Still wrestling with Christmas leftovers? Ever wonder why food is such a common element in fairy tales? It isn’t difficult to find a mention, particularly in the original, uncensored versions. Food is not only frequently featured, but may also be the catalyst to the action. Goldilocks without the porridge would be just another tale about a simple breaking and entering gone horribly awry. Why did a little girl feel the need to sit down in a stranger’s home and help herself to a meal? Where were her parents? Could it be they left Goldilocks to forage on her own and she simply took advantage of an opportunity?
Everyone has felt a hunger pang or two, but not the tearing misery of a slow death by starvation. Not so in the Middle Ages. Fairy tales originated as oral folktales from the lower classes. Food was featured prominently because dying from hunger was a constant threat for the peasantry. On the other hand, tales to entertain the gentry were romantic quests for adventure. Dinner wasn’t a concern. The poor survived on a meager diet of items such as bread, root vegetables like turnips and onions, peas, and an occasional egg or apple. Pease porridge was not only served hot and then cold, but also in the pot nine days old. You can imagine the smell. Meat was rare since the nobility owned most of the hunting and fishing grounds, not to mention taxes were often collected in foodstuffs or livestock. It was good to be the king.
Famine was common, but even in good years life was often brutish and short, especially for children. Fairy tales can tell a lot about life in the Dark Ages. Children were commonly left unsupervised and expected to shoulder adult burdens at a very young age. Little Red Riding Hood’s mother sent her though a wild, predator infested woods with nothing more than a basket of goodies for granny. No camouflage gear or even a good stout club for protection. If she got eaten, oh well. There were plenty more hungry mouths at home to take her place.
Often, an empty belly set a fairy tale in motion, and hunger went hand-in-hand with child abandonment. In Grimm’s tales if you happened to be a stepchild, your happy days were numbered. Hansel and Gretel didn’t traipse into the woods on a carefree lark. They were willingly dumped by their father and stepmother—not once, but several times before they finally got lost. Gretel was even suspicious about the old “What a lovely day to take a family stroll through the woods” thing and she packed her pockets with stones for the first outing. Too bad she used breadcrumbs in the second. The birds were starving too.
Food could also serve as temptation to a hungry person; the witch’s house was made of candy, the Evil Queen offered Snow White a perfect apple. Rapunzel’s mother is overcome by a craving for rampion, a vegetable similar to a radish. It sounds nutty (chocolate, yes, but who craves radishes?) until you realize food preservation was sketchy. A fistful of rampions may have been the first fresh vegetable she’d eaten in months.
As if the threat of starvation didn’t hang in the air, characters in fairy tales also had to watch out for cannibalism. The witch in Hansel and Gretel wasn’t planning to enslave the children. She was planning to munch on them with, perhaps, a tasty béarnaise sauce on the side. Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb actually were ingested for a time. Fortunately fairy tales often ended well. Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb were rescued. Gretel saved her brother. Not surprisingly, the happy ending often came with a feast. The children who had been turned into gingerbread didn’t require psychological counseling to get over the trauma. They simply ate the witch’s house (and probably the witch, too, who was roasting in the oven.)
Nothing dulls a good appetite. I’ll bet those Christmas leftovers are looking better than ever now.
L. A. Kelley writes sci-fy/fantasy adventures with humor, romance, and a touch of sass and is only occasionally tempted to eat children.