Food for Thought: Hard to Swallow—Apple Pies

Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson wrote Metaphors We Live By, in which metaphors are argued to be an unconscious cultural construct. They introduce their book through the idea that argument is war and then give a list of phrases that English speakers say  exemplify it:

“Your claims are indefensible.”

“He attacked every weak point in my argument.”

“His criticisms were right on target.”

“I demolished his argument.”

They then ask the reader to consider a culture where argument is perceived as a dance as opposed to a war. What do we suppose about such a culture? The arguers would be working together to achieve a common thing, a work of art. The idea is that the metaphors inherent within a language reveal a lot about that culture.

In English, another metaphor we use is ideas are food: food for thought, you bit off more than you can chew, let me chew on that proposal, your ideas are hard to digest, feed me a line, you spoon-fed him the project, a taste of the good life, etc. By examining the relationships we have with food metaphors, we can change or improve culture. Cooking and baking are political. It’s communication. Some of it may have to do with the same body parts utilized for both speaking and eating—the mouth—but it’s much deeper than that. Home cooking is often overlooked—the home being the realm of the woman—whereas commercial (money-making) kitchens, often the realm of men, are more appreciated. That idea is hard to swallow.

“Food for Thought” will be a monthly column examining our culture through the metaphor of food in literature, specifically from a woman’s perspective—my perspective. The etymology of “recipe” is Latin, meaning to receive, or to take, and can be seen through the abbreviation “Rx.” Look familiar? Food is a prescription, it’s medicine, and women have been socially responsible for providing it for centuries. I’ll also pair a dish I’m preparing as an accompaniment to the article.

But I’m a terrible cook.

This month we are looking at food as a motif and metaphor in The Color Master: Stories by Aimee Bender. Food’s complicated relationship to consumption is apparent from the very first story, “Appleless.” The motif of food and thus eating, or not eating, nibbles its way through the entirety of the text, from a girl who won’t eat apples to a woman who tries to consume an unconsumable cake that regenerates in the final story, “The Devourings.” For women, food seems to be a transitional tool, a symbol of growth, even while paradoxically illuminating the myriad ways women consume themselves or allow themselves to be consumed.

I suppose cooking in a way is similar: it’s nurturing but time consuming, it’s expected and anticipated, which then becomes obligation, and it’s over so quickly. And who has to clean up the mess?

In “Appleless” the rules of the interplay between choice, food, and consumption seem to be laid out. The protagonist seems to be a threat to the narrator in some way, by exercising her choice not to consume the apples that are so lusciously described. The descriptions themselves could be considered an enticement to the girl, to the audience, as an explanation, a justification for what comes next—how could anyone deny the taste of these apples? The visual imagery would probably be enough, beautiful apples of all colors, but the illustration of the eating of the apples is then paralleled by the consumption of the girl herself.

I’m going to make apple pie. I like Dutch apples the best, and I usually use a Marie Callender’s frozen pie, but I’m going to try making my own and then taste-test the difference. Clearly this is an excuse to have two pies.

I preheat the oven. Unbox the pie. Remove the plastic wrap and crumble pack. Place the pie on a baking sheet. In it goes for sixty minutes. I mean, the directions are right there on the box. Quick. Easy.

In “Appleless” the Girl is quickly and easily othered. The girl’s refusal to partake in the eating is such an aberration that the narrator and collective group, the we, find her lack of consumption, and thus her difference from them, to be irresistible. They literally hunger for her difference, as their hegemonic appetite seems to now crave something else. Her hair only too perfectly reminds them of bread, and thus she is the thing they consume. When the rape imagery, in the guise of the consumption, begins, it is hardly a surprise due to this ease and swiftness of othering. There is little shock when one reads, “We close in; we ring her. Her lips fold into each other; our lips skate all over her throat, her bare wrists, her empty palms. We kiss her like we’ve been starving and she tilts her head down so she doesn’t have to look at us.” The food-related diction continues—“knead,” “breath,” “ripe,” “apple juice,” “scoop,” “loaves”—alongside the more violent, rape diction—“tears,” “touch,” “move in,” “neckline,” “bare body,” “stop?”  “impossible,” “tremble,” “crumpling,” “crying.” They consume her against her will, and then the apples, and the girl, are gone.

