Table of content
2. The Meaning of a Shared Meal in History
3. “Milk bread Beer Ice”
4. The Stone Diaries
4.1. “Birth, 1905”
4.2. “Motherhood, 1947”
5. Larry’s Party
The Canadian author Carol Shields uses the image of food and the actual act of eating together in order to create a feeling of community and the happiness of being united. After defining the meaning and importance of a shared meal throughout human history, this utilized imagery will be shown exemplarily in her short story “Milk Bread Beer Ice” as well as in her novels The Stone Diaries and Larry’s Party. Within this, the different functions of food will be scrutinized.
2. The Meaning of a Shared Meal in History
“One of primitive man’s great breakthroughs is the discovery of cooked food.”1Since these days food always played a very important role in the life of mankind. Besides the biological aspects of eating in order to maintain body functions, people throughout all epochs shared their meals with their families, friends and associate partners whether it were tribal chieftains, religious leaders or business partners.
As Manfred Weidhorn notices, “[men] signal their belonging to a community of some sort, their respecting each other’s humanity, their own generosity and the guest’s dignity by putting food on the table.”2In our society the first important appearance of food occurs in the Bible, may it be the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden or the common meal at the Last Supper. “Eating is one of the activities that man shares with the animals. Perhaps for that very reason, religions have from early on attached special importance to it, as though to say that the similarity is superficial and that something spiritual is involved.”3 This spiritual act of eating is not only a subjective experience but grows even more importance in the collective undergo when men break bread with each other.
Apart from the religious implications food was and still is used in political matters. Asking strangers to eat with you is mainly seen as one of the most obvious ways to show peaceful intentions.
“A banquet […] is the occasion not for eating like an animal but for the celebration of community, the manifestation of hierarchy, order, stability.”4
Again, the main aspect lies in the forming of a community and exactly this function is often used in the work of Shields who, with this, pursues a literal tradition that went from antique epic poems like Homer’s Odyssey over Milton’s Paradise Lost to modern period novels like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
The way in which Shields incorporates the theme of food into her work in order to create a more or less satisfactory feeling of community will now be shown on the basis of three texts she wrote. In all of them food plays an important role for some of the characters and thus their development.
3. “Milk Bread Beer Ice”
The short story “Milk Bread Beer Ice” tells the reader about a couple, Peter and Barbara Cormin, which has been on the road for several days - barely talking to each other. This situation is nearly unsustainable for Barbara. For her, life is language and it’s use while Peter represents the opposite to this opinion. His attitude towards life is that “[talking] isn’t just words.”5During their travel, Barbara often tries to start a conversation in which Peter only merely participates sporadically. His answers come with a striking delay. The most striking topic is the discussion about the difference between a gully and a gulch. This conversation and the strange topic evoke the idea that there is also a metaphorical gap between the two of them.
While sitting on the front passenger seat, Barbara reflects their relation which already had its ups and downs and currently does not seem to be able to improve any time soon. Facing the imminent ending of their relationship the couple suddenly sees signs of twenty-four-hour shops saying “MILK ICE BREAD BEER” with variations in the word order. It is again on Barbara to make the first move into a conversation. She refers to the words as the four elements. The next sign says “BEER ICE BREAD MILK” to which Peter refers spontaneously as a list of priorities.
1Weidhorn, Manfred. „Eating“. Dictionary of literary themes and motifs. A-J. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Page 437.
2Ibid. Page 431.
4Ibid. Page 436.
5Shields, Carol. “Milk Bread Beer Ice”. Collected Stories. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004. 382-394.