combination of these approaches illuminates how the characters in Horvath's award-winning novels Everything on a Waffle and The Canning Season find comfort in the food in their lives and are oriented toward the future, rather than the past.

The impulse to turn to food for comfort is a well-recognized and widespread social phenomenon. Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman define comfort food as "a specific food consumed under a specific situation...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A403449027