In many languages, “to copulate” and “to eat” are the same word, and though “copulate” connotes consent, it does not demand it.

This second pie is more demanding. I’m using Betty Crocker as my base recipe because we’re going with female stereotypes here, and who represents wifeliness and womanhood more symbolically than Betty Crocker? No one, unless June Cleaver has a cookbook. Let me find an apron to cover this dress—kidding. I’ve been in pj pants and a sweatshirt for ten months. I’m fine.

This recipe is clearly sponsored by Gold Medal because it’s in all three parts, and that got me thinking too—female roles and expectations as commercialism—so I did some research, and the story of Betty Crocker is, of course, a capitalist venture. In any case, you can use any kind of flour.

Make the crust:

Our manufactured Betty Crocker recipe calls for flour, salt, shortening, and cold water, but I’m going with butter instead of shortening (a one-to-one replacement ratio, apparently). I also read that cold vodka instead of cold water makes for a smooth dough, and I can only imagine how that discovery was made, though I’m all for it. Mix it all together and when it sticks together enough to form a ball, wrap it in cling wrap and put it in the fridge for forty-five minutes.

Make the filling:

Apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon, and lemon juice. So basic! I do love to complicate things though, so I’m also going to put in a few drops of my own blood, for color, also because my son just walked through the kitchen and sucked it from my wrist. So the open wound was convenient. Because I love The Great British Baking Show, I looked for Mary Berry’s recipe, but while she has double crust apple pie and an apple cake, she doesn’t use this Dutch apple, and now I’m wondering why. What is she holding back behind those perfectly manicured dentures? Better Homes and Gardens suggests cream as part of the filling, which I don’t have on hand, but I do always have vanilla creamer, so I’m including a splash of that.

Make the crumble topping:

Butter, flour (again!), brown sugar, granulated sugar, and I like to add allspice as well (the allspice is maybe a hint of nostalgia for me; my brother Sean and I used to make an apple crumble when we were kids that had a ton of allspice, and the taste reminds me of our avocado green kitchen in El Paso, Texas).

Hopefully a light sprinkling of my tears will hold the crumble together à la Like Water for Chocolate. When all those women talk about baking with love, it’s code for the tears they shed while baking for hours as their work goes unappreciated. Unpaid labor makes it taste better. Baking secret.

When your dough has been in the fridge for forty-five minutes, take it out and assemble the pie. Roll your dough out flat into a circle slightly bigger than the hand-painted pie plate you are undoubtedly using. You may not have a rolling pin (like me)—I have found that a wine bottle or soda can works just fine, too. Then fold it into thirds or fourths to make it easy, or rather easier (there’s nothing easy about this technique) to transfer to the pie plate, where you will open it up and it will magically fit. Press the middle of the dough into the pie plate and get creative with the edges. Do you want to crimp them? Flute them? Leave them “rustic” (lazy) and untrimmed? The harder you work on it the more you are showing your love.

This difficult process is the opposite of thaw and bake. Similarly, the first story in The Color Master is a nice foil to the final story in the collection, “The Devourings.” From underconsumption to overconsumption, they bookend the collection well. While the Ogre husband has consumption issues of his own, eating their six children by mistake (somehow), I want to focus on the ogre’s Wife, a human, and her inability to fully consume a cake, probably a metaphor as a direct consequence of her husband’s overconsumption.

When the wife finds she cannot continue to live with her ogre husband, she leaves to travel, and they both know she is probably leaving forever. Among the parting gifts the Ogre husband produces is a regenerating cake. While appreciative, the wife is pretty immediately irritated that the cake is constantly recreating itself, even after she tears it apart in frustration.

Next, place the filling on top of the dough. Mary Berry would hope that I blind bake that crust first to avoid a soggy bottom, but I choose to just roll the dice with my love and risk it. After my apples are spread evenly on the dough, I top it all with the crumble. Once baked, the salt from my tears will crystalize along with the sugar for a most pleasant effect.

