Free Lunch

Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter.

Oh— my twitchy witchy girl
I think you are so nice,
I give you bowls of porridge
And I give you bowls of ice
Cream.
I Give you lots of kisses,
And I give you lots of hugs,
But I never give you
Sandwiches
With bugs
In.

This poem appears in Neil Gaimen’s book Coraline and its 2009 film adaptation. Coraline is the story of a girl from Detroit who moves to a creaky old house with her botanist parents who are too busy with work to give her the attention she needs. While exploring the house, Coraline finds a Being John Malkovich-y door that leads her to a mirror world with an Other Mother and father who give her attention, joy, and lots of tasty food. Later in the film it’s revealed that the mirror world with its fun and spectacle and treats is all an illusion, a web woven by the spider-like Other Mother to trap Coraline and steal her soul.

I ordered takeout from a Japanese place in my neighborhood last week. I ordered tofu katsu curry but when I got back to my apartment and opened the bag, I found I had been given someone else’s order of seafood ramen and chicken katsu. Thankfully the restaurant called shortly after to apologize for the mix-up and refund my order but there I was, a vegetarian holding €30 in free meat. 

I ate the seafood for dinner and the chicken for lunch the next day. I’m not one to waste food and every rule has its exceptions. I’ve lost my taste for meat so I didn’t exactly enjoy either meal, especially the squid, that was a new one for me. But it filled me up and it got me thinking about free lunches and free food, especially food that doesn’t turn out like you expected.

Food plays a key role in Coraline. In the real world, Coraline is offered things like beets, swiss chard (my favorite), and saltwater taffy; but her Other Mother gives her cupcakes, strawberry waffles, and a full chicken dinner. It doesn’t come up explicitly in the film, possibly because the ick factor would be too much for children’s media, but it seems that all this delicious tempting food must also be nefarious, as the poem’s reference to “sandwiches with bugs in” would suggest.

Two other pieces of media I’ve consumed recently, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You [exit here for the spoiler-phobic], and David Mitchell’s Slade House, also make use of this illusory food trope (I love the word illusory, it means “not real”). In Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green heads to evil rich person Steve Lift’s basement office to snort some not-cocaine that may or may not turn him into a horse person. Slade House, part of David Mitchell’s soul vampire filled literary universe, follows the victims of two such vampires who are lured into the house to eat “banjax,” disguised as a damson plum or a pot brownie, to free their soul from their body so it can be eaten.

It would be easy to root this trope in the bible, in the garden of Eden with Eve biting the apple (Why is it always “biting” the apple but never “eating” it? A question for another week.), but I think that’s kind of boring and honestly who among us would not bite the apple? Seriously Eve did us a solid back there. And anyway, there are lots of other old versions of the trope like the lotus eaters in the Odyssey (I know, Homer again. Don’t @ me) and probably a million other examples outside the Western canon I’m not aware of.

Temptation is part of it but, it seems the power of illusory food as a literary device is in its intimacy. All the victims of Slade House cross the threshold of the vampires’ lair, but it isn’t until they willing take the banjax into their body that their fate is sealed. Cassius Green transgresses multiple times out of temptation and necessity: he crosses the picket line as a Power Caller, ditches Detroit’s art opening for Steve Lift’s party, and even partakes in a sort of minstrel show, but it isn’t until he consumes the not-cocaine and takes RegalView and Worry Free into his physical body that he surrenders his humanity. Lucky for Coraline, the Other Mother needs her to willingly pluck out her eyes to give up her soul. If bug sandwiches was all it took, she’d be totally fucked.

So food is intimate, and yes that’s scary when you’re being tempted to relinquish your humanity or your very soul, but it doesn’t have to be. There isn’t such a thing as a free lunch under capitalism, but at capitalism’s borders and beyond its reach the intimacy of freely given food builds relationships and community. Coraline shows this at the end of the story when she shares pizza and lemonade for her neighbors as they collectively plant a garden. All those pizza calories are guilt free and guaranteed not to steal your soul. Even when the food is tainted as it is in these stories, bodies still make use of it in unpredictable and productive ways: Cassius’s ingestion of the not-cocaine is what moves him to fully participate in the movement against RegalView, even before he turns into an equisapien. Likewise, the residual energy of the souls taken in Slade House and Coraline are what allow the soul vampires and the Other Mother to eventually be vanquished. 

Nothing scares me more these days than going into someone else’s house, breathing their air, and eating their food. The most intimate parts of ourselves, the breath and the space we share just so happens to harbor a secret enemy. The only thing that will save us is taking a little bit of that enemy into our bodies as a vaccine. But that’s what having a body has always meant, opening yourself up and taking parts of the outside world into yourself to stay alive. For more body and food stuff, check out Julietta Singh’s No Archive Will Restore You and Niel Cicierega’s Toy Food.

2 comments

  1. Another foodstuff offered as bait: the “turkish delight” offered by the White Witch to Edmund in CS Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!”

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