Unfortunately, the Ogre’s wife has no agency in this consumption of her pie or how it is made. Much like she could not prevent her husband from eating their children, the cake is a constant, and as a necessity to prevent starvation, she learns to live with it, for a time. After a while, she requests that the cake change its flavor (she asks  it aloud, and the cake hears her), which it immediately does, and she takes real pleasure in eating, in consuming it, since the flavor changes even while her circumstances don’t.

I take the boxed pie out of the oven and replace it with the homemade pie. I watch for children who may want to push me in and quickly close the oven door. While that second pie bakes for an hour, I add the prepackaged crumble topping to the first pie and pop it back in the oven for ten more minutes. In those ten minutes I contemplate my life. What is all this baking for? Is it about nourishing myself, my significant other, my family? Will they be appreciative of that nourishment. Will they value that I sacrificed my time? What exactly is it that they’re swallowing along with that baked apple delight? I go to take the first pie out of the oven. The crumble should be golden brown and crisped. It should look and smell delicious. But did I work hard enough on it?

The wife had to work hard to leave the cake that regrows in order to find her own personal growth. She realizes that the constancy of the cake is too easy. Its consistent regeneration illustrates and affirms her dependence, and she recognizes she needs to survive independently. It is only when she liberates herself from the comfort and ease of the regenerating cake that she grows capable and self-sufficient. Once she has attained her own independence, she can then look back to her Ogre husband. She witnesses him vomiting up a man (her uncle), and thus the cycle of consumption is complete. She goes back to him and the cake continues to regenerate.

Now it’s time to take the second pie out of the oven. I let it cool. Have I taken a break yet today? Am I still on my feet? Will I be getting a foot rub?

These two instances are inherently connected, for the cycle of life seems to indicate a continuous consumption, whether of food, emotions, or acceptance. In order for the wife to become her own woman, she needs to cut ties with the food source that keeps her safe and she has to witness her husband un-consume her uncle, a symbol of her family and thus her children.

These are just two of the instances of how food and consumption indicate a change in the role of women, and the consequences therein. Food, however, is a constant motif throughout this text, as either a liberating or confining symbol. Bender has woven food as metaphorical sustenance into the very table-scape of her stories, and the female characters exist despite rotting food, cannibalism, tea, and soup. It’s an apt metaphor, and like so much of Bender’s writing, she utilizes the literal metaphorically. Like food, the themes she explores—relationships, independence, familial ties—are all aspects of growth, and to refuse to partake in food is the refusal to partake in life.

Ideas are food. Bender’s rape metaphor illustrates the consequence of the girl choosing and refusing her own food, itself a metaphor for choice. Because she won’t consume the accepted food of choice, she herself is consumed.

The wife is over-reliant on the ogre’s cake and thus undervalues herself. Only when she can obtain her own food can she take control of her life. The Ogre knows that as long as he is the one feeding his wife, she will remain dependent on him.

The boxed pie is delicious enough: the crispy brown sugar topping is buttery and sweet and tastes like free time. The crust is mediocre but perfectly even and crimped, and the apples inside are glossy and crisp, the bite just sharp enough to sting my taste buds and ignite my fillings.  Every bite is the same, perfectly fine.

The homemade pie is decadent and fresh, with an aftertaste of tangy iron from my blood and effort. The apples are somehow both creamy and snappy, and the crumble atop is spicy both in my mouth and my nose—the aroma of nostalgia and care. The crust is flakey and buttery and crisp. The dance of kneading and folding dissolves on my tongue. The sensation is ultimately one of pure delight. But is the price palatable?

The boxed pie is confining due to the lack of control one has in preparing the ingredients. However, the homemade pie is also confining due to the sacrifices involved in its creation. Are you the girl, the wife, or the Ogre? In either case, eating the pie is better than being the pie—except when eating and being eaten mean the same thing.

Tarra Stevenson holds an MA from Loyola Marymount University and an MFA from UC Riverside-Palm Desert. She teaches at an all-girls school in Pasadena where she is a fierce proponent of women’s rights (and wrongs). She has poetry and short stories published in Vinyl, Shirley Magazine, the LA Miscellany, and Writer’s Resist, and she is the Book Reviews editor for The Coachella Review. She is working on a novel.

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